Shrek 2

Posted on May 13, 2004 at 7:20 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: Some mild naughty words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief drug joke, scenes in tavern
Violence/ Scariness: Comic violence, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Oh, stop reading now and just go to the movie.

All you need to know from me is that “Shrek 2” is pure enjoyment, with stunningly brilliant technology and hilarious performances. And (here is the most important part) it has a script that is filled with wit, wisdom, heart, and so-funny-you’ll-have-to-see-it-twice comedy, with nonstop humor ranging from subtle and sophisticated satire to unabashedly un-subtle slapstick and potty jokes. Telling you any of the specifics before you see it would just spoil the delicious surprises you have in store. So go see it now, and then come back and read the rest of the review.

Back already? For those who were laughing too hard to follow all of the plot, here’s a summary. Shrek (voice of Michael Myers) and Princess Fiona (voice of Cameron Diaz) are blissfully married and honeymooning in a gingerbread house, Hansel’s Honeymoon Hideaway. When they get back to the swamp, Donkey (voice of Eddie Murphy) is waiting to welcome them home. Heralds appear with a flourish of trumpets and an invitation from Fiona’s parents to a ball in honor of the newlyweds. Shrek does not want to go. He does not think Fiona’s parents will approve of him. But Fiona persuades him, and they set off for Fiona’s kingdom, a land called Far Far Away.

Fiona’s parents, King Harold (voice of John Cleese) and Queen Lillian (Julie Andrews) are a bit taken aback at the sight of the newlyweds. They were expecting a human princess married to Prince Charming, not two big green ogres.

The queen sees how happy Fiona is and tries to adjust, but the king, pushed by Fairy Godmother (voice of “Absolutely Fabulous” star Jennifer Saunders) does everything he can to get rid of Shrek, even hiring a hit man, or, more properly a hit cat — none other than the swashbuckling Puss in Boots (voice of Antonio Banderas). But the bigger obstacle to the couple’s living happily ever after is Shrek himself, who worries that Fiona would be better off married to a handsome prince. So he sets out in search of a magical solution.

And before we get to the happily ever after ending, there will be encounters with characters from the first film, including Pinocchio, the three pigs, Sleeping Beauty, and the Gingerbread Man, and a bunch of new characters, including a growly-voiced wicked stepsister (voice of Larry King!) and a very effete Prince Charming, who tosses his hair in slow motion (voice of Rupert Everett). The movie manages to make fun of just about everything, including its fairy tale sources, and yet be so resonant of the true themes of fairy tales that it is genuinely touching.

The technology continues to be astonishing. The surfaces and textures are eye-poppingly vivid, almost real-er than real. The movie has breathtakingly beautiful backgrounds, exquisite detail, and characters so magnificently yet subtly expressive you expect to see them interviewed by James Lipton on Bravo. The voice talent is spectacular and perfectly integrated with the expressions and gestures of the animated characters. It’s going to be hard to think of the dashing and brilliantly funny Banderas as anything but a cat from now on.

There is a lot to look at, but there is even more to feel, with characters so tender and charming that you will cheer for a happily-ever-after-ending — and cheer even louder at the annoucement of “Shrek 3.”

Parents should know that the movie has some crude and vulgar humor including jokes about bathroom functions and jokes about a male character wearing ladies’ underwear. There are scenes in a tavern. The movie has some moments of mild peril and tension. The only casualties are an enchanted character and a couple of fish.

Families who see this movie should talk about the experiences family members had in meeting the friends and families of the people they love. Were they nervous? What did they do to get to know each other? Do you agree with the decision Shrek and Fiona make at the end of the movie? Why? Shrek tells Fiona he won’t change and she says she has changed for him. What changes do they make? And families who enjoy this movie might like to try fingerbowls!

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the original Shrek and Pixar animated classics like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and A Bug’s Life. They might also like to read the William Steig book about Shrek and some of his others, including Spinky Sulks.

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Troy

Posted on May 11, 2004 at 8:45 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters drink wine
Violence/ Scariness: Extreme, intense, and graphic battle violence with swords, knives, spears, and fire, many characters brutally killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

The Iliad begins, “Sing, O goddess, of the anger of Achilles.” It is a story about love, honor, betrayal, fate, ambition, and of course, hubris. And it is the adventure of the best warrior there ever was or will be. This movie is the watered-down, greatest hits, Classic Comics version. It’s mostly about the fighting. And Achilles doesn’t rage so much as pout and glower.

