Respect

Posted on August 12, 2021 at 5:10 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, strong language including racial epithets, violence, suggestive material, and smoking
Profanity: Some strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and alcohol abuse, drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Domestic abuse, scuffles, sad death of a parent, murder of Martin Luther King
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 13, 2021

Copyright MGM 2021
Let’s stipulate two incontrovertible truths: First, as dazzling as Jennifer Hudson is, she is not the once-to-a-planet gift that was Aretha Franklin, whose songs are so deeply embedded in our collective unconscious that we cannot help but hear it in our head and accept no substitutes. Long past her prime but every inch a diva of raise-the-rafters soul singing, the clip over the credits of Franklin singing “Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to songwriter Carole King (Franklin won her own Honor 21 years before), is breathtakingly thrilling. We see her bringing King and President Obama to tears, and I expect most will see that through their own.

Second, there are a lot of movies, many fact-based, with the theme: good woman, great songs, bad, bad men. For example: “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Piaf,” “Judy,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “The US vs. Billie Holiday”/”Lady Sings the Blues,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “A Song is Born,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” It is a challenge to make that story new, especially after the take-down of the inevitable cliches of singer biopics that is the excellent “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.”

Despite these obstacles and a 2 1/2 hour running time, the Aretha Franklin story simply titled “Respect” is absorbing and entertaining. Hudson may not sing Aretha’s songs as well as she did, but the Oscar she got for her very first movie role in “Dreamgirls” was an accurate assessment of her acting skills and screen charisma. Director Liesel Tommy and writers Tracey Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri have skillfully shaped a complex, even epic story to skip over many relationships and crises to focus on two key themes, the songs and their depiction of Franklin’s evolving voice, first in music, then in activism, then on her own behalf, and finally and most fulfillingly, to connect to God.

We first see her as a young girl, living with her father (Forest Whitaker), a prominent preacher, her grandmother (Kimberly Scott), and her sisters and brother. She is used to being awakened to sing at her father’s parties, which include prominent activists and performers. Her parents are divorced and she wishes she could spend more time with her adored mother (Audra McDonald), but overall she is happy and secure. In a wonderful scene, her mother gets her to express her feelings by singing them.

And then two cataclysmic events literally strike her silent. She is molested and gives birth to a son at age 12 and another one two years later. And her mother died.

Music is what literally gives her voice back to her. She sings, and that leads her first to tour churches with her father and then to make her first record deal, with a label that wants her to be a jazz singer. She marries Ted White (Marlon Wayans), who is threatened by anyone she wants to work with and hits her. She works with Martin Luther King. And then she starts to get the hits she has wanted.

Hudson is never less than dazzling and the film manages to give a sense of the scope of the story without getting caught up in details like the husband it just skips over. The film is ultimately, yes, respectful, just as Miss Franklin hoped.

Parents should know that this film includes domestic abuse and child molestation, sexual references and non-explicit situations, substance abuse, very strong and racist language, and some violence.

Family discussion: Who treated Aretha Franklin well? Why were hits so important to her? What made her able to start standing up for herself?

If you like this, try: “Amazing Grace,” the documentary we see being filmed at the end of this movie, the documentary “Muscle Shoals,” and of course listen to Ms. Franklin’s music

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The Suicide Squad

Posted on August 5, 2021 at 5:40 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence and gore, language throughout, some sexual references, drug use and brief graphic nudity
Profanity: Extremely strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extremely intense and gory violence with many disturbing and bloody, graphic images, characters injured and killed, comic book violence, guns, explosions
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 6, 2021
Date Released to DVD: October 25, 2021

Copyright 2021 Warner Brothers
Just to clarify: the 2016 film with Will Smith and Margot Robbie about the imprisoned DC Comics villains who are assembled into a “Dirty Dozen”-style team by a tyrannical official from a secret government agency is called “Suicide Squad.” This 2021 reboot is called “The Suicide Squad.” Got it?

“Guardians of the Galaxy’s” writer/director James Gunn takes over the franchise, and this is even more insouciantly nasty than the first one, relishing the carnage and ebulliently transgressive. Even the Warner Brothers logo is written in blood.

Viola Davis returns as Amanda Waller, who demonstrates her ruthlessness up front by delivering on her threat to detonate a chip that explodes the head of one of her supervillains who disobeys an order. “I wouldn’t take such extreme measures if this mission wasn’t more important than you could possibly imagine,” she says. It is “potentially cataclysmic for America and the world.” In other words, the ends justify the ultra-destructive means, including giving her license to murder her charges, not to mention giving them license to murder as well.

