Detroit

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence and pervasive language
Profanity: Very strong language including racist epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Very intense and graphic violence including murder and brutal beatings, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 4, 2017
Date Released to DVD: December 11, 2017

If a newspaper is the first draft of history, perhaps it is art that conveys the truth of the past with context, nuance, and power. And so “Detroit,” Kathryn Bigelow’s story of a horrifying, tragic murder of three black men during the Detroit riots of 1967, meaningfully begins with the paintings of Jacob Lawrence documenting the migration of black families from the rural South to northern urban centers and the unrest triggered by the fear and flight of the white residents. “The promise of equal opportunity for all turned out to be an illusion.  Change was inevitable.” And, for some people who were happy as things were, terrifying.

And so “Detroit,” directed by Bigelow’s and scripted by her “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker” screenwriter Mark Boal aspires aspires to be art that tells the story of one incident that illuminates not only its own time but ours as well. It is based on intensive research including court transcripts and interviews with people who were there.

Television news in the 1967 featured footage of riots, with looters smashing windows, even at stores with “Soul Brother” spray-painted in hope that being owned by black neighbors would keep them safe. There was not much, if any coverage of an incident at the Algiers Motel, where white cops abused a group of young black men and two white women and murdered three unarmed teenagers. This was before the time that a bystander could record the beating of a Rodney King, and so it had to wait for the Hollywood version.

The threat of anarchy and violence was so unsettling during the Detroit riots that Lyndon Johnson sent 1100 National Guardsmen — to protect the police. The state police were there, too, and we see one officer recognize that horrible abuse is taking place, but leave, saying, “I don’t want to get in any civil rights mixup.” The pervasive chaos and fear inspires one character to say, “Now everybody knows what it’s like to be black.”

Reportedly, Bigelow encouraged her actors to develop their own dialog so it would be more authentic to their own perceptions and experience. She has a gift for conveying urgency and putting the audience in the middle of the action. The characters who take us through the story include a mild-mannered security guard (“The Force Awakens'” John Boyega), a just-returned Vietnam vet (Anthony Mackie), and a young white cop in way over his head, who has no hesitation about planting a weapon on a murder victim (“The Revenant’s” Will Poulter). It is in no way excusing his behavior to say that his behavior here is as much based on fear, anger, and ignorance as in racism.

I hope the film will not always feel as timely as it does now. If that is true, it will be in part because films like this provide context that helps us understand not only the origins of Black Lives Matter but the lives of the parents and grandparents who were unable or unwilling to tell their own stories.

NOTE: I recommend the thoughtful responses to this film from African-American critics, including Angelica Jade Bastien, who found the portrayal of brutality exploitive (“It wasn’t the relentless violence inflicted upon black bodies or the fiery devastation of the riots ripping apart Detroit but the emptiness behind these moments that got under my skin.”)

Parents should know that this film includes explicit depiction of a real-life incident of police abuse and brutality including murder of three unarmed teenagers, with rioting and looting, many disturbing and graphic images, very strong language, drinking, smoking, drugs, sexual references and brief nudity.

Family discussion: What would make you believe that justice had been done in this case? How does this story help us to understand some of today’s conflicts?

If you like this, try: documentaries about this era including “4 Little Girls,” “Eyes on the Prize,” and “12th and Clairmount”

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/action violence, guns, chases, characters injured and killed including genocide
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 21, 2017
Date Released to DVD: November 21, 2017

Copyright 2017 STX Films
Yes, the visuals and special effects in Luc Besson’s “Valerian and the City of the Thousand Planets” are next-level, dazzling, stunning, and themselves worth the price of a ticket (3D please). But let’s be honest. The best special effect in the movie is the lovely real face of Rihanna as Bubble, a shape-shifting alien our hero meets in an inter-galactic strip club.

That hero would be Valerian (Dane DeHaan), who has gone to the strip club in search of the disguise he needs to infiltrate an alien compound and rescue the woman he loves, his space partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne). She was captured as the two of them were on a mission to…oh, who cares what the mission was? It’s your basic save the universe stuff. You know and I know and they know you are not there for the subtleties of the space city that incorporates, “Zootopia”-style, every possible creature and culture, a veritable Pepperland of comity and the exchange of learning. In the opening scenes, we see the history of the place, as human astronauts welcome aboard an increasing variety of visitors with a warm handshake, first from other countries, and then from other planets and galaxies, still with something as close to a handshake as possible.

