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

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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The Upside

Posted on January 10, 2019 at 5:49 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for suggestive content and drug use
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Marijuana, some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Severe medical issues, some peril, reference to serious accident
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: January 11, 2019

Copyright 2019 The Weinstein Company
First, it really happened. A wealthy French aristocrat named Philippe Pozzo di Borgo was paralyzed in a paragliding accident and hired an ex-con to be his aide. Their friendship and their adventures together inspired a French box office record-breaker called “The Intouchables.” And now there is an American remake called “The Upside,” set in New York City, starring Bryan Cranston as the man in the wheelchair and Kevin Hart as the “life auxiliary.”

Del did not want the job. He did not even know what job he was applying for. But his parole officer warned him that he would have to go back to prison if he could not show that he had been turned down by three potential employers. So, he takes the elevator to the penthouse thinking he was applying for a custodial position and barged into another candidate’s interview because he just wants to be turned down and get out of there and pick up his son from school. Instead, he ends up getting hired. Philip (Cranston) likes Del because he is so inappropriate. While the other applicants for the position spoke in low, soothing, deferential tones, Del was at home with saying whatever he was thinking.

Being at home with whatever the job required was another thing, however. Del is fine with lifting Philip into the chair and driving him around in his fancy cars. He is more than fine with his room in the penthouse, though the shower is very complicated and probably bigger than his prison cell. He is fine with Philip’s DNR orders. He is not fine with some of the more intimate aspects of the job.

It is about 15 minutes too long, and very much a studio product, burnished and focus-grouped. Philip teaches Del to appreciate opera and Del teaches Philip to appreciate Aretha Franklin. They each push the other out of their comfort zones. Del forces Philip to call his “epistolary” friend, a woman he has been corresponding with through old-school letters. Philip makes it possible for Del to resolve some of the issues of his past, including beginning to develop a relationship with his estranged son.

The three performers bring a lot of luster to a formulaic screenplay (opera/Aretha, TWO scenes high on weed, a breaking-everything-will-be-cathartic moment), especially Cranston, who brings warmth and depth to a character who is extremely patient and understanding (until he isn’t). Kidman is marvelous as Philip’s quiet and very proper executive assistant. And Hart has his best moments when he is slightly toned down, unsure, and disheveled from his usual high-energy, peppery persona, making us look forward to seeing him explore a wider variety of roles, maybe even something dramatic. If he listens to the advice Del gets from Philip, maybe that will happen.

Parents should know that this film features some strong and crude language, sexual references and graphic sexual humor and a mild situation, drug use and drug humor, and a severe medical condition.

Family discussion: What need can you find a way to fill? Who can you encourage? Why did Philip like Del?

If you like this, try: the original French version, “The Intouchables” and “Me Without You”

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Robin Hood

Posted on November 20, 2018 at 5:45 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive references
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended wartime and action-style peril and violence, arrows, fire, knives, beheading, references to torture, horrific child abuse
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 21, 2018
Date Released to DVD: February 18, 2019

Copyright 2018 Lionsgate
There have been so so so so so many Robin Hoods over the years and a couple of them are as good as movies get, starting with Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, and Eugene Pallette as Robin, Marian, Gisbourne, Prince John, and Friar Tuck. Then there’s the Disney animated version with music by Roger Miller, and the parody version from Mel Brooks with Robin played by “The Princess Bride’s” Cary Elwes. We’ve also had genuinely terrible Robin Hoods, perhaps most regrettably Kevin Costner with a California accent. And now we have the international co-production version, clearly geared to the non-US market, with clunky, exposition-weighted dialogue, a drumbeat-heavy score and action sequences juiced with bullet-time and slo-mo. Can’t we talk about the Errol Flynn version instead? Directed by the guy who did “Casablanaca?” With one of the all-time best movie scores, composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold? No? Sigh. Well, all right.

This time, Robin is played by Welsh actor Taron Egerton, best known for the “Kingsmen” movies and “Eddie the Eagle.” This is not his fault. He is a fine actor and can handle action scenes and love scenes capably. It is also not the fault of Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and F. Murray Abraham, who do their best. Possibly, it is not the fault of Leonardo diCaprio, who shows up in the credits as producer. It is most likely this big, dumb movie is the fault of the big, dumb ways that movies get made these days. The more they cost, the more dumbed-down they have to be to make money overseas, and this one apparently cost a lot.

