Knives Out

Posted on November 25, 2019 at 5:11 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Murder mystery with graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 26, 2019
Copyright 2019 Lionsgate

You know those murder mysteries where a big rich family all gathers in a big gothic house and someone gets killed and everyone has a motive and we get a bunch of red herrings (often the initial suspect is the second murder victim) and then the detective gathers everyone in the drawing room at the end to lay out all of the possible scenarios and then point dramatically at the surprise perpetrator? Those mysteries are sometimes called “cozies.” “Knives Out” is both a loving tribute and a cheeky meta-take on this genre from writer/director Rian Johnson and an all-star cast clearly having the time of their lives. It is deliciously nasty, seasoned with some political jibes, a ton of fun and anything but cozy.

It takes place in a magnificently gothic mansion correctly described by a character as something out of a Clue game. The owner is wealthy mystery author Harlan Thromby (Christopher Plummer), his name a likely nod to the classic Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story. “Knives Out” is literal — there is a huge “Game of Thrones”-style ceremonial seat decorated with daggers — and metaphoric, as a family of unpleasant heirs needle each other as they strive for the patriarch’s favor, meaning his money.

Just after the family has gathered to celebrate his 85th birthday party, Thromby is found dead, his throat cut, an apparent suicide. The suspects are: his daughter Linda (Jamie Leigh Curtis), her husband Richard (Don Johnson), their son Ransom (Chris Evans), Thromby’s son Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs Thromby’s publishing company, Thromby’s daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), the widow of his late son and the proprietor of a pretentious “wellness” company, Thromby’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), the daughter of an undocumented immigrant. Other possible suspects include Harlan’s dotty mother Greatnana (K Callan), Walt’s wife Donna (Riki Lindhome), their alt-right teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), Joni’s college-student daughter Meg (Katharine Langford of “13 Reasons Why”), and Fran the housekeeper (Edi Patterson). Thromby’s son, daughter, and daughter-in-law think of themselves as successful entrepreneurs but in reality they are subsidized by Thromby, who has no illusions about their business acumen or their expressions of affection.

A cop (Lakeith Stanfield) accompanied by a state trooper (Noah Segan) starts asking questions. And then one of the suspects asks a question: Who is the man who has been silently sitting in the back, listening to everything that is going on? It is legendary “last of the gentleman sleuths” private Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), whose ridiculous name is matched by his honey-dripping Southern drawl, compared by one character to the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn (a caricatured rooster inspired by the caricatured Senator Claghorn on the old Fred Allen radio show). The first mystery is that he does not know who hired him to be there. He just received an envelope with cash inside.

We get a chance to see some illuminating flashbacks that let us in on some of what has happened before the detectives or the family know. And we get to know them better, especially Marta, repeatedly referred to patronizingly by the family as “one of the family” but no one can seem to remember which Spanish-speaking country she and her family come from. Marta is of special value to Blanc because she is a human lie detector, at least about her own truthfulness. If she does not tell the truth, she involuntarily projectile vomits. (Really.) She has a few secrets that she is desperate to conceal, especially after a motive is revealed. Characters make and break alliances as it seems no one can be trusted, and what is revealed just shows us how much more we don’t know.  The twists and turns will keep you guessing until the end and the unexpected barbs of satire make this as delicious as the fictional Thromby’s best-sellers.

Parents should know that this is a murder mystery with some grisly and graphic images, some strong language, family conflicts, drinking and drugs.

Family discussion: Which character did you suspect and why? Why did Thromby make that decision about his fortune?

If you like this, try: the original “Murder on the Orient Express,” “And Then There Were None,” and Rian Johnson’s other genre-bending films “Looper” and “Brick”

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21 Bridges

Posted on November 21, 2019 at 5:36 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence and language throughout
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, guns, chases, many characters injured and killed, disturbing and graphic images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 22, 2019

Copyright 2019 STX Films
The Russo brothers who wrote and produced some of the most stylish and exciting of the Marvel movies, (“Captain America: Winter Soldier” and the last two Avengers movies) are the producers behind “21 Bridges,” a stylish and exciting cops vs bad guys story, starring the Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman. It’s what is sometimes called a tick-tock, a tense drama taking place all in one night, as a police detective with a reputation for perhaps being too trigger-happy is trying to find two men who killed eight policemen in the course of a drug heist. There is nothing new about the story, but it is capably told and the cast, especially Boseman and Stephan James (“Race,” “If Beale Street Could Talk”) make it more than watchable.

Andre (Boseman) is a police detective, the son of a cop who died in the line of duty. In a flashback we see him as a child, weeping at his father’s funeral as the clergyman quoting Romans 13:4: “If you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” In the present day, we meet him at the most recent in a series of meetings with Internal Affairs, an automatic inquiry after an officer discharges a weapon. He is not apologetic. “Justice comes at a cost…I am the sharp edge of that determination.” His reputation is for being trigger-happy, but he insists that each time he shot someone it was justified and that he never drew first. He is cool under pressure, certain of his choices. At home, we see him caring for his fragile mother, and he is patient and tender when she is forgetful. But she has certainty, too, telling him to “look the devil in the eye.”

And then a robbery goes terribly wrong. Two guys (Taylor Kitsch and James) put scary scarves over their faces and bust into a wine cellar where something even more powerful is stored. “Only two of you?” the guy they are holding at gunpoint asks. They were told to expect 30 kilos of cocaine, but it Is 300, uncut, worth much, much more than they expected. In a shoot-out, they kill a civilian and seven cops and critically injure an eighth before escaping with tote bags full of cocaine. And that makes them targets of some very highly motivated people on both sides of the law.

“I wouldn’t mind if you were back at IA tomorrow,” says the precinct captain (J.K. Simmons) whose cops were killed. He urges Dre to “protect” the families of those who died from the agony of trials and the risk that the men responsible would not be convicted. It is clear what he means. Dre’s reputation for being quick on the trigger and his understanding of what families go through when a police office is killed could make him more inclined to quick revenge than slow justice.

The FBI says they will take over in the morning if the two fugitives are not captured. With the 21 bridges to Manhattan and all of the tunnels closed, Dre chases after the men as they try to sell the cocaine and get out of town.

There is nothing special about the script but the action is exciting and there are a couple of strong dramatic confrontations. Boseman and James elevate the material to keep us interested even when the storyline fails to challenge us.

Parents should know that this is a cops-and-robbers-and-drug-dealers story with extended, intense, and graphic peril and violence, with many characters injured and killed and disturbing images. There are chases and shoot-outs and betrayals and very strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Dre and the person he talked to in the house come to different conclusions? How did Dre’s losing his father affect his outlook?

If you like this, try: “16 Blocks” and “Fort Apache the Bronx”

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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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