Identity

Posted on April 18, 2003 at 5:39 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Very intense and graphic peril, gruesome deaths
Diversity Issues: All characters white
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

It was a dark and stormy night.

Ten strangers are stranded at a seedy motel. And then, as one of them later explains, “people started dying.”

At first, it seems that they have nothing in common: a movie star (Rebecca De Mornay) and her limo driver (John Cusack), a prostitute (Amanda Peet), a police detective and his prisoner, a man (John C. McGinley) with a critically injured wife (Liela Kenzle) and her young son, and a just-married couple (Clea Duvall and William Lee Scott). Once they have all assembled and we have established that all communications and exits have been cut off by the rain, scary-movie things begin. Close-ups with suspenseful music mean that something bad has happened or is going to happen just outside the frame. But the conventions of the genre are treated more as traditions and they are expertly handled and wonderfully creepy. As the lower-billed actors get killed off, the remaining characters try to figure out who the murderer is and what the pattern is to the deaths. At first, the murders seem as random as the assortment of people who just happened to be driving by the motel when they were stopped by the storm. But then, as each body has a motel room key counting down in sequence, it seems clear that there must be a connection. It is very tempting to say more, but the plot twist is so, well, twisted that it would be, well, a crime to divulge any more.

This is a thriller with real thrills — both the kind that make you jump and the kind that make you think. It is one of those rare “Sixth Sense”-style puzzles that may send audiences back to see it a second time just for the fun of knowing how it all fits together.

Parents should know that it is a very scary movie with a lot of intense peril and some grisly and upsetting deaths. A character is a prostitute and there are some sexual references, including a discussion of a possible out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Characters drink, smoke, and use strong language.

Families who see this movie should talk about the enduring appeal of movies about serial killers.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “And Then There Were None,” referred to by one of the characters. Based on Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie, it is the story of a group of strangers who arrive at an isolated location and then start dying off one by one. The best version is the original from 1945, directed by Rene Clair, but the 1965 remake is not bad. The 1974 version is worth watching only for curiosity, however. Take a look at the Christie book, too, which has a more fiendish ending than the movie. Families who enjoy this genre will also enjoy the “Scream” trilogy and “Poltergeist.”

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Malibu’s Most Wanted

Posted on April 17, 2003 at 2:09 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Mild
Alcohol/ Drugs: Mild
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril including gun violence, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Yes, it’s dumb and yes, it’s a 15-minute skit stretched out to 80 minutes, but I have to admit it — it is very funny.

MTV’s Jamie Kennedy plays Brad Gluckman, son of a wealthy man (Ryan O’Neal) who is running for governor. Brad and his friends are posers (sometimes known as wiggers) who adopt the clothing, slang, and outlook of black rappers from the poorest and most violent communities. He insists on being called B-Rad, and has made a demo album called “Mali-booty.”

This is an embarrassment to the campaign, so the candidate’s political advisor (Blair Underwood) hires two clasically trained actors to pretend to be real gangstas and “scare the black out of” Brad and turn him back into acting like Richie Cunningham (from television’s “Happy Days”). The actors (Taye Diggs and Anthony Anderson), despite the fact that rap style is even more foreign to them than it is to residents of Malibu.

Subtle and sophisticated are not terms that belong anywhere near this movie, but I have to say that compared to the numbingly formulaic “black people teach white people about how much more there is to life” themes of recent films like “Bringing Down the House” and “Head of State,” this movie is more even-handed and generous-hearted. And unlike those other movies, it has enough confidence and respect for the audience to put some of its best jokes in throwaway lines instead of spotlighting them with everything but a drum roll. The relationship between Diggs and Anderson’s characters is deliciously loopy as they evaluate each others’ performances in the midst of complete catastrophe. Snoop Dog makes a surprise appearance that only those who can recognize his voice will catch. And if the movie’s final message is, “Be yourself, even if that self is a talentless poser whose appreciation of another culture is all-encompassing,” at least that message is kind of sweet.

Parents should know that the questionable material in this movie is relatively mild for the genre. We see a man lying down with two women, but fully clothed and doing nothing more than kissing. A couple appears to be engaged in oral sex but really is not. The only nudity is a glimpse of some tush clevage. There is comic peril, including a lot of gunplay, but no one is hurt. Characters use bad language, but nothing as raunchy as in real rap songs.

Families who see this movie should talk about why people are drawn to other cultures and when it is possible to “be yourself” by immersion in a culture that is not your own. There is a long tradition of white performers co-opting the music and humor of ethnic performers. How do the themes of this movie relate, for example, to “8 Mile,” starring and inspired by Eminem, a white rapper?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Tommy Boy.”

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Bulletproof Monk

Posted on April 15, 2003 at 9:09 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Intense action sequences and peril
Diversity Issues: Strong Asian and female characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Here is how cool Hong Kong action superstar Chow Yun-Fat (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) is: while clearly capable of outshining just about anyone and anything in movies today, instead he manages to somehow shine his coolness over everything around him, making action heroes out of Seann William Scott (of “Dude Where’s My Car” and “American Pie”) and model-turned actress Jamie King (“Pearl Harbor”). The result is a popcorn pleasure, an action movie with a little wit, a lot of spirit, and some kick-butt kick-boxing.

Chow plays the Monk With No Name (like the Clint Eastwood character, The Man With No Name), who back in World War II was assigned the task of guarding a sacred scroll. A Nazi officer named Strucker tries to get it, but the Monk escapes. Sixty years later, the Nazi and his grand-daughter are still after the scroll. Strucker is old and in a wheelchair, but the Monk, because of his special assignment, has not aged. It is time for him to find the next guardian of the scroll, however, and it just seems that it might be a petty thief and chop-socky film projectionist named Kar (Scott).

