Argylle

Posted on February 18, 2024 at 5:33 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for strong violence and action and some strong language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action-style peril, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None

Review by guest critic Danielle Mathias with many thanks.


Matthew Vaughn has a knack for cheeky yet surprising action movies. If we didn’t find that out from the Kingsman franchise, his new movie Argylle is surely one for the books. This time around, his quintessential and clueless leading character who is dropped into a world of spies is Elly Conway, played expertly by Bryce Dallas Howard. Elly is a successful writer of a spy series, Argylle, and when she’s stumped for a proper ending to her latest book, she takes off with her beloved cat, Alfie, to spend time with her mother and writing partner (Catherine O’Hara).

Does Elly ever make it to her mom’s? Of course not! On her train ride she meets a fan who happens to be a spy who happens to be there to save her life. Aidan (Sam Rockwell) swiftly awakens Elly to the world she’s always written about, but didn’t know existed–even though the players in this world knew all about her. Not only are her books accurate, they are verbatim what is happening in a real off the books spy operation that mirrors her fictional one. The powers that be are not best pleased that this new book hasn’t clued them into the goings on in the real world. Elly stopped her story as Agent Argylle was meeting a man about a master file, a file that could bring down the very organization he defected from. The master file, as you may have guessed, is the “McGuffin” everyone is always after in an action flick. Between the code decrypting and secret identities, Argylle takes us on a journey to find out who Elly really is and what she has hidden, even from herself, because it may be the key to everything.

Copyright 2024 Universal Pictures

Howard is a charming, awkward protagonist who is our conduit into the world; she’s just as lost as we are and as she learns we do, too. Playing opposite her is Sam Rockwell, who brings a structure and levity to the situation that is always needed. He is our benevolent guide in a story where no one can be trusted and he plays the sarcastic rogue well. The two play off of each other easily, if not cheesily. The all star supporting cast includes Catherine O’Hara, Brian Cranston, Samuel L Jackson, Arianna Debose, John Cena and a quick cameo from pop star and sometimes actress Dua Lipa and each brings their own distinct flavor of comedy no matter how long they’re on screen. Henry Cavill was as charming as ever in a role that was made for him. Though he isn’t as central or present as the promotion suggests, Cavill steals the screen when he is present.

Argylle has everything a Vaughn action movie needs, and, unusual for him, a toned-down PG-13 rating. It has a relatable lead, multiple techsavvy somebodies, well choreographed and complicated fight sequences, and absolutely absurd plot twists. While the CGI usage was a bit heavy handed and the absurdity took a turn for the worse toward the end, all in all, “Argylle” is a distinctly fun time with a surprisingly twist-filled plot and mind-bending fight scenes. And, as in any Vaughn film, there is a levity and a self awareness that many action movies lack, but sorely need.

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The Bad Guys

Posted on April 21, 2022 at 5:36 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated.PG for action and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended cartoon action-style law enforcement peril and violence
Diversity Issues: A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 22, 2022

Copyright 2022 Universal
“The Bad Guys,” based on the popular series of graphic novels by Aaron Blabey, is an adorable animated film about guys who are not as bad as they think. They are seen as the scariest animals on earth, but even when they are committing crimes, they do not realize that they have good qualities, too. They are loyal friends, for example, and honest some of the time. We first see Wolf (Sam Rockwell) and Snake (Mark Maron) in a diner, where Wolf not only celebrates Snake’s birthday but even when there’s no one to pay for the meal, they make sure to pay for it anyway.

And then they rob the bank across the street. Okay, they’re bad. That could be, though, because they are just behaving the way people expect. Wolves, sharks, snakes, tarantulas, and piranhas have bad reputations. So they’re just living up or rather down to what the humans around them expect.

Adults watching with their children may notice the resemblance to some very adults-only movies, the first scene a tip of the cinematic chapeau to “Pulp Fiction,” not just the diner setting but the rhythm of the dialogue and the editing. Like the “Sesame Street” versions of adult content, it is there to entertain the grown-ups, but it is also there because even toned-down, it is fun to watch.

“The Bad Guys” has the fun of another genre kids do not often see, the heist film, with all kinds of problem-solving, setbacks, and teamwork. In addition to Wolf, the cool, Danny Ocean planner-type, and Snake, an escape artist, the gang also includes, of course, a tech whiz, Awkwafina as Tarantula, and eight legs come in very handy working on keyboards. Shark (Craig Robinson) is the master of disguise. And Piranha (Anthony Ramos) is the muscle. (The movie characters wisely have more diversity than the books.) The voice talent is superb. Not all actors can do voice work. It makes sense; they’re used to being able to rely on their faces and bodies to express emotion. But Sam Rockwell gives one of his all-time best performances as Wolf, perfectly matching the cool sophistication of the character and his moments of doubt and vulnerability. The animation is outstanding, stylish and dynamic when it needs to be, touches of anime, especially with the police officer voiced by Alex Borstein, and a bit of a hand-drawn feel to prevent CGI over-perfection.

