21 Bridges

Posted on November 21, 2019 at 5:36 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence and language throughout
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, guns, chases, many characters injured and killed, disturbing and graphic images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 22, 2019

Copyright 2019 STX Films
The Russo brothers who wrote and produced some of the most stylish and exciting of the Marvel movies, (“Captain America: Winter Soldier” and the last two Avengers movies) are the producers behind “21 Bridges,” a stylish and exciting cops vs bad guys story, starring the Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman. It’s what is sometimes called a tick-tock, a tense drama taking place all in one night, as a police detective with a reputation for perhaps being too trigger-happy is trying to find two men who killed eight policemen in the course of a drug heist. There is nothing new about the story, but it is capably told and the cast, especially Boseman and Stephan James (“Race,” “If Beale Street Could Talk”) make it more than watchable.

Andre (Boseman) is a police detective, the son of a cop who died in the line of duty. In a flashback we see him as a child, weeping at his father’s funeral as the clergyman quoting Romans 13:4: “If you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” In the present day, we meet him at the most recent in a series of meetings with Internal Affairs, an automatic inquiry after an officer discharges a weapon. He is not apologetic. “Justice comes at a cost…I am the sharp edge of that determination.” His reputation is for being trigger-happy, but he insists that each time he shot someone it was justified and that he never drew first. He is cool under pressure, certain of his choices. At home, we see him caring for his fragile mother, and he is patient and tender when she is forgetful. But she has certainty, too, telling him to “look the devil in the eye.”

And then a robbery goes terribly wrong. Two guys (Taylor Kitsch and James) put scary scarves over their faces and bust into a wine cellar where something even more powerful is stored. “Only two of you?” the guy they are holding at gunpoint asks. They were told to expect 30 kilos of cocaine, but it Is 300, uncut, worth much, much more than they expected. In a shoot-out, they kill a civilian and seven cops and critically injure an eighth before escaping with tote bags full of cocaine. And that makes them targets of some very highly motivated people on both sides of the law.

“I wouldn’t mind if you were back at IA tomorrow,” says the precinct captain (J.K. Simmons) whose cops were killed. He urges Dre to “protect” the families of those who died from the agony of trials and the risk that the men responsible would not be convicted. It is clear what he means. Dre’s reputation for being quick on the trigger and his understanding of what families go through when a police office is killed could make him more inclined to quick revenge than slow justice.

The FBI says they will take over in the morning if the two fugitives are not captured. With the 21 bridges to Manhattan and all of the tunnels closed, Dre chases after the men as they try to sell the cocaine and get out of town.

There is nothing special about the script but the action is exciting and there are a couple of strong dramatic confrontations. Boseman and James elevate the material to keep us interested even when the storyline fails to challenge us.

Parents should know that this is a cops-and-robbers-and-drug-dealers story with extended, intense, and graphic peril and violence, with many characters injured and killed and disturbing images. There are chases and shoot-outs and betrayals and very strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Dre and the person he talked to in the house come to different conclusions? How did Dre’s losing his father affect his outlook?

If you like this, try: “16 Blocks” and “Fort Apache the Bronx”

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The Laundromat

Posted on October 10, 2019 at 5:46 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, some sexual content and disturbing images
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Boat accident, electrical accident, murder characters killed, sad loss of spouse
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 18, 2019

Copyright 2019 Amazon Studios
The numbers are unimaginable. The vocabulary is mind-numbing — and intended to be so. One of the biggest financial scandals of all time is known as the Panama Papers, a global money laundering/tax evasion/corruption-concealing scheme involving some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful people, including politicians and crooks. They hid their money in what are called “shell” corporations — shell as in “shell game,” where the pea is always under the shell you don’t pick. The interlocking network of these companies was revealed with the help of a still-undisclosed whistleblower thanks to the tireless work of a group of non-profit journalists who had to comb through millions of arcane legal documents to understand and explain it all.

