Gaslight

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This Catch Up is written by Telaina Eriksen

Year of Release: 1944

Rating: NR (It’s G/PG but would be creepy for little kids)

Currently Streaming on Netflix? No—available OnDemand and on BluRay and DVD

Spoilers? No more than that awesome, melodramatic, classic trailer linked up above

 

This movie and its 1940 predecessor (which I have never seen) are the reason we have the phrase “gaslighting.” Gaslighting “is a form of mental abuse in which information is twisted/spun, selectively omitted to favor the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception and sanity.” This movie is an ideal to watch if you ever wonder how anyone could “let” themselves be abused or have ever asked “why on earth would a woman STAY with her abuser?”

Ingrid Bergman stars as Paula Alquist who, at 10 years old, discovers her aunt’s murdered body in their home. Paula, who for obvious reasons now loathes the house, (we call this PTSD in the 21st century) is shipped off to Italy to study music. There she meets an older pianist and falls in love. She marries him, sacrificing her promising musical career. Paula has had no mother and no father in her life for almost a decade, and all she wants is to be loved and have a family. Paula equates all of England with her aunt’s traumatic murder, but that is exactly where her new husband Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) wants them to move. Paula expresses her displeasure but wants to please her love and they do move to England. Arriving, Paula is in for the first of many ugly surprises, as Gregory insists they move into her aunt’s home since she owns it through inheritance.

Ensconced in England, in a house with horrible memories, Gregory begins his attack on Paula’s psyche. He moves objects. He talks to her like an invalid. Things go missing. Paintings move. Gas lights in the bedroom dim and brighten. There are strange noises in the house. Gregory leaves and returns at strange hours. He enlists the aid of a maid (a very young and smoking hot Angela Lansbury) as an ally, telling her in his charming way that his wife doesn’t know what is for her own good. In addition Gregory hires an almost deaf housekeeper who never hears the sounds Paula hears. Gregory bullies Paula consistently through the guise of love until Paula questions her own sanity. He slowly and systematically cuts her off from family friends and others who might be concerned for her welfare and then as coup d’état, tells the housekeeper and maid not to let anyone in the house or to let Paula leave it, for her own “good.”

Luckily for Paula, Brian Cameron, Scotland Yard detective, (Joseph Cotten) was a big fan of Paula’s aunt, who was a prima donna he saw perform when he was a child. He has taken a special interest in Paula and notices that Gregory seems shady at best. Brian has always wondered who killed Paula’s aunt, and Gregory looks a little familiar to him.

As the movie reaches its climax, Paula confronts Gregory. (I believe this scene was probably crucial in getting Ingrid Bergman her Academy Award for this role.) She is so angry and cutting—it is a beautiful to behold and the viewer wishes every woman (or man) who has been abused by a master manipulator, someone who took their love and trust and goodwill and turned it on them to make them question their sanity and their competence as a human being, would get a chance to face their abuser in the same manner.

What I find so interesting about this movie (in addition to its overall strong script and all-around solid acting performances) is that domestic violence and abuse was not exactly front and center in 1944. Certainly there wasn’t the information we have available about it now, nor the social services. (We still don’t have enough social services but we have many more than were available in the 1940s.) Yet, this movie captures perfectly what can happen when one person with a trusting heart, and one person with malicious intent (or a lot of issues) can do to just the average person who trusts them.

Even if the psychology of violence and abuse doesn’t interest you, you are sure to enjoy the performances of Bergman, Lansbury, Boyer and Cotten. This classic continued to hold up well, even over 60 years later.

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ESPN 30 For 30: The Price of Gold