We’re there because the story of the dashing nobleman who stole from the rich to give to the poor and was the world’s greatest archer and hundreds of years later is still a symbol of gallantry and heroism. But this movie begins by telling us to forget everything we think we know about the story and many of its most familiar and beloved elements are missing. No archery contest, no ransom for the king, no plotting Prince John. Which would be fine if what it has instead was of equal interest, but it really isn’t. It’s just a first-person shooter game with live action.

In this version, as in most others, Robin of Loxley is a nobleman. As he tells us in the opening narration, his story begins with a thief but it is not him. He discovers a veiled young woman (Eve Hewson as Marian) stealing one of his horses. Moved by her pluck, her generosity (it is for a poor member of the community) and her lovely blue eyes, he allows her to take the horse and soon, well, let Robin tell you himself: “They were young and in love until the cold hand of fate reached out.” See what I mean? Robin is drafted to fight in the Crusades, where the British have arrows and the “infidels” have a sort of gatling gun for arrows. Robin is wounded trying to save the son of the captured “infidel” who tried to kill him. Robin objects to murdering prisoners. He is sent back to England, where he finds that both his home and Marian are gone. His home has been taken by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn) and Marian, who was told that he had been killed, is now with Will (Jamie Dornan). Furthermore, the man whose son he tried to save stowed away on the boat to devote his life to vengeance. The English version of his name is John, and he wants to help Robin fight the people responsible for his son’s death. Cue the training montage. And the beating drums.

It’s not that it’s dumb. It’s that it is so much dumber than it needed to be. I do not expect the characters to speak the way people did in the 12th century, but Robin should not be asking someone “You okay?” of “I want to go big.” It isn’t just the drumbeats that are headache-inducing. It is the clunkiness of the expository dialogue, hammering contemporary parallels like the Sheriff’s “They hate us, our freedom, our culture, our religion.” I expected him to talk about sending troops to stop the caravans. “This thief is making you look like a damned fool!” That’s the kind of writing Mel Brooks wrote a whole movie to make fun of. I don’t know what’s worse, the dumb slang or the dumb pretentious/portentous pronouncements:”Fear is the greatest weapon in the church’s arsenal. It is why the church created Hell.”

It’s too loud, too long, and too dumb. What they’re stealing here is our money, our time, and our goodwill.

Parents should know that this film has pervasive near-R peril and violence with battle scenes, arrows, fire, explosions, chases, knives, beheading (offscreen) and many characters injured and killed, and brief strong language, and references to horrific child abuse and torture.

Family discussion: Why was Robin different from the other lords? What issues in this movie are still important today?

If you like this, try: “The Adventures of Robin Hood” with Errol Flynn and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights”

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Action/Adventure DVD/Blu-Ray Epic/Historical Inspired by a true story movie review Movies Remake

Bilal: A New Breed of Hero

Posted on February 1, 2018 at 12:46 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence/warfare and some thematic elements
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and sometimes graphic peril and violence, torture, whipping a child, sad loss of parent, war scenes, many characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 2, 2018

Copyright 2017 Vertical Entertainment
For as long as there have been humans, there have been efforts to divide into groups ranked on any available distinctions: race, religion, property. Stories about those who were willing to fight for equality and justice go back almost as far, and this film begins by telling us it is “one of the oldest accounts of humanity’s struggle for equality and freedom.”

Bilal: A New Breed of Hero” is the ambitious first animated feature directed by Ayman Jamal and Khurram H. Alavi, from Dubai’s new animation studio. The English language cast includes Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, China Anne McClain, Jacob Latimore and Ian McShane. Bilal, born in 540 AD, was a slave who became one of the most trusted companions of Muhammad, and the first muezzin, using his beautiful voice to call worshippers to prayer.

As a young boy, Bilal dreams of being a warrior. “A sword and a horse cannot make you a great man,” his mother gently advises him. What she wants is for him to “live without chains.” The chains she means are spiritual. She does not want him or his sister to be “chained to anger, vengeance, superstition, or fear.”

But soon he and his sister have physical chains, as their community is attacked, their mother is killed, and they are forced into slavery by the idol-worshippers led by Umayya (McShane), who is more interested in selling idols than being faithful to them. The idol worship is based on superstition and fear, not morality. The lord of merchants who befriends Bilal echoes what his mother told him. “Your master is a slave himself.” He is a slave to his greed, admitting, “I worship whatever empowers me.”

