The Scorpion King

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Some very scary looking guys are about to kill a guy who would be even scarier-looking if he wasn’t tied up. But then everyone steps back in awe of a guy who steps in looking scariest of all and as they hesitate, he cocks an eyebrow and says simply, “Boo.” That is the Rock (WWF star Dwayne Johnson) and he plays the title role in this prequel to the “Mummy” movies, giving us the background of the character who appeared briefly but memorably in the second one as half-man, half very large bug.

This movie does not pretend to having anything like the wit and charm of the “Mummy” movies, which were a loving tribute to Saturday morning serials. It is produced by Vince McMahon, Chairman of the WWF (and one of its star performers). McMahon has made a fortune making wrestling matches into stories, with vivid characters and dramatic confrontations. “The Scorpion King” just takes it one step further, a three-act wrestling drama with computer graphics. Maybe the next step will be adding arias and turning it into an opera.

On the silly popcorn scale, it works pretty well, largely due to its star. The Rock has genuine screen presence. He even manages most of the material better than Michael Clarke Duncan (“The Green Mile,” “The Whole Nine Yards”) who is just too much of an actor to deliver the cheesy dialogue with the right mix of sincerity and irony, and Peter Facinelli (“Can’t Hardly Wait,” “The Big Kahuna”), whose thin-voiced delivery doesn’t convey the necessary petulant malevolence.

The Rock is the good guy. He has a comical sidekick. No one bothered to give him a name. He is actually listed in the credits as “Comical Sidekick” (Grant Heslov). There is also a bad guy (English accented, of course), evil dictator Memnon (Steven Brand), who relies on a sorceress (Kelly Hu) to guide him in battle. The sorceress is beautiful. You get where this is all going; I don’t have to spell it out.

There is one innovation worth mentioning. In action movies, the hero is almost always stoic, even when he gets hurt. Think of Rambo sewing up his own wounds. But the Rock, carrying over the conventions of professional wrestling, grimaces in pain when he gets hurt. It doesn’t rise to the level of acting, but in a funny way I think that it adds some heart to the story.

Parents should know that the movie has a lot of action violence, meaning that it is not too graphic or gory. There are some vivid images, including attacking cobras, an impaled body, and a dead child. And there are very vivid sound effects making on- and off-screen violence more explicit with spurting and squishing sounds. There are sexual references and non-explicit sexual situations, including two women in a man’s bed. There are no four-letter words, but there are some strong epithets.

Families who see this movie should talk about Memnon’s claim that order was better than freedom. They may also want to talk about how the sorceress protected herself from Memnon.

Families who enjoy this movie should watch The Mummy and The Mummy Returns.

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Action/Adventure Series/Sequel

Along Came a Spider

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Morgan Freeman returns as Dr. Alex Cross in this prequel to “Kiss the Girls.” Like the original, this movie has a nursery rhyme title and centers on a kidnapped girl. This time it is not a serial killer, just a madman inspired by the Lindburgh kidnap case, trying to make a name for himself with the crime of the new century. And this time the kidnap victim is not a woman but a little girl, the daughter of a United States Senator.

Freeman, as always, is a pleasure to watch, bringing a complexity and weight to every scene that almost makes up for a dumb plot. But even he cannot make up for Monica Potter, who replaces Ashley Judd as Freeman’s co-star, and who is as bland as a Barbie doll, and with an even blanker facial expression.

Potter plays Jazzie, a Secret Service agent assigned to a fancy school for the children of big shots and rich people. It’s the kind of place where every desk has an internet hookup and there are more Secret Service agents around than hall monitors. Let me just point out here that the Secret Service does not protect the children of Senators or even Senators themselves, who are in a different branch of government. We’ll give them some leeway for movie logic on that one. But there are some lapses, like having the President of Russia living in Washington, DC, that are inexcusably preposterous.

