Chasing Liberty

Posted on January 6, 2004 at 7:00 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Several four-letter words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters drink and smoke, underage character gets tipsy
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Pop princess Mandy Moore plays the President’s runaway 18-year-old daughter in this formula romantic comedy designed for middle school girls and not of much interest or appeal for anyone else.

Anna (Moore) is a sweet kid who understands that being followed by secret service agents and having her picture taken with tourists and dignitaries is part of the job decription. Like any other 18-year-old, she thinks her parents are too protective. Her secret service code name maybe “Liberty,” but she feels anything but free. On a trip to Prague, her father (Mark Harmon) breaks his promise to limit her secret service protection to two agents, so she runs away, with the help of a handsome guy named Ben (Matthew Goode) with all three requirements to make any pop princess swoon — a dazzling smile, a moped, and a British accent.

It turns out that Ben is in the secret service, too, but the President orders him not to tell Liberty, so that she can have the illusion of an adventure. Things do not go as planned, and they end up having more of an adventure than they expected.

The movie has pretty things to look at, especially Prague and Venice and newcomer Goode who is very good indeed. And we want to root for the overprotected Liberty, never alone but always lonely, to take some risks and have some fun. But Moore is so limited as a performer, the plot and dialogue are so superficial and unimaginative, and the lack of chemistry between the leads is so intrusive that a recap montage of the would-be high points near the end just seems painful.

Parents should know that characters use some strong language in the movie (about the level of night-time network television) and characters smoke (there is a running joke about the President liking cigars) and drink (while they make it clear that Liberty is not breaking the law because it is legal to drink at age 18 in Europe, she does get tipsy and behaves foolishly as as result). Characters also lie and steal without any second thoughts or consequences. Liberty and Ben leave a restaurant without paying and lie to get a free gondola ride.

The movie has sexual references that are much spicier than the sexual situations. A girl begins to explain the appeal of a pierced tongue, but is stopped before she can finish. Liberty complains about not getting a chance to get to “third base.” Liberty twice takes her clothes off in front of Ben (nothing shown), once intending to seduce him, but he refuses. Even after they declare their feelings for each other, they do not have sex, a refreshing departure for the norm in this genre.

Families who see this movie should talk about how Liberty’s situation is just an exaggerated version of the struggles that all parents and teenagers have over independence. Why did Liberty try to get Ben to have sex with her? Why did he turn her down? What made them like each other? Families might want to read up on Alice Roosevelt, the headstrong and outspoken daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt. When asked why he did not stop her from getting into trouble, he replied that he could control the affairs of state, or control Alice, but could not possibly do both.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy two classics of the lonely, overprotected rich girl runaway genre, the multiple Oscar-winning It Happened One Night and Roman Holiday, must viewing for all families with young girls. Older viewers might enjoy another peek at romance in the White House with Michael Douglas and Annette Benning in An American President. A bittersweet story about the relationship between a President’s widow and a Secret Service agent is Guarding Tess. The script is not very imaginative, but the movie is worth watching for lovely performances by Shirley Maclaine and Nicolas Cage.

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Monster

Posted on January 5, 2004 at 7:02 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Extreme and constant strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters drink and smoke a lot, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Extremely graphic violence, including rape, murders
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Aileen Wuornos peers into the murky mirror of the gas station bathroom. Somewhere in that lumpy, mottled face, she catches a glimpse of a girl who dreamed of being admired and cared for. We glimpse that girl, too, hopeful, even loving. But we see no trace of the woman who is portraying her. Glamour girl Charlize Theron’s breathtaking, heartbreaking transformation makes this movie about the woman called America’s first female serial killer an astonishing achievement.

Aileen was an abused child who began turning tricks at age 13. She thinks she has nothing to live for. But then she meets Shelby (Christina Ricci), a shy and needy lesbian. Even though Aileen is not gay, she is drawn to Shelby. She finds that being able to take care of someone is even more important to her than being taken care of. For a moment, it seems that she can find a new life for herself. But she has no skills and no capacity to get a legitimate job. She is forced to go back to prostitution to take care of Shelby, and when a customer rapes and beats her, she snaps, and she kills him. She takes his money and his car.

And then she begins to entrap and kill more men, each less justified than the last as she becomes more desperate and ultimately delusional. The last victim is portrayed by Scott Wilson, perhaps in an echo to his own star-making role as a real-life headline-making killer in In Cold Blood.

