The Foreigner

Posted on October 12, 2017 at 5:21 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, language and some sexual material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended, graphic, intense violence including terrorist bombings, guns, fighting, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 13, 2017
Date Released to DVD: January 8, 2018
Copyright 2017 Sparkle Role Media

“The Foreigner” is in a genre I refer to as “Who is that chef?” movies. An actor with martial arts skills plays a role that has everyone else in the film saying, “Wait, how come that seemingly ordinary and unprepossessing guy has such mad special ops abilities?” It’s a bit like superhero movies, where mild-mannered Clark Kent turns out to have superpowers. And it gives all of us in the audience a chance to dream that someday those around us just might have that same highly vindicating realization that we are far cooler and more powerful than they think.

This film stars Jackie Chan, who also produced, so he was able to craft it around his persona and his priorities. This is not one of his light-hearted fun action films like the wildly popular “Rush Hour” movies and the early Chinese films like “Wheels on Meals,” where his poker face and split-second athleticism showed the inspiration of his idol, Buster Keaton. This is a “serious” (meaning pretentious) saga, based on the thriller by Stephen Leather about the owner of a Chinese restaurant in London who is devastated by the murder of his daughter in a terrorist attack and — say it with me — turns out to have special ops training that makes him the wrong guy to pick on.

As the movie opens, Chan’s character, Quan, picks up his teenage daughter at school and lets us know how protective he is just in time for her to get blown up. He visits the man he thinks knows who is responsible, an Irish politician and former IRA member named Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan, working with the man who cast him in “Goldeneye”). The plot here relates to The Troubles and some renegades who want to start them up again, so get ready for lots of whiskey in cut glass highball glasses. He patiently and politely refuses to leave until he can see Hennessy, so, once he’s been patted down (“He’s just carrying his groceries,” the security guys assure their boss), he is ushered into Hennessy’s office and given the brush off. It turns out the groceries are the ingredients for a bomb, which Quan installs safely in a place that is conveniently empty. “One old man running circles around us,” says Hennessy. “I won’t underestimate him again.” Oh, yes he will.

There’s not enough substance here to make its overall dreariness worth it. And too much “how to” to watch without feeling very uncomfortable that the ones we are underestimating in real life are the bad guys.

Parents should know that this film includes extremely violent peril and action with many characters injured and killed, terrorist bombings, torture, murder, assault weapons, traps, fights, graphic and disturbing images, sad deaths, sexual references and situations including using sex to get information or access, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Should the police torture witnesses to prevent terrorist attacks? How were Quan’s actions different from the people he was fighting?

If you like this, try: The “John Wick” films

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Action/Adventure DVD/Blu-Ray movie review Movies -- format Thriller

The LEGO Ninjago Movie

Posted on September 21, 2017 at 7:15 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some mild action and rude humor
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/cartoon peril and violence, mayhem but no one seriously injured or killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 22, 2017
Date Released to DVD: December 18, 2017

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2017
It’s colorful and entertaining, but it does not come close to its hilariously meta predecessors, “The LEGO Movie” and “LEGO Batman.” It does not draw from as rich a cultural vein as the first two and we have become accustomed to the once-astonishingly meticulous and mischievous use of the LEGO bricks and people. Some children may be upset about the theme of parental abandonment and a father who is a bad guy, even though it is portrayed with gentle humor. But it is often quite cute and it has a couple of very funny ideas.

The movie begins with live action, when a boy (Kaan Guldur) who carries a LEGO figure in his pocket ducks into a curios and antiques store to avoid some bullies and meets Mr. Liu (Jackie Chan) and the store cat. Liu takes the battered little figure and turns him into a ninja as he begins to tell the boy a story.

At the center of the now-animated story is Lloyd (Dave Franco), on his 16th birthday. He lives with his mother, Koko (Olivia Munn) and faces bullies at school (“Have you been to high school?” he asks his mother. “It’s judgey.”) And he faces widespread derision pretty much everywhere because his father, who abandoned him as a baby, happens to be the power-mad villain Garmadon (Justin Theroux). A butt-dialed call from Garmadon, who has no interest in Lloyd and remembers him only dimly as having no hair or teeth (“That was when I was a baby!”) leaves Lloyd feeling wounded. Garmadon may be an evil genius with four arms who throws minions who displease him away via volcano, but he is still Lloyd’s dad, and Lloyd just wishes they could hang out and do guy stuff like tossing a ball.

It turns out that while the cool kids at school think they are unpopular nerds and dorks (like Clark Kent), Lloyd and his friends are secretly (like Power Rangers) super ninjas, with extremely cool “mecs” (transportation and fighting machines shaped like dragons, spiders, and robots). Their teacher, Master Wu (Chan) explains that they also have and elemental (like “Avatar”) powers over earth, water, ice, and lightning. Lloyd just has “green” power, whatever that is.

