Romeo & Juliet. Fast-moving and gorgeously filmed against a backdrop of Italian Renaissance art and architecture, this “Romeo and Juliet” could well draw in romance-minded teens of middle- and high-school age, as well as those with an early love of language and art. However, the film suffers from an ill-equipped Juliet in Hailee Steinfeld. So terrific in “True Grit,” here she is undone by the language. She hasn’t got the diction, and some of Juliet’s most beautiful speeches sound mushy and indistinct. As Romeo, British actor Douglas Booth fares better and cuts a dashing figure, but he and Steinfeld are oddly matched.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The sword and knife fights are highly choreographed and not bloody at all. Nor are Romeo and Juliet’s deaths graphic, though of course he does take poison and she stabs herself. Their one marital night together is not at all explicit — very gauzy and understated.
Captain Phillips. Not graphically violent but still too intense for middle-schoolers, this sharp dramatization of a 2009 incident will give high-schoolers more than just action-movie thrills. Tom Hanks adds a fine character study to his résumé as Richard Phillips, captain of the container ship Maersk Alabama, who faces a life-altering test when pirates board his ship off the coast of Somalia. He tries to get them to leave with just $30,000 from the ship’s safe, but the leader demands millions in ransom. The pirates, unhappy with the way negotiations are going on the ship (the crew cleverly evades the invaders for many hours), take Phillips hostage aboard a lifeboat and aim it toward the Somali coast. It is in that tight, podlike space that the drama plays out, to point-blank effect.
The bottom line: Throughout most of the film, the intensity comes more from a sense of menace than from actual violence. Guns are fired in the air and there is punching and shouting. At the end, there are lethal shootings and much spattered blood. The script includes rare use of the S-word.
12 Years a Slave. Based on the published memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was abducted and sold into slavery, this harrowing, stunning film offers a shattering insight into the South’s “peculiar institution.” Too disturbing and violent for middle-schoolers, it should perhaps be required viewing for high-schoolers mature enough to handle the material and who are studying American history. Two white men invite Northup, a successful musician in Saratoga, N.Y., to Washington to perform. There, they ply him with wine, and Northup awakes in shackles in a cell. Transported south by riverboat with other abductees, Northup is sold, first to a relatively nonviolent owner, then to a new master, the drunken, violent Edwin Epps. Epps grows jealous of Northup’s platonic friendship with the slave Patsey, whom Epps covets and, in one scene, viciously rapes.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The beatings, whippings and torture to which Northup is subjected are intensely disturbing. Epps’s rape of Patsey feels graphic but not sexual. Characters use the N-word often.
Escape Plan. This isn’t a good movie, but it’s a surprisingly enjoyable ride and okay for most high-schoolers, if they’re even interested. For adults, the sight of 60-plus action stars Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger lumbering through a thriller, trading glares and punches and cracking wise, could prove a guilty pleasure. Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a prison security expert who goes incognito into maximum-security lockups, then breaks out to show their weaknesses. One of his business associates decides they should accept a job for the CIA. It involves placing Breslin into a maximum-security “black site” for alleged terrorists. Once he’s inside the factory-like place, with its transparent cells and masked guards walloping and tasering inmates for little reason, Breslin knows it’s bad news. The warden acts like a psychopath and there are no legal protections. Eventually Breslin and another inmate, Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), team up to break out.
The bottom line: The violence is more loud than graphic: fists and feet slamming into bodies, bones cracking. The gun battles are not graphically bloody for an R-rated film. However, there is a chilling waterboarding scene. The script uses a lot of the F-word and one strong verbal sexual insult.
Machete Kills. In this sequel, the renegade Mexican anti-drug agent nicknamed Machete works for the president of the United States to stop a megalomaniac terrorist from sending a nuclear missile into the White House. Far too violent — albeit with graphic-novel-style violence — for viewers younger than 17, it is, like the first film, kind of a hoot. Along the way, Machete consorts with a half-crazy drug-cartel honcho, a secret agent operating under the cover of Miss San Antonio and multiple assassins.
The bottom line: True to his nickname, Machete uses his blade to behead several people, with much blood. And, as in the first film, one person gets sliced and his intestines extracted by a helicopter rotor. The film includes a strongly implied seduction and very strong profanity and sexual slang.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
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