Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins

Posted on July 22, 2021 at 5:23 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 (Sequences of Strong Violence|Brief Strong Language)
Profanity: Some strong language, one f-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended , intense, sometimes graphic violence, martial arts, guns, swords, hand-to-hand combat, fire, many characters injured and killed including a child seeing his father murdered
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 23, 2021

Copyright Paramount 2021
Paramount is trying to Avenger-ize the G.I. Joe story, starting with origin films for the characters, and that is how we get the awkwardly titled “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe” origins. Of course the real origin of G.I. Joe is a 1960s Hasbro doll, I mean action figure, and now, following the animated television series, comic books, and two movies, it is described as a media franchise. That franchise has a number of characters. Snake Eyes is the mysterious human weapon, a black belt in 12 martial arts disciplines and a master of all kinds of small arms including guns and swords. Following injuries in a previous mission he could no longer speak and he had facial scars which led him to wear a helmet that covered his face most of the time. Little was known about his background because it was “classified.” Until now.

“20 years ago, Washington State” we are told as the movie begins with a young boy and his dad walking through the woods. “Is there a safe in the house?” the boy asks. He overheard his father saying something about a safe house, referring to a cabin where they were staying. But it was not a safe house. Bad guys arrive and kill the boy’s father after forcing him to roll the dice for his life. They came up with two ones: snake eyes. The boy is left alone.

We then move to present day, when the fighter only known as Snake Eyes is in the middle of a no-holds-barred underground bout. Henry Golding (“Crazy Rich Asians”) takes over for Ray Park, who played Snake Eyes in the previous “G.I. Joe” movies. After the fight, a man offers Snake Eyes a job with an offer he cannot refuse, the only thing he wants — the man who killed his father.

His new boss is a weapons smuggler. Things go very wrong, and he ends up saving the life of Tommy (Andrew Koji), the wealthy heir to the Arashikage family, a Japanese klan of ninjas. They escape together and in gratitude Tommy brings Snake Eyes to the Arashikage compound and says they will train him as a ninja — if he can pass three tests, administered by the Hard Master (Iko Uwais) and the Blind Master (Peter Mensah). If Snake Eyes does not pass, he will die.

The tests are among the films highlights, along with some wow-worthy chases and action sequences. The martial arts scenes are dynamic and a lot of fun, with split-second timing and astonishing skill. I also enjoyed the shifting loyalties, depending on the demands of the moment, and the other iconic G.I. Joe characters, Scarlett (a performance of verve and wit from Samara Weaving) and the Baroness (Úrsula Corberó having a lot of fun).

Notice I did not mention the acting or the dialogue, neither of which are worth mentioning. There are some fortune cookie-isms like “If your heart is pure, our secrets will reveal themselves to you.” And I am not persuaded that the G.I. Joe-iverse can match the range of the MCU. But when it comes to summer action blockbusters, this one does the trick.

Parents should know that this is a very violent film with many characters injured and killed, featuring martial arts, guns, swords, fire, chases and explosions. It is what is called “action violence,” meaning not much gore or graphic images. A child witnesses the murder of his parent. There is brief strong language (one f-word).

Family discussion: How did the characters decide what their loyalties were? What did Snake Eyes learn from the first two tests? Do you agree with Sen’s decision about Tommy?

If you like this, try: the G.I. Joe movies and comics

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Black Widow

Posted on July 5, 2021 at 4:44 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 Some Language|Intense Violence/Action|Thematic Material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, references to torture and abuse of children, characters are assassins, chases, explosions, guns
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 7, 2021

Copyright 2021 Marvel Studios
We’ve waited a long time to find out how Natasha became the Black Widow. While we got to know the male Avengers through individual origin stories about Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Ant-Man, and Spider-Man, Natasha was different. We first saw the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) tied to a chair looking very much the victim as she was confronted by some vetough and powerful-looking men. But we learn, as they do, that she is very much in control of the situation. We also learn that unlike the other Avengers, she has no special powers from a radioactive spider-bite or government potion, some fancy equipment, or being born a god. She has her wits and courage and some of what Liam Neeson might call a very special set of skills. Through the Avengers films we saw that she was the heart of the group, kind, empathetic, willing to sacrifice herself out of a sense of integrity and, perhaps, redemption.

