Dopamine

Posted on November 19, 2003 at 4:26 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional scenes
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

“Dopamine” is Mark Decena’s first journey as a director and it shows. While there are some lovely scenes and an evocative remote feeling, the dialogue and MESSAGE are as facile and meaningful as Snapple cap quotes. Decena has made a promising start here and the spunky performances by the leads (and its brief length at 84 minutes) keep the movie’s slow trot of a pace from getting dull. However, similar to those seemingly amazing ideas that result from philosophical discussions in the wee hours of the night, this movie loses brilliance in the light of day.

Rand (John Livingston) is a regular guy who is working hard on creating an interactive computer friend named Koy Koy with co-partners Johnson (Rueben Grundy, a dread-locked designated decent guy) and Winston (Bruno Campos, whose alpha-male persona from “ER” is given free rein here). Meanwhile Rand is trying to reconcile his conflicting feelings about romantic relationships as he watches his father retreat from loving husband into bitterness in response to his wife’s Alzheimer’s disease. Rand chooses to hide from intimacy by explaining away love as a chemical reaction hard-wired into our DNA, acting as drug whose effect is doomed to wane over time. The closest he gets to an intimate relationship is in his feelings for his own creation, Koy Koy.

The plot is fairly simple, which is a good thing. The psychology is equally simple which is not as good a thing. Rand might as well be reciting Bio 101 for all the passion he commits to his argument. Johnson is a disturbingly patient fount of good advice on how to be human, while Winston is an anthropomorphized id, greedy and self-absorbed. Against these emotional primary colors, the deus ex machina for life (and plot) development are the venture capitalists, who force the three partners to “test” their product’s synchronicity with the perceived target market: kids. Enter Sarah (TV’s Sabrina Lloyd), the petite teacher/artist, whose saucer-eyes are haunted by a past unresolved relationship which has “left deep holes to fill” (yeesh).

Johnson makes the first move on the passive Sarah but it is Rand who spends the majority of the movie courting her in his own conflicted way. The scenes between them alternate between sparkling and soggy as they tread over-familiar ground in their journey to understand love. It gives nothing away to say that along the way they learn a little about themselves and a lot about the nature of loving relationships, which is the MESSAGE after all and is not a bad message to have at that. But it could have been delivered with a little more, well, heart.

This film is the first that was incubated from beginning to end at the Sundance Institute, and that is why it seems oddly overly structured for an independent film. That is usually more of a problem for an overcooked studio creation as a result of input by too many executives and not enough faith in the audience’s ability to figure things out on its own. “Dopamine’s” characters seem pinned down by the motivations assigned to them, as though their behavior was programmed — like Koy Koy’s.

Parents should be aware that sexual relations are both extremely casual and alternately devoid/laden with psychological implications. Characters use drugs to deal with a stressful work situation. Smoking and drinking are the social norm. Emotional detachment, refutation of love’s existence by a husband for his sick wife, and passivity in slipping into relationships are adult themes that will not be suitable for kids and young teens.

Families should discuss different types of relationships that exist and how they change over time, under duress or during the upheaval of personal growth. How is the relationship between Johnson and Rand different at the end of the movie? How might the creation of Koy Koy’s mate represent a more complicated emotional step for Rand than for his partners?

Families also might discuss whether the vocabulary of “love” is misleading here, from Rand’s description of the initial, chemical feeling of attraction versus Sarah’s search for something more meaningful.

Families who enjoy this movie might wish to see Singles, which shares a similarly ambivalent take on love in relationships between twenty-somethings. Those who enjoy William Windom’s performance as Rand’s father might wish to see him in the classic To Kill a Mockingbird.

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Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat

Posted on November 18, 2003 at 6:10 pm

The great thing about the irrepressibly anarchic Cat in the Hat is that even Hollywood can’t contain him. They can stretch out the story with filler that ranges from the superfluous to the distracting and once in a while reaches the level of oh-no-not-that-again. They can put in some inexcusably vulgar humor. But when Cat takes over, it is still entertaining.

Mike Meyers, as irrepressibly mischevious as the Cat himself, is a great choice for the role. His Cat seems to be a master of vaudvillian schtick with a few of the voices from The Wizard of Oz and a sort of demented Mary Poppins thrown in for what turns out to be very good measure. His energy and audacity — and his astonishingly animated expressions under all that fur — do as much as possible to keep the movie on track.

But very little of what is added to the story is worth the effort. Dr. Seuss was much too smart to try to insert any kind of a moral into his stories or to give us too much detail about the lives of the children the Cat comes to visit. This left his story universal and subject to interpretation.

But it would not fill even the short 73 minute running time of this feature film. So, this version makes the Cat into an “I’m here to teach you a lesson,” sort of guy. Conrad (Spencer Breslin) has to learn to follow the rules and Sally (Dakota Fanning) has to learn to loosen up and not be so bossy. And they have to learn to appreciate one another. Awwwwww. We also get a completely gratuitous menace in Alec Baldwin, a neighbor with a corset and an upper plate who schemes to marry the kids’ mother and have Conrad sent to a military boarding school. None of this is very original or interesting, and it all takes much too much time away from the real story, which is the absolute chaos created by the Cat and the reaction of the kids — a mixture of horror and delight, with delight winning out. And why not? Who among us does not thrill to see that “don’t you touch anything” living room covered in splotches of purple goo?

