American Made

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs and drug dealing, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence including guns, explosions, plane crash, murders, corruption
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 29, 2017

Copyright 2017 Universal
Director Doug Liman is not just the man behind stylish, politically savvy, exceptionally well-constructed action films like four “Bourne” films, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” and the under-appreciated “Edge of Tomorrow.” He is also the son of the late Arthur Liman, the legendary Washington lawyer who was chief counsel for the United States Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition, better known as Iran-Contra. His new film, “American Made,” is stylish, politically savvy, exceptionally well-constructed, and a smarter, more compelling take than the media on the real-life events his father helped uncover.

And he could not have chosen better than his “Edge of Tomorrow” star Tom Cruise, back from the dreary “Mummy,” and doing what he does best as the charming bad boy with a gift for flying and a need for speed, Barry Seal.

Even as the youngest pilot in TWA history, Seal is bored taking planes full of passengers back and forth to Bakersfield and Vancouver. So when a red-headed man with a beard named Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) who seems to know everything about him shows up and asks if he’d like to do some flying for his country, and shows him the super-fast plane they’d let him fly, he accepts. “We’re building nations!” Schafer tells him. “All this is legal?” Seal asks for the first and last time. “If you’re doing it for the good guys,” Schafer tells him. “Just don’t get caught.” At first it is just reconnaissance, but then he starts some deliveries: cash in exchange for information. His contact is a Panamanian Colonel named Noriega. The CIA does not exactly mind. When Seal asks if a bag filled with cash in the hanger is his, Schafer smiles, “What bag?”

Word gets around about “the gringo who delivers,” and Seal is conscripted by three young, ambitious drug dealers to help them ship their product to the United States. One of them is named Pablo Escobar. Eventually, he is also delivering guns, as the CIA decides they should arm peasants to help them fight communists, though the peasants would rather sell the guns for money and, after Seal begins to bring them to the US for training in military operations, escape to live in America.

Like his antihero, Liman has great energy and panache, with a cheeky storytelling style that matches Seal, who can say (twice) “I tend to leap before I look” without an atom of ruefulness. “Do you trust me?” he asks his skeptical wife (Sarah Wright), with that Tom Cruise grin. “No!” she says, quite reasonably. So, she packs up in the middle of the night and moves with him when he tells her they have to go. He does not tell her it is because they are going to be arrested at dawn, but she gets the picture.

Seal is a cheerful rascal, but the movie shows us that he is more honest than the politicians and intelligence community. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan appear in archival footage, and Robert Farrior appears as Oliver North. Guns go back and forth from the Soviets to the PLO to the Israelis to the Contras to the drug cartel, and Seal gets paid, in cash, at almost every stop. Even after a family member is assassinated, “Godfather”-style, he “just keeps delivering that pizza.” And it is in no one’s interest to stop him. The community appreciates his business (the bank gives him his own vault), his job creation, and his generosity (there’s a Seal baseball field for the kids). Until it doesn’t work.

This is a smart, exciting, funny, and surprisingly sharp story, very much of its era, and very much of ours as well.

Parents should know that this film has extended peril and violence including guns, explosions, murders, plane crash, drugs and drug dealing, corruption, some strong language, reckless behavior, explicit sexual situations and nudity.

Family discussion: Who are the worst criminals in this story? Who, if anyone, is the hero?

If you like this, try: “Blow” and “Kill the Messenger”

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Crown Heights

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, some sexuality/nudity and violence
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, murder
Date Released to Theaters: September 1, 2017

Copyright Amazon 2017
The story of Damon and Pythias has exemplified friendship and loyalty since the time of the ancient Greeks. The story of Colin Warner and Carl King should stand beside it. King spent 21 years working to get Warner released from prison after he was unjustly sentenced for murder. A reporter for “This American Life” told their story, and now it has been adapted for the screen by former NFL player Nnamdi Asomugha, who plays King opposite the extraordinarily gifted LaKeith Stanfield (“Get Out,” “Short Term 12″) as Warner.

The friends met growing up in Trinidad and then reconnected when both emigrated to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Writer/director Matt Ruskin and Director of Photography Ben Kutchins evoke the lively but volatile and gritty atmosphere of 1980 Brooklyn. Warner is not even in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is nowhere near the spot where an apparent revenge execution-style murder is committed. But the cops are overwhelmed and under a lot of pressure to produce arrests and close cases. Archival footage of Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush promising crackdowns on crime provide context.

It is possible that determination to be fair to as many people as possible costs the film some dramatic momentum, especially as it stretches over decades, with setback after setback and complication after complication, plus the various family stresses, particularly with King as his wife understandably gets frustrated with the time and money he is devoting to Warner instead of their children. But the dignity and sensitivity of the performances by Stanfield and Asomugha hold the story together. But the time King takes a job as a process server in order to better understand what kind of legal help they need, things begin to pick up. A tender romance and a touching expression of forgiveness give the film a quiet power that I hope will not always feel as timely as it does right now.