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ESPN 30 For 30: The Price of Gold
This Catch Up is written by Chelsea Cristene
Year of Release: 2014
Spoilers: If you need a spoiler alert for this documentary, you were either not alive yet or living under a rock in 1994.
Currently Streaming on Netflix? Yes.
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One of my happiest childhood memories is asking my mother to back the cars off of the carport so the neighborhood girls and I could skate on it until dark. We pulled our hair back in tight buns, strapped on some clunky neon rollerblades, and pretended that we were our famous favorites competing for the gold medal: Kristi Yamaguchi, Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski.
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If you were a young girl in the 1990s, you probably remember being very much into figure skating. And if you were, I’m sure that it had a lot to do with the dazzling costumes, the spirited routines, and the refined elegance that so eludes gangly ten year olds. But it probably also had a lot to do with Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.
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Twenty years later, director Nanette Burstein’s The Price of Gold explores not only the details of the scandal, but the dire poverty and abuse in Tonya Harding’s world that added fuel to an already competitive fire. Tonya’s background, as reporter Ann Schatz explains, is absolutely essential in understanding the attack. (Disclaimer: I don’t find Tonya Harding very likeable, and I don’t think I’m alone here. At 44, she is basically a bratty teenager in an adult’s body, complaining that the judges didn’t like her dress yet telling Nancy to “shut up” about her disappointing silver medal win. She’s brash, inarticulate, and stubbornly committed to proving her innocence. But after watching footage and hearing stories from her childhood, I can certainly see why she doesn’t have both oars in the water.)
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Tonya Harding, as several of the interviewees discuss, grew up in a cluttered rental house in Oregon. Though her mother used what little money the family had to finance Tonya’s interest in ice skating, she often verbally abused and physically beat Tonya. The documentary captures one moment in particular when, over the phone after a performance, Tonya’s mother berates her for “looking terrible” on the ice. Suddenly, it becomes clear that Tonya’s drive is about more than just money – she has something to prove. Like so many children from broken homes, Tonya uses a hobby to temporary escape her pain. The problem is that despite all of her talent and dedication, young Tonya is given a very poor example of how loving relationships work, and later falls in love with the abusive Jeff Gillooly.
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There’s also the issue of Tonya not fitting the proper “ice princess” mold. After Dorothy Hamill graced television screens with her glossy bob and feminine composure in the 1970s, figure skating demanded a certain image. Tonya, all curls and moxie, appealed to girls around the country who identified with her humble beginnings and boyish persona. But Nancy Kerrigan was the class act ‘90s figure skating had been waiting for – composed, polished, and strikingly beautiful. And so right along with Nancy’s popularity rose Tonya’s envy, which came to a head with one whack of a pipe.
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I’m going to sound like Stefan from SNL here, but this documentary has everything. A soap-opera storyline: beloved ice princess nearly taken out by ‘bad girl’ rival and her band of thugs, only to fully recover and win an Olympic medal. A thorough detailing of the investigation for all the criminal justice nerds out there, followed by a disbelieving reaction to just how bad the entire plan was. Memorable clips for those of us who were hopelessly glued to our TVs in 1994: the interview with Ann Schatz that Tonya mostly spent looking fearfully over at her then-husband, Tonya’s oh so obvious body language during her pre-Olympic press conference. And Scott Hamilton! If you find yourself with 78 minutes to spare and are jonesing for some ‘90s nostalgia, The Price of Gold is a great use of your time.
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Unsurprisingly, Nancy Kerrigan declined to contribute to this documentary. Tonya, however, relishes any opportunity to talk about herself, and when the film wraps up with even more of her adamant denial, I can’t say that I expected anything else. Like all the best tragedies, Tonya’s pride leads to her downfall, and in a self-fulfilling prophecy she is finally a household name. Just not in a way she had ever dreamed of.

The Equalizer

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This Catch Up is written by Telaina Eriksen
Year of Release: 2014
Rating: R
Currently Streaming on Netflix? No—available OnDemand and on BluRay and DVD

As you can tell from my Catch Ups, I love a good action movie but this one wasn’t my call—my husband read about it under new DVD releases and wanted to see it. Since 95 percent of the time I pick our movies, I said sure, let’s watch it. I knew nothing about the movie except what my husband told me, “Looks like an action movie and it has Denzel Washington.” Now Washington has owned a little corner of my heart ever since his performance in Glory so it is never a challenge for me to watch a movie that he’s in. I’m not sure how this happened but I believe Washington is now *60* years old. So this character—who is supposed to be semi-retired and working at a Home Depot-like store warehouse—is a good fit for the aging gracefully Washington.