There are some fun surprises and twists along the way and of course some lessons on the satisfactions of being a good guy. But not too good; we want to leave room for some sequels.

Parents should know that while it is all done with humor, this is a movie about characters who commit crimes, mostly theft. There are some chases and some cartoon-style peril and a mind-control machine, but no one gets hurt. The movie also includes some rude humor and schoolyard language.

Family discussion: What makes someone bad or good? Why is it hard for the bad guys to consider others’ rights and feelings? Which is your favorite bad guy character and why?

If you like this, try: the book and its sequels and “Zootopia”

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The One and Only Ivan

Posted on August 20, 2020 at 10:12 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: PG
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Offscreen--critically ill mother, parent of a character killed by poachers, sad death of a beloved character
Diversity Issues: A metaphoric theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 21, 2020

Copyright 2020 Disney
There was a real Ivan, and he was a silverback gorilla who was adopted by a family and then, at age 3 when he was too big to live in a home, he became an attraction at a shopping mall, kept indoors in a cage for 27 years. Community protests in 1997 led to his being transferred to a zoo, where he has acres to roam. His story inspired a children’s book by Katherine Applegate, and now a movie streaming on DisneyPlus, produced by Angelina Jolie.

In the film, Bryan Cranston plays Mack, the ringmaster, owner, and only human performer in a tiny circus located in a run-down shopping mall. Ivan, voiced with warmth and feeling by Sam Rockwell, is the star of the show, though his only “trick” is pretending to be fierce. The other animals include a high-strung seal, an elegant French poodle (Helen Mirren), a baseball-playing chicken (Chaka Khan), and the kind and wise elephant named Stella, voiced by Jolie. A stray dog (Danny DeVito) hangs out with them when he can escape the not-very-watchful eye of the watchman. He is dubbed Bob by Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), the daughter of the animal keeper/custodian/lighting guy and all-around handyman (Ramon Rodriguez as George). Julia’s mother is critically ill, so she spends much of her time sitting near Ivan’s cage and drawing pictures.

Ticket sales are poor and the circus is losing money. So Mack buys a baby elephant named Ruby (voiced by “The Florida Project’s” Brooklynn Prince) to generate some excitement. The other animals welcome her, especially Stella, though Ivan is a little jealous when she becomes the headliner.

Julia encourages Ivan to use her crayons and he begins to create some art. Mack makes that a part of the show. But it becomes clear that this is not a story about saving the circus. It is a story about saving the animals.

That transition is an awkward tonal shift with some very sad developments and memories and an abrupt conclusion. Cranston does as well as possible acting opposite CGI characters but there is not much he can do to make Mack into a three-dimensional person. We sympathize with him until…we don’t? Even the most photoreal CGI with supreme skill, create with an extraordinarily meticulous understanding of movement and weight leaves us more impressed than engaged. Just because you can do something does not mean you should. Rockwell’s voice was so compelling that I occasionally closed my eyes; his voice conjured Ivan more vividly than the technology did.

Parents should know that this film includes the critical illness of a child’s mother, the shooting of Ivan’s father (both off-camera) and the very sad death of one of the animals. There is some peril and brief potty humor.

Family discussion: What are things you can’t remember and things you don’t want to remember? Why does Ruby like stories and what does she learn from them?

If you like this, try: “Madagascar” and “Free Willy”

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MVP of the Month: Real-Life Heroic Lawyers

Posted on December 16, 2019 at 9:21 am

Copyright Warner Brothers 2019
At awards season, we often get uplifting real-life stories and this year we have three that are about heroic lawyers fighting for justice against almost insurmountable odds. Here they are, with a little background on the real stories.

Mark Ruffalo as Rob Bilott in “Dark Waters

Billot was profiled by the New York Times, which dubbed him DuPont’s Biggest Nightmare. “Rob Bilott was a corporate defense attorney for eight years. Then he took on an environmental suit that would upend his entire career — and expose a brazen, decades-long history of chemical pollution.”

Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson in “Just Mercy”

Stevenson is a Harvard Law graduate who has spent his career in the town where the man who inspired the most beloved lawyer in movie history, Atticus Finch, practiced law. And like Finch, he defends those who have been unfairly accused and not had adequate access to counsel. He is also the Founder of the stunning Legacy Museum and National Memorial to Peace and Justice, sometimes called the Lynching Museum because of its extraordinary challenge to communities to acknowledge their past.

