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

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
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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The Highwaymen

Posted on March 21, 2019 at 5:12 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some strong violence and bloody images
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and alcohol abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Extended bloody violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 22, 2019

Copyright Netflix 2019
The titles say it all. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, robbed banks, stores, and gas stations, masterminded a prison escape, killed police officers and civilians, all while they were still in their 20’s, until they were gunned down by law enforcement. They were populist celebrities of their time and have been glamorized in movies, most notably the Arthur Penn film “Bonnie and Clyde,” starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. They get their names in the title, but for the story of the men in law enforcement who tracked them down, a generic term will do.

“The Highwaymen” is the un-glamorous story of former Texas Rangers called back into service who persevere despite unreliable politicians, incompetent federal agents, and a population, including criminals and Depression-era fan who were on the side of anyone who was not on the side of the banks. The story of the lovers who defied the rules created by the rich and powerful and shared cheeky photos of themselves holding guns was much more appealing than the idea of bringing them to justice.

Director John Lee Hancock “The Blind Side” and writer John Fusco (“Young Guns,” “The Shack”), are, like the story’s lead characters, disgusted with those who think that Bonnie and Clyde are more appealing than the men who caught and killed them, though that does not prevent them from altering some of the facts themselves.

The focus here is on the two old pros, Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson). In the Penn film, the Hamer character was portrayed as hapless in comparison to the people he was tracking, initially captured by them (which never really happened). In this version, we only catch brief glimpses of the notorious duo. It is clear who we are supposed to respect and root for.

Texas governor Ma Ferguson (a deliciously bellicose Kathy Bates) has shut down the Texas Rangers in favor of a more modern form of law enforcement. But when it comes to the crime spree of Bonnie and Clyde, she recognizes that she doesn’t need modern and she doesn’t want law enforcement. She wants them dead. And so she has someone contact Hamer, now a successful private investigator living comfortably with his wife (Kim Dickens). And Hamer contacts Gault, living in near-poverty with his daughter trying to stay off the booze.

The pace of the film is slow and deliberate because what these men are doing is slow and deliberate. The filmmaking is straightforward but thoughtful. A scene where Hamer and Gault search what turns out to be an empty house is especially skillful, with the lawmen framed in a dresser-top mirror. The images of Depression-era life, the campout of what in those days were called hoboes, the saucy red shoe that is all we see of Bonnie in her first appearance, the stop to buy guns and the boys who help Hamer with some secret target practice, the face of Hamer’s wife (an excellent Kim Dickens) as she says goodbye — all reward the patient viewer.

Costner and Harrelson have the kind of easy chemistry that suits their characters, men who have seen too much and done too much. They know they have done wrong in the cause of right, but they also know that their wrongs kept people safe. They know that they will not be appreciated by the politicians who will claim credit for their successes and blame them for mistakes made by others, or by the people who thought of Bonnie and Clyde as a romantic fantasy of living fast, dying young, and leaving a good-looking corpse, if you don’t count the bullet holes. But that knowledge will not, as anything else can not, turn them away from what they see is their duty. This movie does what they were too proud to do themselves, tell their story and let us learn from it.

Parents should know that this is a crime and law enforcement story with extended peril and violence. Characters are injured and killed and there are some graphic and disturbing images. The film also has some sexual references, some potty humor, alcohol and alcoholism, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Hamer and Gault take the job? Why did Clyde’s father want to talk to Hammer? Why did so many people root for Bonnie and Clyde?

If you like this, try: “The Untouchables” and “Bonnie and Clyde”

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Miss Bala

Posted on January 31, 2019 at 5:33 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of gun violence, sexual and drug content, thematic material, and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs and drug dealing, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended crime and law enforcement-related peril and violence, guns and shoot-outs, knives, bombs, rape, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 31, 2019
Date Released to DVD: April 29, 2019

Copyright 2018 Columbia Pictures
Miss Bala” is a serviceable action thriller but very much the Hollywood version. In real life, a beauty queen named Laura Zúñiga (her title was “Our Sinaloa Beauty”) was arrested with seven members of a Mexican drug and weapons crime operation. Her story became a Mexican film, also called Miss Bala, which portrayed her as a kidnap victim, forced to work with the La Estrella gang to protect her family.

The American remake is closer to Pam Grier’s “Foxy Brown” or Tarantino’s “Death Proof” than to the real story, where the beauty queen did not fire a gun in stilettos and a red evening gown with a slit up the leg. The woman in the dress is “Jane the Virgin‘s” stars Gina Rodriguez as Gloria, a makeup artist from California, an American citizen who returns to her original home in Tijuana to help her best friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) look her best in the Miss Baja California beauty pageant. Gloria loves Suzu and her little brother Chava (Sebastián Cano), who are the closest she has to a family. And Suzu seems to be missing some red flags about the pageant, unconcerned about rumors that the local sheriff insists on droit de seigneur privileges with each year’s winner. A pre-competition party is interrupted by a shoot-out. Gloria is almost killed, but won’t take her opportunity to get away because she stays to look for Suzu. She tells a man in uniform that she can identify the killers, but he turns out to be working for them. He takes her to the leader of the group, Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova), who tells her that if she helps them, he will find Suzu for her.

So Gloria finds herself getting more and more caught up in the terrifying world of warring drug dealers. At first, she is a numb patsy who follows Lino’s directions to park a car by a building, but then it turns out it was packed with a bomb and used to blow up a safe house operated by the US DEA. Desperate to find Suzu and protect Chava, the follows his orders, transporting drugs and cash across the border into California and bringing back guns. The DEA brings her in and threatens her with prison or worse if she does not cooperate. The pressure is intense and the consequences are immeasurably tragic. Lino is suspicious, but also drawn to Gloria, because he, too, has been considered too Mexican to be American and too American to be Mexican. Gloria has to try to navigate between fear and something approaching loyalty while keeping in mind the single driving force of her commitment to rescuing Suzu.

Rodriguez has said in interviews that she insisted on giving Gloria more agency, making her more active, doing whatever a male character in those situations would do, all of which is salutary, but it goes so far it becomes cartoonish.

Almost everyone who worked on this film on screen and off is Latinx, which is also salutary, though the fact that the first major studio film to make that a goal has to be about the most obvious possible stereotype of Latinx characters.

Parents should know that this is a close-to-R PG-13, with themes of sex and drug trafficking, intense peril and violence, guns, knives, bombs, shoot-outs, many characters injured and killed, rape (off-camera), and some strong language.

Family discussion: How did Gloria decide what to do in the parking lot? What do you think she will do next?

If you like this, try: the original Spanish-language version of the story with the same title, and “2 Fast 2 Furious”

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Trailer: Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television*, Season 2

Posted on January 15, 2019 at 11:20 am

I signed up for YouTube Red to see the first season of Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television*, and am really looking forward to Season 2, which starts January 30. It is smart, fresh, and very funny, with great guest stars, a lot of sharp, knowing, meta-commentary on pop culture, and a lead performance by Hansen that is so resolutely self-involved lesser-Hollywood bro it is almost impossible to believe it isn’t real.

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