At one point, Aileen planned to kill herself as soon as she spent her last five dollars. As she used it to buy a drink, she met Shelby, who gave her a chance to mean something to someone but at the same time showed her more devastatingly than ever how far she was from being able to live in a way that could make her feel loved and proud. The first murder may have been self-defense. It may have been her way of striking back at a world that had struck her once too often. The movie wisely does not pretend to explain what was going on in the mind and soul of a woman who was mentally ill. Unlike the similar Boys Don’t Cry however, it is unable to elevate the facts into a larger story about identity and intimacy.

What makes the movie worthwhile is Theron’s performance, open, vulnerable, tragic, moving, and most of all, honest. Aileen’s behavior is contradictory, volatile, and disturbed. She loses control and lashes out irrationally. There are moments when I was not sure whether Theron was acting or just trying to keep her dental appliance from slipping, and no one could make some of those voiceover speeches work, but with the ferocity of her grip on the character she never lets us lose sight of Aileen’s humanity. Theron’s portrait of Aileen is sympathetic without pretending that she is more of a victim than the men she killed.

Parents should know that the main character in this fact-based story is a serial killer and a prostitute. The movie has explicit sexual references and situations, including gay sex, prostitution, and rape, extremely strong language, violence (including a brutal rape and several murders), smoking and drinking. There are tense and upsetting scenes.

Families who see this movie should talk about who is the “monster.” If it is Aileen, what made her that way? What could have prevented it? In what ways is the movie sympathetic to Aileen, and in what ways is it not? How can you tell?

Families who appreciate this movie should look at the two documentaries about Aileen Wuornos by Nick Broomfield. In 1992, he made Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer which focuses on the way the people around Wuornos, including her lawyer, a woman who “adopted” her, and even the police who arrested her exploited her arrest. Eleven years later, he made Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, focusing on Wuornos as she approached her execution, defiantly and impatiently. Those who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Boys Don’t Cry, based on the true story of the murder of a young woman who was passing as a man.

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Paycheck

Posted on January 3, 2004 at 7:37 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Action violence, characters in peril, guns, explosions
Diversity Issues: Strong female character
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Scientists will discover a way to bend the laws of time before anyone remembers that a movie about bending the laws of time has to have some way of handling the problem of determinism versus free will that is if not plausible then at least consistent.

The idea (from Blade Runner’s Philip K. Dick) is an intriguing one — a super-smart computer whiz who trades not only his intellect but his memory for big bucks.

Ben Affleck plays Michael Jennings, a brilliant engineer. In two months, he takes apart a revolutionary project for its competitor and makes it all but obsolete. Then the client writes him a big check, his friend Shorty (Paul Giamatti) zaps out his memory of the last eight weeks, and Michael is off to make the kind of memories he likes to keep, all of which seems fine to him. When Shorty tells him to think about stopping, Michael says, “My memories are basically highlights. The stuff you erase doesn’t matter.”

This of course is the set-up for that great movie plot device, the one last big job that is going to give Michael walk-away money for life.

Cue evil mogul Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), who offers Michael a three year project. Then cut to three years later. Michael’s memory is gone, and so is the $90 million he was supposed to be paid. All he has is a manila envelope with a bunch of mundane items — hairspray, a fortune from a fortune cookie, a pack of cigarettes, a paperclip, a matchbook. He knows it was a message he sent to himself before his memory was wiped. But what does it mean? And will he ever remember his relationship with a beautiful biologist (Uma Thurman)?

Even on one of his good days, this set-up would have been a challenge for director John Woo, whose stylish staging has turned less-than-impressive scripts into highly watchable films. But Woo seems to have taken a hit from that memory-eraser. We can stand it when a thriller requires some suspension of disbelief (see Woo’s entertainingly preposterous Face-Off). But the one thing we cannot forgive in a would-be thriller is boredom, and this movie just sags, even in the action scenes. Without spoiling what little suspense there is, all I can say is that the big “reveal” removes any sense of narrative tension by making the outcome all but inevitable. Even Woo’s trademarks, the fluttering birds and the two-gun stand-off, feel perfunctory.

Parents should know that the movie has extended action violence with guns, chases, kickboxing, explosions, and character deaths. Characters use strong language, smoke, and drink, and there are mild sexual situations.

Families who see this movie should talk about whether there are memories they would like to or be willing to erase. If you, like Michael, wanted to make sure that someone really knew you, what question would you ask?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the superior Terminator 2: Judgment Day (also featuring Joe Morton) and Minority Report, with similar themes. And they might enjoy director John Woo’s better films, including Face-Off.

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