Paris (Orlando Bloom), son of Priam (Peter O’Toole), the king of Troy, steals the wife of Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson). She is Helen (Diane Kruger), the most beautiful woman in the world. Menelaus and his brother, Agamemnon (Brian Cox) go to war against Troy, partly because of Helen, but more because it is an excuse to conquer the Trojans.

Achilles (Brad Pitt) does not admire Agamemnon or his reasons for going to war. But he has his own reasons. His mother (Julie Christie) tells him that he has a choice between having a short life but being known forever as the greatest warrior on earth, or living a long and peaceful life and being known by his son but have no “name” after death. Whether we think of Achilles as driven by the gods, fate, temperament, events in his childhood, or some sort of rational assessment of his options, he seems ineluctably hurtled into the life of a warrior.

The diplomatic Odysseus says, “Let Achilles fight for honor, let Agamemnon fight for power, and let the gods decide which man to glorify,” and so Achilles agrees to go to battle, bringing his faithful soldiers, the Myrmidons, and his beloved cousin Patroclus. Agamemnon leads a thousand ships to the walled city of Troy and Achilles and the Myrmidons sail with them, ignoring Agamemnon’s orders and landing to attack before any of the other ships gets to shore.

As the battle ends, Achilles tells his troops they can ransack the temple of Apollo. He sees Priam’s older son, Hector (Eric Bana), but lets him go: “Why kill you now, Prince of Troy, with no one here to see you fall?” If he is to have eternal glory, he knows he must be as much showman as warrior.

The huge armies battle, but in the movie, as in the book, the key confrontation is between Achilles and Hector. Paris has been unable to maintain his honor in a one-to-one battle with Meneleaus, and it is left to their representatives to battle to the death. Hector asks Achilles if he will agree that whoever loses will receive full burial rites. And we finally see Achilles’ fury as he refuses. When it is over, Priam risks his own life to plead for the return of his son’s body, and Achilles agrees. In The Iliad, Homer repeatedly calls Achilles “god-like,” until he shows compassion for Priam and Hector. Then, Homer believes, he is a man.

These two scenes are key not just to The Iliad but to of all of Western literature, and it is thrilling to see them on screen. But the rest of the long (nearly three hour) movie is uneven and unsatisfying. The dialogue is as inconsistent as the accents, with modern pronouncements like “we need to talk” and “do it!” alternating with ponderous approximations of classical meter. The script adds a distracting and superfluous love interest for Achilles. In an attempt to make one of history’s greatest epic sagas manageable on screen, the movie tells us both too much and too little about what is going on. It keeps reminding us about everyone’s passion for a place in history but does not show us enough about who the characters are and why their destinies are so entangled. And whose idea was that inside-the-helmet view of a confrontation?

Brad Pitt handles the fight scenes well and he is better looking than Helen of Troy, but he is not Achilles and you don’t for one second believe that he could live any time but the present or that he has ever felt an emotion stronger than being annoyed. Even in armor, screaming for battle, he looks like he is wearing blue jeans and cheering on the Rangers. Without the gods in the story, a lot depends on believing in the passion between Paris and Helen, but Bloom and Kruger barely register on screen. Bana, Cox, and Gleeson manage fairly well, but it is O’Toole who brings grace, dignity, and sheer star power to the story.

Parents should know that the movie is about a war and it has almost-constant battle violence with graphic and brutal injuries. The weapons include knives, swords, spears, arrow, and fire. Many characters are killed. The movie also has sexual references and situations and brief nudity. A virgin priestess is made available to the soldiers for rape as part of the spoils of war, but this is unacceptable to one of the warriors.

Families who see this movie should talk about how this story has continued to be vital and meaningful for generations throughout the centuries. Which elements of the story are relevant to contemporary conflicts? The treatment of prisoners? The role of advisors? Achilles was given the choice between a happy life and eternal fame. Why did he decide in favor of glory? What did he mean by saying that the gods envy us because we are mortal?

