The Terminal

Posted on June 11, 2004 at 8:10 am

A
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Brief mild words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, reference to drug smuggling
Violence/ Scariness: Tense scenes
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

One of the most enduring themes in fiction is the journey. From The Odyssey and the search for the holy grail to to The Wizard of Oz, The African Queen, and Finding Nemo, the story of heroes who have to go somewhere gives us a chance to see their journeys as symbolic of their learning and spritual growth. A quest is automatically a compelling story because we identify with a hero who is moving toward a goal.

But this is the story of a journey interrupted, and the way that interruption became a journey of its own. It reminds us that like its lovely dual-meaning tagline, sometimes “life is waiting.”

Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) arrives at New York’s JFK airport from (fictional) Krakozhia in Eastern Europe. While he was in the air, his country suffered what we now discreetly call a “regime change,” and that has invalidated his passport and visa. He cannot enter the United States but he cannot go back, either. Under immigration laws, he is a paradox, an anomaly, sand in the gears. He transcends all categories. This creates a problem for Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), an ambitious by-the-book bureaucrat who wants a promotion, which means that he has no room for anomalies. He hopes the Navorski problem will just go away — literally. But Navorski, unlike others who are held back by immigration officials, is disinclined to try to sneak out into the U.S. So he ends up living in the airport.

The team behind Catch Me if You Can, director Steven Spielberg, screenwriter Jeff Nathanson, and star Hanks have created a story of great warmth and depth, with a return to a favorite theme for Spielberg (E.T.: The Extraterrestrial) — home. Navorski is more at home in the airport than most of the characters are anywhere because he is home in himself.

Though based on a true story, the film is more of a fantasy, even a parable. Navorski not only learns English very quickly (a reminder of the mermaid’s instant acquisition of English after a day of watching television in another Hanks film, Splash), but he is an idealized figure. He masters the intricacies not just of eating, sleeping, laundry, and even dating without leaving the airport as well as the immigration and customs laws and even the complete schedule of arrivals and departures. He is ever-patient, wise, and steadfast, enriching the lives of everyone from a bitter janitor to an ardent catering services employee with a crush on a pretty customs official, a frantic would-be smuggler, and a vulnerable flight attendant (Catherine Zeta Jones).

It would be easy to make Navorski a cute guy with a sitcom accent like Latka in Taxi or Balki in Perfect Strangers and the movie almost falls into that trap with some moments of slapstick that threaten to throw off the tone of the story. Navorski is too good to be true, endlessly patient and kind. But Hanks doesn’t go for easy laughs and he does not allow Navorski to be cute. He makes it work with the warmth, grace, modesty, and dignity he brings to the character. Zeta Jones gives her most accessible performance so far, for once playing not a glamour goddess but a real person (okay, a stunningly beautiful real person). Tucci’s Dixon is not an unreasonable man, just a small-minded one. Spielberg may make it too much of a fairy tale, but Nathanson’s rich mix of wit and sentiment culminates in a moment so moving that it blooms within you as you watch. This movie is simply lovely, with broad appeal on many levels, well worth sharing with family.

Parents should know that the PG-13 rating comes from brief strong language. There are some mild sexual references, including adultery. Characters drink and smoke and there is a reference to drugs. There are a few tense and sad moments.

Families who see this movie should talk about some of their unexpected delays and other travel adventures. They should also talk about rules and how Navorski, Dixon, and some of the other characters decide when to follow them and when they need to be broken or rewritten. Why did they chose this word for the title? Why did they chose Viktor for the character’s name? Were you surprised by what Navorski wanted from America and what he did not want? What does home mean to you?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Catch Me if You Can. Every family should learn more about the wonderful story behind the famous Great Day in Harlem photo and the people in it. There is an excellent documentary about the Art Kane photo. Families might also like to learn something about the man whose story inspired this movie, Merhan Karimi Nasseri, who has lived in France’s de Gaulle airport since 1988.

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Around the World in 80 Days

Posted on June 10, 2004 at 8:00 pm

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: A few mild words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, comic drunkenness, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and action, no one serioously hurt, many crotch injuries
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

This movie may take its title from the Jules Verne classic adventure about the man who circled the globe in 80 days to win a bet, but it is really just a Jackie Chan movie, and a below-average one at that.

Chan, who also produced, plays Lau Xing, valet to inventor Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan). The previous valet quit because he refused to test any more of Fogg’s wild contraptions. Xing, on the run after stealing a valuable jade buddha from the Bank of London, thinks the police will not find him if he is working for Fogg, so he pretends to be French and gives his name as “Passepartout.” Fogg’s bet with the peppery Lord Kelvin (James Broadbent) that he cannot circle the globe in 80 days provides Xing with the perfect cover for getting to China as quickly as possible to return the buddha to his small town.

There are a lot of stops in exotic locations and a lot of adventures involving obstacles to reaching the next stage of the journey and a few surprising cameo appearances, including the Governor of California as a sybaritic king.

Overplotted and under-imagined, this movie tries hard to distract the audience with razzle-dazzle, but not even the stunts or fight scenes make much of an impression and the preposterous final mode of transportation comes across as so lazy a concept it is almost insulting.