This undeniable pleasure is almost enough to keep the movie working. Those jellybean-colored sets (and Mom’s just-drycleaned dress) are cheerfully destroyed along with, Mom’s rules, some of the kids’ ideas about themselves, and, apparently, the laws of physics. We get both the fun of imagining all of that and the satisfaction of a happy ending. Meyers is simply a hoot to watch, with able support from the kids (especially Fanning) and the fish (voice of Sean Hayes).

But parents should know that this movie has some surprisingly rude and crude humor for a PG, including double entendres and almost-swearing, potty humor, and other bodily function jokes. The Cat picks up a muddy garden implement and refers to it as “a dirty hoe” and spells out the s-word. The Cat is hit in the crotch. He has a fake bare behind. It is almost unfathomable that the people behind this movie put material like that in a movie based on a beloved book for children. There is also a lot of comic peril that may be too intense for younger children. An adult character drinks beer.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Sally had a hard time with her friends and why Conrad had a hard time following rules. They might also like to pretend they are Thing One and Thing Two (or Chocolate Thun-da) and do the opposite of what they are told.

Families who enjoy this movie should read the book and its sequel and some of the other Seuss classics like Horton Hears a Who and The Sneetches.

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Based on a book Comedy Fantasy

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Posted on November 18, 2003 at 12:10 pm

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs and drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril; maiming and torture of lead characters; suicide; violent murder; euthanasia; graphic violence
Diversity Issues: Strong female character
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

There is absolutely no need for you to read any further than the title of the film if you are not a fan of slasher flicks. If you are a fan, than this is a solid enough, if derivative, scare-fest with sufficient “eww” factor to satisfy those weaned on the blood-floods of Michael, Jason and Freddy. However, there is not enough originality here to make this version of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” better than average, and there is certainly nothing to justify it entering the vaunted ground of classic horror movies, where its predecessor and namesake resides.

The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre set the standard for horror movies of the blood-letting kind for the decades that followed and continues to top the lists as one of the most influential movies in a genre. This substantially more sanguineous remake –- the original had a full 40 minutes without bloodshed— again takes the Ed Gein murders as a starting point, places them in the heart of Texas in the 1970’s and replaces Ed’s hunting knife with a chainsaw. This movie pays homage to the original but delights in amplifying the bloodshed and adding its own twists to that nest of Gothic horror where Leatherface resides.

As for plot, don’t ask why, but a van of five bell-bottomed rebels, having just returned from Mexico on a penny-ante drug run, are driving across Texas and choose to stop in a small town as a result of picking up a hitchhiking waif whose strong desire not to go on to that town is made patently evident when she kills herself rather than return. It turns out that the small town is tiny -– comprising a slaughterhouse, a freaky farmhouse, an abandoned barn, a trailer home, a decrepit shack and a gas-station with a rotting meat display that would make David Lynch feel at home. The five youths wait at the barn for the sheriff to show up to cart away the suicide’s body but because they have Lynyrd Skynyrd tickets for that evening decide to expedite the process by going to the farmhouse where the Sheriff allegedly lives. As you might guess this is the last in a series of bad decisions that follow some of the familiar rules of slasher movies. These include:

  • 1. When you come across a spooky hitchhiker who warns you about continuing on the road that you are traveling, do not listen to her but go right to the creepy location in question.
  • 2. When greeted by the native, who is eyeing you from behind a display case full of flies, maggots and meat, you stay and chat. After all, how often do any of us have a chance to visit with the colorful locals in small eccentric towns?
  • 3. If you meet with a feral kid, nesting in an abandoned and bizarrely decorated barn, stay. It will make a great story later.
  • 4. Split up your party as often as possible to cover more ground and allow for more prolonged carnage. “Safety in numbers” is so passé.
  • 5. Trust everyone, even the freaky sisters alone in their trailer home who insist you drink tea with them while a maniac wearing your boyfriend’s face is just steps behind you with his chainsaw. Sure, they will protect you.

The movie does a fair job at helping the audience to suspend disbelief at these and many, many more highly dubious choices, both by setting the movie in the early ‘70’s (like the original) when people apparently did not know that exploring freaky houses alone was a bad idea, and by relying heavily on the acting of lone survivor, Erin (Jessica Biel). While she does a decent enough job, the standout performance here is R. Lee Ermey (who made Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket into an icon) as the Sheriff who might be even scarier than the mechanically-inclined behemoth, Leatherface, or the rest of his enabling brood.

For dedicated admirers of the original, this version is just another rehash of the classic, but for new-comers or those who are looking for a good, old-fashioned scare, then there is plenty of meat on this table.

