View from the Top

Posted on March 20, 2003 at 7:41 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters drink and smoke
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: All major characters white, gay character
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

It’s hard to imagine what attracted such a high-powered cast to this this forgettable little movie about a small-town girl with a dream. It’s almost a “Far From Heaven”-style tribute to the movies we like to think of as being from a simpler era, but there is no ironic distance and no attempt to re-invent the genre for another era. It’s like an episode of “That Girl” you might come across on the TV Land network.

Gwenyth Paltrow plays Donna, the daughter of a much-married former showgirl who lives in a small town in Nevada. She dreams of a bigger world, and is looking forward to moving to Tucson with her boyfriend. But he breaks up with her in a birthday card (he explains that they don’t sell breaking up cards). She thinks she will be stuck there forever until she sees Sally Watson (Candice Bergen), the most famous flight attendant in the world, on television. Now Donna’s dream has direction.

She gets a job as a flight attendant on a commuter airline for gamblers. But she wants more — she wants to do first class on international flights, like Sally. So she applies to Royal Airlines.

Will there be setbacks for her to be plucky about? Will there be a dreamboat to make it hard to take that job when it does come through? Will there be comic relief in the form of a quippy gay guy and a teacher with high standards and an eye problem? Oh, so you’ve seen this movie before? Me, too.

This is a cotton candy movie, and it melts away into sticky nothing almost before you can taste the sugar. There are some mildly funny moments and the performances are fine, but they don’t make up for its lack of anything particularly engaging in its characters or story. The coming attraction has all the best moments and the credit sequence outtakes have more vitality than the rest of the movie.

Parents should know that the movie has some strong language and sexual references. A character gives the finger. There is a reference to circumcision and there are jokes about a character’s “talent” for hickeys.

Families who see this movie should talk about how Donna came to believe that she was capable of more than she had been told. How can families help their members believe in themselves and their dreams?

Families who enjoy this movie may also enjoy some of the movies that inspired it, like “Come Fly With Me” and “Three Coins in a Fountain.”

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Dreamcatcher

Posted on March 19, 2003 at 7:50 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong and salty language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character abuses liquor, drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Extreme and graphic peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

It’s not Stephen King’s best book, and it is far from the best screenplay produced by either Lawrence Kasden (“Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Big Chill”) or William Goldman (“The Princess Bride,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”). It is mishmash, covering favorite King themes like the loyalty of childhood friends, the isolation of a snow-covered cabin in the woods, extra-sensory abilities, a fatalistic determinism, the devastating impact of one person who snaps, and extra-terrestrials. There’s even a sort of Wizard of Oz-ish “you had the power in you all along” theme. It may not work as a whole for anyone, but there is something in it to scare the bejeebers out of just about everyone.

Beaver (Jason Lee), Henry (Thomas Jane), Jonesy (Damian Lewis), and Pete (Timothy Olyphant) are boyhood friends who share a secret connection that we only learn about gradually through flashbacks. A good deed resulted in their being given special power to “know things.” Every year, they go away together to a cabin in the woods. On this trip, strange things happen. The animals all leave the forest. A government helicopter calls down to tell them they are quarantined. A man staggers out of the woods, disoriented and subject to intense intestinal distress. A woman, almost frozen to death, is also disoriented and subject to intense intestinal distress. Strange red patches appear on the faces of both, and then really strange things start to happen. It turns out that all of this is due to an alien invasion, and this is not the kind of friendly ET with whom you would want a close encounter.

And that’s not all that’s scary. There is a team of government specialists led by Colonel Kurtz (note the Heart of Darkness reference) who use words like “contain” and “perimeter” that mean “wipe out everyone who has had any possible contact with the aliens. Better to slaughter innocent people than to risk additional exposure.” He seems to be walking the tightrope between genius and insanity, and we’re not sure if he’s a necessary evil or a more dangerous threat than the extraterrestrials.

So, that leaves us just about every kind and category of scariness, a catalog of terror, including yuckiness (remember that intestinal distress? snake-like aliens with big teeth exit the body out the alimentary canal), gore (buckets of blood, grisly injuries and deaths), tension (what’s behind that door?), creepiness, intense peril, is-that-you-or-is-it-the-alien-using-your-body moments, and good, old-fashioned jump-out-at-you surprises.

King (and Kasdan and Goldman) have a knack for creating likable characters with conversations we like to overhear, and the four main actors are all exceptionally appealing. The art direction and cinematography are top-notch, especially the first-rate visualization of Jonesy’s “memory warehouse,” the place where, as he explains, now that he is older, he can’t add anything without taking something out.

The weaker parts of the movie are the section about the secret defense department operation led by Kurtz. Even the masterful Freeman can’t quite make that character work, and the attempt to create a parallel between the peril created by the outside force and the peril from within does not work, either. There is a very, very silly moment when Henry’s particular form of ESP requires him to use a gun as a telephone. When that same gun turns out to have a homing device implanted, both Henry and Kurtz are using the gun to communicate and track someone.

Lewis can’t quite manage the second personality that takes him over, and by the way, even though movie villains usually have English accents, isn’t that something of a stretch when the bad guy is not only not from England, but not from Earth? Still, as I watched this movie, I noticed that the audience reaction sounded like they were on a roller-coaster ride, a good sign in a scary movie. It’s not a classic like “Carrie” or “The Shining,” but it is a nicely done scarefest, and achieves its modest ambitions.

Parents should know that the movie is intensely scary, and violent, as noted above. Characters use very strong language and make explicit and graphic sexual references. One character abuses alcohol, and many drink and smoke.

