Kidnap

D

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence and peril
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence including children in peril, guns, chases, crashes, many characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 4, 2017

Copyright 2017 Aviron Pictures
Maybe Halle Berry, who produced and stars in “Kidnap,” thought this would be her “Taken,” a big prestige star in an all-out action movie. Not so much. Instead, this is one of those movies where if anyone made a single rational decision it would be over in eight minutes, instead of the 80-some minutes that feel like 800.

Berry plays Karla, a single mom waitress in a diner who adores her six-year-old son, Frankie (Sage Correa), and has promised to take him to an amusement park. On the way there, we establish that (1) his favorite toy is a little voice recorder, and (2) Karla’s ex is now married to a doctor and Karla is doing her best to reassure Frankie that “everybody loves you” and that the grown-ups are all getting along. So, when she gets a call from her lawyer about the ex’s attempt to get custody, she tells Frankie to stay where he is and moves so that he cannot hear the discussion. When she gets back, he is gone.

At first, she thinks he is just hiding. But he has left the recorder on the bench, and then she sees him being hustled into a distinctive teal car. And so she races into her minivan, dropping her phone in the parking lot because (see above regarding the film’s duration), and chases after them.

And chases after them. And chases after them. Causing endless mayhem and at least two deaths along the way, but who cares about other people’s family members? This is HER SON and they picked a fight with the WRONG MOTHER.

Berry is so much better than this. She makes competent terrified/determined faces at the right moments, but even she cannot sell the increasing preposterousness of the storyline or make sympathetic a woman who would abandon the critically injured people who got in her way or tried to help her. She’s the one who really needs to be rescued in this saga.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive peril and violence including kidnapping, knives, shotgun, car chases and crashes, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Karla leave the police station? Would the law and the news media really respond the way they did in this movie?

If you like this, try: “Without a Trace” and “Nick of Time”

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The Mummy

B-

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence, action and scary images, and for some suggestive content and partial nudity
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended wartime and fantasy violence, chases, explosions, attacks, guns, knives, murder of parent and child, plane crash, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 9, 2017
Copyright 2017 Universal

Disney has almost all of the Marvel superheroes. Warner Brothers has DC superheroes. 20th Century Fox has the Fantastic Four and perhaps someday will make a movie worthy of them. And so Universal wanted its own universe of supernatural characters. It does not have the rights to any superheroes, but it does have the monsters, including Mr. and Mrs. Frankenstein’s monsters, Wolfman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the Mummy.

This film is the first in a planned series of high profile, high-budget, interlocking stories featuring big stars, big stunts, and big special effects, set in what Universal has dubbed The Dark Universe. So, get ready for an Avengers/Justice League-style series of partnerships, cross-overs, and mash-ups.

We begin with “The Mummy,” possibly because the dashing Brendan Fraser updates starting in 1999 have made the story more familiar to 21st century audiences. Of course, those films were inspired by the Boris Karloff classic. This reboot retains very little from either beyond the idea of a deadly mummy from ancient Egypt.

This mummy is female. Her name is Ahmanet and she is played with feral ferocity by the very limber Sofia Boutella of “Star Trek: Beyond.” She was once in line to become ruler of the kingdom of ancient Egypt and be worshipped as a god. But when her father had a son, he became heir to the throne. Enraged, she murdered her father and the boy and his mother and traded her soul for power of life and death. She could not die, but she could be stopped with an elaborate mercury solution, and so she had been in a tomb in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) for thousands of years until American soldier and tomb raider Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) and his quippy sidekick Chris (Jake Johnson) come along to release her and her curse on the world.

With them is beautiful blond archeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis of “Peaky Blinders”), along for exposition, retro rescuing, and some tiresome banter about a one-night stand with Nick.

Russell Crowe shows up as well, as a doctor who is obsessed with evil, though whether for it or against it is not entirely clear. To say more would be to spoil one of the film’s best ideas.

The real stars of the film are the stunts and special effects, which are great. Adrenalin junkie Cruise clearly has a blast racing ahead of, well, blasts, in the battle scenes, and, later, zombies as well. A plane crash scene is viscerally exciting, and sets up the movie’s funniest line later on.  But it cannot make its mind up whether it wants to be a high-concept adventure, a horror movie, or a campy comedy (zombie Jake Johnson continues to be quippy).

