Joker

Posted on October 3, 2019 at 12:42 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Prescription drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Graphic bloody violence, murders, stabbing, guns, assaults
Diversity Issues: Some insults
Date Released to Theaters: October 4, 2019

Copyright 2019 Warner Brothers
“Joker” tries hard to be dark, disturbing, and meaningful. It is dark, but it is sour, superficial and gross, the darkness not especially significant and therefore not especially meaningful. Its call-outs to past and current real-life events and other movies are not illuminating in any way; they just seem like training wheels borrowed to keep the movie from falling over. And we’re stuck once again with the tired trope of disability leading to criminality.

One of the highest compliments an actor can give another actor is “committed.” And for sure Joaquin Phoenix is fully committed to the role of Arthur Fleck, a clown for hire and would-be stand-up comic who experiences repeated abuse and betrayal. After he is fired, learns a family secret, and then is cut off from counseling and medications, he spins out of control.

This is a non-canonical version of the origins of Joker, not connected to any of the previous depictions of the character in comics, movies, or television. In this version, Gotham resembles the New York City of the 70’s, when the city was teetering on financial insolvency. As it opens, they are in the midst of a garbage strike. Piles of trash are everywhere and large rats are running through the streets. Arthur is twirling an Everything Must Go sign in front of a store that is going out of business. Some boys grab the sign and, when he chases after them into an alley, they beat him with the sign until it shatters. Later, Arthur’s boss takes the cost of the sign out of his pay. Yeah, this movie is not subtle. The boys beat Arthur with the sign and the movie beats us with the metaphors.

Arthur lives in a squalid apartment building with his frail mother (Frances Conroy), and he cares for her tenderly. bringing her food, giving her baths, and sharing their favorite television shows including a late night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (a badly miscast Robert De Niro). Arthur dreams of being on the show.

Arthur’s mother always told him his purpose in life was to make people happy. And he tries hard. He makes funny faces to get a toddler to laugh on a bus, but the child’s mother snaps at him. He gets fired for bringing a gun to the hospital where he is entertaining sick kids. He struggles with mental illness that undermines his grip on reality and a nervous condition that causes grotesque involuntary laughter when he is under stress. He has a little laminated card he hands out to explain this unsettling symptom to bystanders.

His fragile support system unravels. He loses his job. The city cannot afford a social safety net, so even the haphazard counseling he has been getting is cut off and he no longer has access to the seven different psychotropic medications. He loses his job. He feels betrayed by his mother. And then, on the subway, he is confronted by three arrogant finance bros.

Crossing the line to breaking the law feels liberating to Arthur and to similarly resentful protesters throughout Gotham, leading to some expressions of concern that this portrayal itself could inspire copycats. It does draw from current conflicts in the news to attempt a gravitas that this film cannot sustain, leaving only sensation and a bitter sense of entitlement in those who consider themselves victims. It teeters on the brink of telling us that if only we were all nicer to (listening to, having sex with) people who weird us out, they wouldn’t be weird anymore. Director Todd Phillips’ bitter comments recently about how it’s no fun to be funny now because you have to be so sensitive all the time underscore the resentment on display here.

Similarly, it litters the film with pieces (I’m sure they would call it homage, but it’s just stealing) from two Martin Scorsese classics, “Taxi Driver” (the descent into madness triggered by the despair and corruption around him) and “The King of Comedy” (the descent into madness triggered by a distorted obsession with acceptance and celebrity). Significantly, in case we miss the unmissable point, the star of those two movies, Robert De Niro, plays someone very much like the talk show host his “King of Comedy” character was obsessed with. As we saw in “Comedian,” De Niro, for all his immeasurable gifts, is not able to convey the oily geniality or vocal rhythms of a stand-up comedian, even if this one were far better written.

This movie wants to be daring and provocative but it is just depressing, less for the degrading, sordid storyline than for the failure of all of the time and effort and money that went into making it to produce anything worthwhile.

Parents should know that this film includes very disturbing and graphic images, peril and violence, mental illness, murders, stabbing, guns, strong language, sexual images

Family discussion: Could anyone have helped Arthur? What stories in the news or history or other movies inspired some of the plot developments? How does this Joker compare to other depictions of the character?

If you like this, try: Tim Burton’s “Batman” and “King of Comedy” and “Taxi Driver”

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Cold Pursuit

Posted on February 7, 2019 at 5:45 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence, drug material, and some language including sexual references
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs and drug dealing, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended criminal peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: February 8, 2019
Date Released to DVD: May 13, 2019

The setting of “Cold Pursuit” is white, not just the endless expanses of deep snow in the (fictional) ski resort town of Kehoe, Colorado. A frozen whiteness shimmers throughout the film, but the grim humor of the story is very, very dark.

