Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

Posted on October 17, 2019 at 5:30 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for intense sequences of fantasy action/violence and brief scary images
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy peril and violence, characters injured, cursed, and killed, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 18, 2019

Copyright Disney 2019
Come on, Disney. You can do better than this. “Mistress of Evil” makes Maleficent sound like she is hosting cheesy old horror movies on late night television. Maleficent, of course, is the wicked fairy from the classic animated Disney version of “Sleeping Beauty” who was so angry she wasn’t invited to Princess Aurora’s christening that she cursed her to eternal slumber after pricking her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel. She could only be awakened by true love’s kiss, and ultimate her fury is so great she turns into a fire-breathing dragon. All because she felt she should have been on the palace guest list.

On the 60th anniversary of that film’s release, we get this sequel to the 2014 “Maleficent,” with Angelina Jolie as a villain more sinned against than sinning. It turns out it was more than a social oversight that made her angry. She was a fairy cruelly betrayed by the human man she loved, who ruined her so he could become king (the severing of her wings was a deeply disturbing scene). Basically, she was Glenn Close from “Fatal Attraction” with horns and magical powers. Who needs to boil a bunny when you can just zap people?

But then she could not help loving the darling little Princess Aurora. The famously maternal Angelina Jolie — formerly the famously wild child Angelina Jolie — was well cast as the fairy whose anger was cooled by the love of a child. Everything ended up pretty close to happily ever after, but that doesn’t help the box office so here we are again.

Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) is now queen of the Moors, which is fairy territory, and everyone loves her, from little pixies to Groot-like tree creatures. She floats around in hippie chick finery, and everything is blossoms and butterflies, kind, and peaceful. She accepts a proposal from Prince Philip (now played by Harris Dickinson), son of the king and queen who rule over the neighboring human country. Like so many brides before her, she implores her family, meaning Maleficent, to behave at the meet-the-prospective-in-laws dinner. And like so many meet-the-prospective-inlaw dinners, it does not go as well as the young couple hoped. Maleficent feels insulted, she lashes out, the king (Robert Lindsay) collapses, Maleficent is blamed (after all, she does know how to curse people into perpetual sleep), Aurora feels betrayed. And so, the princess stays with her new family, and Maleficent is banned again.

This time is different, though, because Maleficent finds for the first time, her own community, with horned and winged creatures like herself, though none with her magical gifts. They are outcasts, living in a secret underground community. The film’s best moments are those that make the most of the fabulously inventive visual designers and effects crew, and the “It’s a Small World”-style tour of the many variations within this group will make audiences wish for a pause button.

Unfortunately, some of the rest of the film will make them wish for a fast-forward button, including some very oddly off-key moments that give the movie a disconcertingly inconsistent tone. “I see what you did there” is not a line that belongs in what is otherwise a straightforward fantasy, not a post-modern, air-quotes, meta-take. The title character is intended to be complex, but she is just inconsistent as well. Nearly as emaciated as Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker,” with sepulchral skin and red red lips over dainty white fangs, she has heightened cheekbones that could cut glass and make Jolie look like she ate a coat hanger.

And then there is the political overlay, with messages about welcoming immigrants. non-violence, and justice for minorities that are lovely thoughts but not conveyed with any special insight or depth. More attention is given to some nonsense about creating a powder that is instantly deadly to fae folk, which is then deployed in mass quantities, but to keep the PG rating the amount of carnage is left unclear. Michelle Pfeiffer is the most vital element of the film as Philip’s mother (and her gowns and jewels are stunning), but she is not given enough to work with in the messy script, over-plotted and under-written. That’s the real villain in this fairy tale.

Parents should know that this film includes fantasy/action peril and violence much more intense than a typical PG with some very disturbing images including dissolving magical creatures, betrayal by a parent, curses, and a very sad death.

Family discussion: Why did Boora and Conall disagree? How are the issues in the movie similar to conflicts in the news? Why did Conall say we should not use our anger? Why did Aurora ask Maleficent to cover her horns and why did she apologize?

If you like this, try: the first “Maleficent,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Stardust”

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Angel Has Fallen

Posted on August 22, 2019 at 5:42 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence and language throughout
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and graphic peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, chases, explosions, assassination attempt, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 24, 2019

To recap: first the White House was attacked. Not White House Down — that was PG-13 with Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx. I’m speaking of Olympus Has Fallen, rated R, with Gerard Butler as Mike Banning and Morgan Freeman as Secretary of Defense Allan Trumbull. And then it went international with London Has Fallen, with all of the world leaders as targets when they are in England to attend a funeral. Then there was Hunter Killer, but that was about a submarine commander, not a Secret Service agent. Still, it was a fate-of-the-world shoot-em-up, so we’ll include it as an affiliate member of the GBU (Gerard Butler Universe).

