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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Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Posted on February 6, 2020 at 5:20 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and very graphic peril and violence, characters injured and killed, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 7, 2020
Date Released to DVD: May 11, 2020
Copyright Warner Brothers 2020

At last, the sisters are doing it for themselves, on screen and off. “Birds of Prey (and The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” directed by Cathy Yan and written by Christina Hodson (“Bumblebee”), it has the ladies of the DC universe band together when the guys (Batman and Joker) are (literally) out of the picture.

We all know that when you’ve been dumped, you’ll need some recovery time, and if that involves Cheez-Whiz straight from the can, we won’t judge. You’ll need to adjust your social media settings, too. In the case of Harley Quinn (co-producer Margot Robbie), that can mean blowing up what used to be your special place. As an observer notes, that’s how “she just publicly updated her relationship status.”

Unfortunately, in the case of Harley Quinn, whose relationship with impulse control has been even more volatile than her relationship with the madman she calls Mr. J, has made many, many enemies, helpfully identified by name and grievance on screen so we can keep up. Without Mr. J as protector, it’s olly olly oxen free for anyone who wants revenge.

As Harley causes even more trouble and tries to hide or protect herself from those coming after her, she comes across the sole survivor of a mob family who is now an assassin dedicated to killing every man responsible for her family’s murders. She is still figuring out a name and a purpose once her targets have all been wiped out but one thing she has completely figured out is the crossbow. She will be known as The Huntress, and she is played by the always-terrific Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is a chanteuse in a club run by mobster Roman Sonasis (Ewan McGregor) with his henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). When Roman learns that she has some mad fighting skills, he makes her his driver.

There is the young girl thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who picks the wrong pocket. Trying to get to the bottom of all of this is a tough cop named Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) who is too honest to get promoted. Over the course of the film, the female characters will not always be on the same side. Some even betray each other. But when a girl needs a hair tie (in the middle of a big fight scene in a super-creepy abandoned amusement park beyond the wildest nightmares of Scooby-Doo, well, sisterhood is powerful.

Perhaps not as fun as it wants to be, but the movie has high spirits and a refreshing perspective that goes a bit deeper than just grrrl power. The carnage (with disturbing images and sounds) is intense and Harley does not always find the sweet spot between deranged creepy and deranged endearing. Deadpool may be nutty and naughty, but he is true-hearted, an anti-hero who is more hero than anti. As mesmerizing as Robbie is in the role, the storyline might have worked better with one of the other characters as the lead. It’s fantabulous that she is emancipated, but now she has to decide who she wants to be.

Parents should know that this film includes constant and very graphic peril and violence, with many characters injured and killed, disturbing sounds and images, knives, crossbow, guns, explosives, chases, very strong and crude language, nude images, brief drug humor, and some potty humor.

Family discussion: How did the early experiences of Harley and Huntress affect the way they made decisions? How is this like and different from other superhero movies?

If you like this, try: “Deadpool” and the “Birds of Prey” television series

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Joker

Posted on October 3, 2019 at 12:42 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Prescription drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Graphic bloody violence, murders, stabbing, guns, assaults
Diversity Issues: Some insults
Date Released to Theaters: October 4, 2019
Date Released to DVD: January 6, 2020

Copyright 2019 Warner Brothers
Joker” tries hard to be dark, disturbing, and meaningful. It is dark, but it is sour, superficial and gross, the darkness not especially significant and therefore not especially meaningful. Its call-outs to past and current real-life events and other movies are not illuminating in any way; they just seem like training wheels borrowed to keep the movie from falling over. And we’re stuck once again with the tired trope of disability leading to criminality.

One of the highest compliments an actor can give another actor is “committed.” And for sure Joaquin Phoenix is fully committed to the role of Arthur Fleck, a clown for hire and would-be stand-up comic who experiences repeated abuse and betrayal. After he is fired, learns a family secret, and then is cut off from counseling and medications, he spins out of control.