There are some new characters this time, including some younger villains to make it possible to include some jokes about millennials, or stereotypes, depending on your perspective. This crowd is defined by their inability to play well with others, but that is intensified here by the animosity between two alpha males, the walking weapon Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and the walking heavy bag and ironically named Peacemaker (John Cena). Also on board for some or all of the mission are a shark with legs, a second-generation rat-master, a guy with some serious mother issues who emits lethal polka dots, and of course, in what she says is her last appearance in the role, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.

We can understand why. For all its many failings, the first “Suicide Squad” and “Birds of Prey” gave Harley Quinn what she has too seldom been given, an interesting character. She was damaged. And she was a villain. But a vestigial trace of her past life as a psychologist and a woman wronged gave her some complexity and even sympathy. She’s not as interesting here, more naughty than truly provocative. This movie is more interested in how many ways a human body can be exploded, beheaded, sliced down the middle, and otherwise dismembered than it is in anything else with the possible exception of a lot of macho posturing. It also fails to make the stakes meaningful with a worthy villain. Understandable, I suppose; it’s hard to out-villain the temporarily good bad guys. So, it’s is colorful and entertaining but lightweight and unmemorable.

NOTE: Stay for a mid-credit scene with an un-surprising surprise.

Parents should know that this movie ie extremely vulgar and gory with constant, extremely bloody peril and violence and many characters injured and killed. Characters use constant very strong language and the movie includes nudity and sexual references, and a sexual situation.

Family discussion:

If you like this, try: “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the Suicide Squad comic books

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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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F9

Posted on June 22, 2021 at 8:47 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language, action, sequences of violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Beer
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril ad violence, shooting, explosions, martial arts, many people killed or injured
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 25, 2021
Date Released to DVD: September 21, 2021

Copyright 2021 Universal
Let’s be real about F9. If we can use a word like “real” to describe a series of films that parted ways with reality at least six or seven movies ago. But, knowing that, if you’re still here and I’m still here, we’ve pretty much agreed that’s okay and so the usual information potential ticket-buyers look for in a movie review is not really relevant. So, we can do what this movie does, and cut to the chase.

Here’s what you need to know. Director Justin Lin and his co-producer/star Vin Diesel know why we’re here; we want to see some crazy action scenes with characters we know so well that when Dom says once again that he doesn’t have friends; he has family, we almost feel that we’re part of the family now, too. So, “F9” delivers what the fans want, which is more and wilder action, and a bit more family, too. In fact, this time we get some backstory, with teenage brother and sister Dom (Diesel) and Mia (Jordana Brewster) and their dad, race car driver Jack Toretto (JD Pardo). It turns out there’s another brother, too, Jakob (Finn Cole). And we get to see how a tragedy on the racecourse leads to the brothers going in different directions. Jakob comes back into the story as John Cena.

If you’re a casual fan, all you need to know is that this movie has a lot of fun, if highly improbable, action scenes, including Vin Diesel as a passenger in a crazy car chase through London with none other than Dame Helen Mirren at the wheel. If you’re really into the series, you’ll want to know that many other favorite characters return, some more surprisingly than others. Also, if you’re really into the series you already know that the third movie in the series is the eighth in the chronology (also the first directed by Lin). That movie ended with another tragic exploding car death, of a mentor named Han (Sung Kang). But if we’ve learned one thing from this series, it is that sometimes people you think were either dead or bad turn out to be neither.

Two scenes I particularly loved will be the best litmus test for your decision on whether to buy a ticket (and if you do, please make it the Dolby experience). We’ve all seen fights before. We’ve seen fights where our two guys take on six bad guys. We’ve probably seen fights in the back of a big moving van, but here’s where the “Fast and Furious” franchise says to themselves, “How can we make things even more interesting?” And at some point someone says, “Let’s have the fight take place when the van is being (a) being chased by more bad guys, (b) being driven by someone who has never driven before, and (c) carrying the world’s most powerful electro-magnet, which is being turned on and off, sometimes on purpose and sometimes not. Wow.