Copyright 2019 Summit Entertainment

Liam Neeson has been reliably providing us with annual winter action movies for more than a decade, starting with the “very special set of skills” rescue thriller Taken” in 2008. In that he was the father of a kidnapped daughter. This time, in a remake of the similarly snowy Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance, also directed by Hans Petter Moland, Neeson is the father of a murdered son.

He plays Nels Coxman (intentional — the Norwegian character’s name was Dickman), a snowplow driver who is about to be honored as the local community’s citizen of the year as the movie begins. He is a simple, straightforward man a bit disconcerted by the attention. When his wife (a criminally underused Laura Dern) gently reminds him that he will have to say a few words when he accepts the honor, all he can muster is, “I’m just a guy who keeps a strip of civilization open.” A man who has spent his entire clearing snow from one road recognizes the inevitably conflicted feelings about the road not taken, but is comfortable with the notion that “I picked a good road early and stayed on it.”

And then Nels and his wife are in the morgue identifying the body of their son, dead from a heroin overdose.” “Our son was not a druggie,” Nels says to the coroner. “That’s what all the parents say,” is the response. We have seen what happened and we know it was murder. We are here to watch Nels prove it, which happens quickly, and then to watch him avenge it, which takes some time. It isn’t enough for him to kill the men responsible. He has to go after everyone up the chain of command.

At the top of the chain of command is a brutal, arrogant man known as Viking (Tom Bateman), who gives his young son a copy of Lord of the Flies (“All the answers you will ever need”) and tells him he should have tried to fight the school bully. “A bully is a chance to prove your mettle.” The boy is not interested in fighting, or in the very restricted diet (no sugar, no junk food) his father insists on. Even the thugs on his father’s payroll take pity on him and slip him a few snacks.

As Nels knocks off one of Viking’s colorfully nicknamed henchmen after another, tombstone-like title cards appear to help us keep up. Because no one suspects an outsider, suspicion falls on Viking’s current and former colleagues, leading to many complications and much more killing. Soon there is another father seeking revenge. While the senior cop has no interest in anything but keeping the tourists happy, the rookie (Emmy Rossum) wants “to be able to tell the good guys from the bad guys.” And catch some bad guys, too.

The film is visually striking, the whiteness of the snow in the mountains echoed in the fur decor of a fancy ski resort, the merchandise in a bridal wear shop, the sterility of the morgue, with its agonizing cranking up of the drawer where the body is lying. The archness keeps us far enough away from the carnage to be amusing until there is so much of it we just get numb.

Parents should know that this is a very violent film with crime-related peril and violence, attempted suicide, shoot-outs, and disturbing and grisly images. The main character is essentially a serial killer, and the film includes drugs and drug dealing, sexual references, and very strong language.

Family discussion: What were the unintended consequences of Nels’ actions and how did he respond to them? How does this movie from most other action films?

If you like this, try: “Taken” and “Run All Night”

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Serenity

Posted on January 24, 2019 at 5:34 pm

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, sexual content, and some bloody images
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, domestic abuse, murder
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 25, 2019
Date Released to DVD: May 1, 2019
Copyright 2018 Avrion Pictures

Even by the very low standards of January movies, “Serenity” is a dreary, dumb mess that makes the ultimate mistake of thinking it is smart.

At first, it wants us to think it is a throwback to the classic twisty noir thrillers like “Out of the Past” and “The Lady from Shanghai.” Matthew McConaughey plays a man called Baker Dill (note: I did not say a man named Baker Dill), a veteran who lives on remote Plymouth Island, where he takes out feckless tourists on a fishing boat called Serenity. We glimpse a Purple Heart medal in the corrugated metal shack where he lives, and we can see that he is bitter and struggling with psychological damage and maybe some physical damage as well. There’s a World’s Greatest Father mug in the shack as well. He pours his whiskey into it. Dill has an Ahab-like fascination with a giant tuna he has named….Justice. And he has a relationship with a local woman (Diane Lane, slumming), who pays him to “find her cat,” which is both literal and euphemistic. Same with the only bar on the island, which used to have Hope in its name but then switched to Rope.  This is not a subtle movie.  We also see a mysterious, very proper, precise man in a suit who carries a briefcase (Jeremy Strong), who seems to be looking for Dill. At one point, he removes his shoes to wade robotically across a stream.

And then, the second act complication arrives: femme fatale Karen (Anne Hathaway), honey blonde hair and dressed in white. She is married to Frank (Jason Clarke), a wealthy boor who abuses her and terrifies her son, who is Dill’s son as well. She says Frank will kill her if she tries to leave him, so the only way to protect her is to get Frank drunk out at sea and throw him to the sharks. If Dill will do that, he will not only save his son, but he will get $10 million in cash.