We wanted to know more. But it took time to persuade Marvel Studios, and then, just as we were all ready to get Natasha a film of her own, its release was delayed in the summer of 2020 due to the pandemic, so it was not until now, a year later, that it is finally here. Even with all that has gone on, “Black Widow” quickly puts us back in the world of the Avengers. And, it continues Marvel’s cleverest strategy, allowing each character to inhabit a world that is distinctive in tone and atmosphere as it maintains a clear, strong central sense of its world.

Who could have guessed that we would find Natasha in 1995 Ohio? But that is where we start, a young girl with blue hair (Ever Anderson, a believable young Johansson) riding her bicycle home at dinner time. She greets her younger sister affectionately, and then, when the littler girl hurts her knee, their mother, like mothers since mothers began, kisses it to make it better. But this mother does something a little different. She tells her daughters that pain makes you stronger. And then what seems like a typical suburban family dinner turns out more than a little different. The father comes home and tells the family something they have clearly prepared for has happened and they have to leave right away. And they do leave, the house and the country, in an exciting, if improbably escape. We will soon learn that this may not meet any traditional definition of “family” at all. Indeed, questions about what is family and what we need from families is as central to this film as the chases, fights, exotic locations, and fight scenes.

We skip ahead 21 years from that wild escape. Natasha is living off the grid following the “divorce” of the Avengers. She is considered an enemy following the assassination of King T’Chaka of Wakanda in “Captain America: Civil War.” But a package from Yelena (Florence Pugh) brings her back into the fight. Starting with a fight with Yelena herself, one of the film’s highlights. The scenes with the two of them crackle and bolster hope that the rumors of a Yelena affiliation with the Avengers.

Director Cate Shortland balances the action scenes — a prison break is a highlight — with family moments that are sometimes very funny (wait for Yelena on The Pose, and David Harbour as Natasha’s closest equivalent to a “good father”) and sometimes touching (Rachel Weisz as the mother equivalent, a pig-experimenting scientist who takes time to add a dramatic smokey eye when she dons a jumpsuit for action).

And of course there is a powerful adversary with a high-tech lair and a private army that holds the key to Natasha’s persona. It tells you all you need to know that those scenes are fine, but will likely leave you waiting a little impatiently for the next moments with the family, reminding us again that family may be frustrating, may even be dysfunctional, but those we are born into and those we choose are still where home is.

Parents should know that as with all superhero movies, this included extended peril and action, which characters injured and killed. There is some strong language and references to forced sterilization.

Family discussion: Why did Natasha take a different path than other people around her? Is there a key to unlocking fear?

If you like this, try: the Avengers movies and some of Johansson’s other films like “Jojo Rabbit,” “Her,” and “Hail, Ceasar”

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Days of the Bagnold Summer

Posted on February 22, 2021 at 11:37 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Reference to marijuana, teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Family stress and confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 20, 2021
Copyright 2019 Greenwich Entertainment

“I’m afraid you’re stuck with boring old me for six weeks, but we’ll have fun,” Sue Bagnold says with gentle cheeriness. Her 15-year-old son Daniel (do not call him Danny) is as irritated by her cheeriness as he is by his situation. His parents are divorced and he was supposed to visit his father in Florida for summer vacation. But his father’s new wife is expecting a baby and they have canceled the visit. Daniel is stuck in his house in an English suburb, expressing his extreme dissatisfaction with the world by wearing Metallica t-shirts and ignoring, blaming, or insulting his mother. How dare she be cheerful? How dare she expect him to do stuff? How dare she keep offering him food? And how dare she go on a date with his history teacher?

Those of us of a certain age will identify with both characters. Anyone who has survived adolescence has experienced the crushing combination of superiority (these feelings are new to me so no one else has ever felt them, and I am uniquely aware of the hypocrisy and meaninglessness of the world) and constant humiliation (why is it so hard to connect to people?). Daniel (Earl Cave) is at that stage, almost as excruciating for him as for those around him, when expressing disdain for just about everything seems like it will make him feel better, or at least stronger. And Sue (Monica Dolan) is at that stage when she Googles “sad boy parents divorced” and keeps hoping to find a glimpse of the sweet boy she once knew.

All of this is presented with great charm in “Days of the Bagnold Summer,” and I found myself smiling through it all. This is not a movie about confrontations or revelations. It is about small moments, tenderly observed, and it gives full attention and understanding to all of the characters, even the one whose behavior is most inexcusable.

