The In-Laws

Posted on May 10, 2003 at 6:01 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Action violence and peril; no one hurt
Diversity Issues: All major characters white, homophobic humor
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

It’s hard to blow a premise like this one — color-in-the-lines, belt-and-suspenders risk averse man meets his daughter’s prospective free spirit father-in-law just before the wedding. It worked pretty well in the 1973 original starring Alan Arkin and Peter Falk. But this retread with Albert Brooks and Michael Douglas has more misfires than hits.

Brooks plays Jerry, a worrywart of a podiatrist who is obsessively planning every detail of the wedding. Douglas is Steve, some sort of secret agent who may be getting a little old for the job — in the first scene he has to squint a little bit to try to read the confirmation he has just been shown by his contact.

Steve’s case involving an arms dealer and a stolen submarine is concluding just as the wedding approaches, and Jerry gets mixed up in a series of wild adventures that include Barbra Streisand’s jet, parachuting off a skyscraper, and a dip in a hot tub with a high strung international criminal who is having something of a sexual preference meltdown.

It’s always fun to watch Brooks unravel, Douglas gives an appealingly loose performance, and there are a couple of genuinely funny moments. But the film lacks the energy and zaniness of the original.

Parents should know that this movie has some very strong material for a PG-13. This includes crude jokes about the criminal’s homosexual attraction to Jerry and Steve’s ex-wife (Candace Bergan) explaining that she and Steve used to have great “angry sex.” A bridesmaid gets drunk and confesses that she and the groom had sex before he met the bride. There is comic peril and violence and characters are killed.

Families who see this movie might like to recall some of the stories of bringing their own in-laws together for the first time.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the original and a classic in this genre, the magnificent “Midnight Run” with Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin.

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Pokemon Heroes

Posted on May 10, 2003 at 5:05 am

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Pretty intense peril for a G, character dies
Diversity Issues: Strong female characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Each of the previous Pokemon movies has seemed slightly better to me than the one before, but this lackluster fifth in the series is at least two steps back.

Pokemon master Ash and pals Brock and Misty visit the Venice-like city called Altomare, which is guarded by two legendary Pokemons named Latia and Latios. They are dolphin-shaped creatures who can make themselves invisible and disguise themselves as human and who communicate in annoying fingernails-on-blackboard screeches. Meanies Annie and Oakley, teen-age girls with midriff-baring outfits, steal the jewel that is the source of Altomare’s power.

There are some briefly lovely background paintings but other than that this below average for the Pokemon series, too violent and confusing for younger kids but not enough character, plot, or visual interest to engage older children.

Parents often wonder about the appeal of Pokemon. As I have written before, there are three reasons that children are drawn to characters like Pokemon. First is the perennial appeal of characters who appear to be weak but have hidden sources of power. Kids, who live in a world of powerful giants are drawn to stories of transformations and secret strength, from Clark Kent who is secretly Superman on through the Transformers, Ninja Turtles, and Power Rangers. Next, the many facts to memorize about Pokemon give children a chance to master something that is vastly beyond the ability of adults, giving them a sense of power and competence. Finally, as children start to develop social skills, fads like Pokemon provide a shared language that can help those conversations and imaginative games get started.

Parents should know that this movie is violent for a G, including peril (electric shock waves are directed at characters, including children) and the death of a character who essentially sacrifices himself to save the community. There is one sweet kiss on the cheek.

Families should talk about why Annie and Oakley did not seem to care about anyone but themselves. Families might want to look at photographs of Venice, which inspired the imaginary city of Altomare.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the others in the Pokemon series as well as anime classics like “Spirited Away” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service.”

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Stone Reader

Posted on May 9, 2003 at 6:13 pm

A
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Mild
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to drug use
Violence/ Scariness: References to suicide, mental illness, war
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Bookworm, you know who you are, you glorified loafer, you word-nerd. You, at times, have shunned humans, shirked work, stayed up too late, skipped showers, spent beautiful days inside, hiked mountains with hardbacks, haunted bookstores for hours (not buying a thing), faked illness, and committed legion other minor social crimes, all to be with these magnificent companions, these books. It is to you that this documentary is tipping its hat, for “The Stone Reader” is an ode to loving books. When you pull your nose from that novel, see this movie.

In director Mark Moskowitz, you will recognize a kindred soul. Moskowitz is a bit of a geek whose day-job is creating promotional spots for politicians and who calls his mom when he has to do something that makes him anxious. He directs this slow-paced but engaging documentary with a visible need to communicate the joy of his obsession, which was re-ignited by a book called “The Stones of Summer.”