The other scene has Roman, the comic relief character played by the almost-impossibly handsome Tyrese, says something that does not quite break the fourth wall between the characters and the audience but bends it a little. He mentions the un-mentionable — somehow no matter how many of the most lethal weapons ever conceived are shooting and exploding all around them, no matter how outnumbered they are, no matter how many impossible jumps they attempt to make in vehicles, somehow they all walk away without a scratch. Could it be, he wonders, that they’re not human? The real-life answer is that they’re not; they’re fictional characters. His conjecture is, maybe, that they could be un-killable? The real-life answer to that one is yes, as long as people keep buying tickets to the sequels.

In another scene, a character says, “If this was a movie, this would be when….” just to remind us that they know we know.

They can’t make the title any shorter. What’s the next one going to be called, just F? Will there be another “Hobbs & Shaw?” A spin-off about Dom’s early days? If they feature Helen Mirren and a Pontiac Fiero shot into space or whatever even crazier stuff they can dream up, I’m in.

NOTE: Stay for the mid-credits sequence for another familiar face.

Parents should know that this film includes constant action and peril including teenagers witnessing the death of a parent in a fiery crash and endless shoot-outs and chases, one through a minefield. Characters use strong language and drink beer. Bad guys plot world domination.

Family discussion: When does someone deserve a second chance? Should Letty have called Mia?

If you like this, try: the other films in the series, especially “Tokyo Drift” and “Hobbs & Shaw.”

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Luca

Posted on June 16, 2021 at 1:55 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for rude humor, language, some thematic elements and brief violence
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence
Diversity Issues: Disability issues, diversity a theme of the film
Date Released to Theaters: June 18, 2021

Copyright Disney Pixar 2021
I’ll get to the details in a moment, the story, the characters, the music, the themes, and of course the inevitable Pixar movie question — Will it make you cry? But first, maybe because of the whole cooped up inside the house for more than a year thing, I have to tell you about the sunlight on the water in “Luca,” Pixar’s film set on the coast of Italy. As Carlos Saldanha did with Brazil in “Rio,” director Enrico Casarosa brings us his deep love for the place he grew up, and every moment brims with tender affection for the Mediterranean setting. This movie may not make you cry but for sure it will make you sigh in appreciation. And it has a spit take for the ages.

Luca, voiced by Jacob Tremblay of “Room” and “Wonder,” lives under the sea off the coast of a fishing village called Portorosso. This is not the underwater place of Nemo or Ariel, but its own very distinctive and fully-imagined world. Luca is not a merman or a fish, exactly. He is a young sea monster, the son of loving parents Daniela (Maya Rudolph) and Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan). He is responsible and well-behaved, herding a school of fish. But like Ariel, he is curious about the world outside the water and wants to learn more about what his family calls “land monster town.” His mother cautions him that it is dangerous. But he meets Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer of “Shazam”), who shows him that sea monsters turn human when they are out of the water and introduces him to some of the wonders of the human world: sunlight, gravity, music, gelato, and…Vespas. Alberto’s dream is to have a Vespa and explore the world.

The — I’m just going to call them boys — try to build a Vespa on their own. But when they meet a spirited human girl named Giulia (Emma Berman) who tells them about a three-part race with a Vespa as the prize, they join forces. This being Italy, the three parts are: swimming, biking, and eating pasta.

But the five-time previous champion, a bully named Ercole (Saverio Raimondo) will do whatever it takes to win again. A single drop of water turns the boys back into their sea monster form, so when the sky starts leaking, I mean when it rains….well, it’s a challenge. Luca’s parents have taken human form to find him, tossing water on every boy they see.

The voice talent is exceptional, with Tremblay, Grazer, and Berman creating distinctive, endearing characters. A brief betrayal is shocking and dismaying because we are invested in their friendship. The film manages to weave in a number of themes with subtlety and insight as the character navigate their differences, as parents learn to love and let go and friends discover that you can stay friends even if you take different directions. Now excuse me while I put on some Puccini and cook pasta for dinner.

NOTE: Watch the credits for some sketches that continue the story and an extra scene with a character voiced by Sasha Baron Cohen.

Parents should know that this film includes peril and some violence. A disabled character is presented as strong, confident, and capable. A character has divorced parents and divides her time between their homes and another child is abandoned by his parents. Differences and acceptance are a theme of he movie. And while underwater Luca is a protective guardian of fish, somehow on land he has no problem helping Giulia’s father catch a boatful so he can sell them.

Family discussion: When should you say, “Silencio, Bruno!” and when should you listen to “Bruno?” Who in your life is an underdog? What do you do when friends want different things? Why did Alberto tell Luca to leave?

If you like this, try: “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dory”

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