Families who enjoy this film should read selections from The Iliad, particularly the Robert Fagles translation. There are many online resources and study guides. Other film versions of this story include the miniseries Helen of Troy.

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Van Helsing

Posted on May 4, 2004 at 7:29 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Brief mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Non-stop intense comic-book-style peril and violence, grotesque images
Diversity Issues: Very strong female character
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Forgive me, I have to say it. This is one vampire movie with bite.

And it’s the first real popcorn pleasure of the year, a deliciously entertaining thrill ride that pleasurably tweaks new thrills from old stories.

It starts with a bang, even the movie studio’s logo a part of a glorious black-and-white intro that wonderfully evokes James Whale’s iconic scene of Viktor Frankenstein screaming “It’s ALIVE!” as the monster created from pieces of seven men is shocked into life and torch-bearing villagers are getting closer to the castle door. But then a louche Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) who can regenerate when he is wounded shows up to say, “It’s a pity your moment of triumph is being spoiled over a little thing like grave robbery,” and things take a surprising turn.

A year later, a guy in the coolest fedora since Indiana Jones is fighting a monster. It is Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman), a man who knows that he is here to fight evil, but is not sure why. He seems to remember fighting the Romans at Masada (that would be in about the year 72) but can’t remember the details of his past. When asked whether he is a holy man or a murderer, he says, “A bit of both.” All he ever needs to know is is “What are we dealing with and how do I kill it?”

Thankfully, the film wastes little time on any more exposition and explanations. Even though a priest tells Van Helsing, “In Transylvania you may find the answers you seek” about a past he cannot remember, what we get instead is pretty much non-stop action, more thrill ride or video game than story. And that’s fine with me. The production design is fabulously entertaining and imaginative. The monsters are all re-imagined with a great deal of flair, particularly Frankenstein’s creation, one of the best of his many screen portrayals.

The CGI effects are exceptionally well done, especially the transformations, though no one seems to have figured out how to give CGI characters the weight they should have in affecting the environment around them. Subtle details add a great deal of depth and atmosphere. In a scene set in Paris, we can glimpse the half-completed Eiffel Tower and in Transylvania there is a fountain shaped like a witch’s pointed hat. There are many intricate contraptions and there is a lot of slimpy, dripping gloop. Dracula silently tangos and then paces across the floor and up the wall. There are some little hooded henchmen who creep about like evil Ooompa-Loompas, and the female vampires look like demonic supermodels. A very grand masked ball features characters in more than one level of disguise. Some good dialogue is delivered with a lot of panache.

The movie takes itself seriously enough to have us care about the outcome but has enough of a sense of humor to provide Van Helsing with the equivalent of James Bond’s “Q,” a cheery sidekick with a knack for weapons technology.

Jackman has all that it takes to be both leading man and action hero. Kate Beckinsale is fine as Anna, the last in the line of her family, which for generations has been dedicated to wiping out the vampires. But in a movie like this, what matters is the bad guy, and Roxburgh is just right as Dracula, sinuous and seductive, a little effete, a little theatrical, and deliciously bloodthirsty. When someone declaims, “I would rather die than help you!” he purrs, “Don’t be boring. Everyone who says that dies.” Necks are not all he sinks his teeth into.

Parents should know that this movie has non-stop and intense action, with characters in constant extreme peril. There are gross and violent images and many characters are killed. There are a lot of jump-out-at-you surprises and grotesque creatures. Characters use brief mild bad words. There are brief mild sexual references and a non-explicit sexual situation.

Families who see this movie should talk about the original sources and enduring appeal of characters like Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the Wolfman. They should talk about the villagers’ decision that since the vampires killed only one or two people a month, they should not try to stop them. They might want to talk about the ending, whether it was a surprise and how they feel about it. This site has information about the Van Helsing character created by Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, who describes him as having “an iron nerve, a temper of the ice-brook, and indomitable resolution, self-command and toleration.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Mummy, Blade Runner and Raiders of the Lost Ark. A cult favorite comic book, The Spirit by Will Eisner, stars a modern-day character who has some of Van Helsing’s attitude.