Parents should knot that this story concerns a wrongful murder conviction and includes peril, violence, abuse, strong language, some sexual references and situations, and some nudity.

Family discussion: Why does this film title refer to the neighborhood, not the people involved? Why didn’t Carl give up? Listen to the story that inspired this film on “This American Life.”

If you like this, try: “Conviction” and “Hurricane”

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Logan Lucky

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language and some crude comments
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, scenes in bar
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence, prison riot, illness, explosions
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 18, 2017
Copyright Bleeker Street 2017

Steven Soderbergh, gifted us with the delectable champagne cocktail “Oceans 11,” a sophisticated improvement over the Rat Pack heist film set in Las Vegas with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. His new film, “Logan Lucky” is “Oceans 7-11,” a hillbilly heist, a redneck robbery.

The setting is Appalachia.  Instead of a Las Vegas casino, the target is a NASCAR race track in Charlotte, North Carolina.  But once again there is an all-star cast, a wickedly clever plot, wonderfully engaging characters, and delicious humor, with one “Game of Thrones” joke that is by itself worth the price of admission.  The credits cheekily inform us that “Nobody was robbed during the making of this movie. Except you.”  Even more cheekily, the credited screenwriter does not seem to exist.  But that is all part of the fun.

Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, a good-hearted man from West Virginia who is down on his luck. His ex-wife (Katie Holmes) has remarried a wealthy car dealer and they are planning to move to Virginia, taking his daughter with them.  He has just lost his construction job, not because of his performance, but because his old leg injury is considered a liability risk.  His bartender brother Clyde (Adam Driver), a veteran who lost his hand to an IED, insists that the Logans are all just cursed with bad luck. Their sister Melly (Riley Keough), a hairdresser, is more optimistic — also very smart about cars and a few other things, too.

Jimmy needs to make some changes in his life.  So he makes a list of everything he needs to do to rob the racetrack.  It begins: “1. Decide to rob a bank. 2. Have a plan. 3. Have a backup plan. 4. Establish clear communications. 5. Choose your partners carefully.”

As in any great heist film, Jimmy then assembles his team, though perhaps “carefully” is not the way to describe what happens.  Foremost is explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig, with a bleached blonde crewcut, an impeccable Southern accent, and a ton of attitude).   Unfortunately, as he informs them, he is “IN. CAR. CER. ATED.”  But Jimmy has a plan.  Joe agrees but insists that they include his two dimwit brothers (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid).

Also as in all great heist films, even the best-laid plans have to go wrong, so there are many unexpected developments along the way.  The fun of these films is the problem-solving before the big day, with careful planning, and then the problem solving on the big day as, well, take a look at Logan’s item #3, and another reminder later on that things will go wrong. The movie has fun with the characters, but not at their expense, at least not at the expense of the heroes/anti-heroes. It doesn’t treat them like hicks or rubes.

Keough is a standout and Craig is a complete hoot. There are small gems of performances along the way, including Dwight Yoakam as a prison warden and Katherine Waterston as a health care provider. We’re as much in the dark as the FBI investigators (led by Hillary Swank), and right up until the last minute we are not sure of exactly what happened.  But the answer is a total delight, as is the cast, all having way too much fun.

Parents should know that the film includes strong and crude language for a PG-13, tense family confrontations, some disturbing images, an amputated limb, references to war casualties, fights, and peril (mostly comic).

Family discussion: What was the most important item on Jimmy’s list?  What did he forget?

If you like this, try: “Welcome to Collinwood,” “Out of Sight,” and “Oceans 11″

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Despicable Me 3

B

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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-style peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 30, 2017

Copyright 2017 Universal Pictures
It does not achieve the delirious delight of the first in the series, but it is better than the second. “Despicable Me 3” is meandering and uneven.

The problem with making the title character into a happily married good guy who loooves his three girls is that he is not despicable any more. He is therefore much less interesting than the actually despicable villain of the movie, Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker, co-creator of “South Park”), an 80’s child star embittered because he has been forgotten. Whenever Bratt is not on screen, the film deflates. It is a cute, fun, and sweet-natured family treat, but overstuffed at just 90 minutes with too many distracting detours.

Formerly despicable Gru (Steve Carell) is now working with Lucy (Kristen Wiig) at the AVL (Anti-Villain League), and Lucy is also trying to learn how to be a mother to the three girls, serious middle-schooler Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), mischievous Edith (Dana Gaier), and sweet, unicorn-loving Agnes (Nev Scharrel).

Gru and Lucy stop Bratt from stealing the world’s largest diamond, but he gets away, and the new, very ambitious, head of the AVL (Jenny Slate) fires Gru. Lucy quits in protest. As they begin to think about finding new jobs and Agnes sells off her beloved fluffy stuffed unicorn to help out, Gru finds out for the first time that he has an identical twin brother. “Parent Trap” style, when their parents split up, they split the babies up, too. An emissary from Gru’s brother, Dru (also Carell) invites them for a visit to Freedonia, presumably the country responsible for their accents and certainly the country where the Marx Brothers created memorable mayhem in “Duck Soup.”

