The 355

Posted on January 6, 2022 at 5:24 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, brief strong language, and suggestive material
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drinking to relieve stress
Diversity Issues: Extended action-style peril and violence, torture, murder, chases, explosions, characters injured and killed
Date Released to Theaters: January 7, 2022

Copyright Universal 2021
It’s a little bit “Bourne,” a little bit “Avengers,” and a little bit “The A-Team” except that the main characters are women and unlike “The A-Team,” the plan never really comes together. And by “plan,” I mean the script.

This is a continent-hopping spy story that has such low expectations of its audience that an establishing shot of Paris clearly showing the Eiffel Tower is helpfully labeled “Paris, France” and one of Washington, D.C. showing the Capitol and Washington Monument is helpfully labeled “Washington, D.C., USA.” At least they did not add, “Planet Earth.”

The storyline, which hardly rises to the level of a plot, is similarly simple. There’s a McGuffin (Hitchcock’s term for whatever it is that everyone in the movie is trying to get). There’s a hard drive with a program that could disrupt anything, from financial records to cell phones to airplane navigation systems. Spies from different countries are trying to keep it from the bad guys. At first, they are each on their own. But, hang on for the big surprise, they have to learn to trust each other and work together. There’s another “surprise” I won’t spoil except to say it’s clear what’s happening in the first 15 minutes and most of the movie is getting it, losing it, and getting it back again.

The spies are: American Mace (Jessica Chastain), a CIA field agent gone rogue since the death of her partner, British former MI6 computer whiz who is determined to stay away from spying Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o), German Marie (Diane Kruger), fighting the suspicion that she may be a double agent, and Colombian Graciela (Penelope Cruz), who is a therapist, not a spy, insisting she will never use a gun, and just wants to get home to her husband and children. Other members of the cast whose roles I won’t spoil are Sebastian Stan (Bucky in the MCU) and Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing.

The title refers to a real-life female spy of the Revolutionary War era whose identity is still unknown to this day. You’d be much better off watching that story in the television series “Turn: Washington’s Spies.”Even by the very, very low standards of early January movies (Liam Neeson, where are you?), always a dumping ground for films the studios want to get off their books, and even with an all-star cast (two Oscar-winners in this mess!) “The 355” fails in its most basic tasks, telegraphing every development with a cinematic bullhorn (you think Graciela is not going to end up shooting a gun?). Only Bingbing is at all credible in the fight scenes and she arrives too late to make it worthwhile. There are a couple of brighter moments when the ladies are just hanging out, but the action scenes are poorly staged and the non-action scenes are repetitive and dull. The scariest part of the movie is the conclusion promising a sequel.

Parents should know that this movie has extended action violence with chases, explosions, shooting, torture, poison, and fight scenes.

Family discussion: Why did the spies decide to trust each other? When did they trust the wrong people?

If you like this, try: “The Transporter” and “Hobbs & Shaw,” and better films from these performers

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

Posted on December 9, 2019 at 8:05 am

Best Film:
Parasite

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:
Parasite

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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Awards

NY Film Critics Circle Awards: The Irishman, Nyong’o, Banderas

Posted on December 5, 2019 at 9:13 am

Copyright Sony Pictures Classics 2019

Best Film: The Irishman
Best Director: Benny and Josh Safdie – Uncut Gems
Best Actor: Antonio Banderas – Pain and Glory
Best Actress: Lupita Nyong’o – Us
Best Supporting Actor: Joe Pesci – The Irishman
Best Supporting Actress: Laura Dern – Marriage Story and Little Women

Copyright Columbia Pictures 2019

Best Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino – Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood
Best Cinematography: Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Best Foreign Language Film: Parasite
Best Documentary: Honeyland
Best Animated Film: I Lost My Body
Best First Film: Atlantics
Special Awards: Randy Newman, Indie Collect

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Awards

Black Panther

Posted on February 15, 2018 at 6:38 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book-style peril and violence, guns, fistfights, chases, explosions, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 16, 2018
Date Released to DVD: May 14, 2018
Copyright Marvel Studios 2018

Wakanda forever! And all hail writer/director Ryan Coogler, the Black Panther, the Dora Milaje, and everyone who helped to bring this next-level, majestic, and wildly entertaining superhero movie to life.

Quick primer for those unfamiliar with the Marvel Universe: Black Panther, the first major black comic book superhero, lives in a self-sufficient, almost completely hidden African country called Wakanda. An American CIA field agent describes it as a poor, undeveloped country: “textiles, shepherds, cool outfits.” That is how they want to be seen by the world. In reality, thanks to a meteor that landed there in prehistoric times, they are the world’s only source of a metal called vibranium, which is extremely powerful, and which has been the basis for the world’s most advanced technology. Because Wakanda is cut off from the rest of the continent by mountains and rainforests, they have never been colonized and had very little interaction with the rest of the world. When they did, it did not go well. King T’Chaka spoke to the UN in “Captain America: Civil War,” and was assassinated. After a brief scene set in the past, we begin the story when his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is about to take over as king.

Much of the film takes place in Wakanda, gloriously imagined by production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter, reflecting extensive research into African design. It is worth seeing the film a second time just to revel in the wonderfully vibrant shapes and colors, and in the African landscape.

