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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Jumanji: The Next Level

Posted on December 14, 2019 at 9:24 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content and some language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language, brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended video game action style peril and violence, issue of terminal illness
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters and issues of diversity
Date Released to Theaters: December 13, 2019
Date Released to DVD: March 16, 2020

Copyright 2019 Columbia
My review of Jumanji; The Next Level is on rogerebert.com — an excerpt:

Like its predecessor, this latest “Jumanji” movie combines fantasy action and adventure with some comedy, a touch of romance, and real-life lessons about courage, friendship, and empathy—all with the help of some low-key race and gender fluidity….Johnson was terrific as Spencer in the first film, a humorously exaggerated version of an adolescent discovering the power of adulthood. But as the outer version of Spencer’s cranky grandfather, he’s clearly having more fun. He barely notices the surreal concept of being trapped inside a video game (he does not appear to be entirely sure what a video game is), and is much too busy swiveling hips that for the first time in years have a full range of motion. Johnson/Bravestone as Spencer was something to aspire to, in a future that still seemed filled with infinite potential, but Johnson/Bravestone as Eddie is filled with the bucket list delight of someone who sees nothing but loss ahead. Hart is especially good at toning down his usual peppery energy as the avatar for the slow-talking Milo, whose avatar’s strength is languages but who retains his discursive style. Black and Awkwafina both have a chance to represent more than one of the human characters, making each one distinct and clever.

The fantasy of the avatars, with their assigned strengths and weaknesses, make it possible for the characters to become more honest with themselves and each other. As with the first film, the humor and excitement are nimbly balanced so it never gets too scary or silly, and the focus is more on friendship than romance. This time, there is a light touch of poignance as well that makes the message about friendship more meaningful. And like all good video games, there’s a hint of yet another level at the end for those, like me, who are not yet ready to say Game Over.

Parents should know that this film icludes video game-style peril, action, and adventure, some strong language, brief crude humor (references to eunuch character), and issues of aging and terminal illness.

Family discussion: If you were a game avatar, what would your strengths and weaknesses be? What did the characters learn from being different races and genders?

If you like this, try: “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth”

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Richard Jewell

Posted on December 12, 2019 at 5:42 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief bloody images
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Bombing, explosions, characters injured and killed, brief disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Portrayal of female professional using sex to manipulate men
Date Released to Theaters: December 14, 2019
Date Released to DVD: March 16, 2020
Copyright Warner Brothers 2019

Erik Erikson said that at each stage of life we have a choice between growth, learning, and compassion and fear, immaturity, and self-absorption. The final choice he posed was for old age, when people have to choose between ego integrity (satisfaction and completeness at the end of life, a sense of having made a difference) or despair (being lost, lacking a sense of purpose). (I highly recommend “Everybody Rides the Carousel,” an animated film from John and Faith Hubley, illustrating Erikson’s theories.) Two big end-of-the-year releases by two men, one in his 70’s, the other almost 90, seem to come down on different sides.

Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” is a movie by old men about what it is to be old, to be looking back on the choices you’ve made and the consequences they have had. The characters in the film, based on real people and their sometimes questionable stories, committed brutal crimes. The movie never excuses their behavior, but it portrays them in a complex, humane, elegiac manner.

89-year-old Clint Eastwood has made “Richard Jewell,” also based on a true story, this one about a man who was accused of a crime he did not commit. Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) was pudgy and his social skills were uneven. He was fascinated with order and authority and wanted very much to be a police officer. He lived with his mother and he had a lot of guns (“This is Georgia,” he shrugs.) He fit the profile and was an easy target in a city desperate to keep the international athletes, IOC officials, and media confident that everything was under control.

One of three films this month about real-life heroic lawyers who fought near-insurmountable odds to bring justice (the other two are “Dark Waters” and “Just Mercy”), this could have been a heartwarming story, but Eastwood’s cranky “get off my lawn” perspective cannot resist overdoing it as though he was talking to an empty chair. Instead of a movie about a guy who was the victim of the FBI under pressure to find a culprit and the media frantic to find a story. Eastwood is so sure we will not be able to figure out who the bad guys are that he all but has them wear signs.