This is a non-canonical version of the origins of Joker, not connected to any of the previous depictions of the character in comics, movies, or television. In this version, Gotham resembles the New York City of the 70’s, when the city was teetering on financial insolvency. As it opens, they are in the midst of a garbage strike. Piles of trash are everywhere and large rats are running through the streets. Arthur is twirling an Everything Must Go sign in front of a store that is going out of business. Some boys grab the sign and, when he chases after them into an alley, they beat him with the sign until it shatters. Later, Arthur’s boss takes the cost of the sign out of his pay. Yeah, this movie is not subtle. The boys beat Arthur with the sign and the movie beats us with the metaphors.

Arthur lives in a squalid apartment building with his frail mother (Frances Conroy), and he cares for her tenderly. bringing her food, giving her baths, and sharing their favorite television shows including a late night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (a badly miscast Robert De Niro). Arthur dreams of being on the show.

Arthur’s mother always told him his purpose in life was to make people happy. And he tries hard. He makes funny faces to get a toddler to laugh on a bus, but the child’s mother snaps at him. He gets fired for bringing a gun to the hospital where he is entertaining sick kids. He struggles with mental illness that undermines his grip on reality and a nervous condition that causes grotesque involuntary laughter when he is under stress. He has a little laminated card he hands out to explain this unsettling symptom to bystanders.

His fragile support system unravels. He loses his job. The city cannot afford a social safety net, so even the haphazard counseling he has been getting is cut off and he no longer has access to the seven different psychotropic medications. He loses his job. He feels betrayed by his mother. And then, on the subway, he is confronted by three arrogant finance bros.

Crossing the line to breaking the law feels liberating to Arthur and to similarly resentful protesters throughout Gotham, leading to some expressions of concern that this portrayal itself could inspire copycats. It does draw from current conflicts in the news to attempt a gravitas that this film cannot sustain, leaving only sensation and a bitter sense of entitlement in those who consider themselves victims. It teeters on the brink of telling us that if only we were all nicer to (listening to, having sex with) people who weird us out, they wouldn’t be weird anymore. Director Todd Phillips’ bitter comments recently about how it’s no fun to be funny now because you have to be so sensitive all the time underscore the resentment on display here.

Similarly, it litters the film with pieces (I’m sure they would call it homage, but it’s just stealing) from two Martin Scorsese classics, “Taxi Driver” (the descent into madness triggered by the despair and corruption around him) and “The King of Comedy” (the descent into madness triggered by a distorted obsession with acceptance and celebrity). Significantly, in case we miss the unmissable point, the star of those two movies, Robert De Niro, plays someone very much like the talk show host his “King of Comedy” character was obsessed with. As we saw in “Comedian,” De Niro, for all his immeasurable gifts, is not able to convey the oily geniality or vocal rhythms of a stand-up comedian, even if this one were far better written.

This movie wants to be daring and provocative but it is just depressing, less for the degrading, sordid storyline than for the failure of all of the time and effort and money that went into making it to produce anything worthwhile.

Parents should know that this film includes very disturbing and graphic images, peril and violence, mental illness, murders, stabbing, guns, strong language, sexual images

Family discussion: Could anyone have helped Arthur? What stories in the news or history or other movies inspired some of the plot developments? How does this Joker compare to other depictions of the character?

If you like this, try: Tim Burton’s “Batman” and “King of Comedy” and “Taxi Driver”

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Batman’s Nemesis Joker — Who Played Him Best?

Posted on October 2, 2019 at 8:10 am

As Joaquin Phoenix’s “Joker” comes to the screen this week, we take a look at previous incarnations of Batman’s most popular villain:

Copyright DC Comics 1940

1. The Joker made his debut as a serial killer whose poison left victims with a gruesome rictus “grin” in the very first Batman comic, created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson. He was originally intended to be killed off, but the editor at DC liked him and he appeared in nine of the first twelve Batman issues.

2. Cesar Romero played Joker in the campy 1960’s television series.

3. My personal favorite — Jack Nicholson played Joker in the Tim Burton “Batman” movie opposite Michael Keaton.

4. Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his Joker, in the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight movie with Christian Bale.