I posted on Facebook that I was watching this movie and my sister Terese commented, “Didn’t this come from the old TV show?” so I went over to IMDB to check and sure enough, it is loosely based on The Equalizer TV series that ran from 1985 to 1989. I don’t believe I ever saw an episode of it—I was a senior in high school and then in college when it was on and those were busy years. But I do know my sister enjoyed it (hence the comment).

In the opening sequences of the film we see that Robert McCall (Washington) has a routine, segmented life. He enjoys the people he works with and is helping one young man lose weight and study to pass his security guard test. McCall goofs around with the younger Home Depot(like) workers, telling them when they ask about his past that he was a former Pip, forcing his younger coworkers to google Gladys Knight and the Pips to see whether he is kidding or not. McCall eats alone in his apartment each night and washes his single plate, glass, knife and fork afterward. But he cannot sleep so he takes whatever classic novel he is currently reading to a diner that is open all night, has a cup of tea and reads his book. It is here at the diner that he meets Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), a prostitute who is wholly owned by the Russian mafia. (Have you noticed that the Russian mafia is super big in the villain scene right now in television and movies?) Teri wants to be a singer, and Washington feels very paternal towards her and seems non-judgmental of her line of work–until she is beaten almost to death by her bosses.

Seeing McCall decide whether or not to get involved is one of the great pleasures of the movie and as things escalate, he goes from trying to get Teri free from her pimps to becoming so full of rage that he decides to topple the entire east coast operations of the Russian Mafia. McCall has a formidable opponent in Teddy (Marton Csokas—Celeborn from LOTR, for the LOTR nerds, me *cough cough* me) who is the trouble shooter for the mafia. Teddy is the guy they call when things in the mafia are going to shit. Teddy soon finds out McCall’s weakness—McCall has nothing to lose BUT the people he cares about at the not-Home Depot and his diner-friend Teri.

Things progress in a fairly typical action movie fashion, but since this is an Anthony Fuqua movie the acting is good, the explosions stylized and viewers actually care about the characters. My only complaint is not really a complaint about the movie but about the genre—wouldn’t we just love to see (just once) a man or woman without special ops training get the best of the bad guys? Maybe Melissa McCarthy’s The Spy will deliver?

The ending of The Equalizer definitely left room for a sequel, and with a worldwide gross of over $192 million, and a budget of a “mere” $55 million; we may well be eating popcorn to The Equalizer Returns before long.

Wild

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Wild
This Catch-Up is written by Chelsea Cristene.
Year of Release: 2014.
Rating: R for sex, drug use, and a whole lotta “fucks” as the harsh wilderness teaches Reese a thing or two.
Currently Streaming on Netflix?: No, but it’s in theatres!
Spoilers: Very mild. Cheryl hikes and stuff happens.

I’m pretty sure this is the first theatrical release review that I’ve written on this blog. Welcome to awards season, y’all.

If your Nerve deny you, go above your nerve. The quote featured in the beginning of the trailer is from Emily Dickenson, and even though my feelings on this poet are less than pleasant (a fellow English major I knew in college used to wear a shirt emblazoned with “Hey Emily Dickenson – the vacuum wants it suck back!”), it’s great advice for the new year. Reese Witherspoon is rightfully earning all sorts of buzz for her role as Cheryl Strayed, who wrote the memoir on which the film is based. In 1995, Strayed hiked over a thousand miles of the Pacific Coast Trail in order to come to terms with her mother’s death and a menagerie of subsequent bad choices, all of which drive the film into unsettling places.

In the first few scenes – after a flash-forward of our protagonist furiously hurling her hiking boots down a mountain – Cheryl is your typical 26-year-old novice hiker. She’s small, weak, and packed way too much shit. For a solid five minutes, she squirms around on her hotel room floor under the weight of her provisions like an overturned potato bug until finally dead-lifting to her feet. And then she is ready, or as ready as she’ll ever be.

At first, as Cheryl hikes, she is too focused on costly errors in judgment to be preoccupied with anything beyond her immediate needs. After realizing that she bought the wrong kind of fuel for her stove and quickly tiring of cold mush, she thumbs a ride back into town for a hot meal and supplies. It is this initial human contact on the trail that causes Cheryl to think about her own family, and here we start receiving more bits and pieces of her backstory.