It isn’t just this FBI agent who is wrong; it’s the government. And it isn’t this reporter or this newspaper that is wrong; it’s the media. It is not enough that the reporter’s first reaction on hearing that there has been a bombing is to hope that the bomber is story-worthy. Eastwood has to make her trade sex for information. (She is dead now, but her newspaper has demanded that the movie make clear it is not an accurate representation.) Our hero, meaning the lawyer, played by the always-great Sam Rockwell, has a bumper sticker in his office that says, “I fear government more than I fear terrorism.” JUST IN CASE WE DON’T GET THE POINT.

It’s a shame because the story has an even more important lesson in this era of social media, citizen “journalists” and milkshake ducks. But the shrill tone of the film gets in the way, especially in its portrayal of the reporter as not just irresponsible about the facts but willing to trade sex for a story. Pro tip: if you are going to make a movie about how terrible it is that the media exaggerates and lies, try not to do that in the movie itself.

Parents should know that this movie includes very strong language and a bombing with some brief disturbing images. Characters drink alcohol and a woman use sex to get information.

Family discussion: Why was Richard Jewell a suspect? Why did Watson believe him?

If you like this, try: “Sully” and “American Sniper” from the same director

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Bombshell

Posted on December 12, 2019 at 5:38 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual material and language throughout
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sexual pressure and harassment
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 13, 2019
Date Released to DVD: March 9, 2020

Copyright 2019 Lionsgate
The word “bombshell” works both ways as the title of this film based on the true story of the #metoo moment that rocked the powerful leadership of Fox News and brought down its visionary founder Roger Ailes. “Bombshell” means a very attractive woman (check out the Jean Harlow movie of the same name, about a gorgeous movie star, and the documentary of the same name, about Hedy Lamar). And “bombshell” also means a shocking piece of news. Both are equally apt.

Those who watched “The Loudest Voice in the Room” on Showtime know that Ailes transformed the news media by creating a network that had two important innovations: gorgeous women in revealing clothes delivering news stories slanted toward white people who think their victimhood has been overlooked. As an executive puts it in this film, “You have to adopt the mentality of an Irish street cop. The world is a bad place. People are lazy morons. Minorities are criminals. Sex is sick, but interesting. Ask yourself, ‘What would scare my grandmother, or p— off my grandfather?’ And that’s a Fox story.”

The story is almost operatic in scope and drama and director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph (“The Big Short”) hit the tone just right, the heightened urgency of the newsroom, the millions of small and devastatingly large compromises at the top of the media food chain.

The performances are sizzling. Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is a fading star at FOX, relegated to off-peak programs. (I could not help thinking of this performance as a bookend with Kidman’s “To Die For,” with Kidman as a woman who was willing to do anything, including sexual favors and murder, to get a job on TV news.) Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is a rising star, and as this movie begins, she is horrified to find herself in the middle of a story as then-candidate Donald Trump makes ugly and crude accusations because she surprised him by asking him to comment on some of his insults to women (“You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals”) in an on-air interview. Margot Robbie plays Kayla, a fictional character based on the ambitious lower-level staff and what those who asked Ailes for on-camera opportunities were expected to do to show their “loyalty.”

Some early critics of the film object to the women being portrayed as feminist heroines. But they are not portrayed as feminist heroines; on the contrary. They’re not fighting courageously for justice like Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich. They are carefully calibrating how much abuse, how many humiliations, how much indignity they are willing to trade for the professional opportunities they want, even when it means ignoring abuse of other women. Answer: a lot. Ultimately, there is a limit, though, and watching each character locate that line is what makes this movie smart and engrossing. For Carlson, it is being fired. For Kayla, it is a painful realization after the fact, and after someone else has taken the almost unthinkably daunting step of going first. And the stakes are clear. “Once you go public, no one will hire you,” Carlson is told. Her post-lawsuit career has focused on sexual harassment issues either because she now recognizes the importance of the issue or because she cannot get any other job. The week of the film’s release she wrote an op-ed in The New York Times calling on Fox to withdraw the non-disclosure agreement she had to sign in order to settle her case. It’s unlikely, but if they do, maybe we’ll get another movie out of it.

The focus here is on Kelly. It is one thing to burn your bridges after you have been fired and have nothing to lose, but it is entirely another for a woman near the top of her profession who says, “I’m not a feminist; I’m a lawyer,” who does not want to be the story, who is in cutthroat competition with the other beautiful blondes and not one to raise a fist and proclaim that sisterhood is powerful. What will it take to get her to speak out and what price will she pay for saying something? Kelly is a complicated character and the way her dilemma is presented here is complicated and nuanced, more directed toward nods of recognition than standing ovations. Her career has been rocky (except for financially) since her decision to acknowledge the abuse, which makes this a cautionary tale that does not make the prospect of feminist heroine-ing look very appealing.

