King Richard

Posted on November 18, 2021 at 5:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence, strong language, a sexual reference and brief drug references.
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug references, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Some violence including a drive-by shooting and assaults
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2021
Date Released to DVD: February 7, 2022

Copyright Warner Brothers 2021
The first thing you need to know about “King Richard” is that it was produced by three of the daughters of the title character, Richard Williams, and it is an unabashed love letter to their father. And two of those daughters are tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams. Richard Williams has been a controversial character. Unconventional does not begin to cover his approach to his daughters’ careers in tennis and the royal appellation was not intended as a compliment. But no one can argue with the results of the 78-page plan he famously prepared, with step one having two more children so he could start from the beginning. “King Richard” is the story of the Williams sisters’ early years, first when they are little girls in Compton, California and then a few years later when they are being coached at a large facility in Palm Beach, Florida, ending as Venus competes at age 14 in her first professional tournament.

Will Smith plays Richard Williams, and as he did in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” playing another real-life devoted and determined father, he gives a complex, layered performance. He makes it clear that Richard’s determination is as much the result of trauma as of ambition, as much the result of frustration and resentment over the opportunities he did not have as of his commitment to making sure his daughters had opportunities, especially opportunities no one else thinks are possible.

Actors, like tennis doubles partners, need to be a team, and Aunjanue Ellis as the girls’ mother Oracene ‘Brandy’ Williams matches Smith at every turn, just as Oracene was a full partner in parenting and coaching their daughters. Their scenes together show us a deep and sometimes difficult connection, whether she is comforting him as she treats his wounds or confronting him about his failings.

We have all seen a lot of biopics, and they don’t make movies about real-life characters unless they did something big and important. And that is why those films always have some scene where the main character is either being pushed to succeed and another where he or she is being tearfully accused of neglecting an important relationship. This film is unusual because the girls, including their three older sisters (one of whom, Isha Price, also served as a producer of the film) never complain about the training and practices, even in the pouring rain. Richard is supporting them as much as he is leading them. The scenes of the family together, in their tiny Compton home or riding in the family van, are — the only word that applies is joyful. Richard and Oracene are dedicated to excellence in school and in tennis but it is clear that what matters most to them is giving their girls good values and the skills and confidence to achieve whatever they want.

Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton are excellent as the younger Venus and Serena, and there are solid supporting performances from everyone else in the cast including the young girls who play the other Williams sisters and the older girls who play Venus and Serena in the later part of the film. Tony Goldwyn as the taciturn Paul Cohen, a coach who agrees to take on Venus but not her younger sister, and Jon Bernthal as the more excitable Rick Macci, who brings the whole family to his training compound and puts Richard on the payroll for a percentage of the girls’ future earnings.

Smith says that seeing the video of Richard Williams protecting then-14-year-old Venus from an intrusive reporter — and the look of pride and relief on her face, the confidence that he would always have her back — had an enormous impact on his notion of what it means to be a parent. It inspired him to be both a protector and a supporter of his children’s ambitions.

Smith does not go for the easy win here. He tones down his endless charm and screen charisma and tendency to charm to let Richard shine through. In his sensitive performance, we see that Richard is damaged and vulnerable. He knows he is dealing with people who are unimaginably more powerful than he is and that they will find his manner and appearance discomfiting. These are people who like being comfortable. He knows he does not have the luxury of getting angry when they open doors he knows his daughters deserve to go through. He is insistent, not confrontational, and always polite, though he knows that holding back is demeaning and unfair. “You’re wrong but I won’t hold that against you,” he smiles, and it is a Richard smile, not a Smith megawatt grin.

Like all champions, he keeps his eye on the ball and he leads with his strengths. He did something even more important and even more difficult than raising “two Mozarts” — he raised daughters who love him enough to want the world to see him the way they do.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language, drug references and alcohol, sexual references that are crude and predatory, and some violence, with assaults and a drive-by shooting, and some family conflict.