Great journalistic coup. But unlike a simple straightforward fraud like the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, which was depicted in two different and very watchable film versions, starring Oscar winners Robert De Niro and Richard Dreyfuss, the Panama Papers mess was so big and complicated it seemed impossible to put into dramatic form. That was the challenge faced by journalist Jake Bernstein, who wrote the sober, meticulously detailed book, and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”), who wrote the colorful, funny, and dramatic movie. Director Steven Soderbergh knows how to do a heist film following “Oceans 11” and “Logan Lucky,” and he wisely structures this as another story of clever thieves outwitting ordinary people. Except this time the people outwitting are not lovable underdogs and the people outwitted are us.

Our guide to this world is an irrepressible pair of lawyers played by Antonio Banderas (playing Ramón Fonseca) and Gary Oldman (as Jürgen Mossack). It is hard to say which is more charming, their impeccably bespoke suits, which get increasingly outrageous over the course of the film, or their cheerful frankness about their equally cheerful and highly lucrative lack of any shred of integrity or responsibility. The linked stories that illustrate different aspects of the scheme are introduced by Fonseca and Mossack who explain what is going on and tie the stories to “rules” that underly the legal and human realities that created this monster. They should have just quoted Pogo: We have met the enemy and he is us. Or, as one of them says, “The world does not want to be saved.”

“Think of them as fairy tales that actually happened,” they tell us. “They’re not just about us. They’re about you.” Their first rule: “The meek are screwed.”

And that is how we meet a nice lady named Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), devoted to her husband (James Cromwell). When the pilot of the tour boat ride they are on is distracted, there is an accident, it sinks, and her husband is killed. Ellen is devastated. And then she finds out that the tour boat’s insurance company will not pay, and then she finds out that it does not really exist. It exists on paper, but it is just a shell company used for money laundering, and it never pays out on claims. There are no claims officers, no offices. It’s a mail drop run by a man who gets paid $15 per signature for acting as representative for hundreds of shell companies.

We peek into other stories. A shakedown of a Chinese official does not go as planned. The literally shocking death of a low-lever functionary throws the whole system out of whack because she is — on paper — a director of 25,000 companies. And a betrayal leads to a brutal lesson in the value of values, which turns out to be less than we might hope.

It is briskly told, with a heightened, farcical tone that ends with not one smart twist, but two. Soderbergh knows how to entice us into paying attention, and entertain us until we are willing to think.

Parents should know that this movie concerns a real-life massive financial fraud, with many stories of betrayal and theft, peril, accidental death and murder, sexual references and non-explicit situations, personal and professional betrayal, drinking, drugs, and very strong language.

Family discussion: Who is in position to prevent this kind of abuse? What is the difference between privacy and secrecy?

If you like this, try: “The Big Short” and the books and documentary about the Panama Papers

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Hustlers

Posted on September 12, 2019 at 5:57 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and scuffles, very risky behavior
Diversity Issues: Gender issues
Date Released to Theaters: September 13, 2019
Date Released to DVD: December 9, 2019

Copyright 2019 STX Films
I’m not excusing any crimes, I promise, but I have to begin with this: four strippers received harsher sentences for slipping mickeys to rich Wall Street guys and taking their money than any rich Wall Street guys got for crashing the economy.

Talented writer/director Lorene Scafaria (“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” “The Meddler,” “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”) has made an honest but warmly sympathetic look at the real-life story of small-time crooks who decided to design their own form of retributive justice and also steal some money. “Hustlers” is more about their friendship than their crimes, and she tells the story of women who are objectified as a job without letting us objectify them, which is not easy but which is very important.

That begins with a superb cast: producer Jennifer Lopez as Ramona, the maternal ringleader, “Crazy Rich Asians” star Constance Wu as Destiny, the vulnerable newcomer, “Riverdale’s” Lili Reinhart as Annabelle, the soft-hearted girl with the weak stomach, and Keke Palmer as Mercedes, who is practical except about her boyfriend. The supporting cast includes breakthrough singer Lizzo and stripper-turned-pop-phenomenon Cardi B. Julia Stiles plays the reporter who is interviewing Ramona and Destiny five years later.

