John Wick: Chapter 4

Posted on March 19, 2023 at 4:23 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and violence
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and very graphic peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, disturbing and gory images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 24, 2023
Date Released to DVD: June 12, 2023
Copyright Lionsgate 2023

I will begin with a quote from another Keanu Reeves movie: “Whoa.”

John Wick: Chapter 4,” almost twice as long as the original, is, like its three predecessors, non-stop action with just enough story and character to establish the stakes. And endless style. As important as the stunts, and reminder, this series was conceived by stunt coordinators, is the demimondaine, the world within a world it occupies. This is the world of assassins. They have their own rules, their own leaders, their own currency, their own telecommunications, a fascinating blend of high and low tech, and their own ultra-luxurious and ultra-discreet hotels. We will not worry about how they support themselves since most of their assassinating seems to be other members of their community, or why none of their chases and shoot-outs never attract anyone from law enforcement.

The rules are made and enforced by a group called The Table, and the person in charge is now an effete French Marquis (Bill Skarsgård just as creepy without the clown make-up as he was in “It”). He is always shown in the grandest possible settings, enjoying exquisite food, drink, art, and music.

And he has a hit out on John Wick. Many many hits out on John Wick.

That’s basically it. A lot of people are highly motivated to kill John Wick, and he goes to various places to avoid being killed and they keep coming after him and he keeps being the takes-a-licking-and-keeps-on-ticking John Wick we know and love.

The Marquis is more in the burn it all to the ground category. He de-sanctifies the Continental Hotel, the sanctuary for all Table-ers. This puts Winston (Keith David) back on John Wick’s side. Most of the intrigue in the film comes from the shifting realignments of the characters’ loyalties. We even get a glimpse of a backstory for John Wick, as he has to re-connect with his family to position himself to resolve things with the Table, permanently.

The Marquis has deployed a former colleague and friend to kill John Wick, the blind assassin Cane (a galvanizing performance by Donnie Yen). It is not about money; that would not be enough. It is the safety of Cane’s daughter. John Wick understands and even respects that. The fights with the two of them are simply spectacular and there is one falling down the steps scene that is an instant classic.

There is a new character in this film who almost steals the movie. He says he is nobody, and that is the only name he has. He has a dog sidekick. Somehow he can find John Wick when no one else has any idea where he is. And he is dazzlingly played by Shamier Anderson. Spin-off, please.

There are many striking locations. There are so so many fight scenes, featuring guns, knives, bigger guns, cars, nunchucks, martial arts, old-school punching, and swords, often combined. And an attack dog. Like all the best action/stunt scenes, they are choreographed like a ballet, even down to the spurts of blood. Even at almost three hours, the franchise has the combination of exciting stunts, expertly paced (if contrary to the laws of physics and, well, reality — and look out for that fall down the steps) and the intriguing world the characters occupy makes this all the fans could wish for.

NOTE: Stay through the credits for an extra scene.

Parents should know that this film is about assassins. There is non-stop action and peril with many characters injured and killed, including major characters, and gory, disturbing images, plus strong language

Family discussion: Why did John Wick want to be known as “loving husband?” What do you think is the meaning of “such is life?” If the series continues, who should be in the next chapter?

If you like this, try: the other John Wick movies and the Matrix series

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Bill and Ted Face the Music

Posted on August 27, 2020 at 5:32 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some language
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sci-fi/fantasy peril and violence, mostly played for comedy
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 28, 2020
Date Released to DVD: November 9, 2020

Copyright 2020 Orion Pictures
I am pleased to report that Bill and Ted are still excellent. Bill and Ted Face the Music is the third in the series, 31 years after the original “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” where the two dim but sweet-natured would-be rockers from San Dimas managed to pass their high school history class by traveling through time in a telephone booth. They also learned that their destiny was to create a song that would unite the world. Two years later, in “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey,” their adventures continued, including a visit to hell and a “Seventh Seal”-inspired encounter with Death. Much of the core cast of the original films returned, including Alex Winter (who also produced) as Bill, Keanu Reeves as Ted, William Sadler as Death, Hal London, Jr. as Ted’s stern father, and Amy Stoch as Missy, who was in high school with Bill and Ted but in the first film is married to Bill’s father.

In the present day, Bill and Ted are married to the medieval princesses who traveled through time with them in the earlier films, now played by Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays. Things are not going well. Bill and Ted still perform as the Wyld Stallyns, but not in arenas. Their current gig is at Missy’s latest wedding, to Ted’s younger brother Deacon (“SNL’s” Beck Bennett). Their performance of a song named something like “That Which Binds Us Through Time, The Chemical, Physical and Biological Nature of Love,” combines some of the strangest sounds known to music, even stranger in combination guttural throat singing, bagpipes, and a theramin is, at best mystifying to the wedding guests. Basically, they hate it. Their wives insist on marriage counseling (with the always-great Jillian Bell) and we get a sense of the problem when the guys cannot understand why “couples counseling” might not mean both couples at the same time.