There are some hints that this is not the usual thriller story of seduction, betrayal, and murder, though all of those elements are there. Something is a little off, though. Dill has some sort of mystical mental Skype thing going with the son he has not seen in ten years.  Where is Plymouth Island? The music is Cajun and there are references to Miami but it is becomes increasingly clear that it is strangely isolated and insular. “Everyone knows everything,” we hear repeatedly. At first, it seems to refer to the gossip in any tiny community. But then we begin to wonder “What is Plymouth Island?” when it goes from “everyone knows everything” about the details of what Dill is buying and selling and catching and where he is at all times to “no one knows anything” when it comes to the choices Dill is facing and how he will decide. The best way to enjoy this film is to have a drinking game that lets you take a swig every time a character says either line.

The four leads do their best to persuade us that their stilted dialogue and increasingly artificial interactions are archetypal, not underwritten, but they never find a tone that will withstand the groaner of a twist, which I will be happy to spoil per my legendary Gothika rule*. Trust me, it’s a worthy addition.

*Gothika Rule: If is movie has a truly bad or dumb ending, I will happily give it away to anyone who sends me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com.

Parents should know that this film includes domestic abuse, murder, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, very strong language, explicit sexual situations, nudity, drinking and drunkenness, and smoking.

Family discussion: In what way did “everybody know everything” and in what way did “nobody know anything?” What were the clues that things were not what they seemed?

If you like this, try: “Out of Time,” “Body Heat,” “The Lady from Shanghai,” and “The Cafe”

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The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Posted on November 8, 2018 at 5:48 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, language and some sexual content/nudity
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, explosions, guns, fights, torture, parent killed in front of child, domestic and child abuse, incest, very graphic and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, suicide
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 9, 2018

Copyright 2018 Columbia Pictures
Remember in “League of Their Own” when Tom Hanks said, “There’s no crying in baseball?” Well, there’s no crying in Lisbeth Salander movies, or there should not be. As imagined by the late Swedish journalist and author Steig Larsson, Lisbeth Salander is a pierced, tattooed, bisexual, motorcycle-riding, 21st century Sherlock Holmes, cerebral, relentless, on the side of justice, and with a mastery of logic, observation, and detail that borders on a superpower. And good in a fight.

“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is the first film based on the authorized continuation of the series by Larsson’s family, and here she is played by “The Crown’s” Claire Foy, following Noomi Rapace (in the Swedish movie trilogy) and Rooney Mara (in the David Fincher English-language film based on the first book in the series). There’s a subtle difference in the title of the book that reflects a shift in tone. The first book’s title is descriptive: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, followed by The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, both references to risks taken by Salander, with the implication that it was intentional. The Girl in the Spider’s Web is not about a choice she made or a dare she braved. There’s no action verb here. There’s no choice to adorn her body with a symbol of strength and fire. This title suggests a girl who has been placed in danger. Salenger as a damsel in distress? I don’t think so.

And then, like those last seasons of “Bewitched,” when they had really run out of ideas, the movie presents us with a sister we knew nothing about who apparently has been just waiting through three books to show up. We get a flashback of the two girls playing chess with, yes, a spider crawling on one of the pieces, before some very, very nasty stuff begins to happen with the girls’ father, who we already know from the earlier books was a very, very, very evil guy.

We go to these movies to see Lisbeth Salander hack, be invincibly tough, and right wrongs. She hacks into the US National Security Agency mainframe and downloads their most dangerous file. In a brief prelude she goes after a domestic abuser and we learn that she has been avenging other abused women. And she repeatedly takes a licking and keeps on ticking. But here the McGuffin is a computer program that can access and activate any nuclear weapons in the world, created for NSA (Stephen Merchant) who now regrets it and wants it destroyed. So he asks Salander for her help, bringing his young son along (Christopher Convery), just to ramp up the threat element. Salander gets the file, to the considerable consternation of NSA’s Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield), who goes uses his considerable computing power to track down Salander, in a race with some very, very bad guys who want the file, too.

So, it’s your basic run with a gun stuff, ably staged if nothing particularly gripping, until the crying. Salander’s friend (and Larsson stand-in) Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) appears briefly for no particular reason. Foy does fine with Salanger’s thousand yard stare but the script lets her down by trying to have her be vulnerable and tough at the same time. Tbey’ve taken one of the most arresting characters in recent fiction and made her into just another sad girl. And they’ve taken what began as a superior series of action films and turned it into just another night-at-the-multiplex, sequel-heavy formula movie. If Salanger is caught in a spider’s web, it’s not the blah blah about the secret computer file, it’s the blah blah of the filmmakers.

