The Butterfly Effect

Posted on January 14, 2004 at 7:43 pm

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language including hate speech
Alcohol/ Drugs: A lot of smoking, drinking, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Graphic violence, characters severely wounded and killed, suicide, animal torture, child molestation
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

This movie is not just pretentious twaddle. It is inept and exploitive pretentious twaddle, not even worth a “so bad it’s good” video rental.

The title comes from the idea, here attributed to “chaos theory,” that the flap of a butterfly’s wing can produce a typhoon half a world away. Ashton Kutcher, way out of whatever league he is capable of playing in, is Evan, a tortured soul who was given to blackouts as a child. Now in college, as his memories begin to come back, Evan regrets not having been able to save Kayleigh (Amy Smart), the girl he loved, from her abusive father. He realizes that he has inherited the gift of being able to go back in time and change the direction of events. But each time he goes back, he makes things worse.

This is an irresistibly intriguing notion — all of us have thought about what would happen if we could go back in time and make a different choice, and the idea has been explored in formats from fairy tales to EC Comics to Twilight Zone episodes. And just about all of them have had more imagination, insight, and even believability than this version. If I could go back in time, I’d try to talk myself out of deciding to watch this movie.

Evan gets to go back to the moment in which he agreed to take his clothes off for a child porn video made by Kayleigh’s father (Eric Stoltz). Instead of saying no or running away or calling the police, 7-year-old Evan’s second chance decision is to explain to Kayleigh’s father in the words of his adult persona that her father should not destroy her life. Somehow, this instantly persuades him to stop molesting her.

Then college-age Evan, back in the present but of course remembering the original reality, is all of a sudden transformed from cool guy with goth roommate to frat boy, with Kayleigh transformed from suicidal waitress to the sweetheart of Sigma Chi.

But oh-oh, when 7-year-old Evan’s compelling powers of persuasion showed Kayleigh’s father the error of his ways, he somehow forgot to include Kayleigh’s brother Tommy, who now, in scenario #2, as the recpient of all of the abuse in the family, is rather over-protective of his sister and apt to get angry at anyone who wants to be her boyfriend. Disaster ensues and Evan has to find a way to go back to another fork in the road to try to make things work out better.

Other scenarios present other problems, including several variations in Evan’s facial hair to help Kutcher and the audience remember which one is which, as we run through a Jerry Springer assortment of every possible form of hideous crime and abuse, including animal torture, child molestation, the death of an infant, prison rape, and drug addiction, all unforgiveably thrown in for shock value and none with any shred of dramatic legitimacy. And wherever he is, psychology teacher’s pet, half-hearted participant in fraternity hazing, confined to prison, or confined to a wheelchair, Kutcher’s acting is not up to the challenge of making even a nosebleed believable. The only thing in this movie that makes any sense is the revelation in the credits that the producer with the poor judgment to put Ashton Kutcher in this mess was…Ashton Kutcher.

Parents should know that the movie has extreme graphic violence. Characters are severely wounded and killed, including children. A character commits suicide and an animal is tortured and killed. Children are also molested (off-camera) and there are references to prison rape. The movie includes nudity and very explicit sexual references and situations, including bondage gear, prostitution, and references to multiple orgasms. Characters smoke (including children), drink, and use drugs (bong shown, character is an addict, cocaine mentioned). Characters use very strong language, including hate speech.

Families who see this movie should talk about moments when they could have made a different choice and how that would have affected the lives of others around them.

Families who are intrigued by this idea will enjoy many better variations on the theme including the original Bedazzled, Frequency, Back to the Future, Groundhog Day, and of course the classic It’s a Wonderful Life. They should also look at this famous butterfly effect story by Ray Bradbury.

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Torque

Posted on January 13, 2004 at 8:19 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Strong language for a PG-13
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters sell drugs, drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril and violence, many explosions and crashes, characters killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters are strong and loyal
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Ford (Martin Henderson) comes back to town with a score to settle and a woman to win back, just like a cowboy in an old western. Only in this movie, instead of horses, there are motorcycles, very fast ones.