And Cruise is simply miscast. He is too old for the part of yet another of his callow cases of endearing arrested development.  It is one thing for a guy in his 20’s to joke about a one-night stand; it is uncomfortably skeevy for a guy, however handsome and eternally young (and still running very fast) in his 50’s.  By the time we see where this character is going in the movie’s final scenes, it is clear that this should have been the first act, not the last, and that this Dark Universe thing is going to be a long slog indeed.

Parents should know that this film includes extended fantasy/mythological violence and peril, undead, military weapons and explosions, plane crash, some graphic and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, some nudity and sexual references and insults

Family discussion: Was Nick telling the truth about the parachute?  What made him change his mind about Jenny?

If you like this, try: the earlier “Mummy” movies with Brendan Fraser and Boris Karloff

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Get Out

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MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references
Profanity: Some strong language including racial epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and very graphic and scary peril and violence with very disturbing images and sounds including surgical situations, many characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 24, 2017
Date Released to DVD: June 7, 2017
Copyright Universal 2017
Copyright Universal 2017

Two caveats before I begin the review: First, I am not very knowlegeable about horror films and therefore do not have the context I normally bring to evaluating a film. Second and more important, this movie has complex themes about race and privilege that I do not pretend to have authority to speak to. I strongly recommend that people who are interested in understanding this film read the perspectives of critics who are African-American or people of color, and I will post links to some of the ones I especially admire at the end of this review. With those limitations in mind, here are my thoughts on “Get Out,” in my opinion a superb film on many levels.

Writer/director Jordan Peele, like his “Key and Peele” partner Keegan-Michael Key, is biracial, which gives them both a lifelong experience with being both part of and observer of black and white culture and a lifelong fascination with code-switching, as we saw in their film “Keanu,” written by Peele. Moving from comedy to horror, Peele continues to explore the themes, giving depth and emotional power to a genre film. Unlike Quentin Tarantino, who carelessly purloins historic settings as a shortcut to the audience’s emotional investment so he can get right to the gore, Peele cannily plays the conventions of the genre and the discomfort and hostility about race off of each other.

It is one of the most terrifying prospects of ordinary life: meeting the family of the significant other. This familiarly excruciating prospect can be played for comedy (“Meet the Parents”) or drama (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”), but horror is perhaps its best fit, with room for some comedy and drama as well. The fact that Rose (“Girls” star Allison Williams) has not told her parents that her boyfriend of five months, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), is black, adds another layer of tension. She assures him it does not matter. “They would have voted for Obama for a third time if they could!”

Kaluuya gives a star-making performance with help from cinematographer Toby Oliver, who makes this that rarest of movies, one that knows how to light African-Americans, especially those with darker skin, so that we can really see what they bring to the role. Watch his face in the early scenes as Chris navigates the fatuous pleasantries of Rose’s parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, both excellent), and then the bro-ish thuggery of Rose’s brother, and then the condescending appraisals of the friends who all seem like they are on their way to the yacht club. We see him calibrate each of these interactions, trying to be a good sport, trying to go along, trying to make his girlfriend’s family feel comfortable with him, but starting to lose his patience. One of the film’s many shrewd understandings is the way that a lifetime of having to reassure white people that he is not going to hurt them or make them uncomfortable makes him slow to pick up on or slow to doubt himself about the creepiness of Rose’s family. An early scene, where Chris and Rose get questioned by a highway patrolman after hitting a deer is subtle but sharply drawn. And before you can say “foreshadowing,” Chris is getting a tour of the house and Rose’s dad is explaining that the basement had to be sealed off because of black mold. Hmm. And did I mention the prologue when a black guy walking down a peaceful suburban street is followed and then captured? And that the only person of color beside Chris at the party (the always-great LaKeith Stanfield) is strangely subdued and doesn’t know about fist bumps?

It would be a disservice to say any more about the plot. I won’t spoil the twists. I’ll just say that Peele knows what scares us and how to scare us and make us enjoy it, and gives us a lot to think about about some comedy as well. And that it may be that the scariest thing about the movie is the reminder that it has taken far too long to shine the correct light — literally and figuratively — on stories that should be told because they are just that good.

I recommend these reviews: Travis Hopson, Aisha Harris, Jeffrey Lyles, Kevin Sampson, Stephen Thrasher, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Odie Henderson and Stephen Boone. Also, this piece on conversations with interracial couples who have seen the film.

Parents should know that this is a horror film with theme of racism and exploitation, extended peril and violence including gun, choking, and bloody, graphic, and explicit medical images and sounds, characters injured and killed, suicide, references to sad loss of a parent, some strong language including racist epithets, sexual references and a non-explicit situation, and smoking.

