Bullet Train

Posted on August 2, 2022 at 9:57 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong and bloody violence, pervasive language, and brief sexuality
Profanity: Very strong language
Violence/ Scariness: Constant very graphic peril and violence with spurting blood and many murders, guns, knives, poison, fire, crash, snake
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 5, 2022

Copyright 2022 Sony
The Japanese bullet train goes 200 miles per hour. Its namesake movie goes even faster. On the train is a briefcase stuffed with millions of dollars and a passenger list that includes an assortment of thieves and assassins and the kidnapped son of a crime kingpin called White Death. Action fans will understand that the over-the-top violence is exaggerated as an R-rated version of Looney Tunes, expertly crafted and often hilarious.

Brad Pitt is sensational as an all-purposes soldier of fortune trying to find something simpler and less violent than his previous jobs. His handler, Maria, tells him this is just the job for him. All he has to do is get on the train, grab the briefcase, and get off. She gives him the code name Ladybug. This is either to cheer him up or add some snark because he insists he is unlucky (as he steps into a puddle) and in Japan the ladybug is a symbol of good luck. Or both. Either way, that is the only name we know for him, an emotionally exhausted man described by another character as looking like every homeless white guy, trying to do better without having decided what better means.

At the train station he opens a locker to pick up the equipment Maria has left for him, but he decides to leave the gun behind. And he boards the train, reciting therapeutic mantras to remind himself to stay calm, determined to “put peace into the world” while all he has too do is steal a briefcase. The trick, though, is that it already belongs to someone to whom it is also valuable, and several other people who are equally experienced in smash and grab, emphasis on the smash, would also like to have it, too. There are assassins from all over, a veritable It’s a Small World of assassins.

I really want to avoid spoilers here, so I will not disclose the superstars who show up in small, funny cameos (you will probably recognize the voice of the Oscar-winner on the other side of the phone calls with Ladybug), the actor we don’t see without a mask until the last act, or some of the funniest twists. I’ll just say that stuntman-turned director David Leitch (“John Wick,” “Atomic Blonde”) is as good as it gets in fight scenes and these are a blast, and that there are some well-chosen needle drop songs on the soundtrack. The bullet train setting is also a lot of fun, with a quiet car, a car for families with young children, and a bar car, and stops of only one minute at each station.

I will, however, take a moment to discuss Brad Pitt, who shows once again that he never brings less than the best to every role. No one is better at precisely calibrating his own movie star charisma and here he plays off of it to hilarious effect. The acting in the stunt scenes is as important as the punches. As we have seen in Tarantino and some other films, countering shocking, graphic, brutality with transgressive but workmanlike casualness can be very funny. The entire cast is excellent, including Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as “the twins,” the assassins delivering (or trying to) the White Death’s son (Logan Lerman channeling Jared Leto) and the briefcase full of ransom money, Bad Bunny as a Mexican drug cartel operative, and Hiroyuki Sanada, Zazie Beetz as characters I won’t spoil.

Buckle up, everyone. This is what they’re talking about when they use the term “wild ride.”

Parents should know that this movie is non-stop action with guns, knives, poison, fire, a deadly snake, crashes, and many brutal and grisly deaths and disturbing and graphic images. A child is badly injured (but survives). Characters are hired assassins and crime kingpins and their henchmen. They use very strong language. There is a brief scene of nudity and sex.

Family discussion: Who are we rooting for in this story and how can you tell? What do you think of the Thomas the Tank Engine approach to classifying humanity? Why don’t we ever learn their real names?

If you like this, try: the book by Kotaro Isaka, the “John Wick” series, “Kill Bill,” “Boss Mode,” and “Shoot ’em Up” You might also enjoy a less violent film involving a crime and a train, “$” with Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn.

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The Lost City

Posted on March 24, 2022 at 5:49 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and some bloody images, suggestive material, partial nudity and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, leeches, chases, explosions, guns, many characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 25, 2022
Date Released to DVD: July 25, 2022

Copyright 2022 Paramount
Let’s get the obvious question out of the way first thing. Yes, “The Lost City” is a lot like “Romancing the Stone,” the 1984 action/comedy/romance movie starring Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas, and Danny DeVito. Both movies are opposites-don’t-attract-and-then-do stories about shy, bookish-but-beautiful stay-at-home romance novelists who end up on wild jungle adventures with handsome men who are not entirely heroic. Both feature colorful third leads and bad guys scary enough to make the moments of peril exciting.

