The Protege

Posted on August 19, 2021 at 1:20 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexual references, language, brief nudity, strong and bloody violence
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Constant very intense peril and violence with many disturbing and gory images, guns, knives, fights, bombs, waterboarding and torture, characters injured and killed, attempted rape of a child
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 20, 2021
Date Released to DVD: October 18, 2021

Copyright Lionsgate 2021
I do not expect narrative coherence from movies that fall into the category of don’t-pay-attention-to-the-plot-just-enjoy-the-action, just that they don’t distract the audience with too many “huh?” moments. “The Protege” teeters on the “huh” brink, with enough for three episodes of Pitch Meeting, the YouTube series hilariously dissecting movie plot holes. Plus, the intensity of the gore becomes another distraction from the reason we are all there, which is to marvel at the very impressive stunts and fight scenes.

The always-great Maggie Q plays the title character, taken in as a child by Moody (Samuel L. Jackson), the world’s greatest paid assassin, after her family is killed. He cares for her like any loving parent who happens to be a paid assassin, supporting her passion for her bookstore specializing in rare and precious volumes, and teaching her how to take over the family business. She supports his passion for the finer things, too, including a birthday gift of an ultra-rare guitar he has always wanted, a Gibson ’58 Flying V. It’s just your typical loving father and daughter who happen to be, you know, paid assassins.

After we get a chance to see how good Anna is at her job, including “how to find things that don’t want to be found,” with the help of a friendly hacker who has an office behind a dry cleaner (just like “The Man From UNCLE!”). But even assassins may be vulnerable, and Moody has a bad cough and some very powerful enemies. He is killed, and Anna wants revenge. Say it with me, everyone: This time, it’s personal. There will be an old friend (the always-welcome Robert Patrick as a biker dude) who tries to persuade her that “You owe it to Maody to stay alive.” But Anna has to find out why Moody was killed and kill whoever was responsible.

There may be a connection to a customer who came to her bookstore. His name, improbably even in the context of a film that left probability behind about 3 minutes after the opening credits, is Rembrandt and he is played by Michael Keaton. In classic movie fashion, they flirt by knowing the same poem. Rembrandt is a fixer for a very bad guy with many minions. And unlike many fixers, he is not above getting messy. Are Rembrandt and Anna going to fight each other or have a more intimate tussle? What do you think?

It wants to be as stylish as “John Wick,” but it is not. Director Martin Campbell wants to replicate the sexy sword fight as romantic foreplay of “The Mask of Zorro,” but with these characters and this level of hand-to-hand combat, it does not work as intended. The mystery isn’t much of a mystery and you will not need a quirky hacker to figure it out. This is a good thing as he isn’t around for long. Let’s face it; this movie is just an excuse for a lot of action, from extended stunts to out-of-the-blue murders. For me, the gore and the weird vibe between Anna and Rembrandt were so extreme they took me out of the film; for some others that will be the point.

Parents should know that this is an extremely violent and gory movie with many characters injured and killed and many graphic and disturbing images. There are fights, explosions, guns, and knives, torture tactics, and a lot of gushing blood. Characters use strong language and there are sexual references, some nudity, and a non-explicit situation.

Family discussion: Do you agree that it is a gift to have a friend who won’t offer help unless asked? How are Moody and Anna different from the people who hire them?

If you like this, try: “The Professional,” “Gunpowder Milkshake,” and “The Transporter”

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The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

Posted on June 15, 2021 at 7:40 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action-style violence with guns, knives, many characters injured and killed, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 16, 2021

Copyright Lionsgate 2021
The reunion that meant the most to me in “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” was not Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson reprising their roles from the 2017 original but the re-uniting of Desperado stars Selma Hayek and Antonio Banderas. They are still two of the most sizzlingly combustible actors in the world, and it is a delight to see them together again, if a reminder that their micro-budgeted first film together had more electrifying energy than this macro-budget extravaganza.

But the focus of the story is on Reynolds, who returns as by-the-book, triple-A rated, fasten-your-seatbelt bodyguard Michael Bryce, and Jackson as Darius Kinkaid, a “rules, what rules?”-type hitman, plus Hayek as his even more out-of-control wife Sonia. In other words, the usual superego vs. id match-up in action comedies featuring a lot of chases and explosions and quippy banter.

In the first film Bryce was in disgrace for failing to protect a world leader, and reduced to protecting wealthy businessmen when he was assigned to Kinkaid, on his way to testify against a ruthless dictator in exchange for getting Sonia out of prison. This time, we see that experience has severely traumatized Bryce, as his therapist exasperatedly tells him to go off on a vacation somewhere far away from bodyguarding and especially far away from guns and killing.