At the club, the strippers must pretend to be fascinated by men who want them to be obedient fantasy figures, and they must pretend not to mind when the men who run the club insist on kickbacks. Their job is to get the men to spend as much money as possible, for drinks and for special services in the private rooms.

Destiny, who is caring for the grandmother who took her in when she was abandoned by her mother, asks Ramona for advice on how to be more successful in the club. Ramona takes her in — literally. In a sweet scene on the roof of the club, the kind-hearted veteran invites the shivering newcomer to snuggle inside her fur coat. After a few lessons on pole dancing and lap dancing, Destiny begins to do better, and she is happy with the new sisterhood that feels like a family. It is the go-go hears of the derivatives era on Wall Street, and there is a lot of money to be made from the finance types that the women shrewdly categorize by net worth and vulnerability.

After the financial meltdown, though, things get tough. By then, Destiny has a baby, and with no education or experience, her options are limited. And so, it seems smart, not wrong, to go just one tiny extra step over the line to get money from men who got away with so much more. And so, they start slipping a sprinkle of MDMA and ketamine into their drinks, then running up charges on their credit cards. Pretty soon, they decide, in Marxian terms, to own the means of production and stop giving so much of the take to the club. As Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin sang, the sisters were doin’ it for themselves. A very merry Christmas at Ramona’s apartment features luxury goods under the tree and the makeshift family as grateful and loving as any Hallmark movie finale, if Hallmark movies featured chinchilla coats and red-soled Louboutin stilettos.

Like any successful small business, the women face the challenge of scalability. They want more, so they bring in newcomers who create risk. All good things must come to an end, and usually that applies to bad things as well.

Scafaria gives us some glitz and glitter and thumping music to entice by (Lopez does a remarkable pole dance). But Scafaria wisely adds some classical themes to the score when the ladies are outside of the club, literally underscoring the bigger picture of this story. The focus here is on the characters and their relationships, doing their best to take care of their families, both the ones by birth and the ones by choice, and it is hard not to feel ourselves a part of their family by the joy in that once last dance.

Parents should know that this film includes male and female nudity and sexual situations, strippers, drinking and drug use, strong language, and some peril and violence.

Family discussion: What surprised you about these characters? How did they create the families they wished they had?

If you like this, try: “The Big Short” and the New York Magazine story about the real-life case that inspired this film

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Shaft

Posted on June 13, 2019 at 5:25 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity
Profanity: Very strong language including the n-word and many crude terms
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug dealing, drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and graphic crime-style peril and violence, characters injured and killed, graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 14, 2019
Date Released to DVD: September 23, 2019

Copyright New Line Cinema 2019
Cheerfully retro past the point of winking at us, through the point of smirking at us, up to the point of pushing back in favor of toxic masculinity, the new “Shaft” is an above-average summer chases, wisecracks, and shoot-out movie, thanks to its cast, its heritage, and of course the most memorable movie soundtrack theme of all time, a Grammy and Oscar winner.

Like two of the previous films in the series, this one is just called “Shaft.” The 1971 original starred Richard Roundtree, who also appeared in “Shaft’s Big Score” and “Shaft in Africa.” Then Samuel L. Jackson appeared in a 2000 film just called “Shaft,” playing the nephew of the Roundtree character. (In this film, it turns out the original Shaft was not his uncle but his father.) This “Shaft” brings the story up to the present day, with Roundtree and Jackson returning to their roles and the third generation, J.J. (for John Junior), played by Jessie T. Usher (“Survivor’s Remorse”).

The first Shaft film, based on a tough with the bad guys/catnip for the ladies private investigator in the novels of Ernest Tidyman, was among the best of the “Blaxploitation” films of the 1970’s.