Parents should be aware that there is nothing misleading about this movie’s title. The chainsaw in question is assisted in its macabre work by meat hooks, axes, sledgehammers, knives and other assorted tools of the slasher trade. In addition to quick death, there is torture, mutilation (self and inflicted) and amputation under less than sterile conditions. Leatherface’s trademark fashion statement is his fondness for wearing other people’s skin to mask his disfigured face. While there is sexuality, drug use and strong language, it is the peril and carnage that pushes this movie to the cusp of its R-rating. This movie is only for audiences strong-stomached (I am not going to say “mature”) enough to handle the gore.

Families who watch this movie might discuss what about the setting, the characters and the circumstances heightens the scariness of this movie. What decisions would you make differently and how would you react?

Some families might wish to discuss why the survivors in slasher movies like this one are typically the kids who do not use drugs or become involved in casual sexual encounters. With their roots deep in morality lessons, scary stories have been popular throughout history. What might be the appeal of this medium? Why do some people find horror movies cathartic?

Families who enjoy this movie should see the original. For those who find the gore excessive but the story interesting, Hitchcock’s Psycho, and Silence of the Lambs both feature characters based on Ed Gein.

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Gothika

Posted on November 17, 2003 at 6:50 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Graphic and grisly images of violence; creepy and very scary peril, murders
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Dr. Miranda Gray (Halle Berry) explains that “Logic is overrated” in the middle of a climactic confrontation. It feels like a last-minute attempt to justify the resolution of a movie that begins as a promisingly creepy thriller but then falls apart.

Miranda is a psychiatrist at a facility for the criminally insane. The director of the facility is her husband, Doug (Charles S. Dutton). Driving home on a dark and stormy night, Miranda swerves to avoid hitting a girl standing in the road. When she gets out of the car, she sees that the girl is badly hurt. Miranda tries to talk to her. The next thing she knows, she wakes up in the mental hospital, but now she is on the other side of the glass wall. She is a patient. Doug has been murdered, and all of the evidence points to Miranda as the killer. How can she find out what really happened if everyone thinks she is crazy?

Director Mathieu Kassovitz (who played the love interest in Amelie) creates a nicely creepy feeling, though he overdoes the flickering lights and the guess-what’s-just-out-of-her/our-field-of-vision surprises. But the last half and especially the last half hour are both predictable and presposterous.

Parents should know that this movie has intense peril and disturbing, graphic, and grisly images of violence. There are references to extremely violent crimes. There is nudity in a scene of a group shower and a joke about circumcision. Characters use very strong language. One positive note is the portrayal of a strong, intelligent, resourceful black woman.

Families who see this movie should talk about Pete’s comment that “the ability to repress is actually a vital survival tool.” What other survival tools did Miranda demonstrate?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound.

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Looney Tunes: Back in Action

Posted on November 16, 2003 at 12:37 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Mild drinking joke
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril, no one hurt, some scary-looking monsters
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Chuck Jones, who produced over 100 of the greatest Warner Brothers cartoons, was asked whether he was making his cartoons for adults or children. “Neither,” he responded. “I make them for myself and my friends.”

Those cartoons are still wonderfully entertaining, even for those who don’t quite get some of the 1940’s-50’s-era satire. Jones and the other Warner Brothers legends like Tex Avery and Friz Freleng had no focus groups or demographic surveys. They just tried to outdo each other and to make each other laugh. That was the secret of their deliriously looney sensibility, their sublime silliness, and their brash and fearless anarchy.

So it is most promising when this new live action/animated feature begins with Daffy Duck being let go by the studio because while everyone loves Bugs Bunny, Daffy’s fan base consists of “angry fat guys in basements.” Then Kate, the studio’s Vice President of Comedy (Jenna Elfman, looking a little wan), sits down with Bugs to explain that she wants to leverage his synergy. Kate’s claim to fame is “Lethal Weapon Babies.” A little later a character explains that it would “send the wrong message to children” to let a car blow up and then it does, and then when Walmart appears in the middle of the desert and the characters explain that it’s product placement. So we are happily assured that the subversive spirit of the Looney Tunes is in good hands.

Director Joe Dante is clearly a fan and he keeps the jokes coming. There are movie parodies (Psycho, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), throwaway gags (watch the signs, especially the French poster for a Jerry Lewis movie), and lots of all-out mayhem, especially a wildly surreal romp through the paintings at the Louvre. And though Wile E. Coyote is now ordering online from Acme.com, the goodies are just as outrageous and subject to Murphy’s law as ever.

Live action performers Brendan Fraser (as a stuntman for Brendan Fraser who was fired for taking too much screen time in The Mummy), Timothy Dalton as his father, a dashing movie star/spy, Steve Martin (as the chairman of Acme), and Joan Cusack (as a scientist at Area 52 — Area 51 was just a decoy), all have fun, but they can’t steal the movie from Bugs, Daffy, Foghorn Leghorn, Tweetie Pie, Marvin Martian, the Tasmanian Devil, Pepe LePew, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, and of course Mr. Coytote.

Parents should know that there is a great deal of comic peril and violence, though of course no one is hurt. The film includes a little potty humor and a couple of mildly naughty words.

Families who see this movie should talk about the original cartoons and which characters they like the best. How are the Looney Tunes different from other animated characters, like those in the Disney movies?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Looney Tunes classics like “What’s Opera, Doc?” and “Duck Dodgers.”

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