My Spy

Posted on June 25, 2020 at 5:42 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for action/violence and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mayhem and spy-related action violence, many characters injured and killed, off-screen death of parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 26, 2020

Copyright 2020 Amazon Studios
“My Spy” does not try to conceal the sources it relies on for its storyline — other movies. This is a movie about a CIA agent who refers to “Notting Hill” twice, once in the first five minutes. It is also a movie that thinks it is okay to copy one of the best sequences from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” because it makes a weak joke about doing so. There is even a reference to the wedding scene in “Shrek.” The whole movie is propelled by pieces from other movies, from Melissa McCarthy’s “Spy” to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Kindergarten Cop” to Richard Dreyfuss and Madeleine Stowe in “Stakeout,” director Peter Segal’s own “Get Smart” and star Dave Bautista’s “Stuber.” The best I can say is that it does not lift any of its storyline from lesser films along the same lines like “Mr. Nanny” or “Stop or My Mom Will Shoot.”

So, no surprises here but that does not mean it’s not mildly entertaining along the way. Unfortunately, it is too violent for the elementary school audience most likely to enjoy it.

Bautista plays J.J., a special forces veteran now working as a field agent for the CIA. He is still better at shooting people than at spycraft. When he kills a bunch of bad guys instead of obtaining the information he was supposed to bring back to Langley his new assignment is designed to keep him out of trouble. He and Bobbi (Kristen Schaal), a tech specialist, will be on a stakeout, watching Kate, a single mom (Parisa Fitz-Henley), and Sophie, her 9 year old daughter (Chloe Coleman of “Big Little Lies”), from the apartment down the hall. They are new in town and Sophie is having trouble making new friends at school. The CIA thinks that Sophie’s uncle, who has the information they need about a possible nuclear weapon, may show up there.

But they are almost immediately busted by Sophie, who threatens to expose them unless J.J. helps her out, first by taking her to the skating rink, then by coming to school for “parents and special friends day.” He agrees, but he warns her that “This ain’t gonna end up like some movie with you and me sitting in little chairs having a tea party with dolls.” But what Sophie wants is to learn important spy stuff like lying and walking away from an explosion without looking back. And what J.J. needs is to learn how to develop actual relationships with anyone other than his fish, Blueberry and his affection for “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”

Both the action scenes and the “J.J. learns how to be vulnerable and talk to people” scene are generic and there is a lot of carnage for a movie about an endearing child. But Coleman is a gifted performer who knows how to deliver lines that are too grown-up for her age without sounding overly precocious, and her scenes with Bautista have some real warmth. The understated diversity of the cast is a plus. Ultimately, the reason we see this kind of set-up so often is that we are programmed to enjoy it.

Parents should know that this movie has a lot of violence for a PG-13 with shoot-outs, chases, and explosions, and a child in peril. There is a reference to a sad off-screen death of a parent and the issue of learning upsetting news about what he may have done. A crotch hit is portrayed as comic. There are some school mean girls and brief cyber-bullying. Lying is portrayed as an enviable skill. Strong language includes the b-word, the s-word, and more.

Family discussion: What does J.J. learn from Sophie? Why doesn’t Sophie tell her mother about J.J.? What facial cues are you good at reading?

If you like this, try: “The Game Plan,” (PG) and the PG-13 rated “Kindergarten Cop” and “Spy”

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The Rhythm Section

Posted on January 30, 2020 at 5:39 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, sexual content, language throughout, and some drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended very graphic and intense peril and violence, characters injured and killed, terrorism, suicide bomber, guns, knives, chases, explosions, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 31, 2020
Date Released to DVD: April 27, 2020
Copyright 2020 Paramount

What is this weird fascination with stories of men taking lost, pathetic, but lissome young women and turning them into spies and assassins? A century ago, we had Henry Higgins teaching a flower girl to speak like a duchess. Now, we have “La Femme Nikita” and its American remake “Point of No Return,” its Hong Kong version, “Black Cat,” its Italian version, “Sexy Killer,” its two television series, the Jennifer Lawrence film “Red Sparrow,” the Jennifer Garner series “Alias,” Luc Besson’s 2019 flop “Anna,” and the father/daughter version — movie and television series — “Hanna.” When that training includes masquerading as a prostitute so we can see her in her skivvies, it becomes clear how outdated this set-up has become.