But no one would buy a ticket and go back into a theater for the first time in more than a year to see that. So of course as soon as Bryce settles into a beach chair, Sonia arrives, guns blazing (a lot of killing of innocent bystanders in this movie) to get Bryce to help her free her husband from some kidnappers.

After that, it’s just pretty much bang/bang/banter (“Capri? Like the pants?”), bang/chase/explosion/wisecrack (“Your mouth needs an exorcism”) in a variety of colorful locations. There are some references and cameos from the original film that only the most devoted fans will find of interest. What there is of plot is unlikely to be of much interest beyond an engine to get us to the next shoot-out or capture. Frank Grillo and Caroline Goodall are underused as American operatives who decide to use the Kinkaids for their own purposes and even Banderas cannot make much of his generic bad guy. Rebecca Front is terrific in a brief opening scene as Bryce’s frustrated therapist, but then disappears for the rest of the film. The action scenes are serviceably staged but what works best here, unsurprisingly, is the fun that Reynolds and Jackson have with their roles. Jackson could probably bark out profanities better than just about anyone while doing a backflip and knitting a sweater, but the cool thing is that he never brings anything less than his top game to it and it is never less than delicious. And Reynolds has the very rare ability to make vulnerability funny. Pass the popcorn. Summer movies are back.

Parents should know that this is an intense and gory action comedy with chases, explosions, guns, and knives. Many characters are injured and killed with some graphic images. Reynolds spends much of the movie covered in blood spatter. There are family issues, and there is constant very strong language. The portrayal of mental illness is insensitive a best, but this is not a movie that worries about sensitivity. There are sexual references and explicit (humorous) situations and discussions of fertility.

Family discussion: How did Bryce’s conflicts with his father affect his view of himself? What would you say to your future self?

If you like this, try: the first film in the series and other action comedies like “Spy” and “Mr. Right”

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The Banker

Posted on April 2, 2020 at 9:51 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language including a sexual reference and racial epithets, and smoking throughout
Profanity: Some strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 3, 2020

Copyright Apple 2020
“The Banker,” now available on Apple TV+, is three movies in one, all of them vivid, engaging, and compelling.

First, it’s a heist in plain sight movie, and all, or pretty much all, strictly legal. Two black men, Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) and Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson) start a business in the pre-Civil Rights Act era when it was not only legal but the universal practice to keep people of color not just out of the neighborhoods where white people lived and worked but out of the places that make property ownership possible, the business that sell homes and office buildings and the people who provide the financing for those purchases.

Second, it is a “My Fair Lady”-style Cinderella makeover fairy tale movie, about taking someone who has the heart to be more than he is and teaching him the language, manners, and skills necessary to have credibility in the highest levels of society, or, in this case, business and finance. Garrett and Morris need a white man to pretend to be the president of their enterprise, so they recruit Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), a genial construction worker, and teach him their version of “the rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain,” how to do (or pretend to do) complex valuation computations in seconds and how to play golf, so he can display the (apparently) effortless credibility needed to do big-money deals.

Third, it is a very personal underdog story of heroes to cheer for, two very different men, both played with exquisite precision, working together against near-insurmountable odds to overturn a virulently oppressive system.

Garrett has a head for numbers even as a young boy, where he listens in on the conversations of men of business as he shines their shoes. As a young man, he understands that the ability to own property is as critical to financial stability, social parity, and equal opportunity as the kind of political organizing that is getting started at the same time. Morris is already a savvy businessman with clubs and real estate holdings. Their personalities are very different — one a quiet, devoted family man, the other a good-time guy. But they both know how things work. They know how to make themselves invisible, pretending to be limo drivers or janitors to get access to the places of power while their front-man pretends to know what he’s doing. (One problem with the film is its failure to give Nia Long more of a role than the ever-supportive wife, though this ever-talented actress lends the character some dimension.)

We know from the beginning, opening on a Senate hearing with some harsh questioning, that powerful people are going to try to stop Garrett and Morris from taking some of their power. This movie, with MCU star-power portraying real-life superheroes, gives some of it back to them.

Parents should know that this film has some strong and racist language, some sexual references, scenes in clubs and bars, and some historical depictions of racism.

Family discussion: What did Morris and Garrett have in common? Who is most like them today? What should they have done about Steiner?

If you like this, try: “Hidden Figures” and “Self Made,” and read more about Bernard Garrett and Joe Morris.

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Shaft

Posted on June 13, 2019 at 5:25 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity
Profanity: Very strong language including the n-word and many crude terms
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug dealing, drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and graphic crime-style peril and violence, characters injured and killed, graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 14, 2019
Date Released to DVD: September 23, 2019

Copyright New Line Cinema 2019
Cheerfully retro past the point of winking at us, through the point of smirking at us, up to the point of pushing back in favor of toxic masculinity, the new “Shaft” is an above-average summer chases, wisecracks, and shoot-out movie, thanks to its cast, its heritage, and of course the most memorable movie soundtrack theme of all time, a Grammy and Oscar winner.