And that’s a pretty great combination, isn’t it? Especially with four delectable stars at the top of the game: Oscar-winners Sandra Bullock and Brad Pitt plus Channing Tatum and Daniel Radcliffe. Do not listen to those who say that Bullock does not look like a 57-year-old. She looks like a radiantly gorgeous 57-year-old who is completely believable playing someone 20 years younger opposite a leading man who is in reality 14 years younger.

Bullock plays Loretta Sage, a widow still struggling with grief over the loss of her husband and dissatisfaction at her redirection from unsuccessful scholar of ancient civilizations to very successful author of bodice-ripper novels about a pair of very sexy Indian Jones-style adventuresome anthropologists.

Loretta’s purple prose and knowledge of the details of runes and ruins are just one reason for the books’ popularity. The other reason is the handsome, hunky, Fabio-like cover model, Alan (Tatum). He has the broad shoulders, easy charm and flowing locks the fans love. (When I say “has,” I do not necessarily mean growing from his scalp, more like, in his closet to be applied as needed.) He also has something of a crush on Loretta, though he may be confusing both of them for the characters she imagined.

Loretta, who describes herself as a “sabiosexual” (one who is attracted to intellect), thinks of Alan as a brainless pretty boy. She might be a bit jealous of his effortless appeal. She reluctantly agrees to a joint appearance to promote her new book. It does not go well. And then, as she is leaving, she gets into the wrong car and finds herself seated before a lovely array of cheeses and cold meats and an impeccably dressed billionaire who has the most indispensable of all powerful villains, a British accent. He has a clue to a lost treasure, he wants Loretta to translate it, and he won’t take no for an answer.

And so, Loretta is off to the jungle (it was filmed in the Dominican Republic), and Alan, possibly confusing himself with the hero he portrays, goes off to rescue her, with the help of his meditation teacher, a former Navy SEAL played by Brad Pitt, who is as usual the MVP as he is wherever we are lucky enough to see him. This takes nothing away from Bullock and Tatum, who are enormous fun to watch. They have great chemistry and are clearly having a blast. It’s just that Pitt is even more fun. They all get strong support from the rest of the cast, especially Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Loretta’s publisher/publicist and Patti Harrison as the social media liaison. Directors Aaron Nee and Adam Nee keep things moving so the various plot holes fly by without disrupting the popcorn pleasure of seeing Bullock get over her inhibitions and assumptions, Tatum dance, and Pitt be cool in this highly entertaining story.

NOTE: Stay for a post-credit scene.

Parents should know that this movie has extended peril and action with guns, chases, and explosions, and many characters are injured and killed. A character has to take off his clothes to have leeches removed from his body and we see some nudity. Characters use strong language and drink alcohol.

Family discussion: What do Loretta and Alan have in common? What surprised them about each other? Why does Fairfax only want what is impossible to get?

If you like this, try: “Romancing the Stone”

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WAFCA: Parasite, Driver, Nyong’o Lead the 2019 Awards

Posted on December 9, 2019 at 8:05 am

Best Film:

Best Director:
Bong Joon-ho (Parasite)

Copyright 2019 Netflix

Best Actor:
Adam Driver (Marriage Story)

Best Actress:
Lupita Nyong’o (Us)

Best Supporting Actor:
Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood)

Best Supporting Actress:
Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers)

Best Acting Ensemble:
Knives Out

Best Youth Performance:
Roman Griffin Davis (Jojo Rabbit)

Copyright Pixar 2019

Best Voice Performance:
Tony Hale (Toy Story 4)

Best Motion Capture Performance:
Josh Brolin (Avengers: Endgame)

Best Original Screenplay:
Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story)

Best Adapted Screenplay:
Greta Gerwig; Based on the Novel by Louisa May Alcott (Little Women)

Best Animated Feature:
Toy Story 4

Best Documentary:
Apollo 11

Best Foreign Language Film:

Best Production Design:
Production Designer: Barbara Ling; Set Decorator: Nancy Haigh (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood)

Best Cinematography:
Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC (1917)

Best Editing:
Michael McCusker, ACE and Andrew Buckland (Ford v Ferrari)

Best Original Score:
Michael Abels (Us)

The Joe Barber Award for Best Portrayal of Washington, DC:
The Report

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Ad Astra

Posted on September 19, 2019 at 5:31 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some startling and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 20, 2019
Date Released to DVD: December 16, 2019

Copyright 20th Century Fox
James Gray, the writer/director of Lost City of Z. has given us another story of a father and son who leave women behind to explore unknown territory. “Lost City of Z” was based on the true story of Percy Fawcett, who traveled through South America in search of the legendary city of gold, inspiring a generation of adventurers. In “Ad Astra” (“to the stars”) an astronaut goes to the farthest reaches of the solar system in search of answers that range from the most cosmic and existential to the most deeply wrenching and personal.