Family discussion: Would you want to be part of this family? What would be in your 78-page plan?

If you like this, try: “Venus and Serena,” an excellent documentary

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Bad Boys for Life

Posted on January 15, 2020 at 2:01 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, sexual references and brief drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and very graphic peril and violence, disturbing images, characters injured and killed, chases, explosions, guns, grenades, bazookas
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 16, 2020
Date Released to DVD: April 20, 2020
Copyright Columbia 2019

There’s a lot that’s hard to believe in “Bad Boys for Life” (not that we’re expected to), but the one I want to bring to your attention is the repeated assertion that this is one last time. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are back as the lovably bickering, impetuously rule-breaking buddy cops from the original Bad Boys movie 25 years ago and the sequel eight years later, and it is clear that they are not done yet.

Smith and Lawrence have the same immensely likable screen chemistry they did in the first film, though it is clear that Smith has much more range as an actor. We hardly have time to notice, however, as in the first five minutes of the movie we get to see a Porsche racing through the streets of Miami, some quippy brio (“We’re not just black. We’re cops, too. We’ll pull ourselves over later”), some skimpy bathing suits, a new baby, a prison break featuring a shootout and a witch’s curse.

That baby is the first grandchild for Marcus (Lawrence), the devoted family man, who is so moved by his becoming Pop-Pop that he decides to retire from the police force. Mike (Smith), the player with an upscale apartment no cop could afford (see above re believability) is furious. When Mike is shot by an assassin who is going after everyone involved in a criminal conviction from the past, Marcus stays by his side, and promises God that if Mike lives he will never be violent again. Once Mike recovers, however (with Marcus listed in his phone as Quitter), Mike persuades him to come back — say it with me — for one last time.

That will involve AMMO, a new high-tech police operation with the kind of high-tech surveillance and firepower that you might find in the Pentagon, run by Rita (Paola Nuñez), an officer with whom Mike has history. Mike wants to find the mysterious black-clad person on a black motorcycle who shot him. This is a challenge because, as a character says, “Who doesn’t want to kill him?” The Pepto-Bismal-chugging captain (Joe Pantoliano, also returning from the earlier films) tries to stop him, but the thing about Bad Boys is that they don’t follow the rules. Whatcha gonna do? Soon Mike is trading insults with the upstarts at AMMO, including Vanessa Hudgens and “The Sun is Also a Star’s” Charles Melton.

I’d estimate it is about one-third banter (we get some insults about getting older now) and two-thirds action, much of it very intense and very, very violent, with lots of blood, explosions, and heavy artillery. “I know ‘thou shalt not kill’ but these were bad guys” describes their view of law enforcement plus “We ride together. We die together. Bad boys for life.” (Someone does point out that they should think of themselves as bad men. Which may be why there’s also more crying than you normally see in this kind of movie. It’s dumb, and the action/comedy mix is not entirely successful given the carelessness about collateral damage and the outright carnage. But the charm is there and it is watchable, a summer movie in January. By the end, if you stay for that post-credit scene, you might just be ready to see what they do next.

Parents should know that this film includes intense and extended action, peril, and violence with very graphic and disturbing images, chases, explosions, fire, very strong and crude language, sexual references, and brief drug use.

Family discussion: What made Mike and Marcus good partners? How have the movies changed since the first one? If you and your friend had a go-to motto, what would it be?