Each couple has a daughter. Ted’s daughter is Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Bill’s is Thea (Samara Weaving, the niece of Hugo Weaving who was Reeves’ nemesis in the “Matrix” films). The girls are 24, still living at home, and spend all day listening to music. In other words, they take after their dads.

Bill and Ted are beginning to question whether they should just give up their music. But then Kelly (Kristen Schall) shows up in a futuristic, egg-shaped time traveling capsule. That song that was going to unite the world — they would have to produce and perform it that night or it would be the end of everything. “The Great Turntable is Tipping. Reality will collapse and time and space will cease to exist.”

Everyone ends up getting involved. The guys go forward in time to see if they can get the song from various future selves. (Boy, the people in charge of hair had some fun with that.) The princesses/wives explore the multiverse to see if there’s a happier ending. And Billie and Thea do what Bill and Ted did in the first film; they go back in history and pick up some help.

Some viewers will need to be brought up to date on the earlier films, as there are references that will delight the fans. Some younger viewers will need a history lesson about phone booths. (Of course Bill and Ted do their time traveling old school.) And some fans of the original many need to check with a younger member of the family to learn who Kid Cudi is. I hope all ages know who Dave Grohl is.

It’s all sweet, silly fun, with a conclusion that is likely to bring some tearing up from the parents in the audience, and make all Bill and Ted fans feel that this has been a very excellent adventure for us all.

Parents should know there is some mild language and some mostly comic peril and violence, including characters who are temporarily “killed” and sent to Hell.

Family discussion: Would you want to meet the future versions of yourself? What would you want to know?

If you like this, try: the two earlier “Bill and Ted” movies and the San Diego Comic-Con panel about the movie.

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Movie MVPs of 2019: Florence Pugh and Adam Driver (Plus Keanu!)

Posted on December 31, 2019 at 8:00 am

Every year one thing I especially look forward to are the surprises — the actors we have not heard of as the year begins but who will dazzle us with acting skill and cinematic charisma, and to those we think we know but discover all over again as they show us range and ability we had not recognized. This year my acting MVPs are one in each category.

The one who was all but unknown last year but gave us three performances that could not have been more different and each was fully committed, thoughtful, and utterly compelling.

First, she played real-life wrestler Saraya Knight in “Fighting With My Family,” written and directed by Stephen Merchant.

Then, she was Dani in “Midsommer,” one of the year’s most disturbing horror films. She plays a perhaps-demanding but overall normal young women struggling with a devastating loss who joins her sometimes-distant boyfriend (Jack Raynor) at a once-every-90-years summer festival that gets, well, out of hand.

She plays Amy in Greta Gerwig’s gorgeous “Little Women,” giving more depth and heart to the character than in any previous portrayal, including Alcott’s.

All of this makes me very excited about her next film, “Black Widow,” where she plays the sister of Scarlett Johansson’s Avenger.

While we wait, take a look at her earlier performances as Lady Macbeth (not the Shakespeare one, though equally murderous).

And she played Cordelia opposite Sir Anthony Hopkins in “King Lear” (available on Amazon Prime):]

We already knew Adam Driver, of course, from his breakthrough on Lena Dunham’s “Girls” to his appearances as Kylo Ren in two Star Wars movies. But 2019 was another breakthrough for him as he appeared in very different roles in three films.

He was back as Kylo Ren, of course, in “The Rise of Skywalker.”

He played real-life Congressional staffer Daniel Jones, who would not let the record of American abuse of detainees in “The Report” (on Amazon Prime).

And he played a character based on writer-director Noah Baumbach in “Marriage Story” (available on Netflix). The vulnerability he shows in this film is breathtaking. He even sings Sondheim, and it is very moving. His co-star, Scarlett Johansson, has also had a remarkable year with a beautiful performance in this film and what I think is her career best so far in “Jojo Rabbit.”

I was also lucky enough to see him on Broadway in his Tony-nominated performance in “Burn This.” Coming up for him is “The Last Duel,” written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who also co-star, along with “Killing Eve’s” Jodie Comer.

I have to mention Keanu Reeves, as well, who should get some sort of good sport award for playing a gif-worthy heightened version of himself in “Always Be My Maybe,” a different version of himself in “Between Two Firms,” Duke Caboom, an Evel Kenievel-like daredevil doll in “Toy Story 4,” and an unstoppable assassin in “John Wick 3.”

I look forward to more from all of these performers (more Bill and Ted!) but most of all I look forward to the actors we don’t know at all this year but by next December 31 we won’t break able to imagine the movies without them.

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Toy Story 4

Posted on June 18, 2019 at 12:16 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/action peril and violence, character sacrifices a part of his body
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 21, 2019
Date Released to DVD: October 7, 2019

Let’s get right to the big three questions about “Toy Story 4.” Yes, it’s good, yes, you’re going to cry, and yes, you have to stay ALL the way to the end for one final blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that is worth the wait.