In both films, Gray is better with the settings than the characters and better with the characters than the storyline. And Brad Pitt’s acting is better than every other part of the film.

The look and sound of “Ad Astra” is spectacular. It creates a completely believable, fully-imagined near-future look and feel of an era of space travel and planetary colonization. It is difficult in a sci-fi movie not to want to show off the coolness of the technology, and make the most of the extrapolations of our time into the worst (or occasionally best) possible outcomes, for example, Earth destroyed by human failings or hubris. But this film makes its imagined future all the more believable by making it fit seamlessly into a world that seems just minutes from where we are now. So of course there will be bomb-sniffing dogs in the rocket hanger; just because we develop the technology for routine travel to outer space does not mean we will develop a safer world at home. And of course there will be a Subway (the sandwich place, not the mode of transportation) in a space outpost because why wouldn’t fast food corporations line up whatever territory they can.

I will not spoil the adventures along the journey; I will just say that the characters acceptance of them as ordinary and expected also underscores the vastness of the imagined world and deepens the impact of the dangers Roy faces.

The score by Max Richter, cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema (“Intersteller”), and the sound design by Grant Elder shape the story-telling, making the exploration seem so completely realistic that we can believe it is already an ordinary part of our daily lives, but keeping things exciting and suspenseful when the time comes.

And then there is the story. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut, like his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who disappeared on a voyage to Neptune when Roy was a child. Now someone needs to go to Neptune to investigate a mysterious electrical surge that is creating great damage on earth. And it seems possible that Clifford is involved somehow, that he has survived all this time.

The astronauts are required to do regular self-assessment check-ins on their mental and psychological states to determine whether they are stable enough for space travel. But it is not at all clear as Roy goes through the list of questions whether he is saying what he really feels or what he knows they want to hear. “I am focused only on the essentials,” he says, “I do not allow my mind to linger on that which is not important.” Can anyone believe that is possible? Or that it should be possible? What Roy’s superiors know is the data that they have received, showing that his pulse never goes above 80, even when the situation is very dire. So, should he have one of those “Houston, we have a problem” complications, they believe they can count on him to be level-headed and focus on practical solutions instead of getting emotional, frightened, or angry.

And so he seems to be the right choice for “a crisis of unknown magnitude,” unprecedented electrical surges that put all human life at risk and that seem to be connected to Clifford’s long-ago mission. Roy agrees to go to Neptune, requiring stops on the moon and Mars, to see if he can find and stop the surges. But there’s a warning. “We have to hold out the possibility that your father may be hiding from us.” “I remain mission ready,” Roy assures them.

But we learn that Roy understands rage. He has seen it in his father and he feels it in himself. There will be sacrifices along the way, and decisions with tragic consequences. I found the ultimate encounter less than satisfying, not up to the ambitions of the premise and the settings. But Pitt’s performance and the world of the film provide more than enough reason to watch and wonder.

Parents should know that this film includes sci-fi style violence with peril and some disturbing and graphic images, themes of parental abandonment, characters who are injured and killed, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Was Roy honest in his answers about his emotional state? How was he like his father and how was he different? Would you like to explore space?

If you like this, try: “2001,” “Gravity,” “The Martian,” and “Silent Running”

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Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Posted on July 25, 2019 at 12:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references
Profanity: Pervasive very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Very intense and graphic violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 26, 2019
Date Released to DVD: December 9, 2019
Copyright Columbia Pictures 2019

Quentin Tarantino is a brilliant filmmaker who does not have anything to say. If you are looking for surface, you cannot do better. His camera placement and editing are impeccable. His attention to detail is unsurpassed. Remember the great Jack Rabbit Slim restaurant setting in “Pulp Fiction,” with wait staff dressed as 50’s celebrities? (“That’s the Marilyn Monroe section that’s Mamie Van Doren… I don’t see Jayne Mansfield, she must have the night off or something.”)

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is an entire movie of that scene, set in 1969, with a slavish, bordering on fetishistic, attention to the details of that era. Or a very specific slice of the era, more created by than reflected in the movies.

Tarantino bonded with the films of that era when he was working in a video store and watching as many movies as possible. This film is more than a love letter to that era; it is his effort to live in it, not as it was, of course, but as it was portrayed in some of the movies whose titles we see in the film like “Three in the Attic” and “Don’t Make Waves” (which featured Tate as a character named Malibu who wears a bikini and jumps on a trampoline).

