Out of Time

Posted on August 13, 2003 at 4:50 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking, character drinks too much
Violence/ Scariness: Tense peril and gunplay, characters killed, brief graphic shot of charred bodies
Diversity Issues: Strong minority and female characters, inter-racial marriages
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

The opening credits of this film shimmer at you to a jazz score, letting you know that you are in for an old-fashioned noir film, and that a very tangled web of betrayal, greed, and murder lies ahead.

At first, everything about Chief of Police Matthias Whitlock (Denzel Washington), from the crisply pressed white shirt and dark shorts of his uniform to the purposeful way he walks down the street checking to see whether all the doors are locked, tells us that he is extremely careful, meticulously honest, and highly professional. His best friend, the part-time medical examiner (John Billingsly as Shay), may joke wistfully about borrowing some of the cash in the evidence safe, but Matt is very clear about who he is and how far he will go.

But then he answers a call from Ann Harrison (Sanaa Lathan) about a prowler, and we see that he is willing to go very far indeed when it comes to her. They are having an affair that no one else knows about, especially Ann’s abusive husband (Dean Cain as Chris) and Matt’s estranged wife (Eva Mendes as Alex). He tells Ann a small lie about Alex. And then, when Ann is diagnosed with cancer and needs an experimental treatment, borrowing that money from the evidence safe begins to seem like a possibility. The sharp uniform and close shave are gone. Matt wears a loose Hawaiian shirt and looks increasingly unraveled.

Like Body Heat, this is a throwback to the noir classics, in which an ordinary man is drawn into disaster. Matt (and the audience) may think at first that he has done the wrong thing for the right reasons, but then small lies lead to big ones, and trusting the wrong people leads to disaster.

The holes in the plot (including the traditional “going to a remote location to meet the bad guy all by yourself without telling anyone where you are going”) are outweighed by the specifics of the story and the people who tell it. The movie makes nice sly use of the cliche that white people think that all black people look alike. Having Alex as the homicide detective assigned to the case is a fine twist, as their strained personal relationship makes her overcompensate in deferring to him professionally, delaying or discounting what would otherwise be her inclination to question his actions and statements.

Most important, there is Washington himself, one of the all-time most mesmerizing and appealing screen stars. This role takes full advantage of all of Washington’s greatest strengths, especially his ability to get and keep us on his side and his brilliance in conveying a character who keeps a great deal secret from those around him, but not from the audience. Lathan and Mendes are both exceptionally fine, and Cain is nicely creepy and menacing. The real find here, though, is Billingsly, whose gives his line readings a deliciously offbeat spin, making him far more than the standard wisecracking sidekick.

Parents should know that the movie includes some steamy sexual situations that are right up at the limit of the PG-13 rating. Characters use some strong language. Characters drink and smoke, one to excess. Violence includes gunplay, death from a fall, and a brief shot of charred dead bodies. Inter-racial relationships and marriages are refreshingly portrayed as commonplace, one of the movie’s strengths.

Families who see this movie should talk about where Matt’s turning point was and whether he would have been more likely to tell the truth if not for his complicated relationship with Alex. How believeable do you think the ultimate conclusion is?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Body Heat and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

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Open Range

Posted on August 13, 2003 at 4:46 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: A few strong words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and cigars, chewing tobacco
Violence/ Scariness: Very intense shoot-outs, characters killed
Diversity Issues: All characters white, reference to hating Indians, strong woman
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

“Open Range” is an old-fashioned western that takes its time, but by the end of the movie the cattle, the characters, and the audience are all where they need to be.

That is, assuming that there is an audience for a western that is not post-modern, ironic, or elegaic. Given the distance from the era of the big westerns and the current feelings of global and economic fragility, it may be time for some cowboy heroes again.

After all, there is no better icon of the American spirit than the cowboy. When we think of emblematic American figures, we don’t think of those guys in the powdered wigs and silk breeches arguing about the Bill of Rights. We think of the guy on the horse, pausing to look off into the horizon as he crosses the prairie, the rugged individual in search of manifest destiny with his own deeply felt sense of justice and freedom. It is impossible not to be stirred by the sight of men on sun-dappled horses cantering across the prairie under an endless blue sky.

That does not mean that these characters are not complex or that they don’t deal with complex issues. One thing this movie does well is showing us the way individuals struggle with the past and try to set a course for the future in a land where new physical and social structures are being created by people who came out west to get away from both. As one says, “A man can get lost out here. Forget that there’s people and things that ain’t as simple as this.”

Stories set in the old west are like those set in a submarine; they fascinate us because they take a group of people with no access to established civilization and give them a conflict to resolve.

Boss (Robert Duvall) and Charley (Kevin Costner, who also directed) are decent men who respect the decency in each other. They have worked together for ten years, driving cattle across the prairie. They do not know much of the details of each other’s pasts, but they know everything about each other’s character, and that suits them. Also working for Boss are Mose (Abraham Benrubi of television’s “ER”) and Button (Diego Luna), a teenager he took in as a young orphan.