Meanwhile, after the ninjas thwart his invasion, Garmadon orders his generals to meet him by the fireplace (“The room with the lava or where people get fired?” Turns out to be both). They are quickly dispatched, and he gets back to work. But Garmadon’s next invasion is halted by an unexpected force: the (very funny and unexpected) “ultimate weapon.” Now the ninjas will have to beat or join forces with Garmadon to get the “ultimate ultimate weapon” and save the city.

As with the other films, there are knowing meta-isms, as when Master Wu explains that he won’t die unless it is to teach the ninjas a lesson. Franco and Theroux, along with Kumail Nanjiani as one of the other ninjas and Olivia Munn as Koko, are excellent voice talent. And there are some clever callbacks on Lloyd’s wish that his father would teach him to catch and throw. But it is too long and lacks the imagination and verve of the first two. I hope that’s not too judgey.

Parents should know that this film has a lot of cartoon-style peril and action (no one injured or killed but a lot of mayhem and destruction), issues of parental abandonment and villainy, and some bullying.

Family discussion: When have you shown courage, hard work, and patience? When did you see something in a new way? Why did Lloyd forgive his father?

If you like this, try: “The LEGO Movie” and “LEGO Batman”

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DVD/Blu-Ray Movies -- format

Kung Fu Panda 3

Posted on January 28, 2016 at 5:24 pm

Copyright Dreamworks Animation 2016
Copyright Dreamworks Animation 2016

The only panda more “aw-worthy” than Po (Jack Black), is the National Zoo’s Tian Tian rolling in the snow.  In this third outing, the roly poly martial arts hero is still kind, humble, brave, and wiser than he knows. And, once again, the film’s gorgeous visuals lend a touch of epic grandeur to the story that provides a nice balance, as the Furious Five do for Po.

Two important characters join the story. The first is a more powerful foe than any we have seen before. His name is Kai and he has the deep growl of J.K. Simmons and the deep animosity of someone who has been waiting centuries in the Spirit Realm for revenge. He has supernatural powers and it is genuinely shocking to see him quickly overcome a character we thought was the most powerful of all dragon warriors. Kai has the ability to steal the “chi” (life force) of his opponents. And he is determined to defeat the Furious Five, their teacher, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), and Po as well.

The second new character is Li (warmly voiced by Bryan Cranston), Po’s long-lost biological father. Po loves his adoptive father Mr. Ping (James Hong), proprietor of a small noodle restaurant. But he is very different from everyone around him. That is one reason for his compassion and ability to appreciate the difference in others. He longs to learn more about where he comes from.

As Kai comes closer, Li brings Po to the Panda community, where he is delighted to find out how quickly he feels at home. Mr. Ping has come along, and does his best to hide his jealousy, but he is worried about losing Po.

Fathers are the theme of the film, as Po in a sense loses his spiritual fathers Shifu (who tells Po he must now take over as teacher) and Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) and has to figure out what his new relationship with Li will be and how that will affect Mr. Ping. Po also loses the support of some of the characters he has always depended on when their chi is stolen by Kai. At the same time he is gaining new friends and a community he has always somehow missed, he realizes how much of a family his old friends have been for him.

Kai is coming for the pandas, and so Po must train them to protect themselves. The ultimate battle, though, will be left to the dragon warrior, and even though Po is now a teacher, he still has to discover some new techniques to fight a foe who holds the chi of so many valiant warriors. “There is always something more to learn, even for a master.”

Jennifer Yuh, whose last film in this series is the highest-grossing ever by a woman director, returns with co-director Alessandro Carloni, who worked as as artist on both the previous films. Yuh also began as an artist and the visuals are imaginative and gorgeous, inspired by Chinese paintings and landscapes. Po’s early encounters with his new extended family are endearing. While some families, especially adoptive families, may be uncomfortable with Po’s eagerness to rejoin a group he can barely remember, the issues of abandonment and strain between the biological and adoptive fathers are handled with sensitivity.

Like the martial arts masters themselves, the film achieves a seemingly effortless balance, with a light, graceful touch. It that encompasses silly comedy (mostly delightfully so, though making fun of a character with bad teeth is questionable). And it has some sophisticated, self-aware humor (beginning with a joke on the studio logo and continuing with commentary on “the power of a dramatic entrance”), along with warm-hearted lessons learned, and skillfully-orchestrated action.

Parents should know that this film includes action-style violence, some characters (temporarily) transformed and turned into enemy operatives, themes of adoption and identity with jealousy between adoptive and biological parents, and some potty humor.

Family discussion: How does Po feel differently about PIng and Li? Why did Shifu want Po to teach the others? What is the wrong thing for the right reasons?

If you like this, try: the first two “Kung Fu Panda” movies

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3D Animation Family Issues Fantasy Series/Sequel Talking animals

The Karate Kid

Posted on October 4, 2010 at 8:00 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for bullying, martial arts action violence, and some mild language
Profanity: Brief mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character gets drunk
Violence/ Scariness: Martial arts action and violence, some graphic
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 11, 2010
Date Released to DVD: October 5, 2010
Amazon.com ASIN: B002ZG99CC

“Play the pauses,” the stern, English-accented music teacher tells his violin student (Wenwen Han as Meiying). Watching, and clearly paying close attention, is Dre (Jaden Smith, son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith), just arrived in China from Detroit, where he has left behind everything he knows and cares about. Young Smith himself was paying attention, too. Watch him hold the screen even when his character is not doing anything special. Smith knows better than many adult actors how to play the pauses. In his first starring role, his deft and engaging work is the heart of the film.