Those moments include Sue’s first date since her divorce. The man who asks Sue out, is played with just the right oily charm by Rob Brydon (“The Trip” movies). And there is a well-intentioned day trip to the seaside, with the kind of activities young Danny would have loved, but Daniel finds boring and pointless.    Daniel has just one friend, Ky (Elliot Speller-Gillott), and their falling out is the essence of 15-year-old awkward communication failure. Ky’s mother Astrid (the divine Tamsin Grieg having a very fine time) is something of a flower child, all about energies and auras and Reiki. 

I liked the subtlety of the characters’ growth, and the way that even experiences that seem painful or frustrating at the time bring Sue and Daniel together. Each finds an unexpected way to express feelings too long kept concealed, and find that connections with other help them reconnect in a way that may not be as uncomplicated as before but for that reason is more satisfying and even sweeter. Even when Sue and Daniel do not like spending time with each other, we like spending time with them, and it is satisfying for us to see them find their way forward.

Parents should know that this film includes teen drinking and references to marijuana. Themes include family struggles and divorce.

Family discussion: How should Sue have treated Daniel? What do we learn from her visit to Astrid? Why do Sue and Astrid have different ideas about their sons?

If you like this, try: The graphic novel by Joff Winterhart and “Sing Street”

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Wonder Woman 1984

Posted on December 21, 2020 at 8:00 am

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and sequences of action
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2020
Date Released to DVD: March 30, 2021

Copyright 2020 Warner Brothers
You may wonder why Wonder Woman is not as wonder-ful this time around. Part of that is attributable to shrinking it from big-screen theatrical release to home screens. We feel that right away in the bravura opening sequence, a flashback with Diana Prince as a young girl competing with adult Amazonian women in an athletic event like the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course if it was also a triathlon. But the bigger problem is in the fundamentals, the storyline and characters.

The first Wonder Woman was exceptionally well-conceived and executed, a triumph for director Patty Jenkins after some lackluster films from DC Comics. The WWI setting added interest, especially seeing Diana’s response to learning about the world outside of her idyllic woman-only community of Amazonian warriors. The stakes were clear and compelling and the villain was genuinely scary.

This sequel, set in 1984 for no particularly compelling reason, has entertaining moments and fun action sequences but the stakes are not as visceral and the villains are not as interesting.

As a resident of the Washington DC area, I got a special kick out of the re-creation of the 1980’s look of Georgetown and some of the other locations and tried not to pay too much attention to the details they got wrong. I can promise you, no one who works at the Smithsonian would think of touching any of their artifacts without gloves and other protective equipment, much less letting anyone, even a major contributor who knows how to flirt, take one home. But that is what happens when an item with crystals ends up at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where Diana (Gal Gadot) is now working as an expert.

Now, I’m not asking for realism in a genre that includes radioactive spider bites and infinity stones, but ideally the McGuffin (Hitchcock’s term for whatever it is the story is about — the formula, the gold, the nuclear codes, whatever) has to be simple enough not to interfere with the plot but specific enough to make the threat interesting, and that means we have to understand a little bit about how it works, why it is important, and what it takes to defeat it. It’s more fairy tale than comic book, a wishing stone crystal thingy more like “be careful what you wish for” stories like The Monkey’s Paw (which gets a shout-out in the film) or King Midas’ power to turn all he touched to gold.

That’s not a very good McGuffin and the villains are disappointing, too. There is a guy who has informercials about how to be rich on television, Maxwell Lord played by guy-behind-the-Mandelorian-helmet Pedro Pascal, who wants, well, pretty much everything. Making him in the oil business is a nice 80’s touch. And there’s the mousy museum curator Barbara Minerva (Kristin Wiig), who wants to be just like Diana. The muddled elements of their storylines are reflected in an absurd flashback that is supposed to make us, what, feel sorry for him? Understand his “Cat’s in the Cradle” problem? And the Capra-esque conclusion is not the “we are the world” moment they hope for.

Then there’s Chris Pine as Steve Trevor. As you may remember, he died heroically in the first movie. So there’s a real “Bobby Ewing in the shower” moment (another 80’s reference?) to bring him back. I’m all for putting Chris Pine in every movie ever, but again, the way this happens is not thought all the way through and it is impossible not to feel uneasy about the way the characters overlook the real-world consequences of his return for so much of the storyline. I did get a kick out of having the guy do the trying on clothes montage, though, for once. And the post-credit appearance from a most-welcome addition to the cast.