They come to an area they have been through before, but something has changed. A man named Baxter (Michael Gambon) now owns the land and most of the town, and he does not want cattle grazing on his land. The law is no help — Baxter owns the whole town, including the sheriff. The nearest federal marshall is too far away to arrive in time to make a difference. Boss, Charley, and Baxter will have to sort it out themselves. When Baxter’s men come after Mose and Button, Boss and Charley have to respond, not for their cattle or their fortunes, but because they cannot allow anyone to bully them. They believe that “There’s some things that gnaw at a man worse than dying,” but must still think carefully about past choices and regrets in calibrating a response.

Members of the town are drawn into the conflict, including stable manager (Michael Jeter) and a doctor with a strong, brave sister (Annette Benning). Ultimately, there is a terrible conflict, but one that has been honestly earned by the characters and the story-tellers. The same can be said of the ultimate resolution.

Costner the director does well by his actors, particularly Duvall, and the shoot-out is tense and kinetic. The dialogue feels authentically old without being stilted. Today’s audiences may get squirmy in the slow early stretches, but those who are patient will be rewarded with a respectful saga that pays tribute to America’s past as a foundation for its future.

Parents should know that the movie has intense shoot-out violence and characters are killed, but most of the violence is closer to a PG-13 than an R. There is some strong language, including a brief reference to a whore. Characters drink and smoke.

Families who see this movie should talk about how conflicts get resolved in an isolated setting like this one. Why was it important for Boss and Charley to tell each other their names and some of their histories? What does it mean not to take a man’s confidence lightly? How did Baxter, Boss, and Charley justify their choices? It also might be worth discussing Balzac’s famous view that “Behind every great fortune is a crime.” Where are the descendants of Baxter and Charley today?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy loving tributes to the classic westerns, Silverado, also starring Costner, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And every family should watch some of the classics, including Red River, The Searchers, High Noon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Shane, and the best of the shoot-out at the OK Corral movies, My Darling Clementine, starring Henry Fonda, Walter Brennan, and Victor Mature.

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Freddy vs. Jason

Posted on August 13, 2003 at 4:30 am

I hope needless to say, this extremely violent movie is only for the hard-core fans of the genre who are old enough not to be traumatized by it. Since I do not think I can be fair to these movies, this guest review was provided by the son of the Movie Mom, a 19-year-old fan of slasher movies who wanted me to give the movie an A-. Here’s what he had to say:

I was lucky enough to catch KISS in concert two days before I saw Freddy vs. Jason. Like KISS, the Freddy (“Nightmare on Elm Street”) and Jason (“Friday the 13th”) series have lasted for decades, are loved by ardent cult followings, and are hated by pretty much everyone else, especially parents and critics. The newest addition to the series will meet or surpass the expectations of the fans, while the heretics, I mean, deriders, will know to avoid it.

What is there to say about “Freddy vs. Jason?” The plot is ridiculous, and even if it made any sense it would be too pointless and too complicated to put down into a review. It’s just an excuse to have two of the scariest guys in movie history fight each other. Besides, the fans won’t want the key elements given away, and the plot isn’t what the naysayers want to hear about anyway. What both care about is the carnage.

It sure isn’t the characters or performances. Outside of the title characters, the cast is uninteresting, even interchangable; they’re only there to get killed anyway. Save for the classically trained Robert Englund, who reprises his role as the diabolical Freddy Krueger, there are no memorable performances, just busty, pouty-lipped girls in revealing clothing and stereotyped, drunk high school guys who scream and run and get gutted like fish. The highlights are definitely Freddy (of Nightmare on Elm Street fame) and Jason (of Friday the 13th fame), who kindly keep the audience from enduring the dumb teenagers for long, and join to engage in possibly the best movie fight you’re going to see all year, which is what we came to see. Cool, huh?

If you ask anyone why they love or hate these movies, they’d both probably answer with something like the above paragraph.

Freddy vs. Jason makes for a more interesting contrast than, say, Freddy vs. Chucky or Jason vs. Michael Myers would make, mainly because of the killers’ personalities. Whether you prefer killers like Jason who brood mutely while hulking towards you with a cleaver or killers like Freddy, a wild-eyed, deranged, wisecracking, sharp-fingered bloodthirsty hillbilly, no one will be left unsatisfied. The crowd I saw it with laughed, occasionally shrieked, and applauded, especially whenever Freddy cackled while slaughtering someone or Jason disembodied a victim. They obviously loved it, as will probably anyone who pays to see it. So much, in fact, that they’ll see the inevitable sequel. Sure, the chances of it even being considered for an Oscar nomination are even less than those of KISS ever getting a Grammy, but whether it’s a guilty pleasure or the film you’ve been anticipating ever since you first read about it on Wes Craven’s website, Freddy vs. Jason delivers.

Parents should know that the movie contains lots of nudity and some sex, lots of foul language, and characters who drink and do drugs. There is also an ambiguous date rape and a brief racial slur towards the only black character in the entire movie. Oh yeah, people are gutted, stabbed, impaled, torn apart, sliced open, burned, crushed, and killed in just about any way that produces lots of gushing blood. But if it’s any consolation to conservative parents, all the kids who engage in stupid behavior pay for it pretty heavily.