5. I’m not a fan of Jared Leto’s Joker in “Suicide Squad,” but you have to admire his commitment.

6. The great Mark Hamill provides the creepy laugh and voice of the Joker in the animated series.

7. And now Joaquin Phoenix takes over in the first film to make Joker the lead character (we only glimpse future Batman Bruce Wayne as a young boy).

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Spider-Man: Far From Home

Posted on June 28, 2019 at 7:32 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, mayhem, destruction, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 3, 2019
Date Released to DVD: September 23, 2019

Copyright Sony 2019
Okay, three key points before we get into the details of “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” First, see this smart, funny, heartwarming and entertaining movie on the biggest screen possible, IMAX if you can. Second, yes, you have to stay ALL the way through the credits. There are some big developments/revelations/surprises you will need to know. Third, if you have not seen “Avengers: Endgame” be aware that there are spoilers, so watch that first if you can, so you will better understand some of the conflicts and believe me, you don’t want to be distracted by figuring out what you missed because this movie deserves your full attention.

Just a reminder, as we’ve had a variety of Spider-Men on film, including Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and a whole bunch of Spideys including a pig and an anime girl in the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” In this version of the Spider-verse, Tom Holland has played high school student Peter Parker in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and in two Avengers movies. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) took a special interest in Peter, and had his aide Happy (Jon Favreau) act as messenger and mentor.

Now that that is all out of the way, let’s get into it, unless you have not seen “Avengers: Endgame,” in which case stop reading now as there will be spoilers. The movie begins with an in memoriam tribute to the characters who died in that film, as Whitney Houston sings “I Will Always Love You.” It’s touching but it’s cheesy and sappy and we find out why: it’s on a high school closed-circuit news program with student announcers who help bring us up to date. The people who turned to dust when Thanos snapped his fingers have been returned and their absence is called The Blip. But the returnees are five years older, while for the people who were not dusted no time had passed. Everyone is still getting used to the idea that the world has been saved and beginning to get back to normal or get used to the new normal.

Peter thinks he deserves time time off, so when Nick Fury calls, he does not answer his phone. Even though Tony Stark left him in charge of the Avengers, his priority is to go on the class trip to Europe and let Mary Jane (Zendaya) know that he likes her. As in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” this film combines adolescent angst and romance with special effects superhero extravaganza fights (remember what I said about the big, big screen), with a skillful blend of humor, action, and growing up. Sometimes that combination creates a problem for Peter, as when he gets jealous of a rival for MJ’s affection and accidentally calls a drone strike on the tour bus.

The school trip provides lots of picturesque (before they get trashed) European locations, including Venice and Prague, as Nick Fury keeps “upgrading” the trip to reroute Peter to where the action is.

I know I always say that the make or break for superhero movies is the villain, but I don’t want to tell you too much about the villain here because the details should be a surprise. So I will just say that the surprises are great and this one is a lot of fun, with a very clever updating of the comic book version of the character that create an opportunity for some trippy and mind-bending visual effects. And Peter gets a great gift from Tony Stark — be sure to listen carefully to what the acronym EDITH stands for.

The settings, fight scenes, and special effects are all top-notch, but it is the cast that really brings this story to life. Holland is a little less soulful than Maguire or Garfield (or Shameik Moore), a little more heart-on-his-sleeve energetic, with a natural athleticism that lends a gymnastic, almost balletic grace to his web-swinging and slinging. Zendaya’s MJ is smart, edgy and vulnerable. The villain is…surprising, and a welcome relief after the stentorian-voiced blowhards we have too often seen in superhero movies. Plus, Led Zep, Samuel L. Jackson gets to say, “Bitch, please,” and we get to see London Bridge (or the equivalent) falling down. This is just what a summer movie is supposed to be — fresh, fun, exciting, and with a wow of a post-credit scene to shake things up for the next installment. This one made my spidey-sense tingle.

Parents should know that this film includes intense comic-book/action-style peril and violence with massive destruction and mayhem, with characters injured and killed. The movie also includes teen kissing, some strong language, a crotch hit, someone giving the finger, and mild sexual references.

Family discussion: Should Peter have answered Nick Fury’s call? Why did Tony Stark pick him? What does it mean to say “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” and where does that expression come from?

If you like this, try: the other Marvel movies and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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