This is when Laura Dern enters the picture as Cheryl’s mother. This is also when I decide that if Laura Dern does not receive a best supporting actress Oscar nod, there is no justice in the world. Because as accurately as Laura portrays Cheryl’s rendering of Bobbi in the book, she is somehow simultaneously everyone’s mother. Bobbi Grey is the financially strapped single woman who leaves her abusive husband in the middle of the night in order to protect her family, but her performance never feels cliché or trite. There’s a warmth and authenticity that anyone raised by a mother who tried to make the best of poverty or emotional/physical abuse in the home can identify with. “How much do I love you?” Bobbi asks her kids, smiling in the kitchen doorframe. “This much? This much?” She moves her hands farther and farther apart, but her love is always greater.

If this film doesn’t leave you wanting to hug your mother like those Sarah McLachlan commercials make you pine away for your dog or cat, there might be something wrong with you. Just saying.

There’s a scene in the first season of Orange is the New Black when Piper, during a “scared straight” stint, tells one of the delinquent teenagers that the truly scary part of prison is “coming face to face with who you really are.” “I’m scared that I’m not myself in here,” Piper says, “and I’m scared that I am.” In longer stretches than a stress-relieving run or a nice walk through the park, solitude can be a very ugly thing. My creative writing students discovered this on a wilderness trek assignment where they had to visit an outdoor place of personal significance and write a narrative chronicling their journey. Prepared for a peaceful stroll, all of them were surprised to have confronted some very dark places. Lost loves, abuse, deaths of family members and friends, and even a miscarriage surfaced. Like Cheryl, they all came back from the assignment changed. Also like Cheryl, they were finally able to let some things go.

Solitude causes time to operate in funny ways. While watching Wild, I felt as though past and present were moving parallel to one another, alternating between splices of hospital stays, heroin binges, and unraveling relationships and the very real threats that Cheryl cannot take her mind off of in the present. I’ve always loved a good survival narrative, but I appreciate the special attention Wild gives to female hikers and travelers, illuminating the very real dangers we face every day in traditionally “off limits” spaces. Through this navigation, Cheryl reaches the bridge to Washington State and finds herself with a power she never knew she had. The power to withstand the elements and the psychological strain and the potential rapists, yes, but also the power to forgive herself.

Holiday Inn

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This Catch Up is written by Telaina Eriksen
Year of Release: 1942
Rating: NR (but really I for Infuriating)
Currently Streaming on Netflix? No

Earlier this week, my husband and I were in the mood for a Christmas movie we hadn’t seen over and over again. I’ve been fighting some nasty cold (it’s almost made me think I’ve had influenza a couple of times but I haven’t had a fever or very many body aches) so novels and movies have been my friends. Holiday Inn was OnDemand. I hadn’t seen it in years—I think my last viewing was when I was home for Christmas during college. My husband had never seen Holiday Inn so we chose it from a long list of movies. Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, what could go wrong?

The premise of the movie is that Jim Hardy (Crosby) is tired of the travel and hubbub of show business and wants to “go relax” and be a farmer with his singing partner Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds). Unfortunately for Jim, Ted Hanover (Astaire) has been wooing Linda on the side and wants her to stay in the act with him and not be drowned by domesticity down on the farm. Dialogue between Jim and Ted indicate there has been a long history of girlfriend “stealing” between the two men. Linda chooses to stay with Ted while Jim tries to tough it out on the farm he has purchased. But surprise! Being a farmer is as hard, if not harder, than being in show business. Realizing he is not cut out for farming, Jim decided to renovate the big farm house into an inn, which will only be open on holidays. This will minimize his work and provide a hook for people to come from New York City to the inn for the various holidays. Through a series of mishaps, Jim discovers Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) and has her sing and dance in the Holiday Inn shows. Sure enough, he starts to fall in love with Lila about the time that Linda abandons Ted for a Texas millionaire.

All is well and good in old movie time and space for quite a bit of screen time. Bing Crosby sings. Fred Astaire dances. There is slapstick humor and a money-grubbing manager. But on Lincoln’s birthday, my husband and I ran into some serious trouble, as the entire musical number is performed in blackface. I had never seen this scene before, I didn’t know it existed. We didn’t have and then couldn’t afford cable growing up, so the only time I had ever seen Holiday Inn was on network TV—where they with forethought, edited this scene out.