The character in the book is white, but director Gordon Parks cast Roundtree, to “see a black guy winning,” and, toward the end of the Civil Rights movement era, that gave audiences a hero that had not been seen before, a strong, confident, supremely capable black man who operated by his own set of rules and applying his own form of justice. This had enormous appeal in an era where pretty much the only black actor in films was Sidney Poitier, who nearly always played characters who were near-saintly, designed to appeal to white audiences. Shaft did not care about appealing to or appeasing anyone. In the words of a black politician of the era named Shirley Chisolm, he was “unbought and unbossed.” He exemplified Hollywood cowboy-style notions of masculinity, supremely secure in his own power and control, and in the context of the movie that included his relationships with women, if using them as sexual objects could be characterized as a relationship.

Director John Singleton’s 2000 version with Jackson was an affectionate tribute to the original. Shaft is first seen as working for The Man as a police officer, but he quits in disgust and sets up an office as a private investigator. As this film begins, it is 1989 and Shaft (Jackson) is arguing with his significant other (Regina Hall) in a car when a gunfight breaks out. “This time it’s different,” she tells him, after it is all over and he’s the last man standing. In the back seat of the car is a baby. She knows that in order to keep their son safe, she will have to leave him.

The ensuing years are amusingly zipped through in a montage with pauses for the occasional and always-inappropriate gifts Shaft sends to JJ, wrapped in plain brown paper, including a box of condoms when he is 10 and a collection of porn when he is leaving for college at MIT. After graduation, JJ works as a data analyst at the FBI, where he is frustrated at not being assigned to take the lead on big cases like a possible terrorist cell at a local mosque. He lives in a tastefully furnished apartment with a Lord of the Rings poster on the wall and lacrosse sticks over his bed. He treats women with respect — with so much respect he has not been able to get out of the friend zone with Sasha (Alexandra Shipp), a doctor he has known since he was a child. He does not like guns, but he has mad skills as a hacker.

When another childhood friend, a Muslim veteran named Karim, is found dead from an overdose, JJ thinks it is murder, and he visits his father for the first time to ask for his help. A naked stripper covered with glitter answers the door, and Shaft appears with glitter in his beard. This is supposed to be funny and to convey how manly he is. Anyway, he agrees to help, and we’re suddenly in a buddy cop movie, with senior bashing junior every step of the way for not being many enough and junior giving it back about his not having been there as a dad. Much of that happens as they are being chased, shot at, or fought with, including the inevitable scene at a nightclub, with a dance/fight that puts the “tip” in “tipsy” and is actually pretty fun.

Someday people will look back on this movie as an exemplar of its moment. The exaggerated masculinity of 1971 may have been humorous and empowering, but in 2019 it seems creaky and skeezy, especially when JJ finally picks up a gun and the strong, capable female character suddenly melts into a puddle of adoration. It’s too soon to be a parody, too late to be ignored. The exaggerated bravado makes them seem fragile and over-compensating.

I admit, though, that Hayes theme still makes me melt into a puddle, and it is fun to see the three generations striding without regard to the oncoming cars in their shades and long coats. While it does not succeed in the same terms as the original or as an affectionate update, there are moments when it is an entertaining popcorn movie with appealing performances, when I can dig it.

Parents should know that this film has a lot of intense, graphic peril and violence including shoot-outs fights, and torture, with many characters injured and killed and some graphic and disturbing images. Characters use strong and crude language, including the n-word and the p-word, and there are vulgar sexual references, homophobic and transphobic jokes, and nudity, with a casually exploitive attitude toward women and a prove-it notion of masculinity. The movie also includes drinking and drunkenness and drugs and drug dealing.

Family discussion: Why wasn’t JJ a field agent? Why was his father so dismissive of his clothes and apartment? How do the Shaft movie’s attitude toward women and masculinity hold up today?