And now we have The Rhythm Section, with Stephanie Patrick, played by Blake Lively in a series of bad wigs, as the brilliant Oxford student turned narcotic drug abuser and prostitute after the death of her family in a plane crash three years before this movie begins. I should say played by a series of bad wigs with Blake Lively in a supporting role, because this very talented actress is given little to do but look sullen, sullen and a little afraid, and sullen and a little determined. Please add “A Simple Favor” to your Netflix queue if you have not seen it yet to get a look at how good she can be.

The people behind this film are the producers of the Bond films, and they are clearly trying to create a distaff franchise, based on the books by Mark Burnell, who also wrote the screenplay. Unfortunately, it is weak on character and plot and fails to have any of the ingredients that make the Bond movies work. While there are stops in many cities, identified on screen but otherwise mostly interchangeable, it does not have the glamor, the urgency, or the fun of seeing all the gizmos and how they get deployed. Revenge is so reliable and relatable a motive that it is almost impossible to get wrong in a movie, but even that cannot bring this story to life. It’s supposed to be all you go girl! with a badass female lead. But, sigh, it’s more male gaze again, with one of her disguises being high-end call girl in skimpy skivvies and somehow a shocking tragedy inexplicably inspires her to jump into bed with someone she barely knows.

A journalist named Proctor (Raza Jaffrey) finds Stephanie, a drugged-out prostitute constantly replaying images of the last time she saw her parents and brother and sister, and the voicemail message her mother left her before getting on the doomed plane. He says he has information showing that it was not an accident; it was a terrorist bomb, and he knows how to find the man who built the bomb. She initially refuses to have anything to do with him, but then goes to his apartment, where he has one of those movie-friendly rooms with walls covered with clippings and photos. He unwisely leaves her there, giving her money and keys, and she unwisely tips off the bomber, and soon Proctor is dead, on the floor in a pool of blood.

Stephanie follows a clue she got from the photos on the wall to track down the Proctor’s source, a former spy turned rogue played by Jude Law. No cold turkey montage (“I’m a user, not an addict,” she explains), so straight into the training montage, turning Stephanie into a lean, mean, fighting machine in a matter of months, while we flashback to Jude Law doing the same thing for Captain Marvel, only better.

The action and characters would have to be so much better to persuade us to miss the howling plot holes and tinge of misogyny — really, she has to be a prostitute? Luckily for the movie, we never invest enough in it to care.

Parents should know that this movie includes extended and very graphic peril and violence, murders, chases, explosions, terrorism, knives, guns, bombs, poison, characters injured and killed, disturbing images, very strong language, prostitution, and drugs.

Family discussion: What were Stephanie’s most significant assets in accomplishing her goals? Why did the reporter want to contact her? What will she do next?

If you like this, try: “La Femme Nikita” and “Hanna” (movie and television series)

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Spies in Disguise

Posted on December 24, 2019 at 5:05 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action, violence, and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Transformation potion
Violence/ Scariness: Action/cartoon-style violence, consequences of violence an issue in the film
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters and issues of diversity but includes the "bad buy with disabilities" cliche
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2019
Date Released to DVD: March 9, 2020

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2019
Will Smith is one of the most charismatic performers in movie history, and his confident physical grace and handsome face are movie magic. But it just might be that his highest and best use is as the voice of an animated character, For “Spies in Disguise” he plays super-spy Lance Sterling, as cool and crisp as a stirred-not-shaken martini, who never musses his impeccably tailored tuxedo as he takes on dozens of bad guys with an assortment of whiz-bang gadgets, an occasional well-placed karate chop, and a banging playlist. Like Robin Williams in “Aladdin,” only animation can keep up with Smith’s mercurial imagination (and help us forget Smith’s well-intentioned but short-of-the-mark efforts to re-create that character in this year’s live actin version). Smith does not cycle kaleidoscopically between dozens of characters as Williams did; he is always himself, but as we see here he contains rapidly shifting moods and thoughts that “Spies in Disguise” brings to life with visual wit and energy that match everything Smith brings to the film. “Spies in Disguise” is a stylish spy caper with heart and humor, an endearing friendship, and an equally endearing affection for Team Weird. Come on, you know you’re part of that team, too.

Lance is after some sort of MacGuffin thingamajig about to be sold by international weapons dealer Kimora (Masi Oka) to a mysterious buyer with a robot hand named (in case we didn’t know he was the villain) Killian, played by Ben Mendelsohn, who seems to own all the bad guy roles these days. (It is too bad this film could not avoid the tired convention of the evil guy with disabilities.) With astounding skill and panache — and some cool-spy quips — Lance saves the day and is greeted at home back in CIA headquarters as a hero.