The small miracle of the “Toy Story” series is that a film that would have been memorable for its technology alone as the first fully computer-animated feature film, the shiny, plastic toy characters the focus because Pixar had not yet developed the technology to animate hair, fur, or more expressive faces, was smart, heartfelt, and genuinely moving. Woody (Tom Hanks) was a retro cowboy doll with a pull-cord attached to a voice box and said things like “There’s a snake in my boot” and “You’re my favorite deputy!” When their boy Andy was away and the toys came to life, Woody was their natural leader, looked up to by the other toys, including Mr. and Mrs. Potatohead, the T-Rex (Wallace Shawn), the slinky dog, and Bo Peep (Annie Potts).

And then a new toy arrived, a shiny spaceman named Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), with flashing lights and pop-out wings, and a digital voice to proclaim, “To infinity and beyond!” But Buzz did not know he was a toy, creating an existential conflict. He thought he really was a space explorer who could really fly. The conflict in the film came from Woody’s jealousy over Andy’s affection for the shiny new toy and his frustration in not being able to persuade Buzz that he was not “real” in the way he thought he was. His purpose was not to explore space and fight the evil Emperor Zurg. His purpose was to be a companion and inspiration and comfort to Andy, a boy we barely glimpse in the film. The excitement comes from the toys’ efforts to escape the mutilations of the boy next door and to be reunited with Andy when they become separated. The heartwarming theme of the film, though, is about the friendship that develops between the rivals and their mutual understanding of the meaning of their existence as Andy’s toys.

These themes continued through the next two films. The second raised the issue of value — the difference between a mint condition toy still in the box that can be sold for a good price and a well-loved toy that might be scuffed and missing some pieces but meant something to a child, even a child who has grown up and has other interests. The third film gracefully and very poignantly saw Andy leave for college but give his toys to the imaginative pre-schooler Bonnie, so they could continue to fulfill their purpose. The first image in the original film was of clouds in a blue sky that turned out to be painted on the ceiling of Andy’s room. The final image of the third one was the real sky, showing that Andy’s world had opened up.

So, how to move on from that perfect ending? With another existential crisis, or maybe two. Woody has always defined himself by being important to a child. But increasingly Bonnie is leaving him in the closet, even taking his sheriff star and pinning it on Jessie (Joan Cusack). When Bonnie is nervous about her first day of kindergarten, Woody sees a chance to be useful and he sneaks into her backpack so he can to with her.

But what comforts Bonnie at school is creating something new. From a plastic spork and a broken popsicle stick she makes a…something she calls “Forky” (Tony Hale). When Woody tells the other toys back at home that Bonnie made a friend at school, he is speaking literally. But, in a parallel to Buzz in the first movie, Forky does not know he’s a toy. He cannot adjust to the notion that he is more than a single-use plastic utensil whose destiny is to be thrown in the trash. He keeps trying to throw himself away. But Woody sees Forky as a chance to be useful to Bonnie. If Woody can’t be important to Bonnie, he can teach Forky how to be.

And once again, the characters are separated from each other and from their child. Bonnie and her family rent an RV and go on a trip that puts the toys in two settings rich with fascinating details, colorful characters, and all kinds of wildly inventive and delightfully treacherous adventures. The first is an antique shop, where Woody glimpses the lamp stand that his old friend — and maybe more — Bo Peep used to be on. He brings Forky inside to look for her, and there they meet Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) a Chatty Cathy-style talking little girl doll with perfect curls and an imperfect voice box and her entourage of identical creepy-looking ventriloquist dummies all called Benson. Note that “Toy Story 2” involved “vintage” toys but now they are antiques. Keanu Reeves all but steals the film as a proudly Canadian Evel Knievel-style stunt rider toy called Duke Caboom.

The other new setting is a carnival, with rides and arcade games, and there we meet two plush toy prizes, Ducky and Bunny, voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who have a blast riffing with each other. And it turns out that Bo Peep is there, too, having left her lamp, traveling with the carnival and seeing the world.

There are separations and perilous rescues, many near-misses and close calls, a gasp-inducing sacrifice, and a very sad farewell. The Pixar team is getting older, and they take us with them as they confront their own existential conundrums. You know you’re not going to get out of a Pixar movie without tears, and this one may be more like boo-hoo sobs. But that’s because we care about these characters and we care about the way they care about and for each other. Watch out for another shot of the sky — and for some fun scenes over the credits and, when the long, long list of filmmakers and production babies is over, a just-perfect scene at the very end.

Of course you can now buy a Forky doll. You can even choose between one that talks and one that walks. But I’m guessing that kids who see this movie will want to make something of their own.

Parents should know that this movie has extended action/fantasy-style peril with some scary ventriloquist dummies, and a genuinely shocking moment when a character voluntarily undergoes doll surgery to give up a piece of himself for another toy. Characters use some schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Why does Bonnie love Forky? How does Woody change Forky’s mind? Did Woody make the right decisions about Gabby Gabby and Bo Peep?

If you like this, try: The other “Toy Story” films and Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life” and “Monsters, Inc.”

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