What is even more fascinating here is the setting. Is Fox a news organization as it has traditionally been understood? We get glimpses of other Fox personalities, including Bill O’Reilly, who left Fox following his own #metoo abuses. The way the organization responds to Carlson’s claims — handing out “Team Roger” t-shirts before any investigation even though it is generally known why there’s a lock on his door and a separate entrance to his office — says something about whether “loyalty” is more important than the truth, to them and to us.

Parents should know that this film is based on the real life #metoo upheavals at FOX News, with explicit discussions and some depiction of sexual harassment, abuse, and predation, and very strong language.

Family discussion: Why did the three women respond differently? How has coming forward affected their careers? What is the best way to prevent abuse by people in power?

If you like this, try: “The Loudest Voice” miniseries and “The Hunting Ground”

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Dark Waters

Posted on December 5, 2019 at 5:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content, some disturbing images and strong language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Theme of toxic poisoning of a community with some grisly and graphic images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 6, 2019
Date Released to DVD: March 2, 2020

Mark Ruffalo stars as “Robert Bilott” in director Todd Haynes’ DARK WATERS, a Focus Features release. Credit : Mary Cybulski / Focus Features Copyright 2019
Imagine “Erin Brockovich” without the sizzle of the outspoken, miniskirted single mom with the biker boyfriend, and you’ve got “Dark Waters,” with Mark Ruffalo (who also produced) as real-life lawyer Rob Bilott, a lawyer who represented corporate polluters until a West Virginia farmer showed him what the chemicals were doing to his community. The movie is based on a New York Times article called The Lawyer Who Became Dupont’s Worst Nightmare by Nathanial Rich.

Bilott is pretty much the opposite of Erin Brockovich, a quiet, dedicated family man, so stable he is almost inert, who is comfortable representing corporations and thinks — not entirely wrongly — that he is one of the good guys because he is representing them in negotiations with EPA to use taxpayer-funded Superfund money to clean up toxic chemicals that are leeching into the ground and water.

After eight years of working on those cases, he gets a surprise visit from his grandmother’s neighbor, a farmer named Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), who speaks with a near-indecipherable West Virginia accent but who is very upset because his animals have weirdly mutated organs and keep dying early. Oh, and his brother died, too, Bilott turns him down, but then, because of his grandmother, he agrees to look into it. He thinks it will be one and done. He’ll write a letter, work his contacts, and get some money to compensate Tennant, then go back to his nice partners and his nice office and his nice life, including Anne Hathaway as his wife who has the usual thankless task for a wife in these films of telling him he is working too hard and neglecting his family and his health.

I love movies about courageous lawyers fighting The Man; movies like that are part of the reason I became a lawyer in the first place. But it is no secret that while fiery courtroom battles are wonderfully dramatic, especially if there are many opportunities to yell “I object!” and even more especially if the cross-examination is so devastating that the bad guy actually confesses. But law — even in court — is not actually like that, and in translating this story to the screen, they made a few mistakes.

First, the legal issues themselves are complicated and arcane. Unless you are a lawyer you don’t want to and don’t need to know why Bilott ends up representing different clients about halfway through, but for the purposes of dramatic storytelling it is confusing and distracting. The same goes for why the chemical in question, used in the creation of the wildly popular no-stick Teflon cookware, was not covered by EPA regulations concerning its production and disposal.

Most significantly, though, Ruffalo and director Todd Haynes have stripped away a significant proportion of what makes their work distinctive in what looks like a mistaken opinion that style is not serious. Haynes, whose early film “Safe” was a provocative, stylish, and very serious drama about chemical exposure, should know that what he can bring to a film like this will only make it more compelling. The same goes for Ruffalo, who has turned the pilot light down low on his considerable charm as a performer. That may work in court; it is not effective on screen.

This is an important story and worth seeing. Its most powerful moment comes near the end, not in the courtroom but in a gas station (check the credits for that actor’s name.) More of that and the movie could have and should have been better.

Parents should know that this film has some very disturbing images showing the consequences of exposure to toxic chemicals, including mutations of humans and animals and some strong language.

Family discussion: What made Bilott change his mind about helping Tennant? Whose job is it to prevent this kind of damage and why wasn’t it done?

If you like this, try: “Erin Brockovich,” “A Civil Action,” and “Promised Land”

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