Like two of the previous films in the series, this one is just called “Shaft.” The 1971 original starred Richard Roundtree, who also appeared in “Shaft’s Big Score” and “Shaft in Africa.” Then Samuel L. Jackson appeared in a 2000 film just called “Shaft,” playing the nephew of the Roundtree character. (In this film, it turns out the original Shaft was not his uncle but his father.) This “Shaft” brings the story up to the present day, with Roundtree and Jackson returning to their roles and the third generation, J.J. (for John Junior), played by Jessie T. Usher (“Survivor’s Remorse”).

The first Shaft film, based on a tough with the bad guys/catnip for the ladies private investigator in the novels of Ernest Tidyman, was among the best of the “Blaxploitation” films of the 1970’s.

The character in the book is white, but director Gordon Parks cast Roundtree, to “see a black guy winning,” and, toward the end of the Civil Rights movement era, that gave audiences a hero that had not been seen before, a strong, confident, supremely capable black man who operated by his own set of rules and applying his own form of justice. This had enormous appeal in an era where pretty much the only black actor in films was Sidney Poitier, who nearly always played characters who were near-saintly, designed to appeal to white audiences. Shaft did not care about appealing to or appeasing anyone. In the words of a black politician of the era named Shirley Chisolm, he was “unbought and unbossed.” He exemplified Hollywood cowboy-style notions of masculinity, supremely secure in his own power and control, and in the context of the movie that included his relationships with women, if using them as sexual objects could be characterized as a relationship.

Director John Singleton’s 2000 version with Jackson was an affectionate tribute to the original. Shaft is first seen as working for The Man as a police officer, but he quits in disgust and sets up an office as a private investigator. As this film begins, it is 1989 and Shaft (Jackson) is arguing with his significant other (Regina Hall) in a car when a gunfight breaks out. “This time it’s different,” she tells him, after it is all over and he’s the last man standing. In the back seat of the car is a baby. She knows that in order to keep their son safe, she will have to leave him.

The ensuing years are amusingly zipped through in a montage with pauses for the occasional and always-inappropriate gifts Shaft sends to JJ, wrapped in plain brown paper, including a box of condoms when he is 10 and a collection of porn when he is leaving for college at MIT. After graduation, JJ works as a data analyst at the FBI, where he is frustrated at not being assigned to take the lead on big cases like a possible terrorist cell at a local mosque. He lives in a tastefully furnished apartment with a Lord of the Rings poster on the wall and lacrosse sticks over his bed. He treats women with respect — with so much respect he has not been able to get out of the friend zone with Sasha (Alexandra Shipp), a doctor he has known since he was a child. He does not like guns, but he has mad skills as a hacker.

When another childhood friend, a Muslim veteran named Karim, is found dead from an overdose, JJ thinks it is murder, and he visits his father for the first time to ask for his help. A naked stripper covered with glitter answers the door, and Shaft appears with glitter in his beard. This is supposed to be funny and to convey how manly he is. Anyway, he agrees to help, and we’re suddenly in a buddy cop movie, with senior bashing junior every step of the way for not being many enough and junior giving it back about his not having been there as a dad. Much of that happens as they are being chased, shot at, or fought with, including the inevitable scene at a nightclub, with a dance/fight that puts the “tip” in “tipsy” and is actually pretty fun.

Someday people will look back on this movie as an exemplar of its moment. The exaggerated masculinity of 1971 may have been humorous and empowering, but in 2019 it seems creaky and skeezy, especially when JJ finally picks up a gun and the strong, capable female character suddenly melts into a puddle of adoration. It’s too soon to be a parody, too late to be ignored. The exaggerated bravado makes them seem fragile and over-compensating.

I admit, though, that Hayes theme still makes me melt into a puddle, and it is fun to see the three generations striding without regard to the oncoming cars in their shades and long coats. While it does not succeed in the same terms as the original or as an affectionate update, there are moments when it is an entertaining popcorn movie with appealing performances, when I can dig it.

Parents should know that this film has a lot of intense, graphic peril and violence including shoot-outs fights, and torture, with many characters injured and killed and some graphic and disturbing images. Characters use strong and crude language, including the n-word and the p-word, and there are vulgar sexual references, homophobic and transphobic jokes, and nudity, with a casually exploitive attitude toward women and a prove-it notion of masculinity. The movie also includes drinking and drunkenness and drugs and drug dealing.

Family discussion: Why wasn’t JJ a field agent? Why was his father so dismissive of his clothes and apartment? How do the Shaft movie’s attitude toward women and masculinity hold up today?