Dru is identical to Gru except for luxuriant blond hair. And it turns out he wants to be despicable, like their late dear old dad. The brothers go for a wild joyride in Dad’s crookmobile. Bratt has now successfully stolen the world’s biggest diamond, and so Gru tells Dru they will steal it from him. Dru thinks they will keep it, but Gru plans to return it so he and Lucy can get their jobs back.

Meanwhile, the minions are performing Gilbert & Sullivan on a TV reality show and being thrown in prison. Lucy is still not sure how to connect to the girls. Agnes thinks she can find a unicorn. And Bratt is getting ready for the ultimate revenge on the Hollywood that rejected him.

The film flags whenever Bratt is off-screen. He is an inspired creation, with lots of 80’s references for the parents and just the right touch of whiny entitlement to seem quite timely. He just about makes up for the slow patches. The snatches of the terrific Pharrell Williams score from the first film serve as a reminder that this, too, is mostly just an inferior copy, we hope, the last.

Parents should know that this film includes cartoon-style peril and violence, mostly comic, crotch hit, some potty humor, and brief minion nudity.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Lucy know when to say no? What made Margo trust her? Why did Gru’s parents tell their sons they were disappointments?

If you like this, try: the other “Despicable Me” movies and “Megamind”

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Baby Driver

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence and language throughout
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Extended scenes of peril and violence with many characters injured and killed, guns, chases, explosions, many disturbing and graphic images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 28, 2017
Date Released to DVD: September 18, 2017
Copyright 2017 Sony Pictures

Fasten your seatbelts. This one is pedal to the metal all the way home.  “Baby Driver,” written and directed by Edgar Wright, hits you like a jolt of nitrous oxide shot with adrenaline concentrate, Red Bull, electrical current, and rock music.  The first time you see it, it will leave your eyes spinning like pinwheels.  The second time you will begin to appreciate that it is more than a joyride.

Ansel Elgort (“The Fault in Our Stars”) plays Baby, who works for a crime boss named Doc (Kevin Spacey).  Orphaned at age seven when his parents were killed in a car crash that left him with tinnitus, a persistent ringing in his ears, Baby is constantly listening to music via earbuds plugged into an endless collection of mp3 players.  The brilliantly curated playlist we hear is only what he is listening to, and it ranges from the The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion to T Rex, the Beach Boys, Dave Brubeck, David McCallum (that’s either Ilya Kuryakin of “The Man from UNCLE” or Ducky from “NCIS” depending on how old you are), and Beck, to the Simon and Garfunkel song that gives the film its title.

Baby began stealing cars when he was still a child and became beholden to Doc.  Now, he drives the getaway car for the teams Doc brings together for robbery and mayhem.  Doc calls him “Mozart in a Go-Kart.” And Baby is counting down the jobs and the dollars until he and Doc are square and he can go.  But he is just too good for Doc to give up, and once the debt is paid, Doc finds other ways to apply pressure.

Baby seldom speaks to anyone, except for one person who cannot hear, his foster father, Joe (CJ Jones), who is deaf and in a wheelchair.  Their exchanges in sign language are warm and familiar in sharp contrast to his subdued presence with Doc and the criminals.

And then Baby meets Debora (Lily James of “Cinderella”), a waitress at the diner.  And then Doc tells him that their relationship is not over.

Each action sequence is meticulously matched to the songs Baby plays — at one point, when there is a setback he literally stops to rewind because he times the chases to the music.  But each action sequence is also a part of a narrative arc.  With the first, Baby is literally outside the crime, waiting in the car (and bopping along to “Bellbottoms”) as the gang robs a bank.  They come running out and he drives the getaway car so fast that they, well, get away.  The next one gets more intense as he cannot pretend he is not a part of something lethal. Each time, he gets more involved.  The sunglasses he wears all the time get broken and he cannot pretend not to see.  He can drive others to escape the consequences of their actions, but can he do that for himself?

The sizzling all-star cast includes Jon Hamm and Eiza González as a seedy but fearless couple with matching “hers” and “his” tattoos on their necks, Jamie Foxx as the trigger-happy and appropriately named Bats, along with Flea and Jon Bernthal as other members of Doc’s crew.

Wright has the flair of Quentin Tarantino in balancing comedy, romance, action filmed to be both balletic and terrible, and increasingly visceral threats.  But he has more sincerity, more heart. “Baby Driver” is cool as in appearing effortlessly accomplished, but not as in remote or removed.  His moral and unabashedly romantic center is in the driver’s seat.

Parents should know that this is a very violent film with many chases and shoot-outs.  Characters are injured and killed and there are disturbing and graphic images. It also includes very strong language and drug references.

Family discussion: Why was Baby called Baby?  Why did Doc change his mind? Is the ending real or imaginary?

If you like this, try: “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “The Transporter”

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