I think everyone has to swallow a certain amount when watching old movies—the depiction of women (which really hasn’t improved that much), the stereotypes of other races and religions, the complete lack of people of color (still working on that one, too) but what was most painful about the blackface was the complete norm of it as well as Lila’s ingenuous but cutting and awful comment as Jim is applying her blackface, “For a month and a half I’ve been dreaming how pretty I was going to look tonight. Well, here is my punishment for thinking so well of myself.” The code here is that a black face could never be pretty and it is chilling to watch. For those people who think we are “post-racial” and that there is “white discrimination” if the pictures of lynchings and cross burnings from the 60s don’t impact these people, or seeing black unarmed teenagers gunned down for merely existing today, seeing Mamie (Louise Beavers) have to sing to her children in the kitchen because black entertainers aren’t allowed to entertain a white audience probably won’t change anyone’s mind about the history of race relations in the United States.

I’m not a big fan of censorship. A few years ago there was a push to take the N-word out of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and I disagreed strongly. But part of me was glad that I got to enjoy Holiday Inn as a younger person without being confronted with its racial reality. Because now I can never go back and I will never watch that movie again. Many people herald older movies as somehow better—from a more innocent time, a time when there were values and decency. Holiday Inn proves that in the United States of America, there has never been a time of innocence, values and decency. That we have always complacently accepted injustice and called it “just the way things are.”

American Beauty

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This Catch-Up is written by Chelsea Cristene.


American Beauty
Year of Release: 1999.
Rating: R for…yeah, pretty much everything.
Currently Streaming on Netflix?: Yes.
Spoiler Alert: Lester dies.

There admittedly wasn’t a whole lot to cheer about in the way of new Netflix arrivals in December, but after an appropriate amount of time mourning the loss of Spice World I found the silver lining: finally, American Beauty. So if you’re one of the five people in the U.S. who hasn’t ever seen this movie, and it’s too late to rent the VHS from your friendly neighborhood Blockbuster like I used to do in high school, here’s your chance.

I’ve always been a sucker for suburban angst (Little Children, In the Bedroom, Revolutionary Road) but American Beauty has always seemed like the most relatable film in the genre because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Case in point: the nonchalance of Lester (Kevin Spacey)’s voiceover during the opening scene: My name is Lester Burnham…in less than a year, I’ll be dead. Lester is a suburban husband, father, and unhappy white collar worker who mostly disappears behind his manic, demonstrative wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), and pissy teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch). Until he doesn’t, and against all odds becomes a pretty likeable guy.

During the halftime show of the high school basketball game Carolyn has dragged him to, Lester finds his muse in Jane’s dance teammate Angela (Mena Suvari). What follows is a sequence of fantasies in which Angela performs a seductive dance for Lester, stares at him wantonly from the ceiling, and asks him to give her a bath – all while covered in the red rose petals that appear throughout the film. This is all very creepy, especially when Lester goes out on a limb to find Angela’s number and dial it while Jane is in the shower, but perhaps forgivable once we realize that Angela is the catalyst for Lester learning how to live life on his own terms.

There’s plenty of despair in American Beauty, particularly in the home of neighboring Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), who copes with his abusive Marine father (Chris Cooper) and catatonic mother (a surprising role for Allison Janney) by filming all the beauty he sees in the world with a small camera. Ricky, who decided to play by his own rules a long time ago by selling high-quality marijuana to pay for his film equipment, is the right inspiration at the right time for Lester. And so American Beauty’s high points arrive when Lester follows Ricky’s lead in shoving off unhappiness: standing up to Carolyn’s rage, quitting his humdrum job to take a fast-food position with the least possible amount of responsibility, buying his dream car, and getting really stoned and pumping iron to Bob Dylan in the garage. The dinner when Lester throws a plate of asparagus at the wall and finally voices his disdain for Lawrence Welk is easily some of the most fluid and effortless comedy I’ve ever seen. As is everything involving the subplot of Annette Bening having an affair with Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows.