This movie is one percent dumb plot, 74 percent stunts, and 25 percent attitude, or, rather Hollywood’s idea of what passes for attitude. So, Ford is the kind of guy who wears a Ramones t-shirt and a leather jacket that proclaims “Carpe Diem” (sieze the day). He must be the movie’s hero because he and his pals are so photogenically ethnically diverse that they look like they just stepped out of a Benneton ad.

The woman (Monet Mazur) has Hollywood’s idea of a cool name: Shane, a cool profession: mechanic, and a cool way in a fight. And they all say faux-tough lines like “I know you said it wouldn’t be any fun if it was easy, but does it have to be that much fun?”

The action sequences are silly fun, especially a chase scene that has one motorcycle racing on top of a fast-moving train while another rides through the train cars in between the passengers and a chick fight on motorcyles between Shane and a multi-pierced Jaime Pressly. Ice Cube’s appearance is more presence than performance, and Henderson is all about the dimples. But Fredro Starr makes an impression as Ice Cube’s, well, Fredo equivalent, and Faison Love as a gang member and Adam Scott and Justina Machado as FBI agents hold our interest.

Parents should know that the movie has a lot of violence for a PG-13 including many crashes and explosions, shooting, punching, kicking, and strangulation. Characters are killed. Characters drink, smoke, and use strong language, including the n-word and other epithets. One character gives another the finger. Characters ride in reckless and extremely dangerous ways, often without helmets. The plot centers on drug dealing. There are some sexual references but nothing very explicit. The soft drink product placement is particularly intrusive.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Cary ran away and why he came back. What made Trey change his mind about Ford? Practical-minded families might want to talk about the liberties this movie takes with some of the laws of physics.

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the better Biker Boyz and The Fast and the Furious.

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Along Came Polly

Posted on January 13, 2004 at 7:54 pm

The writer and star of Meet the Parents reunite in this much tamer comedy about a risk-averse guy who meets a free spirit.

Reuben (Ben Stiller) evaluates risk for a living. When he marries Lisa (Debra Messing), he thinks he has a sure thing. But on the first day of their honeymoon she falls for a scuba instructor, and he returns home alone to an apartment filled with unopened wedding gifts.

He runs into Polly (Jennifer Anniston), a childhood friend, and he asks her out. Can a guy who spends eight minutes a day just putting away and taking out the decorative throw pillows for his bed find happiness with a non-planner, a risk-taker, an exotic-food-lover, and a key-loser?

More important, how many excrutiatingly embarrassing moments will we have to share with Reuben before we find out?

Oh yes, there are many, many “ewwwwwwwwwwww” moments ahead. Reuben’s face collides with a hairy, sweaty torso. Polly drops a candy bar on the street, picks it up, plucks off a hair, and eats it. A man still standing at a urinal wipes his hand on Reuben’s ear. On a first date, while trying to make a good impression, Reuben floods Polly’s toilet by using her grandmother’s embroidered hand-towel as toilet paper. Reuben is constantly struggling to hold in various bodily functions, from controlling his irritable bowel syndrome when he eats ethnic food to maintaining his sexual stamina when he becomes overexcited the first time he and Polly make love. And Polly’s almost-blind ferret keeps slamming into walls. If all of this strikes you as funny, then you probably don’t get out much and then this may be the movie for you when you do.

But you will still have to sit through a lot of dull filler subplots that waste the talents of the stars, including Reuben’s self-centered and obnoxious childhood friend (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a has-been actor still clinging to his one sucessful appearance in a John Hughes-style teen movie, salsa lessons, and a client prospect (Bryan Brown) who likes to jump off buildings and swim with sharks. The characters are overly generic, especially Reuben’s kvetching mother (Michelle Lee) and silent but deep father (Bob Dishy). Hank Azaria, newly Joe Piscopoed into a buff and muscular body that looks like a CGI effect, is wasted as a naked scuba instructor with a Pepe LePew accent. None of the characters are anything other than narrative conveniences and so it is impossible to care what happens to them. I challenge anyone to remember a week after the movie the big reveal about why Polly is such a commitment-phobe. And the attempt to make a bigger point about taking risks and letting go feels formulaic, even cynical.