He is also a slave to his fear of Bilal and his knowledge that a society built on injustice cannot last. He beats, starves, and tortures Bilal but the lord of merchants buys his freedom, and makes it possible for him to lead a rebellion.

It is a stirring story, respectfully told. The action scenes are intense and well-staged, but the non-action scenes are ponderous and static. Much of the dialogue is the standard sword-and-sandal faux classical (“Great men are those who have the will to choose their own destiny”), but every so often there’s a line like, “Show me what you got, rookie,” that seems like it came from another movie. The Dubai animation rookies are showing us what they’ve got, and it is an auspicious beginning.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence, torture of a child and an adult, sad death of parent, and issues of bigotry, tyranny, and oppression.

Family discussion: What would Bilal’s mother see as today’s chains of slavery? Why did the lord of merchants befriend Bilal? What do you want to be when you grow up and why?

If you like this, try: “The Prince of Egypt,” “Spartacus,” and “The Ten Commandments”

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Animation Epic/Historical Inspired by a true story movie review Movies Movies Spiritual films

The Promise

Posted on April 20, 2017 at 5:45 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material including war atrocities, violence and disturbing images, and some sexuality
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and prolonged peril and violence including war and genocide, some graphic and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, suicide, execution
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 21, 2017
Date Released to DVD: July 17, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B0719XBL75
Copyright Open Road Films 2017
Copyright Open Road Films 2017

The massacre was so monumental, the attempt to wipe out an entire culture and ethnicity so savage, that a new word had to be invented to describe it. The word was “genocide,” and while it would be applied many times over the course of the 20th century, it was created to describe the murder of 1.6 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) during the first World War. It is difficult to acknowledge that “The Promise,” a love story set during this period is particularly timely, released the week of the annual observance of the annual day of remembrence and the week of a troubling referendum extending the powers of the current leader.

Writer/director Terry George, served time in prison during the time of The Troubles in Northern Ireland and has devoted his life to telling stories of courage in times of the direst periods of unrest and slaughter, including the Oscar-nominated “Hotel Rwanda” and “In the Name of the Father.” With “The Promise,” he tells an epic story of love and loss in wartime, with Oscar Isaac, channelling Yuri Azhivago as soulful Mikael Pogosian, a young Armenian medical student, Christian Bale as determined American journalist Chris Myers, and Charlotte LeBon (“The Walk”), lovely and stirring as Ana, an Armenian artist and governess and the woman they both love.

As it begins, Mikael has agreed to marry a girl in his village in exchange for a dowry that will pay for medical school in Constantinople (Istanbul), where he stays with his uncle’s family, including Ana, governance to his young cousins. In these early scenes, both in the village and the city, George immerses us in an ambiance of sophistication, culture, tolerance, and prosperity. Christians and Muslims, Turks and Armenians, mostly treat each other with respect and easy comfort, even affection.

But that changes quickly as World War I begins. The Ottoman Empire joins the Germans and begins ethnic cleansing, arresting and deporting the intellectuals, forcing able-bodied men into military service or slave labor, throwing everyone else out of their homes and sometimes outright murder. Mikael’s medical exemption from military service is revoked. He is sent to a labor camp but escapes and returns home to find everyone he knows in danger. Although he is by now very much in love with Ana, he goes through with the promised marriage. Meanwhile, Chris is trying to get the story out to the rest of the world and Ana is trying to protect and help her people. All three are swept up in the tumultuous events as people around them show cruelty they could never have imagined possible.

As devastating as the historic events of the film are, the most powerful moments for today’s audiences are the ones that evoke our current conflicts. The treatment of refugees, including an extraordinary rescue effort from France, is in sharp contrast to news footage of today’s refugees, stuck for years, even decades, in perilous limbo before they can find new home, underscored by a reference to the temporary destination for the Armenians evicted from their villages — Aleppo.

Parents should know that this film concerns war and genocide, with extended peril and violence and some graphic and disturbing images. Characters are injured and killed, including an execution, and there are very sad deaths. There is some strong language.

Family discussion: What does this story tell us about today’s treatment of refugees? About how quickly a country can shift its policies on diversity and inclusion? Is survival a form of revenge?

If you like this, try: “Nahapet,” “Ararat,” and “Map of Salvation”

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