Until….it turns out that the briefcase he so cleverly snatched away from Killian is empty. And it also turns out that surveillance footage shows Lance himself is the one who grabbed the whateveritis. Suddenly, the whole CIA is after him.

Meanwhile, Walter (“Spider-Man’s” Tom Holland) is a quirky, unashamedly weird gadget guy whose non-violent inventions include the “inflatable hug” protective device and “kitty glitter” that distracts the bad guys with adorable pictures of cats suspended in air. He was working out of tiny closet-like space in the CIA, until he was impulsively fired by Lance.

Lance likes to think he works alone and never needs anyone else’s help. But it is part of his job to know how to solve problems, and he has to admit that not only does he need help to hide from the agency while he tracks down whoever is pretending to be him, he is going to need resources he cannot get from the CIA any more.

Unfortunately, the only one who can help him is Walter, who is now pretty much off the grid as far as the CIA is concerned. Lance remembers Walter saying he could make spies disappear. So, Lance tracks him down and then discovers that it’s not “disappear” as in “invisible.” It’s “disappear” as in “bio-dynamic concealment,” transformation at the cellular level into someone, or something, no one will notice.

Lance learns too late that what he was been turned into is a pigeon. “Un-bird me!” he demands. But the antidote will take some time. And as much as Lance resists help, there are some things he cannot do as a winged creature who weighs about two pounds. So, Lance-as-pigeon and Walter with a backpack of gadgets and his personal comfort pigeon Lovey go off to find Kimora and Killian.

In the midst of all the action, Walter and Lance have a thoughtful conversation about the best way to resolve conflict. Lance believes in fighting fire with fire (“Evil doesn’t care that you’re nice”) and he never wants to depend on anyone. Walter believes in working as a team and does not think that hurting other people solves anything. This slightly mitigates the unfortunate reliance on the outdated cliche of a disfigured/disabled bad guy by making Lance face (literally) the consequences of his dashing “fire with fire” strategy.

Directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quade have created a film that is gorgeously designed with a swanky, stylish, slightly retro design, “Spies in Disguise” is visually bright, graphic, and engaging, and the characters and their interactions are vivid and appealing. Here’s hoping Blue Sky retains its quirky charm under its new ownership — and that we get to see Lance and Walter team up again.

Parents should know that the film has extended cartoon/action-style peril and action, with some characters injured and killed, chases, shoot-outs, and explosions. A theme of the movie is the consequence of collateral damage. There is some schoolyard language and some potty humor. Unfortunately, the movie relies on the outdated cliche of the disfigured/disabled villain whose injuries are a reason for his cruelty and anger.

Family discussion: Which of Walter’s gadgets would you like to have? Who is on your team and whose team are you on? What’s the best part of being weird?

If you like this, try: “Megamind,” “Robots,” and “Rio”

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The Shape of Water

Posted on December 7, 2017 at 3:37 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic violence, peril, torture, murder
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 9, 2017
Date Released to DVD: March 12, 2018
Copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight

There is some reassuring symmetry in the cinematic bookends that gave us “Beauty and the Beast” in January (the highest-grossing film of the year), a “Beauty is the beast” film with the mid-year’s “Colossal,” and now, in December, another variation with Guillermo del Toro’s enthralling R-rated fairy tale, “The Shape of Water,” which was awarded the 2018 Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.

Sally Hawkins is luminous as Elisa Esposito, a custodian in a secret government lab during the cold war era. Her closest friends are her chatty, unhappily married colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an anxious, cat-loving, old-movie-watching, out-of-work illustrator. They are the only two people who can communicate with Elisa. She can hear but is mute due to a childhood injury, and uses via American Sign Language.

The film is as gorgeous as any enchanted tale could wish, with a green-blue color palette that evokes the sea and old-school, analog equipment in cavernous rooms and huge, clanking equipment harking back to early horror classics like “Frankenstein” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (the later of which del Toro acknowledges as inspiration), with a nod to princess in the castle stories as well.

Elisa discovers one of the lab’s biggest secrets. Strickland (Michael Shannon) a harsh, brutal, “collector,” has captured and brought back to the lab a creature he discovered in the Amazon, a gilled, scaley human-shaped reptilian (played by del Toro regular Doug Jones) who has two separate breathing systems, one for air, one for water. He has some other unusual qualities, which Strickland is not learning much about because he mostly zaps the creature with a cattle prod to “tame” him. Elisa shares her hard-boiled eggs with the creature, and then some music, and then some words, as he begins to learn her language. As we will see, there are parallels between them that make them seem almost like star-crossed lovers kept apart only because they are of different species. Elisa is an orphan who was found not on a doorstep but in the water. The scars on her throat from the abuse that cost her her voice look like gills. Most important, she believes the creature is the only one who sees her as whole, complete, not missing anything.