As he informs you in the first “chapter” of the documentary, Moskowitz picked up the book at seventeen and could not make it through the first chapters. At forty-two, he finds himself trying again and this time he is enthralled. He makes it his mission to find out what happened to the book, which no one else seems to have ever read, and to the author, Dow Mossman, who never published again. His trip meanders back and forth from his pastoral home to various interviews with experts on everything along the reading chain, from writers to publishers to reviewers.

Torpid and philosophical, the first half of the movie examines the reader’s connection to books and features thought-provoking interviews as well as a lovely radio piece in which writer Mario Puzo describes his parent’s horror at his reading habit. The second half of the movie introduces the palpable tension of whether Moskowitz will ever find out what happened to Mossman.

It’s not often that you get to see a documentary about such an un-cinematic subject as the joy of reading. There are no sexy Hollywood stars here, flexing their dramatic muscles as lovers brought together by books or as characters from the pages of a novel, which are the typical roles played by literature in film. The modulations of tone are subtle from the quiet excitement of Moskowitz’s young son as he lovingly unwraps the latest “Harry Potter” to the elegiac note which creeps into the interview with Carl Brandt, a literary agent, as he talks about how the book could never have been published these days.

Let it be noted that this movie is about as far as one can go from a summer action flick and still be sitting in a theater. For those who do not share Moskowitz’s love of books, then this movie will be 128 minutes better spent elsewhere, perhaps with someone who can explain to them the immense and lifelong joy of reading.

Parents should know that the most dangerous act in this movie is when Moskowitz drives from his mailbox to his house without wearing his seatbelt. There are discussions about the early ‘70’s which mention draft-dodging, war and drug use. One of the people interviewed, Dan Guenther, discusses some of his experiences in Vietnam.

Families who see this movie should talk about what reading means to them, about what book first inspired a sense in them that they were not alone, about an author who they feel speaks to them. Beyond reading, families might discuss how a personal quest might inspire a person to strive to learn or excel, and might alienate them from others, as Mossman was alienated.

Families who enjoyed this movie might wish to rent literary inspired stories such as “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) or “Possession” (2002), both starring Gwyneth Paltrow. They might also be interested in “Shadowlands” (1994) or “84 Charing Cross Road” (1986), both starring Anthony Hopkins. For those families who truly enjoyed the movie, it is more likely that they will wish to rush home to read. If so, a delightful ode to reading is Anne Fadiman’s little book “Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader.”

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Daddy Day Care

Posted on May 3, 2003 at 3:25 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: Some naughty words
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Comic violence, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

This is the sort of movie that Hollywood can churn out in its collective sleep and audiences can watch without really waking up. It is as bland and predicable as a package of Kraft Macaroni and cheese, but likely to please the same target audience.

Eddie Murphy plays Charlie, who loves his wife, Kim (Regina King) and four year old son, Ben, but has trouble finding time for them due to a high pressure job in marketing. When his new product, breakfast cereal made from vegetables, is a flop, Charlie and his friend Phil (Jeff Garlin) are laid off. Kim has just started working, so Charlie stays home with Ben.

The only preschool in town is the snooty Chamberlin Academy, where children in prep-school uniforms study Freud, Portuguese, and SAT vocabulary words. It is run by mean Ms. Harridan (Anjelica Houston). When Charlie and Phil can’t find new jobs, they decide to start Daddy Day Care at Charlie’s house.

That gives us 20 minutes for the set-up, 30 minutes for everything to go wrong, and 30 minutes for Charlie and Phil to clean up their act and for the bad guys to almost win and then lose, with a few minutes for “what really matters in life is family” lessons along the way. They throw in some diaper humor for those in the audience most recently involved with potty training, some lite rock classics and an appearance by an aging rock band (Cheap Trick) to make the parents in the audience feel hip, and of course the bloopers and out-takes during the credits. The result is a movie that is undistinguished and undistinguishable but not too awful. It sags here and there, but picks up whenever Steve Zahn appears as an emergency recruit who may be a little spacey (in more senses than one), but who has knack for communicating with kids. But no one else seems to be trying very hard, including the people who spelled Anjelica Houston’s name wrong in the credits (or maybe she just didn’t want her real name on this movie).

