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
Copyright Warner Brothers 2020

At last, the sisters are doing it for themselves, on screen and off. 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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Bad Boys for Life

Posted on January 15, 2020 at 2:01 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, sexual references and brief drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and very graphic peril and violence, disturbing images, characters injured and killed, chases, explosions, guns, grenades, bazookas
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 16, 2020

Copyright Columbia 2019
There’s a lot that’s hard to believe in “Bad Boys for Life” (not that we’re expected to), but the one I want to bring to your attention is the repeated assertion that this is one last time. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are back as the lovably bickering, impetuously rule-breaking buddy cops from the original Bad Boys movie 25 years ago and the sequel eight years later, and it is clear that they are not done yet.

Smith and Lawrence have the same immensely likable screen chemistry they did in the first film, though it is clear that Smith has much more range as an actor. We hardly have time to notice, however, as in the first five minutes of the movie we get to see a Porsche racing through the streets of Miami, some quippy brio (“We’re not just black. We’re cops, too. We’ll pull ourselves over later”), some skimpy bathing suits, a new baby, a prison break featuring a shootout and a witch’s curse.

That baby is the first grandchild for Marcus (Lawrence), the devoted family man, who is so moved by his becoming Pop-Pop that he decides to retire from the police force. Mike (Smith), the player with an upscale apartment no cop could afford (see above re believability) is furious. When Mike is shot by an assassin who is going after everyone involved in a criminal conviction from the past, Marcus stays by his side, and promises God that if Mike lives he will never be violent again. Once Mike recovers, however (with Marcus listed in his phone as Quitter), Mike persuades him to come back — say it with me — for one last time.

That will involve AMMO, a new high-tech police operation with the kind of high-tech surveillance and firepower that you might find in the Pentagon, run by Rita (Paola Nuñez), an officer with whom Mike has history. Mike wants to find the mysterious black-clad person on a black motorcycle who shot him. This is a challenge because, as a character says, “Who doesn’t want to kill him?” The Pepto-Bismal-chugging captain (Joe Pantoliano, also returning from the earlier films) tries to stop him, but the thing about Bad Boys is that they don’t follow the rules. Whatcha gonna do? Soon Mike is trading insults with the upstarts at AMMO, including Vanessa Hudgens and “The Sun is Also a Star’s” Charles Melton.

I’d estimate it is about one-third banter (we get some insults about getting older now) and two-thirds action, much of it very intense and very, very violent, with lots of blood, explosions, and heavy artillery. “I know ‘thou shalt not kill’ but these were bad guys” describes their view of law enforcement plus “We ride together. We die together. Bad boys for life.” (Someone does point out that they should think of themselves as bad men. Which may be why there’s also more crying than you normally see in this kind of movie. It’s dumb, and the action/comedy mix is not entirely successful given the carelessness about collateral damage and the outright carnage. But the charm is there and it is watchable, a summer movie in January. By the end, if you stay for that post-credit scene, you might just be ready to see what they do next.

Parents should know that this film includes intense and extended action, peril, and violence with very graphic and disturbing images, chases, explosions, fire, very strong and crude language, sexual references, and brief drug use.

Family discussion: What made Mike and Marcus good partners? How have the movies changed since the first one? If you and your friend had a go-to motto, what would it be?

If you like this, try: the earlier “Bad Boys” movies and the “Fast and Furious” series

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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Posted on December 18, 2019 at 6:23 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/action-style peril and violence, sad death, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 19, 2019

Copyright 2019 20th Century Fox
Nine episodes in, not counting the countless auxiliary expansions and storylines, “Star Wars” is still a place I love to go. But nine episodes and more than four decades since the original film, now called “Episode IV: A New Hope,” the franchise faces some daunting challenges, including balancing the weight of precedent with the need for something new and the expectations, and in many cases encyclopedic knowledge of the fans. I liked this last in the original storyline, despite some problematic elements I will do my best not to spoil — and alert to any possible spoilers before I even get close, I promise. Here’s the non-spoiler headline: I predict that this episode will divide the fans into two camps. Those who liked the last two films, “The Last Jedi” and “The Force Awakens” will not like this one as much. Those who were disappointed by those will like this one better.

Now, go see the movie if you do not want to hear more, and come back afterwards to see what else I have to say so you can argue with me.

Once again, the heart of the story is Rey (Daisy Ridley), the former scavenger turned student of the force and Jedi trainee with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and her friends and colleagues, former Storm Trooper Finn (John Boyega) and hotshot, hothead pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). Let’s take a moment to honor their superb performances, which have given so much to the series. In the midst of all of the action and hardware and locations and just-in-time rescues, all three of them have created vital, vibrant characters who give us a reason to care about all of the action. We also get to see the characters from Episode IV, including Carrie Fisher as Princess (now General) Leia, Hamill as Skywalker, Harrison Ford as Han Solo, and Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, along with droids C-3PO and R2D2 and the Wookiee, Chewbacca. And the conflicted nemesis Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is back, along with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). There’s a brief surprise appearance that had people in the theater cheering, and a return to an iconic location.

So, much is familiar. At the end of “The Last Jedi” the rebel forces were almost entirely wiped out, with no response to their distress signals. And the bad guys who are ruthless fascists, want to take over that galaxy far, far, away. You might think there are only so many times someone can say “If this mission fails, it’s all been for nothing,” but I admit freely, for me, at least a couple more.