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New York Minute

Posted on May 3, 2004 at 6:41 pm

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters (but some stereotyping), strong women
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

People in movies tend to fall into two categories. Some are actors and some are movie stars. A few are both. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olson are not actresses and they are not movie stars. What they are is a brand. If their videos and television shows were food, they would be a Happy Meal. That makes this movie the supersized version, reliable and reasonably enjoyable, but of questionable nutritive value and possibly leaving you feeling a little queasy.

This feature film is bigger and more lavish than their popular videos, but about the same level of entertainment value. The girls play estranged twin sisters who barely speak to each other anymore but when they both have to be in New York City for crucially important and life-changing events and everything goes wrong, they end up spending an adventure and romance-filled day together.

As they face off opposite each other early in the morning, the soundtrack cranks up the old Edwin Starr version of “War.” Jane (Ashley Olson) is the super-organized super-achiever who is on her way to New York to deliver a speech in a competition for a scholarship to Oxford University. Roxy (Mary-Kate Olson) is the free spirit and aspiring rock star who wants to cut school to go to the filming of a music video so she can hand out copies of her CD to recording industry executives. But first they have to deal with being thrown off the train, being chased by a hitman who has hidden a valuable computer chip in Roxy’s purse, losing Jane’s speech, meeting up with two very cute guys, and many changes of costume.

The plot is pretty standard bonding-through-adversity stuff, including a literal “my dog ate it” plot twist (in the next movie, I’ll bet the butler did it). There are a couple of funny moments, mostly those involving either slapstick comedy or SCTV vets Eugene Levy (as the truant officer stalking the biggest catch of all — Roxy) and Andrea Martin (as a dog-loving Senator). It’s good to see New York City playing itself, instead of Toronto acting as understudy. Jack Osborne and a man from the Olson’s past make brief appearances and Dr. Drew Pinsky brings the same dignified kindness to the role of the girls’ father that he does to his popular radio call-in show about sex. But the movie still feels so artificial that it never captures the interest.

Perhaps it is because they are such hothouse flowers and have been surrounded by show business types and people who work for their Dualstar company all their lives, but Mary-Kate and Ashley don’t seem to have much of a sense of how normal people behave in real life. All of their gestures and expressions come from the way people behave on television, imitations of imitations.

They can trot around on Sex-in-the-City high heels, and they smile, pout, and scream on cue. They know how to look pretty when they have to try on a montage of outlandish outfits bursting with bling-bling. But they don’t have the guts to go for it when it’s a choice between looking cute or getting the laugh. And the scenes (mercifully few) requiring actual acting are almost painful to watch. It is always good news to have a movie for the 8-14-year-olds, but it is too bad this one isn’t better.

Parents should know that the movie has the mildest concerns about language (a post-it saying “remove stick from butt” is about as rough as it gets) and violence. It has some booty-shaking, implied comic nudity, and skimpy clothing but when the girls have to run around the city wearing a robe and a towel both are no-nonsense cover-ups. There are a couple of kisses and one of the girls has a boy fall on top of her. There is also some crude potty humor.

Parents will be more concerned about the behavior in the movie, including lying, cutting school, cheating, stealing, forgery, reckless driving without a license, and accepting a ride from a stranger, all with very little by way of consequences. Audience members may also find the portrayal of minority characters to be uncomfortably stereotyped. The African-American characters are kind, wise, and generous but they express themselves in a manner that is exaggerated and caricature-ish even beyond what is allowable for a comedy. The villain is a Dragon Lady right out of the old Terry and the Pirates comic strip, and Andy Richter’s henchman who thinks he’s Chinese so speaks in pidgen English is just awful. Again, this just seems to be carelessness that stems from its inability to think outside of re-re-recycled stories from other movies and television shows that appear to be the only source material for this film.

Families who see this movie should talk about Shirl’s comment that “It’s the curveballs that make life interesting — shows us what we’re made of. And if we’re lucky sometimes there’s a miracle at the end of that wrong turn.” How did the loss of the girls’ mother make it harder for them to be close to each other? What was the most important thing that Jane and Roxy learned from each other? When do you have an opportunity to help someone the way that Trey, James, Shirl, and Mr. McGill help Jane and Roxy?

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy seeing Mary Kate and Ashley Olson grow up by watching their video series. They will also enjoy Adventures in Babysitting and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (both with more mature material than this movie).

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