If you like this, try: the earlier “Bad Boys” movies and the “Fast and Furious” series

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Spies in Disguise

Posted on December 24, 2019 at 5:05 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action, violence, and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Transformation potion
Violence/ Scariness: Action/cartoon-style violence, consequences of violence an issue in the film
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters and issues of diversity but includes the "bad buy with disabilities" cliche
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2019
Date Released to DVD: March 9, 2020

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2019
Will Smith is one of the most charismatic performers in movie history, and his confident physical grace and handsome face are movie magic. But it just might be that his highest and best use is as the voice of an animated character, For “Spies in Disguise” he plays super-spy Lance Sterling, as cool and crisp as a stirred-not-shaken martini, who never musses his impeccably tailored tuxedo as he takes on dozens of bad guys with an assortment of whiz-bang gadgets, an occasional well-placed karate chop, and a banging playlist. Like Robin Williams in “Aladdin,” only animation can keep up with Smith’s mercurial imagination (and help us forget Smith’s well-intentioned but short-of-the-mark efforts to re-create that character in this year’s live actin version). Smith does not cycle kaleidoscopically between dozens of characters as Williams did; he is always himself, but as we see here he contains rapidly shifting moods and thoughts that “Spies in Disguise” brings to life with visual wit and energy that match everything Smith brings to the film. “Spies in Disguise” is a stylish spy caper with heart and humor, an endearing friendship, and an equally endearing affection for Team Weird. Come on, you know you’re part of that team, too.

Lance is after some sort of MacGuffin thingamajig about to be sold by international weapons dealer Kimora (Masi Oka) to a mysterious buyer with a robot hand named (in case we didn’t know he was the villain) Killian, played by Ben Mendelsohn, who seems to own all the bad guy roles these days. (It is too bad this film could not avoid the tired convention of the evil guy with disabilities.) With astounding skill and panache — and some cool-spy quips — Lance saves the day and is greeted at home back in CIA headquarters as a hero.

Until….it turns out that the briefcase he so cleverly snatched away from Killian is empty. And it also turns out that surveillance footage shows Lance himself is the one who grabbed the whateveritis. Suddenly, the whole CIA is after him.

Meanwhile, Walter (“Spider-Man’s” Tom Holland) is a quirky, unashamedly weird gadget guy whose non-violent inventions include the “inflatable hug” protective device and “kitty glitter” that distracts the bad guys with adorable pictures of cats suspended in air. He was working out of tiny closet-like space in the CIA, until he was impulsively fired by Lance.

Lance likes to think he works alone and never needs anyone else’s help. But it is part of his job to know how to solve problems, and he has to admit that not only does he need help to hide from the agency while he tracks down whoever is pretending to be him, he is going to need resources he cannot get from the CIA any more.

Unfortunately, the only one who can help him is Walter, who is now pretty much off the grid as far as the CIA is concerned. Lance remembers Walter saying he could make spies disappear. So, Lance tracks him down and then discovers that it’s not “disappear” as in “invisible.” It’s “disappear” as in “bio-dynamic concealment,” transformation at the cellular level into someone, or something, no one will notice.

Lance learns too late that what he was been turned into is a pigeon. “Un-bird me!” he demands. But the antidote will take some time. And as much as Lance resists help, there are some things he cannot do as a winged creature who weighs about two pounds. So, Lance-as-pigeon and Walter with a backpack of gadgets and his personal comfort pigeon Lovey go off to find Kimora and Killian.

In the midst of all the action, Walter and Lance have a thoughtful conversation about the best way to resolve conflict. Lance believes in fighting fire with fire (“Evil doesn’t care that you’re nice”) and he never wants to depend on anyone. Walter believes in working as a team and does not think that hurting other people solves anything. This slightly mitigates the unfortunate reliance on the outdated cliche of a disfigured/disabled bad guy by making Lance face (literally) the consequences of his dashing “fire with fire” strategy.

Directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quade have created a film that is gorgeously designed with a swanky, stylish, slightly retro design, “Spies in Disguise” is visually bright, graphic, and engaging, and the characters and their interactions are vivid and appealing. Here’s hoping Blue Sky retains its quirky charm under its new ownership — and that we get to see Lance and Walter team up again.

Parents should know that the film has extended cartoon/action-style peril and action, with some characters injured and killed, chases, shoot-outs, and explosions. A theme of the movie is the consequence of collateral damage. There is some schoolyard language and some potty humor. Unfortunately, the movie relies on the outdated cliche of the disfigured/disabled villain whose injuries are a reason for his cruelty and anger.