Parents should know that the movie has some mildy naughty words (“butthead,” “screw up”) and a lot of potty humor. There is also some comic violence and slapstick (including a brief appearance by the Three Stooges). Kids may be troubled by the idea of a parent losing a job.

Families who see this movie should talk about how Charlie learned about what was important to him and how members of their own families show each other that family comes first. They should also talk about what the chldren learn from Phil, Charlie, and Marvin. What makes Tony want to be himself instead of Flash? Why wasn’t Crispin polite before and why is it so important that he learned to be polite from Charlie? Phil tells Charlie that Ben doesn’t like to do the “rocket ship” swing through the air. Why didn’t Charlie know that before? What did Charlie learn about listening to kids? Families might also want to discuss Ms. Harridan (look up that word in the dictionary to see what it means) and what was important to her. And they should talk about how Charlie’s boss thinks children can make parents buy things they don’t want to.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy 1983’s “Mr. Mom” with Michael Keaton. It is interesting to compare the ends of the two movies to see how times have changed.

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Manic

Posted on May 1, 2003 at 9:56 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language, innumerable F-words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug use, references to drinking and other substance abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Fights, including brutal attack
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

This documentary-style film about teenagers in a mental hospital has enough sincerity to make up for whatever it lacks in professionalism or originality. It is well worth watching with the teenagers in your life.

The story is traditional,following the classic model of hospital-based stories from “David and Lisa,” to “Clean and Sober,” “28 Days,” and “Girl, Interrupted,” along with dozens of made-for-TV-movies. We focus on one patient, Lyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt of television’s “Third Rock from the Sun”). A court sentenced Lyle to the facility because he beat a fellow student with a baseball bat. At first, he is angry and uncooperative. But as he listens to a sympathetic doctor (Don Cheadle) and observes the other patients, he begins to allow himself to be open to acknowledging their feelings and his own.

Shooting on digital video gives the film a spareness and immediacy that works well with its subject. The writers and first-time director Jordan Melamed worked with the actors to develop their characters through improvisation and worked with psychologists and patients to ensure authenticity. The cast includes some former residents of juvenile mental facilities. The portrayals are all so natural and deeply felt that there are moments when it does not even feel like a documentary movie; it feels like we are watching something that is happening right now. Co-screenwriter Michael Bacall plays Chad, a bi-polar kid who is Lyle’s first friend. Zooey Deschanel is the fragile Tracey, Cody Lightning is the shy Kenny, Elden Henson is the angry Michael, and Cheadle is the doctor who has to find a way to make all of them feel accepted for who they are while encouraging them to change. All create characters who are distinct and believable.

The camera work feels amateurish at first until it becomes clear that it is intentional. Shaky, off-center shots replicate the fragile reality of the characters. As the movie continues and Lyle is able to encompass a psychological and metaphorical larger picture, the camera pulls back to give us the bigger picture as well. The final shot, the first real long shot we see in the movie, is very moving.

The kids in the Northwood Mental Institution are not that different from other teenagers. They feel the injustices of the world, especially those affecting them, very passionately. Their feelings overwhelm them. They are desperate for the love and approval of their families and angry because they do not have it. They are terrified of allowing themselves to be vulnerable. They fight any intimacy. They do not want to understand anyone else’s feelings because they might have to understand their own.

Teens who see this movie might feel that the biggest difference between the kids in the hospital and the people they know is not that they are any healthier, just luckier. And that’s a very good starting point for a talk with friends or family about handling emotions and responding to loss, injustice, and tragedy. One strength of the movie is the way it avoids an “aha” moment — there is never a scene where a patient suddenly remembers some childhood trauma and has a transforming epiphany. There is just a doctor who is a real human being with his own frustrations and flaws. He admits that Lyle may carry his rage forever but shows him that he can find a better way to handle it.

Parents should know that the movie has non-stop four-letter words. There are sexual references, including child molestation and rape. There is some violence, including one brief graphic scene that is very brutal. The movie has very strong minority characters and strong bonds between characters of different races.

Families who see this movie should talk about how they handle their angry impulses and what it is that gives their lives meaning. Does it help to have someone say “I’m sorry” even if it isn’t the one responsible? Does it help to be the one who says “I’m sorry?”

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “David and Lisa,” showing how dramatically our understanding of mental illness has changed. They will also appreciate the understanding psychiatrists of “Captain Newman, MD.,” “Antwone Fisher,” and “The Three Faces of Eve.”

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