I was in high school at the time this movie takes place, and those details went straight to my bloodstream. It goes far beyond the markers we still associate with that era and into the deep cuts. I was especially taken with the fake magazine covers from MAD and TV guide which perfectly captured the Jack Davis/Norman Mingo styles. We see a party at the Playboy mansion with dancing Bunnies and Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) chatting with Connie Stevens (Dreama Walker) and the Manson “family” on Spahn Movie Ranch (itself, like Dalton, no longer in its show business heyday). Mike Moh plays a bantam-like Bruce Lee. We hear songs by the Mamas and Papas and Neil Diamond, and Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Good Thing” (co-written by Terry Melcher, former resident of the Polanski/Tate home, the son of Doris Day, and an acquaintance of Charles Manson). We glimpse a billboard for the long-forgotten film “Joanna,” starring Genevieve Waite (who would later marry a member of the Mamas and Papas). And Timothy Olyphant plays actor James Stacy, a star of the 60’s who was badly injured in a motorcycle accident in 1973. He was once married to Connie Stevens. It’s a small Hollywood world, and this movie keeps it even smaller.

The dialog snaps, the humor is dry, and the acting is superb. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a fading television actor who once starred in his own western series (“Bounty Law,” a combination of “Wanted: Dead or Alive” and a bunch of other cowboy shows), now guest-starring as the bad guy in pretty much every series on television, including real-life shows “The FBI,” “Mannix,” and “Lancer.” You can see how much fun Tarantino had making it look like DiCaprio was in those shows. Dalton’s stunt double, and friend who does everything for him and gets paid for it is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton is insecure and easily upset; Booth is understated and resolved. But both are in, if not career slumps, heading that way.

Dalton lives next door to director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). The story begins in February of 1969, when an agent (Al Pacino) encourages Dalton to revive his career with some spaghetti westerns. (The title of this film is a tribute to a pair of films by legendary spaghetti western director Sergio Leone.) And then it skips six months to August of that year, when Tate is very pregnant and her husband is out of the country. And when the Mason “family” is making plans to kill some of the rich and powerful.

Tarantino is as good as it gets when it comes to surfaces, and since this is a movie about surfaces (to the extent it is about anything), and thus it is very pretty and entertaining to watch. So audiences may not notice or mind that, as Gertrude Stein said about another California city, there is no there there. The episodic individual scenes are often absorbing and the characters, even those we might not respect, are people we enjoy spending time with. In addition to outstanding work from DiCaprio and Pitt, the cast features a number of excellent performances including Margaret Qualley as one of the Manson girls, Tarantino regular Kurt Russell as a stunt coordinator who does not want to hire Cliff, Julia Butters as a precocious child star, and the late Luke Perry as an actor.

There is some commentary about fantasy and reality — the weak actor who plays not just a tough guy but the archetypal western icon, and lives in a fancy house in the hills while the real tough guy lives in a trailer and can’t afford dinner. The adults who act like children and the child who acts like an adult. The hippies who speak of love and plot to kill. And the beatific madonna Sharon Tate, who shyly tells the girl at the box office that she is in the movie playing in the theater, the Dean Martin Matt Helm spy movie, “The Wrecking Crew.”

She is almost a dream figure like the blondes in “American Graffiti” and “Stardust Memories,” especially compared to the shrewish female characters in the film the stunt coordinator married to the Kurt Russell character and the unnamed character married to Booth. Tate smiles with happy pride in the theater as the audience laughs at her comic scenes as a beautiful but clumsy girl (the clips we see are of the real Sharon Tate in the film). Our knowledge of her real-life fate in one of the most notorious murders of the 20th century is an example of Tarantino’s appropriation of historical atrocities rewritten for pulpy pleasures to provide dramatic heft his screenplays otherwise cannot sustain (“Inglorious Basterds,” “Django Unchained”).

The episodic structure and narration that does not add anything from a character who has no reason to know the things he is describing show that as meticulous as Tarantino is about getting the details he cares about exactly right when it comes time to having them mean something, all he can do is create an extravaganza — although a watchable one — of violence and altered history.

Parents should know that this film includes extreme bloody violence with graphic and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, very strong and crude language, sexual references, drinking, smoking, and drugs.

Family discussion: Why did Tarantino want to make this film accurate in some of the details and depart from what happened in others? Why did Cliff insist on seeing George? Who is the narrator and what do we learn from him?

If you like this, try: the movies and television series glimpse in the film, including “Lancer,” “Mannix,” and “The Wrecking Crew

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