HBO has a documentary about Stevenson and his Equal Justice Initiative.

Sam Rockwell as Watson Bryant in “Richard Jewell

Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell” is based on the true story of the man who was initially hailed as a hero for discovering a bomb at a concert celebrating the Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, and then accused of planting it to make himself famous. Watson Bryant was the lawyer who represented him, proving that the FBI and the local and national media were irresponsible to the point of negligence and abuse.

The movie was inspired by a Vanity Fair article called “American Nightmare” by Marie Brenner. Here is what she said about the lawyer who happened on to Jewell because they had briefly worked together:

The simple fact was that Bryant had no qualifications for the job. He had no legal staff except for his assistant, Nadya Light, no contacts in the press, and no history in Washington. He was the opposite of media-savvy; he rarely read the papers and never watched the nightly news, preferring the Discovery Channel’s shows on dog psychology. Now that Richard Jewell was his client, he had entered a zone of worldwide media hysteria fraught with potential peril. Jewell suspected that his pickup truck had been flown in a C-130 transport plane to the F.B.I. unit at Quantico in Virginia, and Bryant worried that his friend would be arrested any minute. Worse, Bryant knew that he had nothing going for him, no levers anywhere. His only asset was his personality; he had the bravado and profane hyperbole of a southern rich boy, but he was in way over his head.

You can see the real Bryant here:

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The Real Story

Richard Jewell

Posted on December 12, 2019 at 5:42 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief bloody images
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Bombing, explosions, characters injured and killed, brief disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Portrayal of female professional using sex to manipulate men
Date Released to Theaters: December 14, 2019
Date Released to DVD: March 16, 2020

Copyright Warner Brothers 2019

Erik Erikson said that at each stage of life we have a choice between growth, learning, and compassion and fear, immaturity, and self-absorption. The final choice he posed was for old age, when people have to choose between ego integrity (satisfaction and completeness at the end of life, a sense of having made a difference) or despair (being lost, lacking a sense of purpose). (I highly recommend “Everybody Rides the Carousel,” an animated film from John and Faith Hubley, illustrating Erikson’s theories.) Two big end-of-the-year releases by two men, one in his 70’s, the other almost 90, seem to come down on different sides.

Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” is a movie by old men about what it is to be old, to be looking back on the choices you’ve made and the consequences they have had. The characters in the film, based on real people and their sometimes questionable stories, committed brutal crimes. The movie never excuses their behavior, but it portrays them in a complex, humane, elegiac manner.

89-year-old Clint Eastwood has made “Richard Jewell,” also based on a true story, this one about a man who was accused of a crime he did not commit. Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) was pudgy and his social skills were uneven. He was fascinated with order and authority and wanted very much to be a police officer. He lived with his mother and he had a lot of guns (“This is Georgia,” he shrugs.) He fit the profile and was an easy target in a city desperate to keep the international athletes, IOC officials, and media confident that everything was under control.

One of three films this month about real-life heroic lawyers who fought near-insurmountable odds to bring justice (the other two are “Dark Waters” and “Just Mercy”), this could have been a heartwarming story, but Eastwood’s cranky “get off my lawn” perspective cannot resist overdoing it as though he was talking to an empty chair. Instead of a movie about a guy who was the victim of the FBI under pressure to find a culprit and the media frantic to find a story. Eastwood is so sure we will not be able to figure out who the bad guys are that he all but has them wear signs.

It isn’t just this FBI agent who is wrong; it’s the government. And it isn’t this reporter or this newspaper that is wrong; it’s the media. It is not enough that the reporter’s first reaction on hearing that there has been a bombing is to hope that the bomber is story-worthy. Eastwood has to make her trade sex for information. (She is dead now, but her newspaper has demanded that the movie make clear it is not an accurate representation.) Our hero, meaning the lawyer, played by the always-great Sam Rockwell, has a bumper sticker in his office that says, “I fear government more than I fear terrorism.” JUST IN CASE WE DON’T GET THE POINT.

It’s a shame because the story has an even more important lesson in this era of social media, citizen “journalists” and milkshake ducks. But the shrill tone of the film gets in the way, especially in its portrayal of the reporter as not just irresponsible about the facts but willing to trade sex for a story. Pro tip: if you are going to make a movie about how terrible it is that the media exaggerates and lies, try not to do that in the movie itself.

Parents should know that this movie includes very strong language and a bombing with some brief disturbing images. Characters drink alcohol and a woman use sex to get information.

Family discussion: Why was Richard Jewell a suspect? Why did Watson believe him?

If you like this, try: “Sully” and “American Sniper” from the same director

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