If you like this, try: the earlier “Shaft” movies and “Jackie Brown”

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Captain Marvel

Posted on March 7, 2019 at 5:55 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language
Profanity: Some brief language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/superhero violence and peril, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 8, 2019
Date Released to DVD: May 28, 2019

Copyright 2019 Disney
I often say that superhero movies depend on the quality of the villain. A small amendment — sometimes it depends on a cat. And the cat in this movie, named Goose for reasons we will discuss later, is a delight in this very entertaining Marvel film, making way for the upcoming “Avengers: Endgame” and for the first time giving a female superhero a starring role.

Oscar-winner Brie Larson plays Captain Marvel, though that is not her title in the film. She does not have a rank or a superhero name. In fact, she is not sure what her actual name is. The Captain Marvel character has appeared in different forms in comic books over the years, mostly male. So even the most deeply committed fanboys and fangirls may not come to this film with a detailed backstory in mind, though fans of the comics will have some quibbles with this adaptation anyway. We meet this character as she meets herself. At first, she is known as Vers, a member of an elite fighting force of a race called the Kree, with a sensei/mentor/commanding officer named Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who trades avuncular quips and punches with her in training sessions.

The Kree are lead by a God-like entity known as the Supreme Intelligence, who is to complex to be comprehended in its true form. So it appears to each person (if I can call the Kree “persons” since they appear human) in whatever form is most meaningful to him or her. To Vers, the Supreme Intelligence appears as Annette Bening in a leather jacket, as it might to any of us, when you come to think of it.

The mortal enemies of the Kree are the Skrull, a lizard-like race with the ability to shape-shift so that they are indistinguishable from any living being, down to the DNA. Their leader is played by Ben Mendelsohn, for once using his real-life Aussie accent, a great choice for a character who is not the usual super-villain. Speaking of which, the usual super-villain, Ronan (Lee Pace) does make an appearance.

When the Kree are ambushed by the Skrull, Vers escapes to another planet, which turns out to be Earth in 1995. Her rocket crashes into a Blockbuster video store, which makes sense because there was one on just about every corner back then.

And you know who was also around back then? A young Nick Fury and Agent Colson played by digitally airbrushed Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg. Fury has a full head of hair and two working eyes. He does not believe that the young woman described by a witness as “dressed for laser tag” is from another planet. What she is wearing is her Kree military jumpsuit, until she lifts a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt and some ripped jeans from a mannequin.

Soon Vers and Fury (he says even his mother calls him “Fury”) are on the road, trying to get the whatsit to keep it away from the whosit (avoiding spoilers here), picking up Goose the cat along the way, as Vers begins to remember the life she once had on Earth, a military pilot named Carol Danvers, with a mentor who turns out to be…a scientist/engineer played by Annette Bening. Carol also had a difficult childhood (played as a young girl by the gifted Mckenna Grace) and a devoted friend, a single mother who was also a pilot (Lashana Lynch, both tough and warm-hearted as Maria Rambeau).

Carol’s name-tag broke in the accident that wiped out her memory. The Kree only saw the half that read “Vers,” which they used as her new name, because apparently the Kree can read the English language alphabet, but that’s okay because they can also breathe our air and look like humans, so just go with it. When she begins to literally put the pieces together, she begins to tap into her real power, not just the ability to shoot super-powerful photon beams out of her fists, but her determination, courage, and integrity.

Carol and Maria have a real need for speed “Top Gun” need-for-speed vibe, which explains the cat’s name, a tribute to the Anthony Edwards character in the film. And Carol’s grunge look and riot grrrl outlook fit in well with the 90’s references in the film, the songs on the soundtrack, of course, but also the technology that feels like it is from the era of the Flintstones, like dial-up modems, the Alta Vista search engine, and pagers.

Larson is fine, especially in her easy banter with Jackson, but the character is a bit bland. In one of the movie’s climactic moments, the question of exactly what her powers are and who controls them is fluffed in a way that removes some of the dramatic tension. But the movie has a couple of clever twists that keeps it involving, with some pointed but never pushy references to refugees and how we learn who to trust as we learn who we are. Props to Marvel, though, for not giving us a love story, as it would just be a distraction. Plus, we get to discover why the Fury of our era wears an eye-patch and Jackson gives one of his most natural and charming performances ever, making Goose a close second as the film’s most appealing character.

NOTE: Stay all the way to the end of the credits for two extra scenes.

Translation: Extended comic book/fantasy action, peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, chases, crashes, brief sexual reference, reference to unhappy childhood, betrayal

Family discussion: What would Supreme Intelligence look like to you? How did Carol decide who to trust?

If you like this try: the Avengers movies, including “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Captain America: Winter Soldier”

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