Family discussion: Which of Walter’s gadgets would you like to have? Who is on your team and whose team are you on? What’s the best part of being weird?

If you like this, try: “Megamind,” “Robots,” and “Rio”

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Aladdin

Posted on May 23, 2019 at 5:17 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action/peril
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/action peril and violence, attempted murder, near-drowning, discussion of sad deaths of parents
Diversity Issues: Issue of female autonomy and power
Date Released to Theaters: May 24, 2019
Date Released to DVD: September 16, 2019

Copyright Disney 2019
It is a bit of a puzzle that a director known for dynamic action doing a live action remake of a musical animated film that was exceptionally lively has somehow produced a movie that seems bogged down, even static. The new “Aladdin” from co-writer/director Guy Ritchie (“Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Sherlock Holmes”) is colorful and tuneful, but for much of its just over two hours running time it lumbers along, despite its best efforts to entertain.

The original Disney animated version of “Aladdin” is one of the studio’s all-time best thanks to a wonderfully melodic score, with songs by Alan Mencken and Howard Ashman and possibly the all-time greatest animated movie voice performance in history, Robin Williams as the Genie. The mercurial Williams found his ultimate mode of presentation with the help of Disney’s top animators as the magical, infinitely malleable, cartoon character, instantly creating characters ranging from Ed Sullivan, William F. Buckley, and Jack Nicholson to Peter Lorre and a bunch of zombies, always retaining the essential heart and humor that made a fantasy come alive. (The closest Williams ever came to replicating avalanche of portrayals might be his innumerable improvisations with a shawl on “Inside the Actor’s Studio.”) No live action version, even with the help of the latest CGI technology and the powerhouse charisma of Will Smith, can match the kaleidoscopic imagination of the 1992 Genie.

This version does make some substantial improvements in the story of the “street rat” who loves a princess and then, with the help of the genie in a magical lamp, pretends to be a prince so he can court her. Disney says it has the most diverse cast in the studio’s history, and it is great to see all of the lead roles performed by people whose ethnicity matches their characters, with Egyptian-born Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Naomi Scott, of British and Indian heritage, as Jasmine. The locations are authentic as well. Filmed in Jordan, and with the always-outstanding work of the Disney production designers, the settings are splendid, and the classic songs still sound fresh and hummable, especially “Prince Ali” and “A Whole New World.” The film should really be called “Aladdin and Jasmine” because it gives the princess a full, meaningful role in the story, respecting her agency, ability, and dedication to her people. It gives her father, the Sultan (Navid Negahban) more agency, as well, unlike the animated character, who spends much of the story in an enchanted fog. And it’s nice to see Genie get a bit more of a story, too, thanks to the handmaiden to the princess, played by “SNL’s” Nasim Pedrad.

But the story-telling itself is foggy in this version. Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the story’s villain, does not have the menace of the original. He seems young and angry, more petulant than ominous. There is a hint of an intriguing backstory for him that gets lost in the busy, “look at me”-ness of the film. A storyline about whether the Sultan should approve invasion of another country does not work well and a dance number with the Genie controlling Aladdin has too many cuts to deliver on the humor of the situation. The “Step Up” movies do these moments much better, and Jasmine’s new song from “La La Land’s” Benj Pasek and Justin Paul is outshone by the originals. A wink at the map of Disneyland as Jasmine does the ancient equivalent of Googling “Prince Ali” is out of place.

If there had been no animated version, this one would have served as an entertaining family movie. But as has happened too often with Disney’s live action remakes of its best animated films, it is just an unnecessary reminder of how much we loved the original.

Parents should know that this film includes fantasy peril and violence including near-drowning, attempted murder and references to killing and to sad death of parents, action, brief alcohol, and a kiss.

