The Old Guard

Posted on July 9, 2020 at 5:02 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sequences of graphic violence, and language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alchol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended, intense, and graphic peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 3, 2020

Copyright Netflix 2020
The thing no one ever seems to think of about invulnerability with everlasting life is that is is exhausting. You think it is an existential crisis to face the certainty of death? Try imagining the existential crisis of knowing that you won’t die, that you will outlive everyone you have ever loved and they will resent and even hate you for it. Meanwhile, just like the rest of us mortals, you might as well find a way to make your everlasting life meaningful by helping people in need. And that is where being impossible to injure or kill comes in very handy.

Early in “The Old Guard,” based on the graphic novel series by Greg Rucka, there is an ambush and our heroes are all riddled with bullets. They seem dead. But then they begin to stir. And then they wipe out the attackers. Meanwhile, a young Marine named Niles (“If Beale Street Could Talk’s” Kiki Layne) is on screen long enough to show us her courage, competence, compassion, and dedication before a terrorist slices her throat. She should have died. Her fellow Marines, once close friends, are a little freaked out that she did not die. And then she is kidnapped by Andy (Charlize Theron), leader of what we will learn is the Old Guard. They know when another immortal comes into being, and they come and get them.

This makes the film into an origin story, at least from Niles’ perspective, and it gives us a chance to meet the members of the Old Guard through her. Andy is the oldest. She won’t say how old, but her real name is Andromache of Scythia and her weapon of choice has not just nothing mechanical but no moving parts at all. Book (Matthias Schoenaerts) fought Napoleon in 1812. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Yusuf (Marwan Kenzari) fought in the Crusades. On opposite sides. “We killed each other many times,” one of them explains cheerily. And now there is Niles, who at first does not believe, or does not accept that she believes. She wants to know whether the group are the good guys or the bad guys. “Depends on the century,” she is told. But they do try to do right.

And they try to stay out of sight. That’s harder to do these days, as it is almost impossible not to be glimpsed in someone’s selfie on social media. Andy is ready for it. She offers to take a picture with the selfie-taker’s phone and quickly deletes any images she appears in before telling the group to say “Cheese.” She is ready, but she is tired.

They’ve been picking their sides, but now they have to defend themselves. No one can really hide in the digital era, and a pharma bro is eager to get into their DNA and extract whatever makes them special so he can cure a lot of people and make a lot lot lot lot of money.

Gina Prince-Bythewood may be the most deeply, unabashedly romantic director working today. Her films “Love and Basketball” and “Beyond the Lights” are in a different category from the usual Hollywood idea of love, with a quick montage of the highly photogenic couple walking through a farmer’s market and riding bicycles along the beach. Her films are about profound connection and commitment. There is a moment in this film that will be in clip reels of the most true-hearted movie depictions of love forever. It brought tears to my eyes and a flip-flop to my heart and it was in the middle of a graphic novel shoot-em-up movie about characters with superpowers. But those are the kinds of layers Prince-Bythewood brings to this story, grounded in fine performances by all involved, especially Theron, Layne, and Schoenaerts, and in those existential questions, here answered in part (come on, no one has more that a part of the answer) in a manner that is romantic and satisfying and leaves us curious about the next chapter.

Parents should know that this movie has strong language and extreme and very graphic peril and violence with disturbing images and very strong language.

Family discussion: What is the best part of immortality? What is the worst? Is it right to sacrifice the few to benefit the many?

If you like this, try: the graphic novels and movies like “Fast Color” and “Mad Max: Fury Road”

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The Babysitters Club

Posted on July 9, 2020 at 9:11 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Various health-related issues including diabetes and stroke
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 7, 2020

Copyright Netflix 2020
You will not see a show for any age this year that is better than this latest version of “The Babysitters Club,” Netflix’s gently updated series inspired by the Ann M. Martin. Delightfully natural performances from an outstanding group of newcomers, backed by adults like Marc Evan Jackson (“The Good Place’s” Shawn) and Alicia Silverstone (“Clueless”), deal with problems from the universal (growing up, learning to make the most of strengths and adapt to or overcome weaknesses) including crushes and puberty) to family upheavals like divorce, remarriage, illness, and loss to resolving differences with friends, family and adults, all handled with sensitivity and maturity. If that maturity is in some cases aspirational (many adults struggle to do as well), it never seems so far out of reach that it is unobtainable. The good humor and loyalty the girls show each other in resolving their conflicts is genuinely heartwarming and instructive for all ages.