Parents should know that this movie has very explicit sexual references and situations for a PG-13 including male nudity (full rear view), adultery, spanking as foreplay, and concerns about premature ejaculation. There is also a lot of explicit gross-out potty humor. Characters use strong language.

Families who see this movie should talk about how they assess risks and rewards and how different people are comfortable with different kinds of risks.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Meet the Parents (for mature audiences. They might also like to see Bob Dishy in a movie that includes some similar themes, Lovers and Other Strangers, and another story about a newlywed falling in love with someone else while on the honeymoon, The Heartbreak Kid. Every family should see the classic repressed male meets uninhibited female movie, Bringing Up Baby.

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Not specified

Teacher’s Pet

Posted on January 10, 2004 at 12:44 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
Profanity: A little bit of potty humor
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril; no one hurt
Diversity Issues: A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

The animated television series “Teacher’s Pet” makes a fast, fresh, tuneful, and funny feature debut that will entertain its fans and amuse their families.

Spot (voice of Nathan Lane) is a highly intelligent and articulate dog who dreams of becoming a boy. But then he wakes up. All he can do is pretend to be a boy, disguising himself as “Scott” and going to school with Leonard, the boy he lives with.

Leonard and his mother take off for Florida so she can participate in a teacher of the year competition, and Spot follows them after he sees a television interview with Dr. Krank (voice of Kelsey Grammar), who says he can change animals into humans. So far, his experiments on swamp creatures have produced some bizarre mutants, including something that looks like an alligator crossed with a kangaroo. But Spot helps Krank make some adjustments and gets turned into a human. Unfortunately, since they forgot to figure in the effect of dog years, Spot becomes not a boy but a middle-aged man “with hairy knuckles and lower back pain.” After many complications and adventures, a lot of sly humor, and several deliciously witty songs, everything is happily resolved.

Kids will enjoy the wild characters, silly plot turns, bright colors, and vivid images. The animation style is distinctive and unusual. While it is apparently simple, even childlike, with basic shapes and bold colors, it is actually quite sophisticated, designed by award-winning artist Gary Baseman, whose illustrations have appeared in many magazines and whose serious work is in the collection of major museums.

Older kids and parents will appreciate the wisecracks and the self-aware pop culture references from the Jetsons to Disney movies (including Snow White, Lady and the Tramp, and Sleeping Beauty).

And everyone will enjoy the music. While most movies directed at the youngest children have almost interchangeable soundtracks filled with watered-down rock and hip-hop or syrupy jingles, “Teacher’s Pet” has first-rate Broadway quality songs, beautifully sung by Tony-winner Lane and an able supporting cast of voice talents. Witty (and vocabulary-building) lyrics rhyme “defiance” with “science,” “appliance,” and “giants” and “foe” with “status quo.” One song hilariously lists all of the states and another reminds us that even the small among us can be mighty.

Parents should know that there is a little bit of potty humor and some comic peril and violence. One of the characters has an eye that keeps popping out. Some children may be concerned because Leonard does not have a father and his mother shows some romantic interest in Scott.

Families who see this movie should talk about how we can help each other even when we have different dreams.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the television series, still available in reruns. They might like to take a look at some modern artists whose work may have inspired the style of this cartoon, like Wayne Thiebaud. And they will enjoy the popular game Cranium, also featuring Baseman’s design work. Families who listen to the “Teacher’s Pet” song at the end of the movie might enjoy hearing it sung by Doris Day in a romantic comedy of that name co-starring Clark Gable or Parker Posey singing it at an audition in the deliciously looney Waiting for Guffman (for mature audiences).

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The Fog of War

Posted on January 6, 2004 at 8:30 pm

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Documentary footage of war scenes, referance to war casualties
Diversity Issues: None explicit
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

“The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” is an intelligent documentary directed by Errol Morris and based upon an interview with Robert McNamara, who as Secretary of Defense for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson was for many the face of the war in Vietnam. Long seen as an energetic technocrat, blamed for increasing the body count in the brutal conflict, McNamara has reappeared in the news following his book “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam” (1995).