Families who see this movie should discuss the enduring appeal of slasher films, particularly the consistent theme that teens who have sex or use drugs get horribly killed. They may also want to talk about the impact a film like this has compared to more realistically portrayed violence as in “Saving Private Ryan.”

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the others in the series as well as the clever and convention-challenging Scream.

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Horror Series/Sequel

Grind

Posted on August 12, 2003 at 12:06 pm

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril, some bullying
Diversity Issues: All major characters white (some stereotyped gangstas), strong woman
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

The press materials for this movie explain that “grind” refers to a particularly spectacular skateboarding move. In my case, it referred to what my teeth were doing as I had to sit through this dumb and boring movie.

What a shame, because I was really up for a good skateboarding movie after last year’s wonderful documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys. But this wasn’t it.

Instead, “Grind” is a complete time-waster about four guys who hit the road in hopes of becoming professional skateboarders, and the characters are all straight from cliche-land. One is the guy with the dream. One is the obnoxious guy who never changes his clothes and talks about sex all the time even though he’s never had it. One is the risk-averse guy who just wants to save all his money for college. And one is the guy with the van who can get any lady he wants just by asking if she wants to make out with him.

They hit the road for all kinds of highly un-funny adventures involving gross-out moments (one of the guys gets barfed on and peed on), and various un-funny hijinks (one gets involved with a girl who steals the van, the guys scam free food and try to scam their way into competition and into getting reviewed for sponsorship), and various un-funny encounters with the otherwise funny Randy Quaid and the never funny Tom Green, all to a pounding soundtrack of mediocre hip-hop music. And then there is the credit sequence out-takes, just as uninteresting and annoying as the movie itself. There are some guest appearances by real skateboarding champs that are fun for fans.

Okay, you might be saying, but what about the skateboarding? Surely that is a sport made for the movies and those scenes make it all worthwhile. I wish, I reply. While there are some terrific stunts, the final skate-off with the arrogant leader of the championship team is filmed without any sense of tension or exhilaration.

Indeed, it is exhilaration that is what is most missing from this movie. You never believe that these guys really love to skateboard; it seems that they just don’t want to do anything else.

Parents should know that the movie has strong language and sexual references and situations for a PG-13. The characters cheat and steal. Characters drink, sometimes to excess. There is a lot of gross humor involving bodily functions. One strong point is the presence of some classy and capable female characters.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Matt is so hurt by his parents decision and why his behavior toward women is so inconsistent with what he says he wants from them. Why do the guys want sponsorship so badly? Will they behave differently toward other aspiring professionals than the way the current professionals treated them?

Families who enjoy this movie should see the much better Dogtown and Z-Boys and Breaking Away.

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The Fighting Temptations

Posted on August 7, 2003 at 12:19 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: A few strong words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character smokes expensive cigars, drinking
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters are warm friends and colleagues, strong minority characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

You may or may not believe that gospel music saves the soul of an out of work advertising executive, but you just might believe that it saves the movie in in “The Fighting Temptations,” and that might be enough to make you say “Amen.”

Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Darren, who goes home to a small Southern town for the first time in many years after his aunt’s death. She leaves him $150,000, provided that he can get her beloved church choir to win a competition.

Darren has spent his life staying far away from the place where his mother was thrown out of the church for singing music that wasn’t considered appropriate. Although he is still bitter and angry, he is also insecure, so unsure of himself that he fabricates a background he thinks makes him more acceptable. He is so eager to be successful that he does not hesitate to come up with a proposed ad campaign that would exploit small-town blacks in order to sell more malt liquor.

But his lies about his qualifications are exposed and he is fired. He owes a great deal of money. That $150,000 is one temptation he cannot resist, especially when he sees a singer named Lilly (Beyonce Knowles of Destiny’s Child) who could not just win the competition but make some of his other dreams come true as well.

There is nothing particularly fresh or distinctive about what happens next. Beyonce Knowles cannot act, but she has a nice presence and a beautiful smile. Cuba Gooding, Jr. can act, but based on the evidence of this movie and several before it, he is chosing not to for the time being. There is some very broad attempted humor, as when they have to bring in a high-voiced convict in chains to sing in the choir. But that music is just plain glorious, especially when Knowles, the O Jays, Melba Moore, Faith Evans, and real-life gospel star Shirley Caesar raise up their voices.

Parents should know that one character is an unwed mother who is shunned by the church. There are some sexual references, including a man who brags about his conquests and asks children if they know he is their daddy and a crude reference to Mary Magdalene. One of the church leaders is exposed as a hypocrite who lied about her husband leaving her. Darren smokes expensive cigars and several characters drink, one to excess in a manner that is intended to be humorous.

Families who see this movie should talk about whether the church should have refused to include Darren’s mother and Lilly. What do you think of the admonition to “beware of brief delight and lasting shame?” What is the best way to help people who have made mistakes? Do you agree that gospel music gives people comfort? Is that its purpose?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Sister Act.

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