The first “Karate Kid,” released in 1984, starred Ralph Macchio as a teenager who gets martial arts lessons from a handyman (Pat Morita) and takes on the guys who have been bullying him at a big climactic karate match. There were two sequels with Macchio and then “The Next Karate Kid” starring future Oscar-winner Hilary Swank. In this version, Smith plays a 12-year-old who moves to China when his mother (Taraji P. Henson) is transferred to Beijing. At first he feels lost. Bullies attack him, leaving him humiliated and angry. When the maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) comes to his rescue, Dre asks for lessons. And when Mr. Han commits to have Dre compete in the kung fu championship in just three months, it’s time to cue up the training montage and zoom in on the Great Wall.

Even if they had not already made this movie four times, there would not be any surprises in the story. But the movie can still surprise us with its specificity of choices and the connections of its characters. Chan, who has too often been ill-served in his American movies, is well-suited to the role of the taciturn mentor. His one fight scene is as electrifying as ever and should bring a new generation of viewers to his Chinese classics. Smith has his father’s confidence and charm on screen. And it is a pleasure to see the match of the dedicated, courageous young man and the wise teacher work as well for the performers as it does for the characters.

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Action/Adventure Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week For the Whole Family Remake Stories About Kids

The Spy Next Door

Posted on May 12, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Jackie Chan, the most graceful and acrobatic of men when it comes to action scenes, is also one of the most clumsy when it comes to dialogue. So it is clever to cast him as a man who is awkward and unsure of himself in any situation that doesn’t involve his unique combination of tumbling, gymnastics, martial arts, and defying gravity.

In “The Spy Next Door,” he plays Bob Ho, a Chinese agent on loan to the CIA, investigating a Russian bad guy named Poldark (Icelandic star Magnús Scheving). With Poldark captured, Bob has another target in mind, his beautiful next-door neighbor Gillian (Amber Valletta). They have been dating for three months, and he would like to marry her. But there are three problems — her children. Oh, and he has not told Gillian what he does for a living. She thinks he has a nice boring job selling pens.

Gillian has to go away to care for her father just as Poldark escapes. And Bob has to take care of the kids and stop the bad guy. At any given moment, it is hard to say which is the more challenging, or more dangerous. As someone says in the movie, “Spying is easy; parenting is hard.”

Yes, it’s silly, but it is the kind of entertaining silliness that is aimed squarely at eight-year-olds who are old enough to enjoy the action and young enough to think an adult saying “poop” is funny. Chan is a long way from his best years as an action star, briefly glimpsed in the opening credits to depict his character’s career as a spy. But he can still dazzle with stunts that are part ballet, part juggling, and part magic. It is fun to see him flip a folding chair with his foot, making perfection look easy, but it is just as much fun to see him in the traditional closing credit-sequence outtakes, showing us that it is even harder than we guessed. Kids, don’t try this at home.

The film does a good job of keeping things light on the good guys vs. bad guys part of the story, with bad guy Poldark repeatedly confounded by being forced to wear clothes that do not meet his standards of elegance and fashion. He and his partner are more silly than scary, clearly inspired by Boris and Natasha with their thick Cold War accents, wacky schemes, and pratfalls. As Bob has to find a way to win the hearts of each of the kids the movie finds some unexpected sweetness and even a quiet moment or two amid the mayhem. The very appealing Madeline Carroll (“Swing Vote”) plays Gillian’s step-daughter who is still hoping that her father will come back. She does a particularly nice job as the sulky teenager who does not want to admit even to herself how much she depends on Gillian. She is such a natural that she even makes Chan seem to relax when the two of them sit companionably on the roof together.

Kids will relate to the parallels between espionage and parenting, especially when Bob has to find a four-year-old in a princess costume in a mall filled with girls in shiny pink dresses and when he uses his spy gear to spot contraband like snacks being taken upstairs. And the movie wisely shows Bob refusing to use his skills to take on the bullies who are preying on Gillian’s son, encouraging him to deal with them himself. It may not be especially fresh — there is a lot of the “Mr. Nanny” and “The Pacifier” in the concept. And I did not care for the inappropriate “pick-up” line Gillian’s son (Will Shadley) tries out on a middle school girl (at least he learns quickly that it was a mistake). But Chan in action is still magic. Valletta brings warmth and good humor to the role of the mother who has to be something of a super-spy to stay on top of three children. Carroll continues to show promise as an actress and has a very natural screen presence. And the movie has some nicely reassuring thoughts about blended families. The intended audience will enjoy the action and humor and families might even find something in it to discuss on the way home.

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Action/Adventure Comedy
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