Jazzie blames herself when Megan (Mikka Boorem) is taken, and she is grateful when Alex Cross, himself recovering from a disastrous sting operation, wants her to work with him. They track down the kidnapper and prevent a second child from being taken. And there are shoot-outs, chases, and near-misses, some well staged. But the final twist is just plain dumb, and neither the performers nor the script’s explanation of the characters’ motivation have the panache to carry it off. No one could, especially when they resort to that hoariest of clichés, the good guy figuring it all out and then going out to the deserted location where it is all happening all by himself! At least they spare us the long explanation by the villain about the master plan.

Parents should know that the movie is very violent, with many deaths and some of the brightest-colored blood I have ever seen spurting in a movie. Characters use strong language. Many people may be upset by seeing children in peril, though Megan and her friend are strong, brave, loyal, and very smart. Other characters betray the trust of people who have been good to them, which may be disturbing to some viewers.

Families who see the movie should talk about what people do when they have to pick themselves up and go on following a disaster. They may also want to talk about how we decide whom we will trust and how we find reserves of strength when we are in scary situations. They should discuss Cross’ statement that everyone is born with a gift or gets good at something and “you don’t betray that.” They might also want to talk about whether criminals really are motivated by the prospect of fame, and whether there is or ever will be again a hero as universally adored as Lindburgh was.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Kiss the Girls” and an enjoyably dumb movie with a similar theme, Masterminds, a kind of “Die Hard” in a fancy prep school, with Patrick Stewart as the bad guy. Next to this one, “Masterminds” looks like “Citizen Kane.”

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Based on a book Series/Sequel Thriller

Babe: Pig in the City

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Families who loved the adorable and heartwarming “Babe” need to know that this sequel, co-written and directed by “Mad Max’s” George Miller, is a much darker and more unsettling movie, not suitable for most small children.

Once again, Babe is called on to save the day, as the Hoggett’s farm is threatened with foreclosure. Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) and Babe must appear at a fair to raise the money to save the farm. But everything goes wrong. They miss their connecting flight and are stuck in the strange and menacing city.

Then things get worse. Mrs. Hoggett and Babe are beset upon by every kind of predator, and the warm and cozy scenes of redemption and reconciliation we expect never come. Mickey Rooney plays a genuinely creepy clown. A mildly happy ending is almost coincidental and anti- climactic.

The movie is easier to admire than like, which may be why it ended up on several critics’ end of the year “10 best” lists, and was picked by the late Gene Siskel as the best film of 1998. The visuals are wonderfully imaginative. The city is a miracle of production design, brilliantly conceived. There are special effects of breathtaking skill and small moments of genuine charm. Babe and some of his new friends are adorably endearing. Older kids and teens who are not too embarrassed may appreciate the film’s artistry. But younger children should stick with the original.

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Animation Series/Sequel Talking animals

Next Friday

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

On the one hand, this movie is a lazy, dumb, and misogynistic and it promotes pot smoking, unemployment, and burglary. On the other hand, it is genial and unpretentious. If it does not take drug use, crime, racism, and sexism too seriously, it does not take itself too seriously either. Almost every joke in the movie is taken from another movie, but the cast enjoys them so much that they occasionally make it work.

This is the sequel to “Friday,” a movie that performed modestly in theaters but became a hit on video. In the original, Craig (played by rap star Ice Cube, who co-wrote the screenplay) spent the day smoking pot and beat up the neighborhood bully. The sequel, again written by and starring Ice Cube, has the bully breaking out of prison and looking for revenge. Craig goes off to the suburbs to stay with his uncle, who bought a house with money he won in a lottery.

Craig again spends the day smoking pot — with his Uncle Elroy and Elroy’s sexually rapacious girlfriend, and with Elroy’s son Day-Day and his friend from work (before they get fired). When they have to raise $3600 to pay off delinquent property taxes, it never occurs to them to earn it or to go to the bank to get a home equity loan. No, clearly the best choice is to steal it from some vicious Latino drug dealers across the street.

Parents should know that the movie is extremely raunchy and includes just about every kind of material except for graphic violence that parents try to keep away from kids. Parents whose kids do see this movie should at least try to talk with them about the portrayal of women (either sexual predators, compliant bimbos or terrifying harridans) and minorities and drugs as a way to bond and to escape worries.

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Comedy Crime Series/Sequel
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