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

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, in this case 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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Action/Adventure DVD/Blu-Ray movie review Spies

xXx: The Return of Xander Cage

Posted on January 19, 2017 at 5:28 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of gunplay and violent action, and for sexual material and language
Profanity: Some strong language, one f-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action-style violence with assault weapons, grenades, knives, chases, explosions, many characters killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: January 20, 2017
Date Released to DVD: May 15, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B01N9SFCYF

Copyright 2016 Paramount
Copyright 2016 Paramount
This ridiculous but ridiculously entertaining third chapter in the “XXX” action series is basically script by Mad Libs: Let’s have Vin Diesel in a . Which is how we get a motorcycle race over water and a ski jump into jungle. Plus a shoot-out in zero gravity. And why not. Sick of winter? Tired of the news? Here is a summer movie in January, with chases and explosions for days, badassery of all kinds, and many thousand yard stares, all presented for your delectation in gorgeous IMAX 3D.

So, to recap. In the first XXX movie, released in 2002, extreme sports and extreme tattoo anti-hero and adrenaline junkie Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) was recruited by federal agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) to do some tasks that normal military and government operatives were not cool and crazy enough to do. Chapter 2, “XXX: State of the Union” (2005) had Ice Cube stepping in for the reportedly deceased Cage. Twelve years later, it turns out that Xander Cage was just too cool to kill. He’s been enjoying life with crazy stunts and beautiful ladies. But tracks him down because has to be taken away from , and so once again his special skills are needed.

That special ops boss is Marke, played by Toni Collette as though she is doing a bad drag queen impression of herself, as opposed to the good drag queen impression she did in “Connie and Carla.” She helpfully provides X with a team of military tough guys. He dispatches them quickly by throwing them off a plane and rounds up his own Benneton ad of a team, a motley crew of wisecracking with and no fear: “the bad, the extreme, the completely insane,” we are reminded, as though that isn’t the very reason we are there. The movie helpfully skips over exposition that might get in the way of chases, explosions, shoot-outs, fight scenes, and quippy threats and bragging by providing helpful title cards for each character outlining, like Power Point on crack, their most significant achievements, characteristics, and useful other information like their go-to karaoke song or the fact that one of them, meeting with Samuel L. Jackson, thinks he is being recruited for the Avengers.

Everyone loves to run, jump, shoot, and fight except for Nina Dobrev as the Velma of this Scooby-Doo crowd, with oversize glasses, super-duper tech ability, and an inability to stop talking around X. She babbles anything that comes into her mind, explaining so thoroughly (in the world of this movie, more than six words in a row is a monologue) that she is not a field agent that we know eventually she will have to shoot a gun at someone, and adding, as she swoons over X’s muscles, “It’s not that I have a safe word or anything; it’s kumquat.”

X-Men style, this Island of Lost Toys bunch of misfits keeps shifting loyalties, so, gets to fight and fight alongside , too. It’s all delightfully preposterous but crazy fun and .

Parents should know that this film includes constant action-style peril and violence, chases, explosions, assault weapons, knives, terrorism, sexual innuendo and non-explicit situation, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Do you agree with Xander’s comment about rebels and tyrants? How do the characters decide when to be loyal and who to be loyal to?

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

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Snowden

Posted on September 15, 2016 at 5:51 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Tension and peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 16, 2016

Copyright Endgame Entertainment 2016
Copyright Endgame Entertainment 2016
Who better to take on the story of Edward Snowden than cinema-of-paranoia director Oliver Stone? Well, Laura Poitras, who directed the documentary about Snowden, “Citizenfour,” and who is portrayed in this film by Melissa Leo. As is usually the case, the documentary is the better film. But Stone’s narrative version, “Snowden,” is an absorbing version of the story, presenting vitally important issues in an arresting, provocative manner, with some superb moments. It is flawed, as Stone’s “historical” films tend to be, by unnecessary stacking of the deck that detracts from the credibility of the film. Stone does not trust the government, which is fine, but he doesn’t trust his audience, which is distracting. If you are going to make your hero a seeker of Truth, then Hollywood-izing the story is counter-productive.

The movie takes on three big questions, answers one, partially answers another, and turns the third over to us. The first question is: what happened? How did a 29-year-old computer guy get access to what appears to be the entire scope of US intelligence, copy it, and turn it over to reporters? Second, why did he do it? And third, is he a hero or a traitor?

Snowden was an enormously gifted, deeply patriotic young man who was in training for military special forces when an injury forced his return to civilian life. “There are other ways to serve your country,” the doctor crisply advises him. Naming Ayn Rand as one of his influences does not raise any concerns in his battery of entry tests and interviews, including lie detector tests. And so he goes to work for the CIA, NSA, and private contractors for both agencies, gaining access to the information and intrusions into personal data that are being constantly combed and mined for possible terrorist activity. Think of it as the government having Google that searches not just all public material but everything we think of as private: every email, every phone call, every bank account and credit card transaction, even invading your non-digital, analog world, including your home. According to this film, the government can spy on you Big Brother style via your webcam, even if the indicator light is off. I will wait here while you go get a Band-Aid to cover it up right now.

A combination of consciousness-raising from his left-leaning girlfriend (Shailene Woodley), horrifying discoveries of 4th Amendment violations, disturbing revelations about the military-industrial complex (from Nicolas Cage!), and disappointment in President Obama’s failure to curb these abuses leads Snowden to decide to go public. Briefly touched on are some other possible factors: the abuse of Tom Drake, who tried to raise these questions through official channels, and, possibly, some psychological or cognitive disturbance resulting from the onset of epilepsy and the drug used to treat it, or from the level of work-related stress that may have triggered the seizures. There is one “Beautiful Mind”-style scene where Snowden’s CIA boss (Rhys Ifans) speaks to him via a Skype-ish video conference, with a looming, room-size head along the lines of the Wizard of Oz. It is not clear whether this is Snowden’s subjective viewpoint or intended to be a realistic portrayal, but the conversation is, even within the framework of this film about massive intrusions into private lives of citizens with no suggestion of any inappropriate activity, preposterously paranoic.

All of this would be so much easier to take if Snowden was not heroic and brilliant every single moment. Given 5-8 hours to complete a programming test at the beginning of his tenure at the CIA, he finishes in under 40 minutes (38, he corrects his instructor), and everywhere he goes, he blows everyone away with his mad skills. As he zippily downloads the files he plans to turn over to the press (in real life it took months, not minutes), colleagues knowingly nod their approval, hard to understand given his insistence that he was careful to make it clear that he alone was responsible for the breach. Gordon-Levitt is, as ever, an enormously talented actor, but he is playing something of a cipher, a person with low affect. The endlessly skilled Melissa Leo is playing a tough and savvy journalist but as written she has little to do but gaze adoringly as she points her camera. The standouts in the cast are two of the most versatile and talented young actors working on film today: Ben Schnetzer and Lakeith Lee Stanfield as two of Snowden’s colleagues. In their brief screen time, each of them creates vivid, three-dimensional characters we instantly connect to more than we do to any of the main characters.

No matter where we place the balancing point between national security and individual freedom, we can all agree that the decisions should not be made unilaterally by individuals in their 20’s like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Snowden says he is hoping to start a conversation. I hope that the conversations about this film will be less about its failings and more about what we should do to make sure the next Snowden does not decide to take this step.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, sexual references and situations and some nudity, tense and perilous situations, and issues of betrayal.

Family discussion: Is Snowden a hero or a traitor? What would you have done if you discovered the level of government surveillance? Who should decide and how much should be disclosed?

If you like this, try: “Zero Days” and “Citizenfour

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