Remember how “New Hope” kicked off by sending a secret spy message to Obi-Wan Kenobi? Well, here we are again, with a message from a mole — perhaps we might call him/her a whistleblower — inside the bad guy organization. I do not want to give too much away by saying what they are calling themselves now or who is behind it. I will only say that the message shows they are planning some very bad stuff and the Death Star looks like a slingshot by comparison with what they have now.

So It is time to get Rey back from Luke’s remote island retreat, something between a spa and boot camp. One question is whether Kylo Ren will be on board. He is literally offered “everything” if he will just prove himself by killing Rey, and the glints of red reflecting in his eyes suggest that rage is still his primary motivation. His connection to Rey, including a sort of psychic Skype communication they have with each other across the galaxy, could make him waver. Or, it could make her waver. He offers her the same “everything” he is tempted by.

This is not about the set-up, though; it is about the adventure, and J.J. Abrams takes us from one planet to another, with chases, escapes, explosions, and new characters. I was disappointed that this movie did not pick up on some of the most intriguing elements of “The Last Jedi” and even more disappointed that it countermanded one I considered among the most significant, SPOILER ALERTS tilting some of the series’ most fundamental existential premises away from individual determination toward a less appealing notion of destiny pre-ordained. I did not care for some new Force powers, which also undermine the original trilogy’s premises, or for some of the developments of the last half hour. I did enjoy some new characters, including one from Poe’s past played by Keri Russell and a rebel alliance-friendly group who ride horse-like creatures and even use a bow and arrow, a nice break from all the laser beams and spaceships. There’s a kind of nutty detour to a sort of Ren Faire that was a hoot. One of my favorite characters continues to be the Millennium Falcon (pronounced both FALL-kin and FAAL-kin here!), and I loved every minute it was on screen. I got a kick out of the callbacks, including an “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

Abrams was given thousands of threads to tie together, and if what he wove is uneven it is heartfelt and mostly a lot of fun to watch. That is all the force I need.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/action peril and violence with some graphic and disturbing images, sad deaths, and characters who are injured and killed.

Family discussion: How did what she learned change Rey’s ideas about herself? Why did Leia pick Poe?

If you like this, try: the other “Star Wars” films and the work of Joseph Campbell, who was one of George Lucas’ inspirations in creation the series

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Jumanji: The Next Level

Posted on December 14, 2019 at 9:24 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content and some language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language, brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended video game action style peril and violence, issue of terminal illness
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters and issues of diversity
Date Released to Theaters: December 13, 2019
Date Released to DVD: March 16, 2020

Copyright 2019 Columbia
My review of Jumanji; The Next Level is on rogerebert.com — an excerpt:

Like its predecessor, this latest “Jumanji” movie combines fantasy action and adventure with some comedy, a touch of romance, and real-life lessons about courage, friendship, and empathy—all with the help of some low-key race and gender fluidity….Johnson was terrific as Spencer in the first film, a humorously exaggerated version of an adolescent discovering the power of adulthood. But as the outer version of Spencer’s cranky grandfather, he’s clearly having more fun. He barely notices the surreal concept of being trapped inside a video game (he does not appear to be entirely sure what a video game is), and is much too busy swiveling hips that for the first time in years have a full range of motion. Johnson/Bravestone as Spencer was something to aspire to, in a future that still seemed filled with infinite potential, but Johnson/Bravestone as Eddie is filled with the bucket list delight of someone who sees nothing but loss ahead. Hart is especially good at toning down his usual peppery energy as the avatar for the slow-talking Milo, whose avatar’s strength is languages but who retains his discursive style. Black and Awkwafina both have a chance to represent more than one of the human characters, making each one distinct and clever.

The fantasy of the avatars, with their assigned strengths and weaknesses, make it possible for the characters to become more honest with themselves and each other. As with the first film, the humor and excitement are nimbly balanced so it never gets too scary or silly, and the focus is more on friendship than romance. This time, there is a light touch of poignance as well that makes the message about friendship more meaningful. And like all good video games, there’s a hint of yet another level at the end for those, like me, who are not yet ready to say Game Over.

Parents should know that this film icludes video game-style peril, action, and adventure, some strong language, brief crude humor (references to eunuch character), and issues of aging and terminal illness.

Family discussion: If you were a game avatar, what would your strengths and weaknesses be? What did the characters learn from being different races and genders?

If you like this, try: “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth”

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Frozen 2

Posted on November 20, 2019 at 5:52 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action/peril and some thematic elements
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Action/cartoon-style peril and violence, sad off-screen deaths of parents, violent confrontations with some weapons
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 21, 2019
Date Released to DVD: February 24, 2020

Copyright 2019 Disney
My full review is posted at rogerebert.com. An excerpt:

Frozen II” has an autumnal palette, with russet and gold setting the stage for an unexpectedly elegiac tone in the follow-up to one of Disney’s most beloved animated features. Even the irrepressibly cheerful snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), now permafrosted so even the warmest hugs don’t melt him, is worried about change as the leaves turn orange and float down from tree branches. He is confident, though, that as soon as he gets older he will understand everything. After all, that’s what he expects from Elsa (Idina Menzel), Anna (Kristen Bell), and Kristoff (Jonathan Groff). Anna reassures him (in song, of course) that yes, some things change, but some things are forever. She tells him that even when you don’t know the answers you can always just do the next right thing, and that will help.

Parents should know that this film includes cartoon/action-style peril and violence, off-screen sad deaths of parents, and references to historic violence.

Family discussion: How can you decide what is the next right thing? What in your life will change and what will stay the same? How do you respond to changes you don’t expect?

If you like this, try: “Frozen,” “Inside Out” and “The Princess and the Frog”

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