Parents should know that this film has very intense and graphic peril and violence, disturbing images, characters injured and killed, death of a parent, torture, guns, explosions, severe spouse and child abuse, sexual abuse, very strong language, drinking, smoking and drugs.

Family discussion: What should Lisbeth have done for her sister? Why did they make different choices?

If you like this, try: the Swedish “Girl With a Dragon Tattoo” trilogy

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Annihilation

Posted on February 22, 2018 at 5:12 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence with many characters injured and killed, many grisly and disturbing images, animal attacks, guns, explosives, suicide
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 23, 2018
Date Released to DVD: May 28, 2018
Copyright Paramount 2018

Annihilation” is based on the Nebula Award-winning first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, adapted by director Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”). Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist and Army veteran, who joins a group of woman investigating an ominous anomaly the government is calling the shimmer. It looks like an rainbow prismed oil spill in the air. An area around a lighthouse is glowing and oscillating. Is it aliens? Is it God? Is it dangerous? Well, take a look at the title of the movie.

Whatever it is, it is expanding rapidly, posing a threat to pretty much everywhere. “The silence around it is louder than usual,” one observer notes. All missions, manned and unmanned, to investigate have produced no information and no human or drone sent inside has come back. Until one, an Army sergeant named Kane (Oscar Isaac), Lena’s husband. A year after he left, he shows up at their home, dazed and critically ill.

And so Lena joins the next group going inside, along with Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist leading the team, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic, Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), an anthropologist, and Josie (Tessa Thompson), a shy physicist. The film is told in flashback, as Lena is being interrogated by a man in a hazmat suit, so we know that she will be the only one of the group to survive. We know what happened. We will see how.

The New Yorker calls VanderMeer “the King of Weird Fiction” and the Southern Reach trilogy “arresting, unsettling, and unforgettable” and “meditations on the theme of epistemic pessimism, in the tradition of Kafka.” I think what that means is that many science fiction and fantasy writers, even the most imaginative and compelling, base their stories on extrapolating what is already here, whether apocalyptic destruction of the planet due to environmental neglect or aliens who are a reflection of whatever geopolitical issues we are struggling with.

Generally, though, the fundamental rules, the ones we take for granted so much we are not even aware we are taking them for granted, apply, including the rules of dramatic fiction that go back thousands of years. Hubris invites catastrophe. Bad guys want to control everything. Courage and honor triumph. VanderMeer, let’s just say, goes another way. Instead of taking what we have and know and projecting it in a more extreme form, he takes what we have and know and bends reality — and our minds — to make us think about how much we do not know. Inter-species mutations are occuring, suggesting that the shimmer somehow dissolves what we think of as immutable barriers, the ones that define our sense of the world and our sense of ourselves. “It’s literally not possible,” a team member says. “It’s literally what’s happening,” another responds.

One of the first questions we hear at the beginning of the film, as Lena is being something between interrogated and debriefed, is “What did you eat?” Her group had rations for two weeks but survived for months. “I don’t remember eating,” she says. Later we will see the group, dazed, trying to remember what has happened and trying to figure out how much time has gone by based on how much food is gone. They do not know where they are or how long they have been there. Their communications technology does not work. Even the most basic technology, a compass directed only by the magnetism of the North Pole, does not work. They are literally disoriented. The women are there because of their expertise in science, but they cannot even manage some of the most fundamental cognitive tasks. They are not sure whether they cn trust each other. They are there to observe and report but they cannot trust their perceptions or analysis.

And we may not be able to trust our own. This movie puts its cards on the table with an opening that reveals the end. This will be an escape room/haunted house set in the wilds of the Florida swamp story with Lena as the “final girl,” the last woman standing. “It all goes back to the first cell,” we hear Lena tell her class of biology students. Cells do not die; they reproduce. Everything alive is a piece of the first cell. As the women on this mission have to decide whether they want to understand or fight the shimmer, another option presents itself.

Garland uses luscious, even seductive visuals in the verdant Florida swamp setting to beguile and horrify us, sometimes both at once. This is more than mind-bending; it is mind-expanding, something of an intellectual shimmer creating a cognitive distortion of its own.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence with many characters injured and killed and some very grisly and disturbing images, guns, grenade, fire, suicide, animal attacks, some strong language, and explicit sexual situations.

Family discussion: Why did Lena say she owed it to Kane to go on the mission? Why didn’t she tell the other women about her relationship to Kane? What would you do if you were in charge of containing the Shimmer? What is the relationship of this story to Lena’s lecture about cells?

If you like this, try: “Arrival,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Solaris,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Midnight Special,” and “Coherence”

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