Scott has shown an appealing comic presence in previous movies, but I would never have expected him to be able to carry a leading role as well as he does here. He is buff and he is game. He is confident enough not to take himself seriously, and he does very well. King, playing a “Bad Girl” (that’s her nickname) with a secret, handles herself well. She and Kar fight as a way of getting to know one another (as Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck did in “Daredevil”), so their thrusts and parries help to tell the story.

The fight scenes are staged wonderfully, and the production design is outstanding, especially the underground lair of a ragtag bunch of scoundrels who live in subway tunnels. The dialogue is not completely embarassing, which makes it a big step up from most action films. And Chow, as ever, has all the presence it takes to make the screen come alive.

Parents should know that the movie is very violent, though not as graphic as many PG-13s. Characters are killed, including one who is impaled. There is brief strong language. There are some sexual references, though it is very clear that the “Bad Girl” is, as far as sex goes, a “good girl.”

Families who see this movie should talk about why the monks did not just destroy the scroll. What is there in the world today that is as susceptible as the fictional scroll to being used for devastating purposes?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the magnificent work of art, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” And they will also enjoy some other kick-boxing action films by stars like Jet Li and Jackie Chan.

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Confidence

Posted on April 14, 2003 at 3:27 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril and violence, guns, characters killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

The “con” in “con man” comes from the word “confidence,” because a con man doesn’t use stealth or force to steal from his victims — he wins their confidence, and so they give him their money, often happily, always greedily, because he leads them to think that they will get a lot more back. Doing that requires a great deal of confidence on the part of the crook.

“Confidence” is about Jake Vig (Edward Burns), a first-rate con man who makes one big mistake.

The con goes just fine — he gets the money. But he doesn’t find out until after the con that his victim was a money man for a mob boss called the King (Dustin Hoffman). Jake hasn’t stolen money from some guy who will not be able to go after him because he is too embarrassed to tell anyone or too unsophisticated to figure it out or not connected enough to have the resources to follow up. He has stolen money from a very tough, scary, guy. We know this because it only took a day for the guy to send someone to shoot Jake’s long-time partner. The mark who lost the loot is quickly out of the picture, too. Jake and his remaining partners could run. But Jake does have that confidence and knows that what he does best is talk just about anyone into just about anything. He won’t have to spend the rest of his life on the run from gunmen if he can talk the mob boss into letting him get square with one more great big con. But who is it that is being conned?

This is one of those twisty-turny stories in which it is fun to be in on the con as and even more fun to find that we have been conned ourselves. The big deception at the heart of the story is a little disappointing — oddly uninventive. But the marvelous cast does wonders with smart, tough dialogue. The pleasures of this movie are not so much in the plot as in the small moments of character. That’s where the real surprises and freshness are.

Parents should know that this movie has extremely strong language and explicit violence, including shooting and the death of major characters. Just about everyone in the movie is a thief, a murderer, or both.

Families who see this movie should talk about the con man’s greatest asset — the mark who thinks that he is conning someone out of something.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy David Mamet’s “House of Games,” “The Spanish Prisoner,” and “Heist.”

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Chasing Papi

Posted on April 13, 2003 at 11:48 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Mild
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, characters get drunk
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril
Diversity Issues: All major characters Hispanic, some strereotyping
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Chiquita Banana and the Frito Bandito were subtle compared to the caricatures of Latino culture in this movie, but because it was created by Latinos, it is supposed to be all right.

The story is basically a salsa-flavored but otherwise very traditional door-slamming/ mix-up of identical bags farce about a man (Mexican television star Eduardo Verastegui) who has successfully kept the three women he is dating from finding out about each other until they all decide to surprise him at the same time.

The women are Cici (Colombian actress Sofia Vergara), who seems to be channeling Charo as a big-hair, tush-shaking spitfire; Lorena (Puerto Rican actress Roselyn Sanchez), a serious, poetry-loving “take off your glasses and let down your hair and presto–you’re a beauty contestant” lawyer; and Patricia (Texan singer Jaci Velasquez), a pampered debutante with her daddy’s credit cards and a cute little dog. When they find out he has been seeing all of them, they are angry with each other, not him. As they have to work together to keep him hidden until he wakes up from a tranquilizer-induced stupor, they discover that they are getting more from themselves and each other than they ever got from him.

The movie has signifiers of Hispanic culture (everyone stops every day to watch superstar astrologer Walter Mercado on television) but it stays very generic because it wants to avoid splintering its audience by identifying its characters as being from any particular culture. The result is as shallow as a sit-com, without any of the real ethnic flavor of movies like “Mi Familia” or “What’s Cooking.” And it wastes the talents of its attractive performers by forcing them to try to disguise outlandish plot hoops that make no sense with over-the-top mugging and yelling.

Parents should know that the movie concerns an unfaithful lover. A character mixes pills and liquor (and when he passes out, no one takes it seriously). Characters drink to excess to deal with troubles and find it a bonding experience. Characters lie and steal with no concern for the consequences. While it is nice to see Hispanic characters who are not servants, sidekicks, or drug dealers, the portrayals are stereotypes, and the movie includes some stereotypes of women as well.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Papi had a hard time making up his mind and why the women blamed each other instead of him.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Mi Familia,” “Tortilla Soup,” and “Selena.” Mature family members will enjoy “Like Water for Chocolate.”

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