The documentary features footage of iconic figures including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Curtis LeMay, John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev, as it marches its way from WWI –McNamara’s first memories—nearly to the present. Although filming started before 9/11, McNamara makes some prescient comments about our current engagements abroad.

The eleven lessons are:

1. Empathize with your enemy.

2. Rationality will not save us.

3. There’s something beyond one’s self.

4. Maximize efficiency.

5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war.

6. Get the data.

7. Belief and seeing are both often wrong.

8. Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning.

9. In order to do good you may have to engage in evil.

10. Never say never.

11. You can’t change human nature.

In “Fog of War”, Morris has made a very strong documentary that stops short of excellence. His interview style –to place the subject in another room from him and appear to the subject on a television screen—is not entirely effective with McNamara who is clearly comfortable in front of and with cameras. McNamara’s true moments of reflection seem fueled by his own thoughts from the intervening decades and not by Morris’ questions which he interprets to fit his answers. When Morris shouts questions, McNamara often shrugs them off as if they were impertinent or irrelevant, mere distractions from the internal dialogue he has with his own ghosts. What becomes apparent is that McNamara cannot clear the fog of war from his own eyes, much less from ours.

For those seeking to better understand the reclusive octogenarian, this film –while riveting—does not go beyond the line McNamara already drew in his book, which similarly contains a tone of semi-reporting, semi-excuse, semi-apology, stopping short of simple answers. Morris has done an excellent job of weaving footage and recordings together, complemented by Philip Glass’s score which is a narration in itself. We see more clearly what the decision makers said about the situation in Vietnam but the glimpses are neither incisive enough to answer our questions nor broad enough for us to question our answers. Morris cannot do the impossible task that he has created for himself, which is to help us see clearly in a time of war, but he can –and does—succeed admirably in presenting a good interview with an interesting and haunted man.

Parents should know that this movie touches on mature themes related to politics, protests and war. Allusion is made to fire bombs, nuclear weapons, Agent Orange and the effect of these weapons on the targeted populations. Self-immolation in protest of Vietnam and the near immolation of a protester’s child is discussed.

This movie provides rich content for family discussion, starting with the major issues McNamara raises in the interview. Who is responsible for US involvement in an extraterritorial conflict? Under the US political structure, what might be the checks and balances to prevent or guide US involvement in a time of war? How do perceptions of the mentioned military engagements, including WWI, WWII, Viet Nam, Iraq, differ and why?

“War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” Families might wish to discuss this sentiment, expressed here by General Sherman in the context of the Civil War, and how McNamara uses it to describe WWII bombings. Is there a developed sense of ethical behavior during a time of war? What “rules” might there be? If you can’t change human nature, what can you do to prevent war or ameliorate conflicts?

As described in the film, Congress placed the decision to wage war on Vietnam with the Executive Office, which some people argue means that they abrogated their responsibility. Should one person, in this case the President, be responsible for the decision to go to war? If you were in McNamara’s place as a close advisor to a president considering going to war, what would you have done? McNamara describes disagreeing with President Johnson on many aspects of the conflict in Vietnam and eventually leaving the administration. If you disagreed with the President, how would you address the problem? What other solutions would you consider? Would you resign?

Morris stops the interviews with discussions of Vietnam, but McNamara in his next job was responsible for re-shaping the World Bank to focus on poverty. McNamara argued that addressing inequality could prevent the causes of war. Do you think that there are other ways to prevent war?

Families who like this documentary might enjoy seeing Morris’ earlier works, including The Thin Blue Line about an innocent man imprisoned for murder, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control which is a poetic reflection on the obsessions of four men, and Gates of Heaven, the documentary about pet cemeteries that launched his career.

For families who wish to see a much different documentary with insights into ethics during a time of war, The Trial of Adolf Eichmann is a fascinating look at the man in charge of implementing the Third Reich’s horrific Endlosung (“final solution”). Other political documentaries about the U.S. that might be of interest include Point of Order, a mesmerizing snapshot of the last days of Senator Joe McCarthy’s hearings.

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