This is the movie Luc Besson has wanted to make since he was a teenager, base on a French comic book series from the 1960’s with a visionary aesthetic that inspired Besson’s own “5th Element” and George Lucas’ “Star Wars.” He had to wait decades until the technology made it possible to do the ravishing visuals justice. That is the good news and the bad news. The good news is that the visuals are indeed ravishing, worth a couple of viewings on the biggest screen you can find and then a couple more when you can watch it at home and hit “pause” to see every detail. The bad news is that the storyline has not held up as well over the years as the settings, in part because much of it has also been appropriated, too, over the years, partly because times have changed, and partly because it wasn’t that great to begin with. Valerian and Laureline banter back and forth about whether he can make a commitment to her as they try to save the world. It is supposed to be part of the fun of the story that they are cool and casual. Valerian even wears a Hawaiian shirt at one point instead of his spiffy spacesuit (they are undercover as tourists). But their characters are so bland, especially by contrast with the wildly imaginative world they are racing through, that it drags on the storyline. That’s disappointing because it distracts from some promising flickers of substance.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive sci-fi peril, action, and violence with many guns and blasters, characters injured and killed, sad deaths, references to genocide, corruption, brief strong language, provocative dance and references to prostitution.

Family discussion: Why do Valerian and Laureline disagree about the converter? How do you know when to break the rules?

If you like this, try: “Avatar” and “The Fifth Element”

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Spider-Man: Homecoming

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Profanity: Some teen language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action/fantasy peril and violence, chases, explosions, guns, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 7, 2017
Date Released to DVD: October 16, 2017

This latest version of Spider-Man is a homecoming indeed, taking us back to the teenage Peter Parker, a bright kid going to high school in Queens, trying to figure out how to talk to the prettiest girl on the Academic Decathlon as he is also trying to figure out what it means to have the great responsibility that comes with great power. Holland, less soulful and more excitable than his recent predecessors Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. In this version (thankfully omitting the radioactive spider bite origin story), Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is just 15 years old, a high school sophomore, and that means that everything that is happening to him is equally momentous, whether it’s a school field trip to Washington DC for the Decathlon or another kind of field trip that involves an all-out battle with members of the Avengers fighting each other.

We got a glimpse of Holland as Spider-Man and Marisa Tomei as a very young and appealing Aunt May at the end of the last Avengers movie, “Captain America: Civil War,” when Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) brings him to the big fight. This movie reminds us that is where we left off by letting us revisit that episode through Peter’s eyes. Of course if Tony Stark comes to get you and you end up stealing Captain America’s shield in a huge intramural Avengers battle, and you’re just 15 years old, you’re going to be super-excited and you’re going to record it all on your smartphone.

And once the battle is over, he’s going to be back to his regular life of school during the day and very polite crime-fighting at night, explaining his absences to Aunt May and his friends by saying he has a special internship with Stark Industries. Peter is eager to get back into the big leagues: “I feel like I could be doing more.” But Stark and his aide, Happy (“Iron Man” director Jon Favreau) tell him to stay home and work on his skills. “Just be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” Stark says, and Happy warns, “I’m responsible for seeing that you’re responsible.” But he does give Peter a very cool Spark-designed super-suit with many upgrades, and seeing Spidey discover and master them is a big part of the fun.

Michael Keaton plays the bad guy, bringing some of his comic-book vibe from “Batman” and “Birdman.” His character is Adrian Toomes, who is initially given the salvage contract to dispose of the mess left after a super-battle. When his group is replaced, putting the survival of his company in peril, he liberates some of the alien weapons left behind and becomes an arms dealer, ruthless in business but devoted to his family.

The film goes back and forth between superhero action and a John Hughes style teen movie, with with affectionate references to “Ferris Bueller,” “Sixteen Candles,” and “The Breakfast Club.” There is a nerdy best friend (Jacob Batalon as Ned), a way-out-of-his-league girl (Laura Harrier as Liz), a girl with some potential (Zendaya, wryly hilarious), a school field trip for the Academic Decathlon (with a rescue at the Washington Monument), a Spanish quiz, and a prom, all interrupted by some wild stunts, including a split-down-the-middle Staten Island ferry and a world-depends-on-it hijacking of some of the Avengers’ most important objects.

It’s funny (keep an eye out for Captain America’s school videos), it is exciting (the action scenes are very well paced), and it is smart, not overlooking the chance to compare Toomes’ weapon sales to unsavory characters to Stark’s. Holland is an immensely appealing Peter, young but already very much a hero. His super-challenges keep interfering with his teenage rites of passage, but my spidey-sense tells me he’s just right for the job.

NOTE: Stay ALL the way to the end for a second and very funny credits scene featuring one of the Avengers.

Parents should know that this film includes extended comic-book/fantasy action peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, chases, explosions, murder, and some teen language and sexual humor.

Family discussion: How does this differ from other Spider-Man movies? Why does Peter say no to Tony?

If you like this, try: more Marvel movies and some John Hughes movies, too

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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
Date Released to DVD: December 4, 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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