That brings us to chapter three of the Banning/Trumbull saga, and, as they like to say in movie trailers, this time it’s personal. “Angel Has Fallen” is about another attack on the President. But this time what, or I should say, who has fallen is Banning himself. Trumbull has gone from Defense Secretary to Vice President, and now President, and Banning is up for the job of head of the Secret Service. But he has two reasons to be reluctant to accept. First, he is feeling the effect of his concussions and other injuries and is popping a lot of pain pills. Second, he dreads the thought of a desk job. The action is what makes him feel alive.

On a fishing trip, the President is attacked — a stunning scene featuring drones swarming together like demonic birds via artificial intelligence and facial recognition. Banning, who had asked to be relieved because his headache was overpowering, returns just in time to rescue Trumbull, but everyone else on the detail is killed. Banning has been framed; there is a deposit of $10 million from Russia in his bank account. An FBI agent (Jada Pinkett Smith) is after him. Banning is Angel and he has fallen. He has to go on the run, off the grid, to find out what is happening, clear his name, and still keep the President safe.

And so we get to find out something about Banning’s past, and about the way intense, adrenaline-pumping peril can become addicting. I’ve had a problem in the past with the careless collateral damage in this series, and that continues to be a problem. Even a mindless popcorn action movie where the “surprise” bad guys are instantly recognizable has to be careful about staying within the parameters of fun chases and shoot-em-ups and explosions, not too heavy on the carnage. That is an even bigger issue this time, as Banning’s character and struggles are a part of the storyline. Making him a character with more dimensions, maybe one and a half or two but not three, just means more of an adjustment every time we swing into one of the big stunt extravaganzas. Is it all the excitement that has Banning no longer needing to chomp down pain pills all the time? It might have been more intriguing to see him try to outsmart and out-fight the bad guys with some uncertainty around his coping with past injuries, but the story pretty much jettisons all of that as soon as the action starts. The different think and feel levels are disconcerting, especially in one scene that got a lot of laughs in the theater but involves many people getting blown up.

Director Ric Roman Waugh is a former stunt man and stunt coordinator and his staging of the intense scenes of conflict and action is assured and exciting. In addition to the drone attack (filmed by drone cameras), the battle in a building during the movie’s climax is pure testosteronic cinema. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Mike Banning — the only question is what or who will be the next to fall.

Parents should know that this is an extremely violent film with intense and graphic peril and violence, with many characters injured and killed, guns, drones, explosions, disturbing images.

Family discussion: How are Wade and Mike and Mike’s dad alike? What does “lions” mean to them? Should Mike take the director job?

If you like this, try: the other “Fallen” movies, “Hunter/Killer” and the “Taken” series

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Spider-Man: Far From Home

Posted on June 28, 2019 at 7:32 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, mayhem, destruction, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 3, 2019
Date Released to DVD: September 23, 2019

Copyright Sony 2019
Okay, three key points before we get into the details of “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” First, see this smart, funny, heartwarming and entertaining movie on the biggest screen possible, IMAX if you can. Second, yes, you have to stay ALL the way through the credits. There are some big developments/revelations/surprises you will need to know. Third, if you have not seen “Avengers: Endgame” be aware that there are spoilers, so watch that first if you can, so you will better understand some of the conflicts and believe me, you don’t want to be distracted by figuring out what you missed because this movie deserves your full attention.

Just a reminder, as we’ve had a variety of Spider-Men on film, including Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and a whole bunch of Spideys including a pig and an anime girl in the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” In this version of the Spider-verse, Tom Holland has played high school student Peter Parker in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and in two Avengers movies. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) took a special interest in Peter, and had his aide Happy (Jon Favreau) act as messenger and mentor.

Now that that is all out of the way, let’s get into it, unless you have not seen “Avengers: Endgame,” in which case stop reading now as there will be spoilers. The movie begins with an in memoriam tribute to the characters who died in that film, as Whitney Houston sings “I Will Always Love You.” It’s touching but it’s cheesy and sappy and we find out why: it’s on a high school closed-circuit news program with student announcers who help bring us up to date. The people who turned to dust when Thanos snapped his fingers have been returned and their absence is called The Blip. But the returnees are five years older, while for the people who were not dusted no time had passed. Everyone is still getting used to the idea that the world has been saved and beginning to get back to normal or get used to the new normal.

Peter thinks he deserves time time off, so when Nick Fury calls, he does not answer his phone. Even though Tony Stark left him in charge of the Avengers, his priority is to go on the class trip to Europe and let Mary Jane (Zendaya) know that he likes her. As in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” this film combines adolescent angst and romance with special effects superhero extravaganza fights (remember what I said about the big, big screen), with a skillful blend of humor, action, and growing up. Sometimes that combination creates a problem for Peter, as when he gets jealous of a rival for MJ’s affection and accidentally calls a drone strike on the tour bus.

The school trip provides lots of picturesque (before they get trashed) European locations, including Venice and Prague, as Nick Fury keeps “upgrading” the trip to reroute Peter to where the action is.

I know I always say that the make or break for superhero movies is the villain, but I don’t want to tell you too much about the villain here because the details should be a surprise. So I will just say that the surprises are great and this one is a lot of fun, with a very clever updating of the comic book version of the character that create an opportunity for some trippy and mind-bending visual effects. And Peter gets a great gift from Tony Stark — be sure to listen carefully to what the acronym EDITH stands for.