Gadot is an enormously appealing screen presence but this storyline is not a good fit with her abilities as an actress or a movie star. This is a sadder, wiser Diana, more than 60 years after the first film, but at times she just seems emptier.

Maybe it’s just been too long since I’ve seen a comic book movie, but I found it entertaining despite all of the narrative shortcomings. Just hoping the next chapter is more wonder-ful.

Parents should know that this movie has extended comic book/action-style peril and violence and a sad death.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Max spend more time with his son? Did Diana envy Barbara?

If you like this, try: “Wonder Woman” and the DC Comics. Adult fans will enjoy Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman, about the remarkable story of the man who created the character.

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The Old Guard

Posted on July 9, 2020 at 5:02 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sequences of graphic violence, and language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alchol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended, intense, and graphic peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 3, 2020

Copyright Netflix 2020
The thing no one ever seems to think of about invulnerability with everlasting life is that is is exhausting. You think it is an existential crisis to face the certainty of death? Try imagining the existential crisis of knowing that you won’t die, that you will outlive everyone you have ever loved and they will resent and even hate you for it. Meanwhile, just like the rest of us mortals, you might as well find a way to make your everlasting life meaningful by helping people in need. And that is where being impossible to injure or kill comes in very handy.

Early in “The Old Guard,” based on the graphic novel series by Greg Rucka, there is an ambush and our heroes are all riddled with bullets. They seem dead. But then they begin to stir. And then they wipe out the attackers. Meanwhile, a young Marine named Niles (“If Beale Street Could Talk’s” Kiki Layne) is on screen long enough to show us her courage, competence, compassion, and dedication before a terrorist slices her throat. She should have died. Her fellow Marines, once close friends, are a little freaked out that she did not die. And then she is kidnapped by Andy (Charlize Theron), leader of what we will learn is the Old Guard. They know when another immortal comes into being, and they come and get them.

This makes the film into an origin story, at least from Niles’ perspective, and it gives us a chance to meet the members of the Old Guard through her. Andy is the oldest. She won’t say how old, but her real name is Andromache of Scythia and her weapon of choice has not just nothing mechanical but no moving parts at all. Book (Matthias Schoenaerts) fought Napoleon in 1812. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Yusuf (Marwan Kenzari) fought in the Crusades. On opposite sides. “We killed each other many times,” one of them explains cheerily. And now there is Niles, who at first does not believe, or does not accept that she believes. She wants to know whether the group are the good guys or the bad guys. “Depends on the century,” she is told. But they do try to do right.

And they try to stay out of sight. That’s harder to do these days, as it is almost impossible not to be glimpsed in someone’s selfie on social media. Andy is ready for it. She offers to take a picture with the selfie-taker’s phone and quickly deletes any images she appears in before telling the group to say “Cheese.” She is ready, but she is tired.

They’ve been picking their sides, but now they have to defend themselves. No one can really hide in the digital era, and a pharma bro is eager to get into their DNA and extract whatever makes them special so he can cure a lot of people and make a lot lot lot lot of money.

Gina Prince-Bythewood may be the most deeply, unabashedly romantic director working today. Her films “Love and Basketball” and “Beyond the Lights” are in a different category from the usual Hollywood idea of love, with a quick montage of the highly photogenic couple walking through a farmer’s market and riding bicycles along the beach. Her films are about profound connection and commitment. There is a moment in this film that will be in clip reels of the most true-hearted movie depictions of love forever. It brought tears to my eyes and a flip-flop to my heart and it was in the middle of a graphic novel shoot-em-up movie about characters with superpowers. But those are the kinds of layers Prince-Bythewood brings to this story, grounded in fine performances by all involved, especially Theron, Layne, and Schoenaerts, and in those existential questions, here answered in part (come on, no one has more that a part of the answer) in a manner that is romantic and satisfying and leaves us curious about the next chapter.

Parents should know that this movie has strong language and extreme and very graphic peril and violence with disturbing images and very strong language.

Family discussion: What is the best part of immortality? What is the worst? Is it right to sacrifice the few to benefit the many?

If you like this, try: the graphic novels and movies like “Fast Color” and “Mad Max: Fury Road”

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