I could go off on a lot of tangents when it comes to American Beauty. That Annette Bening was robbed at the Oscars. That Chris Cooper is still one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood. That this film did for homosexuality in the 1990s what Kramer vs. Kramer did for divorce in the 1970s (and that’s not a hint at a future movie review or anything; no). But this time around, I couldn’t watch it without remembering a speech that Ashton Kutcher (stay with me) gave a few years ago on Steve Jobs.

When you grow up, you tend to get told that the world is the way that it is. And that your life is to live your life inside the world and try not to get in too much trouble, and maybe get an education and get a job and make some money and have a family. But life can be a lot broader than that when you realize one simple thing, and that is that everything around us that we call life was made up by people who are no smarter than you. And you can build your own things; you can build your own life that other people can live in. So build a life. Don’t live one, build one.

Nearly all of the characters in American Beauty are completely miserable because they have resigned themselves to lives that someone else told them they should want, or because they’re masking something they feel cannot be made visible. When Lester first meets Ricky, he reminisces about a summer when all I did was party and get laid. I had my whole life ahead of me. At its core, American Beauty is a dare to flip burgers while the rest of the country barks at you to work a soul-sucking 9 to 5 – if flipping burgers is what makes you happy. Lester dies at the end, yes, but he dies happy. How many of us will be able to say the same?

3 Days to Kill

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This Catch-Up is written by Telaina Eriksen
Year of Release: 2014
Rating: PG-13

Currently Streaming on Netflix?: Yes.
Spoilers: The trailer shows this is an action movie, but surprise, it’s a FUNNY action movie.

My husband and I were both pretty exhausted at the end of last week. Our daughter was at college, studying for finals, and our son was hanging out with friends at the local gaming/comic book store. (But my family isn’t geeks. Noooo.) So we decided on 3 Days to Kill (Recommended for me based on my interest in Jack Reacher and Revenge!) I have a soft spot for certain Kevin Costner movies—Rumor Has It, Dances with Wolves, Field of Dreams, Tin Cup, Bull Durham and Waterworld. (Oh eff you, haters. If you don’t laugh hysterically over the fact that Kevin Costner has grown gills but we’re not out of oil yet and there are still cigarettes left, you don’t have any magic in your heart. I OWN WATERWORLD ON DVD.)

The set-up of 3 Days is pretty straightforward—while on a very important job, CIA Agent Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner) passes out/faints which allows the villains to get away. He is transported to the hospital where he is diagnosed with brain cancer that has also metastasized in his lungs. He has just a few months to live. The United States government thanks him for his service and kicks him to the curb.

He moves to Paris (because that’s a much more interesting place to film then Anaheim) to re-establish a relationship with his daughter and his ex-wife. Soon after he is contacted by a beautiful mysterious operative (Amber Heard) to finish one last job for the CIA. Now we’re not quite sure if she works for the CIA, or why this beautiful mysterious operative can’t go kill these dudes herself? But in exchange for his services, she has some super seekrit cancer drugs which can extend Ethan’s life. So just sort of go with all that and this leaves you free to enjoy Ethan trying to deal with normal teenage parenting problems (there is an element of Taken in here. I will protect my little girl with all my special ops training!). The estrangement with his wife is stereotypical. And of course the beautiful mysterious operative propositions the much, much, much older Ethan (ick) but that seemed like something maybe Costner worked in his contract? I’ll do this 3 Days to Kill thing, but that hottie has to be scripted to want me. I know I’m cynical. But you’re a pretty woman with money and a nice car in Paris and your grandpa-chasing? Youth is wasted on the young. (I have nothing against grandpas. They’re awesome. But I’m also not 28.)

There are some real moments of humor in the movie—especially when Costner is trying to torture information out of people and his teenage daughter keeps texting and calling him. Any parent of a teenager who has to negotiate some parenting catastrophe from work will laugh it up in those moments. The action is entertaining and one or two unexpected things happen. This is the kind of harmless movie that is perfect for Netflix. You wouldn’t have paid $10 a ticket for it, but on the small screen with some burnt popcorn (made lovingly by your spouse of over 20 years), it is a fun way to pass a Friday evening.