Family discussion: When does the story turn from insensitive to offensive to sinister? What makes Chris decide that he has to leave?

If you like this, try: “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Wicker Man” (original version) and “The Stepford Wives”

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The Accountant

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MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence and language throughout
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Prescription drugs, some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic peril and violence, many people injured and killed, children injured and in peril
Diversity Issues: Theme of cognitive differences
Date Released to Theaters: October 14, 2016
Date Released to DVD: January 9, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B01LBWHR7Y

Copyright Warner Brothers 2016
Copyright Warner Brothers 2016
Ben Affleck plays the title character in “The Accountant,” a man on the autism spectrum who has what clinicians call a “flat affect” and some obsessive-compulsive tendencies, but also the math skills of a 93 petaflop computer and the martial arts skills of a Navy Seal who competes on weekends as an American Ninja Warrior.

Director Gavin O’Connor (the underseen gem “Warrior“) and screenwriter Bill Dubuque (the underseen “The Judge“) have concocted a twisty thriller with surprises up to the last minute. The crafty back-and-forth structure keeps the information just out of our reach until it is exactly the right moment for it to fall into place.

After a brief opening shoot-out, we go back in time to see the Wolff family. The parents are meeting with a specialist, who is explaining what it means to be gifted but not neuro-typical. The boy they are discussing is Christian (Seth Lee), who is speed-solving a jigsaw puzzle as his younger brother Brax (Jake Presley) watches. We are given three important pieces of information in this scene. First, Christian cannot handle not being able to finish the puzzle. Second, when the piece that fell off the table is located, we see it fit into place from underneath — he has been working on upside-down puzzle pieces, the blank underside rather than the picture.

Third, his parents do not agree on how to help him. His mother accepts the advice of the specialist, who says that Christian’s hyper-sensitivity to stimulation means that he should be protected from light and noise. But his father (Robert C. Treveiler), who is in the military, insists on the opposite. If light and noise bother Christian, “he needs more.”

We will learn more about the consequences of that disagreement later.

Christian grows up to be an accountant, operating out of a tiny office in a strip mall. (Is the name of his firm, ZZZZ, a reference to one of the most notorious accounting frauds of the 1980’s?). He advises a couple on how to use home office deductions to reduce their tax bill and shows no interest when the receptionist tries to fix him up with her daughter. He then takes on a big case, tracking down a missing $61 million at a company about to go public, where he meets Dana, the very bright young CPA who discovered the discrepancy in the financial reports (Anna Kendrick, lighting up the screen as always). But there is more to him, including a treasure trove that includes originals by Pollack and Renoir and a #1 Action Comic (first appearance of Superman, worth about $3 million), a torturous nightly ritual, a Siri-like virtual assistant who seems to know everything and some very serious guys with guns who are determined to kill Christian and Dana.

Meanwhile, a government official (JK Simmons) is trying to track down a mysterious figure who shows up in photos of some of the most dangerous people in the world, a guy who appears to be their…accountant. He blackmails a savvy young woman on his staff (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) into tracking him down. And a paid assassin (Jon Bernthal) efficiently deals with people he has been assigned to take care of, who may or may not be connected to all of this.

As he did with “Warrior,” O’Connor plays with the borders of genre. There are unexpected moments of humor (“We should go” turns out to be very funny when the tone and timing are right). And he knows how to make us feel for the characters, giving some heft to the puzzle and action. By the end of the film, we get the same satisfaction Christian does in seeing that last piece fit into place.

Parents should know that this film includes intense, sustained action-style violence involving adults and children with martial arts and guns, characters are paid assassins and criminals, fraud, very strong language, and parental abandonment.

Family discussion: What does it mean to be neuro-typical? Who was right about Chris, his father or his mother? What was the purpose of his nightly ritual?

If you like this, try: “Warrior” from the same director

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DC Area: Join Me at the Hill Center Tomorrow for the Original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”

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Join me May 22, 2016 4:00 at DC’s Hill Center for the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” It’s free!

It’s been called the most frightening film ever made. That’s because there is no razor-toothed monster, giant bug-eyed alien or special effects extravaganza as terrifying as a threat coming from the person you thought you knew and trusted. Were the film’s emotionless pod people supposed to represent Communists or McCarthyite conformists? Either way, they reflect the obsessions of the Cold War. Based on a novella by Jack Finney, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” has been remade three times (so far), each time resonating with the deepest fears of its era.

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