Copyright Marvel Studios 2018

Wakanda’s all-female military is called the Dora Milaje, led by General Okoye (Danai Gurira). She advises T’Challa about a mission outside of Wakanda, where he is going to rescue his one-time girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a spy who has gone undercover and has been captured by warlords. “Don’t freeze,” Okoye tells T’Challa. “I never freeze,” he replies. But he does. That’s the effect Nakia has on him. At first, she is angry that he interrupted her mission. But then he tells her that he wants her there when he becomes king, and she is glad to agree.

When they return, we see him honor his mother (Angela Bassett, regal and steadfast) and get teased by his sister, the tech whiz Shuri (Letitia Wright). She is this movie’s version of James Bond’s Q, except that she does not just provide the cool gadgets; she invents them. Her motto seems to be what she tells her brother: “Just because something works does not mean it can’t be improved.” That comment, made as a gentle taunt to a brother who is not as comfortable with change as she is, is just one example of the way that this film is able to raise profound issues in a way that resonates but is never heavy-handed or distracting. And the way T’Challa responds to being teased like the admonition not to freeze, helps to humanize the brilliant, brave, handsome, wealthy, powerful superhero.

T’Challa wants to continue to keep Wakanda away from the troubles of the rest of the world. Nakia tells him that they are obligated to share what they have to help protect others. She says, “I can’t be happy here knowing there are people out there who have nothing.” Of course, they are both right, and this conflict is reflected throughout the film in a way that is remarkably nuanced and thoughtful, not just for a superhero movie but in any context.

As I have often said, superhero movies depend more on the villain than the hero, and this one has one of the all-time greats. Michael B. Jordan, who starred in Coogler’s two previous films, “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed,” is nothing less than mesmerizing here, playing a man who represents the “other” to T’Challa, but who is connected to him as well. The film touches lightly but with insight on the difference between being an African, raised in a country where everyone is black and unqualifiedly patriotic, if insular, and being an African-American, deeply conflicted about the relationship with “home,” but better able to understand the plight of others. It touches on other vital contemporary issues like refugees and radicalization and it is all completely organic to the story.

And it is a full-on superhero movie, with a wild chase through an Asian city some very cool stunts, and a huge climactic fight scene involving a massive battle and at least two different modes of transportation, not including the battle rhinos. Yes, I said battle rhinos. I know, right?

The supporting cast includes an outstanding Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”), a rare on-screen appearance by motion-capture master Andy Serkis with his Tolkien co-star Martin Freeman as a CIA agent, Forest Whitaker as a priest, Winston Duke as the leader of on of Wakanda’s five tribes, and “This is Us” star Sterling K. Brown as a guy you’re better off not knowing too much about until you see the movie, which I hope you do, more than once. You’ll want to be a part of Wakanda, too.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive comic book-style action violence with many characters injured and killed, guns, spears, hand-to-hand combat, chases, explosions, and some strong language.

Family discussion: If T’Challa and Erik had grown up in each other’s environments, how would they be different? How should Wakanda resolve the conflict between tradition and innovation? Is it true that it is hard for a good man to be a good king? Why?

If you like this, try: the Black Panther comics and the Avengers movies

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The Queen of Katwe

Posted on September 22, 2016 at 5:59 pm

null
Copyright Disney 2016
An illiterate girl from the slums of Uganda became an internationally ranked chess champion. So of course there is a Disney movie. But director Mira Nair has not made the usual feel-good underdog story. It is a wonderfully rich depiction of a family and a culture, as complex in its way as a master-level chess game with intricate moves by many pieces with different strengths and vulnerabilities.

At the center of the story is Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o of “12 Years a Slave”), a young widow with five children living in dire poverty. She cannot afford to send her children to school, and so they sell maize in the street and at an open market. Her oldest daughter, Night (Taryn Kyaze) is a young teenager already attracting the attention of a man. The youngest is a baby. When Harriet’s daughter Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) and her brother are lured into a chess class with cups of porridge, Harriet is scared and angry. She needs the children to bring in money, and she believes that the chess teacher, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo of “Selma”) is using them for some sort of gambling operation. But Katende, who is waiting for a job as an engineer, persuades her that he just wants her children to learn.

Nair (“Monsoon Wedding,” “The Namesake”) has a great eye, and a great gift for creating vibrant, layered, wonderfully inviting communities on screen. As Harriet tries to protect her family, despite eviction, a sexual predator, a terrible injury, she recognizes that she has to do more than keep her children safe. She has to open the world to them. Phiona cannot read or count, but somehow she can see eight moves ahead on a chess board as only a very few masters of the game can do. Robert knows that poverty is only the beginning of the problem the children face. The snobbery and bigotry of the middle class Ugandans is the real obstacle. They will not even allow the children from the slum to compete. Robert tricks the official into agreeing to let them in if they can raise the entry fee. And then he raises the money himself, by playing soccer.

Newcomer Nalwanga, from a community much like Phiona’s, has a winning screen presence, and we can see that she has inherited her ability to think through chess problems from her mother’s canny navigation of the challenges to the family’s most basic survival. Nyong’o shows a grace and courage, even in the direst moments, that echo Phiona’s resilience.

Parents should know that this movie includes themes of poverty and deprivation, child is hurt in an accident with scenes of painful medical treatment, there are also some references to sexual predators and there is an out of wedlock teen pregnancy.

Family discussion: Why did Robert change his mind? Why did Phiona get cranky after she returned home?

If you like this, try: “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” “Brooklyn Castle,” and “Endgame”

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