The series cleverly maintains some of the books’ beloved traditions, including the landline in the colorful bedroom of one of the girls, Claudia Kishi (adorable Momona Tamada, rocking a high-fashion look that would be a challenge for a less confident performer of any age). And no one girl controls the narrative. We see the stories from different perspectives in each chapter, narratively illuminating and a good way to spark some conversations about empathy and points of view.

7th grader Kristy (Sophie Grace) comes up with the idea for the Babysitters Club, a one-stop or one-call service that provides sitters for local families after her mother (Silverstone) complains about how hard it is to find someone. The first girls to join are her shy best friend Mary Ann (Malia Baker), who lives with her very strict father, a widower (Jackson), a new girl just arrived from New York named Stacy (Shay Rudolph), who is great at math and who is concealing her Type 1 diabetes, and Claudia, a gifted artist who struggles with schoolwork and with her demanding parents and chilly sister but is very close to her grandmother (Takayo Fischer), who loves her the way she is. Later on they are joined by another new girl, the warm-hearted, justice-seeking Dawn (Xochitl Gomez), who arrives with her newly divorced mother.

Various clashes occur about the business, both internally and externally, when some older girls start their own babysitting service to compete. And various clashes occur with parents (and sadness over parents who are not there). But the girls are always committed to finding a way through, even if that sometimes takes a little while. And it is a pleasure to see each of them learn to speak up, especially Mary Ann, who discovers that her father is more vulnerable than she thought, that she can find her voice if it is on behalf of someone else, and that theater gives her an opportunity to be her best. There are also some nifty lessons about running a business, including what to do when your success leads to competition.

It is truly a delight to see these characters brought to life with such care and understanding and I cannot wait for the next season.

Parents should know that this series addresses in an age-appropriate way issues of puberty, trans children, sexual orientation, illness and disability, parental abandonment, death of a parent, bullying, blended families, and class/economic issues.

Family discussion: Can you think of a time when you were upset about something other than what it seemed you were upset about? Who was right, Dawn or Meanie? How did the girls learn to talk about their conflicts? Which one is most like you?

If you like this, try: the 1995 movie and the books, now published as graphic novels

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The Outpost

Posted on July 2, 2020 at 5:50 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for war violence and grisly images, pervasive language, and sexual references
Profanity: Constant very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Substance abuse, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense wartime peril and violence, very graphic and disturbing images, many characters injured and killed, possible suicide attempt
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 3, 2020

Copyright ScreenMedia 2020
There are war stories that are about strategy and courage and triumph over evil that let us channel the heroism of the characters on screen. And then there are war stories that are all of that but also engage in the most visceral terms with questions of purpose and meaning that touch us all. “The Outpost,” based on the book by news correspondent Jake Tapper, is that rare film in the second category, an intimate, immersive drama from director Rod Lurie, a West Point graduate and Army veteran who knows this world inside out and brings us from the outside in.

The script by Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy wisely avoids the usual expository dialogue as a newcomer is introduced to the group. Instead, we get a crisp, military briefing-style scene-setting with on-screen text informing us that the military has set up outposts in areas that are impossible to defend and given the 53 soldiers there the impossible task of both befriending the locals and fighting off the Taliban. This one is Combat Outpost Keating, located in a near-indefensible mountain-enclosed area in Afghanistan 14 miles from the Pakistani border.

Lurie and his cast, including Orlando Bloom, Scott Eastwood, and breakout star Caleb Landry Jones, understand the small revelatory moments, the trash-talk and taunting that is the way people away from home and coping with unendurable uncertainty connect to each other. Then there are the brief calls home when they pretend to be normal and maintain those connections. As a sign nearby reminds them to keep the calls to 10 minutes, one soldier puffs away while assuring his wife that he stopped smoking. A series of new commanding officers each bring his own ideas and style of communication. Over the course of the movie, we see how much we expect from the military, from 21st century warfare to diplomacy. Over the closing credits, we get a devastating reminder of how heartbreakingly young these soldiers are.