Family discussion: What would your three wishes be? Remember to be careful with your words! Why was Aladdin so awkward when he becomes Ali? Why was Jafar so angry? What does it mean to be a diamond in the rough, and what made Aladdin one?

If you like this, try: the original Disney animated version and the stories of the 1001 Nights

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Collateral Beauty

Posted on December 14, 2016 at 4:41 pm

Copyright 2016 Warner Brothers
Copyright 2016 Warner Brothers

With typical understated euphemism, the military calls the damage inflicted on non-target sites and civilians “collateral damage.” Screenwriter Allan Loeb calls his new film a fable and he asks us to consider the possibility of “collateral beauty,” beauty that is revealed only when our pain forces us to pay attention. Emily asked in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?” The State Manager answers, “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.” This movie would add, “And those who are grieving.”

Howard (Will Smith) is confident, charming, and successful when we first see him, asking his partners and the employees of his advertising agency, “What is your Why?” He is not asking them to participate in a discussion of existential metaphysics and man’s search for meaning. He was asking them to think about how to describe their client’s products to answer the potential customers’ Why questions. Death, Time, Life, according to Howard, are what we grapple with. “We long for love, we wish for more time, we fear death.” Products that help people feel that they have some control over mortality and intimacy are the ones that will sell.

But three years later, Howard has suffered the most shattering loss of all, the death of a child. He sits in his office creating elaborate domino structures and then watching them fall. He’s “the domino champion of crazytown” and the jobs of everyone in the company are at stake.

Howard no longer even speaks to his friends and colleagues, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Pena) and he no longer meets with clients. The business is in trouble. They have one hope — a sale of the company. But Howard will not discuss it, and he controls the majority of the stock.

Desperate, Whit, Claire, and Simon hire a detective (Ann Dowd) to help them build a case that Howard is not mentally stable enough to control his voting shares. She tells them Howard has been writing letters to express his pain. He has written to Death, to Love, and to Time. And so Whit, Claire, and Simon hire three actors to play the roles of Death (Helen Mirren), Love (Keira Knightley), and Time (Jacob Latimore), to answer Howard’s letters. Best case scenario, they make it possible for him to move forward by engaging directly with his questions about life and pain and loss and meaning. Worst case scenario, they document his mental instability so they can override his ability to block the deal.

White, Claire, and Simon each have their own problems, it turns out, and the actors provide some gentle guidance on that as well. And Howard is provoked into responding. Each encounter makes it possible for him to take another step toward re-engaging with the world, including attending a grief support group for parents whose children have died.

I was touched by the film’s willingness to do what it asks Howard to do — to confront death, love, and time and ask what it all means and why it hurts so much. Its heartfelt sincerity and lovely performances beguiled me into its world. It is worth seeing for Mirren’s exquisitely witty turn alone. She is clearly having a great time playing the part of a Capital R Theatrical Capital-A Actress. Norton is also excellent, especially in scenes between Whit and his tween daughter who is furious at him for cheating on her mother. Naomie Harris as the leader of the support group has a sweet gravity that is as important to bringing some grounding to Howard as his conversations with the embodiment of abstract concepts. And Smith brings all of his full-out charisma to the role of a man who cannot figure out how to go on when he has lost everything that matters because his view of the world has been shattered into sub-atomic particles and nothing makes sense. Howard has become a man who spends days adjusting the precise placement of elaborate domino structures and then knocks them down and leaves the room without watching the way they knock each other down.

The raw elements of Smith’s acting anchor the more fanciful and symbolic elements of the story, tenderly told, with a conclusion of warmth, healing, and perhaps some connection to a fourth spirit, hope.

Parents should know that this film includes themes of loss and devastating grief, including death of children, and a few swear words.

Family discussion: If you wrote letters to Time, Death, and Love, what would you say? What other concepts would you write to? What is collateral beauty, and does it take a profound loss to be able to see it?

If you like this, try; “Our Town,” “Truly, Madly, Deeply” and “The Pursuit of Happyness”

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