If you like this, try: the earlier “Shaft” movies and “Jackie Brown”

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Pokémon Detective Pikachu

Posted on May 9, 2019 at 5:51 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action/peril, some rude and suggestive humor, and thematic elements
Profanity: Some schoolyard language, potty references, mild words (jeez, hell, etc.)
Alcohol/ Drugs: Fantasy "drug," caffeine, brief drug humor
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/cartoon-style violence, parental loss
Diversity Issues: Stereotype of disabled villain
Date Released to Theaters: May 10, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 5, 2019
Copyright 2019 Legendary Pictures

People around me were gasping, hooting, and laughing at various details that passed right by me during “Pokémon Detective Pikachu,” so if you are already a fan of the Pokémon franchise, the cards, the series, the games, you will be better off reading a review from someone as deeply enmeshed as you are. If you are only vaguely aware of the characters and premises of the international merchandising monster that began as “pocket monsters” and now has an entire universe of things to buy (more than 300 million copies sold of just one of there many, many games alone), then stick with me and we will try to assess this new movie on its own merits.

That would make merit number one for non- or not-yet fans the non-stop commentary of Ryan Reynolds, who provides the voice of the title character, a kind of PG version of his iconic Deadpool performance. After that, we have an appealing human lead character, Tim Goodman, played by Justice Smith of “Paper Towns” and “The Getdown.” He interacts believably with the CGI characters and even manages a genuine character arc as we see him become less isolated and more vulnerable and authentic.

We first see Tim as a quiet loner working as an insurance appraiser. He lives in a world where people often catch or partner with Pokémon characters, something like pets or sidekicks or Phillip Pullman-style daemons. He once dreamed of being a Pokémon trainer (we learn more about that as we see the unchanged childhood bedroom in his dad’s apartment. But when he is out with a friend and has the chance to “catch” a Pokémon, it does not go well, probably because his heart is not in it.

Tim receives a phone call informing him that his estranged father, a detective who lives in Ryme City, has been killed in an accident. He travels to Ryme City, where a wheelchair-bound billionaire and philanthropist named Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) has established a utopian community for humans and Pokémon to live in harmony. In a welcome video on the train, Clifford explains that since he became disabled, the connection to the Pokémon has helped him to become “a better version of myself.” He wants Ryme City to make it possible for all humans to have that experience.

The police chief (Ken Watanabe) gives Tim the keys to his father’s apartment and tries to comfort him. But Tim shrugs off any condolences, insisting he has no real sense of loss for the father he has hardly ever seen. At the apartment, Tim meets a mysterious fuzzy yellow Pokémon Pikachu who has amnesia but who, unlike the other Pokémon creatures, speaks fluent English (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) that only Tim can understand. Pikachu wears a Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker hat with Tim’s father’s contact information inside. He believes Tim’s father is still alive. Tim is at first reluctant to work with him, but some clues, some escapes, and an attractive young journalist (Kathryn Newton as Lucy) who tells him, “You just walked into quite a story,” persuade him to try to find out what really happened.

Their investigations take them to a mysterious lab in a remote valley, to Clifford’s office, where he shows them a detailed VR depiction of the accident, an encounter with Mr. Mime, who may be a witness but won’t say (hah!), and Ryme City’s most famous annual event, a pride parade and carnival celebrating Pokémon.

Tim’s increased confidence and connection to others is a sharp contrast to Clifford’s notion of what makes someone a better version of himself. But it may be hard to notice that in the midst of non-stop special effects and elaborate, video-game style action sequences. For fans, this may be a B+, but for outsiders without a gaming controller, it’s a couple of grades lower.

Parents should know that this film includes extended fantasy/cartoon-style peril and violence (no one badly hurt) with some scary monsters, themes of absent or neglectful fathers, some fantasy drug material and brief drug humor, and some potty jokes and mild bad language (hell, jeez, etc.) SPOILER ALERT: The movie also perpetuates some tired and obsolete cliches about disabled villains whose evil acts are inspired by an effort to be “cured.”

Family discussion: What would the better version of you look like? Would you like to be a detective?
Which Pokémon would you like to have as a partner and why?

If you like this, try: “Monster Trucks” and the Detective Pikachu video game

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