There are telling moments in the interactions with the locals. The soldiers do their best to implement the policies they are there to carry out, which means “soft power” like paying them for their people who have been killed as collateral damage or even as enemy or possibly those who are dead by other means but maybe a way to get more money from the Americans. “I will lose my honor with my elders,” one explains via a translator. “I can regain my honor one of two ways. One way is for all of you to lay down your arms and watch as your communities flourish with the help of the US and Allah.” That support comes in the form of “money, contracts, projects.” The other way does not need to be explained to the Afghanis or to us. The outpost also has to develop sources of intelligence in a place where there is no reason for anyone to trust them and they do not speak the language. There is a local version of the boy who cried wolf, constantly warning of an attack but with no useful details. And then there are the attacks, always expected yet always unexpected because they never know when.

Impeccable camerawork from Lorenzo Senatore and editing by Michael J. Duthie give the film a documentary feel matched by understated, natural performances from the cast. We feel their exhaustion. And we feel their dedication, more important even than their training or their courage. Their loyalty to each other in the face of risk so dire the outpost is known as Camp Custer is itself the answer to the question the story raises about purpose, meaning, and why we are here. The question of why we are there it is wise enough not to try to resolve.

Parents should know that this is a war movie with constant, intense, and graphic military and terrorist violence, disturbing images, characters injured and killed, constant very strong and crude language, sexual humor, smoking and substance abuse.

Family discussion: Which was the best commanding officer of the outpost? How do the soldiers manage their stress?

If you like this, try: “Beaufort” and “1917”

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Four Kids and It

Posted on June 29, 2020 at 5:37 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, some rude/suggestive comment, fantasy violence, and language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy peril and some violence, guns, explosion
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 30, 2020
Copyright 2020 Kindle Entertainment

Let’s get one thing clear before we talk about “Four Kids and It.” We’re going to set aside our deep affection for E. Nesbit’s book Five Children and It for a moment. That classic has at best a homeopathic relationship to this film, which is based on a sort of inspired by, sort of sequel, touch of rip-off called, without much imagination, Four Kids and It. In both cases, the story is about children who discover a magical sand-dwelling creature called a Psammead who can talk and grant wishes. And in both cases, the wishes do not exactly turn out the way the wishers hope, creating a learning experience for the wishers and some fun for the readers/audience. I’ll take a moment to warmly recommend the truly classic original, preferably read aloud and with the Paul O. Zelinsky illustrations, and get on to this far lesser but still pleasantly entertaining version.

A single dad (Matthew Goode as David) and a single mom (Paula Patten as Alice) decide for no reason whatsoever other than being idiot adults in a movie about kids, that what they should do is not tell their children that they have been dating, it is serious, and both sets of children will be staying in the same remote house along the Cornwall coast.

The children do not consider this a good surprise, especially David’s bookish daughter Ros (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen), who has brought a copy of Five Children and It along with her, and Alice’s daughter Smash (Ashley Aufderheide), a sk8r grrl with a massive attitude problem. Both girls miss the parents who abandoned them. Ros hopes her mother will come back and Smash hopes her father will let her come live with him. The two younger children are David’s son Robbie (Billy Jenkins), who spends all day on his gaming device and five-year-old Maudie (Ellie-Mae Siame), who just wants everyone to get along.

On the beach, the children discover the Psammead, delightfully voiced by a perfectly grumpy Michael Caine. He agrees to grant one wish a day, but each one will expire at sundown.

The house they are staying in is owned by a wealthy and eccentric man named Tristan Trent III (Russell Brand with a beard). He seems very interested in Ros and puts a tracking device on her shoe. While the children are making their wishes and the parents remain clueless, he is trying to find the Psammead.

The fantasy elements and fending off Trent are fun. What matters, though, is the way that Ros and Smash begin to understand how acknowledging they cannot have what they really want makes it possible for them to begin to move forward, starting with developing a friendship. That’s the real magic.

Parents should know that this movie has fantasy peril and some violence, including guns, falls, and an explosion, though no one is badly hurt. There are family issues and confrontations, including two parents who walk out on their families, causing a lot of distress. Characters use some schoolyard language and are rude to parents. There are some mild sexual situations involving adults and there is some potty humor.

Family discussion: If you saw a Psammead, what would you wish for? If you could go back in time, when would you pick?

If you like this, try: Five Children and It and its sequels by E. Nesbit

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My Spy

Posted on June 25, 2020 at 5:42 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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