Families who see this movie should talk about disabled people, and why some people go out of their way to pick on them while others appreciate their gifts. What made the four boys so loyal to each other? How do we know when a person like Kurtz has gone too far, and at that point, who can stop him? He makes a Jeremy Bentham-like argument that the ends justify the means. Under what circumstances is that the case?

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy some of the best Stephen King novels and movies, including “Carrie” and “The Shining.”

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Piglet’s Big Movie

Posted on March 15, 2003 at 11:33 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

This movie is not very interesting, imaginative, engaging, or exciting, but at least it avoids being too sugary. And it is is truer to the stories and spirit of the original books by A.A. Milne than some of Disney’s Pooh videos. It is suitable for children as young as 4, which is a relief in an era where even PG movies contain material that might be unsuitable for middle schoolers. The children in the audience laughed at the slapstick. There are a couple of brief moments of animation that rise above the straight-to-video level. But that’s about all the praise I can muster.

Little Piglet, the smallest of the creatures who live together in the 100 Acres Woods, wishes that he could help his friends, Pooh, Rabbit, and Tigger. But there is no place for him in their big plan to capture some honey by redirecting the bees to a new hive, so he wanders off by himself. When his friends realize that Piglet is missing, they understand for the first time how important he is to them. They search for him, using his book of memories to help them think of places he might be. The pictures in Piglet’s book remind them of happy times together and all that Piglet did to help them along the way.

Parents should know that there is some mild peril and the most sensitive younger children might believe that characters have been hurt for a few moments, until it turns out that everyone is fine.

Families who see this movie should talk about how we can let those we care about know they are appreciated, about the importance of making plans, and about making memory books to help us keep our happiest moments close at hand.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “The Tigger Movie” and the superior production values of Disney’s 25th anniversary edition of “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.”

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Willard

Posted on March 12, 2003 at 3:56 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extremely intense horror violence, characters killed
Diversity Issues: Most characters white
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

It is unlikely that there will ever be a better horror movie about the relationship of a repressed young man to his ravenous rats than this remake of the 1973 version starring Bruce Davison and Ernest Borgnine.

Crispin Glover plays the title character, a quietly desperate man who lives in a huge, decaying mansion with his even more decaying mother. He works at the business his father once owned, for Mr. Martin (R. Lee Ermey), a man who constantly humiliates him. Willard does what he is told. When his mother tells him to kill the rats in the basement, he goes to the store to buy traps and poison. But when a small white mouse is caught in a trap, he carefully rescues it, names it Socrates, and it becomes first a pet and then his only friend.

Willard then discovers that he has a psychic connection to the rats, especially a huge one he names Ben. They become the embodiment of his id, the unleashed resentment and anger of 20 years. He looses them, with great satisfaction on Martin’s fancy new Mercedes. But then, like the sorceror’s apprentice, he finds he is no longer in control. The rats are hungry.

The movie’s strengths are Glover’s genuine weirdness and the stunning production design. Screenwriter/director Glen Morgan has both passion and feel for the material and a macabre sense of humor. Fans of the original will enjoy seeing Davison’s appear in a portrait and photos as Willard’s father and a reprise of Michael Jackson’s “Ben,” the hit song from the sequel to the original movie, now even creepier than it was back then.

Parents should know that this is a horror movie with real horror, including some scary shocks, some very tense and suspenseful moments, and some very grisly images. Characters are in peril and some are killed.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Willard felt he had no alternatives, and how stories like this are often inspired by the consequences of keeping feelings inside and a sense of powerlessness. Why was Willard unable to accept Katherine’s offer of friendship?

Families who enjoy this movie should see the original, but not waste time on the sequel, “Ben.”

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The Hunted

Posted on March 11, 2003 at 3:01 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril, graphic violence, brutal murders, battle violence, many deaths
Diversity Issues: Strong female and black characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

This dreary generic chase movie is so thoroughly formulaic that not even the presence of two wonderfully talented three-named Oscar winners can inspire a flicker of interest.

Benecio del Toro plays Aaron, a former special forces killing machine who has finally snapped. He lives out in the woods and is either so far gone that he believes deer hunters are really CIA agents sent to kill him or he is so far gone that he just kills anyone who crosses his path, especially if they hurt animals.

Tommy Lee Jones plays L.T., a survival expert who trained Aaron and hundreds of other soldiers. He, too, seems to like animals more than people. We see him tenderly rescue a beautiful white huskie from a snare and then slam the head of the guy who set it against a table.

L.T. tracks down Aaron quickly, but he escapes, so L.T. has to track him down again. That’s pretty much the whole story. There is an attempt at making it all about something more, from the opening with Johnny Cash reciting Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61” and encounters with three little girls that may be intended to raise the issue of how our society can turn men into killing machines and then expect them to hold on to human values (or sanity). But it doesn’t work. Del Toro and Jones do their best, and the fight scenes are refreshingly real in this era of fight choreographers and tricks on wires. These fights are awkward, exhausting, and desperate (except when everyone stops what they’re doing to forge some new weapons in a completely over-the-top moment of idiocy). But overall, the movie is simultaneously lightweight, pretentious, and forgettable.

Parents should know that the movie has brutal violence, including battle scenes. Characters are in intense peril and many are killed. Characters use strong language. Minority and female characters are strong, capable, and loyal and diverse characters clearly respect each other and work well together.

Families who see this movie should talk about whether L.T. feels responsible for Aaron. Should he have answered the letters or alerted the authorities to a problem? How do we train people to become killers and then expect them to go on with their lives? Is it possible to give someone like Aaron justice?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy a similar story in “Rambo.”

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