There is a scientist at the lab named Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who has a secret of his own. There are other people who want to steal the creature and people who just want to kill him because it is more important to keep him away from the enemy than to learn more about who he is and what he can tell us about who we are. Of course, the way we treat him tells us a lot about who we are.

The story capaciously encompases a fairy tale romance with spies, the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, a heist, and a musical number without, well, losing a step, thanks to del Toro’s ability to create cinematic magic. Hawkins is, as she was in “Maudie” earlier this year, exquisitely able to create a character of fierce intelligence and the kind of gentleness that is grounded in moral courage. Instead of subtitles in white at the bottom of the screen, her words are depicted in yellow letters floating around her, her face communicating as clearly as her hands. The movie is bracketed with images of Elisa floating. By the end, the audience will feel we are floating as well.

Parents should know that this movie includes some elements of horror with graphic and disturbing images, peril, and violence, including torture, sexual references and situations, strong language, smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: How are Elisa and the creature alike? How are Hoffstetler and Strickland different? Why does Giles change his mind?

If you like this, try: “Colossal” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”

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Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Posted on September 21, 2017 at 2:54 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sequences of strong violence, drug content, language throughout and some sexual material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, drugs and drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive, very graphic peril and violence with many characters injured and killed, sad deaths, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 22, 2017
Date Released to DVD: December 11, 2017
Copyright 20th Century Fox 2017

The ultra-elite and impeccably tailered Kingsmen are back, well, a couple of them, in this stylish and slightly less transgressive sequel from writer/director Matthew Vaughn, based on the graphic novels by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. A couple of stunning action sequences, a delicious villain named Poppy (Julianne Moore), and Elton John(!) make it a watchable entertainment, and the return of two characters who were killed in the first film makes the dispatching of many more characters more cheeky than tragic.

Eggsy (Taron Egerton) has come a long way from the unrefined street kid of the first film. He is now happily living with the Swedish princess (Hanna Alström), wearing elegant bespoke suits, and still happily hanging out with his old friends and his dog, JB. But he is kidnapped by Charlie (Edward Holcroft), the former rival he thought was killed in the mayhem of the first chapter. It turns out Charlie only lost an arm, now replaced with a prosthetic that has a mind of its own, and his voice, also with a mechanical replacement. There’s a terrifically kinetic fight and chase scene, suitably accompanied by Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” that starts the movie off with a bang.

Then just about all the Kingsmen are killed off and Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong, with a Scottish burr and a soft spot for John Denver) have to meet up with their American counterparts, the Statesmen to save the world from Poppy, a ruthless international drug dealer with the demeanor of a 1950’s TV commercial happy housewife. She responds to betrayal like it is ring around the collar or waxy yellow buildup, except than instead of finding a better cleaning product, she puts those who fail her through a meat grinder. Literally.

Poppy would like to live in the world of the 1950’s, or, rather, the 50’s as portrayed in nostalgic re-creations like “Grease” and “Happy Days,” and has created an adorable Disney-style replica in the midst of the South American jungle, where she directs worldwide operations of her highly successful drug manufacture and distribution business. But she wants more.

The filmmakers are clearly having a blast and that is fun for us, except when it goes overboard. It is much too long at nearly two and a half hours. Channing Tatum is a hoot but his section of the story is entirely expendable. And it is a shame that once again, Halle Berry is utterly wasted in a role that uses her for screen candy. Same with her fellow Oscar-winner, Jeff Bridges, whose appearance is all crag and chaw. But the third Oscar-winner, Colin Firth, also playing a character who was killed in the first movie except not because who cares, is a pleasure to watch, as he has to play his character as much younger and more benignly innocent, and then again as sophisticated and determined. Elton John is a hoot as himself and the movie has a bubbly, delirious quality that excuses almost as much as it hopes it will.

Parents should know that this film includes extended very explicit peril and violence with many characters injured and killed and some disturbing and graphic images including characters being put into a meat grinder and some gruesome deaths, strong language, drugs and drug dealing, sexual references and situations with some graphic images.

Family discussion: How are the Statesmen different from the Kingsmen? Why did Merlin make that choice?

If you like this, try: the first “Kingsman” movie and “Our Man Flint”

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