The settings, fight scenes, and special effects are all top-notch, but it is the cast that really brings this story to life. Holland is a little less soulful than Maguire or Garfield (or Shameik Moore), a little more heart-on-his-sleeve energetic, with a natural athleticism that lends a gymnastic, almost balletic grace to his web-swinging and slinging. Zendaya’s MJ is smart, edgy and vulnerable. The villain is…surprising, and a welcome relief after the stentorian-voiced blowhards we have too often seen in superhero movies. Plus, Led Zep, Samuel L. Jackson gets to say, “Bitch, please,” and we get to see London Bridge (or the equivalent) falling down. This is just what a summer movie is supposed to be — fresh, fun, exciting, and with a wow of a post-credit scene to shake things up for the next installment. This one made my spidey-sense tingle.

Parents should know that this film includes intense comic-book/action-style peril and violence with massive destruction and mayhem, with characters injured and killed. The movie also includes teen kissing, some strong language, a crotch hit, someone giving the finger, and mild sexual references.

Family discussion: Should Peter have answered Nick Fury’s call? Why did Tony Stark pick him? What does it mean to say “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” and where does that expression come from?

If you like this, try: the other Marvel movies and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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Men in Black International

Posted on June 13, 2019 at 5:49 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action, some language and suggestive material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/comic book style peril and violence including weapons and explosions, some graphic images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 14, 2019
Date Released to DVD: September 9, 2019

Copyright 2019 Columbia Pictures
So, you watch “Thor Ragnarock” and you say, “Boy, I’d watch Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in anything!” And you watch the original “Men in Black” and you say, “Boy, this is one of the best movies ever, funny, smart, exciting, with wonderfully vivid and engaging human and non-human characters. I’d like to see more of this world.” And so, someone put it together and we have Hemsworth and Thompson taking over for Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, and F. Gary Gray (“Straight Outta Compton,” “The Fate of the Furious”) taking over as director from Barry Sonnenfeld, and it turns out “Men in Black International” is just okay.

For example, among the many understated, near-throwaway jokes in the first movie, we saw a bank of television monitors tracking people on Earth who are in reality aliens. Unless you were watching it on a DVD player with a pause button, you would miss most of it, but the “aliens” included “Today’s” Al Roker, singer and psychic promoter Dionne Warwick, Tony Robbins, Sylvester Stallone, and fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. They use the same joke again, but it’s just Ariana Grande. Really? That’s the best you’ve got? Much of what made the first film such a wonder was the sense that there was a fully-imagined, world where supermarket tabloids were the only non-fake news, that somehow made more sense than the one we think of as real. It never winked at its characters or the audience. This one goes for a cheap laugh by having Hemsworth reach for a sledgehammer. He’s Thor, get it?

Thompson plays Molly, who had an alien encounter as a child and was accidentally not neuralized with the MiB’s memory eraser. She helped the fuzzy green alien escape and even learned a couple of words of its language. Since then, she has been so obsessed with learning more about the way the universe works that most people, including the man who was impressed with her record on the tests for government service, dismiss her as nutty.

By tracking an alien arrival, she sneaks into the MiB office, where the director (Emma Thompson as Agent O) agrees to take her on for a probationary period and sends her to the London office, where the top agent is H (Hemsworth), whose character seems to be based on the roles Rock Hudson played in “Pillow Talk” and “Lover Come Back,” a rakish playboy who hangs out with aliens at card games and nightclubs. While he is a legend in the office for having defeated The Hive with his then-partner, Agent T (Liam Neeson), he has pretty much checked out, sleeping at his desk and annoying his play-by-the-rules colleague, Agent C (Rafe Spall). H takes a visiting alien dignitary out for a night of drinking and debauchery but things go wrong and the alien is killed, with just enough time to pass on to Molly, now Agent M, a small object that seems to be very important, but he does not tell her why.

This fourth in the “Men in Black” series owes as much to James Bond as to its original (in both senses of the word) off-best, off-kilter, world-building story-telling. Our heroes hop around glamorous and exotic settings: Paris, London, Marrakech, a mysterious fortress on an island. Characters and incidents from the past are confronted and characters from the present may not be what they seem. A new character, voiced by “Silicon Valley’s” Kumail Nanjiani nearly steals the film with a reminder of the understated but pointed humor of the first film.

It has an awkward twist that indicates some struggles over rewrites, but H and M are so blandly conceived that even two of Hollywood’s most versatile and appealing performers can’t make them vibrant.

Parents should know that this film includes action/comic book-style peril and violence, powerful weapons, mayhem, characters injured and killed, monsters, disturbing images, some strong language, and a non-explicit inter-species sexual situation and sexual references.

Family discussion: Why did H change after his experience with the Hive? What did M want to understand about the universe and were her questions answered? Which alien was your favorite?

If you like this, try: the other “Men in Black” movies and the comics, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and “Paul”

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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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