Coogan has an endearing sincerity and spirit and Cécile De France has a few nice moments as as Monique, a pretty French artist who comes along for the ride. But Chan seems tired, even distracted, impatient to get it all over with. I was, too.

Parents should know that the movie has a lot of slapstick-, cartoon-, and action-style violence, including many crotch injuries, but no one is seriously hurt. Characters use mild bad language (“bloody hell”). There is some crude and vulgar humor, including bathroom jokes, drunkenness played for comedy, a weird cross-dressing joke, and a comic situation involving a man with many wives. A strength of the movie is the portrayal of women and minorities who fight stereotypes and prejudice; however, some people may find some of the portrayals in the movie itself offensively stereotypical.

Families who see this movie should talk about some of their own travel adventures.

Families who enjoy this movie should see the Oscar-winning 1956 Around the World in 80 Days and a terrific family movie, The Great Race. They might want to find out about the real-life Lord Kelvin, Scottish mathematician and physicist, who really did say that all important discoveries had been made. They might also like to look at paintings by some of the artists portrayed in the movie, including Van Gogh and Rodin. They might like to read about the pioneering reporter Nellie Bly, who beat Fogg’s record in 1889, circling the globe in 72 days just 16 years after Verne’s book was published. How many days would it take to circle the globe today?

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America’s Heart and Soul

Posted on June 10, 2004 at 2:11 pm

Celebrate America with this glorious love letter to our wonderful country.  If Norman Rockwell made a movie, this would be it. If “America the Beautiful” was a movie, this would be it. If America had a home move, this would be it. And if we ever needed a reminder of of what can be proud of, what we aspire to, what we stand for — this is it.

 

It’s a big, beautiful love letter to America from film-maker Louis Schwartzberg. Over the years, as he traveled the country to film stock footage for his company, he met people and heard stories he wanted to put on screen. At a moment when America is finding it hard to remember a reason to feel proud, this movie is a powerful reminder. It’s one that parents should share with children to inspire them to think about their own stories and their own dreams.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z_mObBtTv7Q

 

So, yes, it begins with a cowboy and his horse. And there is a black lady singing gospel, with parishioners in fearsomely elegant hats nodding along. And a Native American who saves a wounded eagle. And a blind mountain climber. And a dairy farmer who moonlights in community theater, currently starring in a musical version of Dracula. And a guy who works in a car wash and moonlights in a rock band with his truckdriver brother. And the ex-convict who became captain of America’s Olympic boxing team. And steelworkers worried about losing jobs overseas. And a guy who blows stuff up just for the fun of it. Welcome to America.

 

The photography is stunning, the camera swooping over glorious vistas of trees and mountains and zooming in on the details of a car covered with bobbleheads or the indoor slide in the home built by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s.

 

The movie does not pretend to be comprehensive or dispositive. It’s just a kalideoscope of images and impressions that come back to some basic themes, the ones that really are at the heart and soul of America: family, music, sports, freedom, laughter, passion for expressing ourselves, community, work, passion for our dreams, food, and…vehicles.

 

Yes, Americans love our modes of transportation, from the cowboy with his horse to the man who says, “I began by painting a rooster on the door of my car and gradually added more objects and now I have an identity.” Then there’s the first woman national aerobatic champion who likes to make her airplane do things no one ever thought it could and the fastest bike messenger in the country.

 

Each of the stories is touching, funny, thrilling, inspiring, or all of the above at the same time. Yes, it’s corny, but corny isn’t necessarily less smart than cynicism. And sometimes we need a little corn to remind us that even in a troubling and complicated time, we can still feel proud of our shared dream of freedom and freedom to dream.

 

Parents should know that the movie has a reference to alcoholism and loss and some moments of peril and emotion.

 

Families who see this movie should talk about which of the people in it they would most like to meet. What do you think about the distinction between a laborer, a craftsman, and an artist? Many of the people in the movie talked about passing on what they had learned. How do you do that in your family?

 

Families may want to try to find out more about some of the people in the movie like Michael Bennett, the Bandaloop Cliff Dancers, The New Birth Brass Band and, of course Ben and Jerry’s! If you were going to advise Schwartzberg on his next film, what would you tell him to include? Families should take their video cameras and try to get the people they know to tell their stories.

 

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Spellbound. Those interested in more offbeat portrayals of Americans will also enjoy Sherman’s March and Trekkies.

 

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Stepford Wives

Posted on June 9, 2004 at 5:44 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Strong language for a PG-13
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking, prescription drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

The women’s movement of the 1970’s was one of the most seismic social movements in U.S. history because it affected every single household. It was about more than equal pay for equal work; it was about re-thinking every asumption about the family structure. There was a lot of talk about consciousness-raising and the personal being political, “click” moments, and Ms. Magazine. And the author of Rosemary’s Baby, which brought gothic horror into modern life, responded with another thriller that tapped into the zeitgeist, 1975’s The Stepford Wives.

I guess it says a lot about how far we’ve come (or haven’t come) that the remake, just a little over a quarter-century later, is a comedy.

Nicole Kidman plays Joanna, a powerhouse television network executive who is responsible for popular battle-of-the-sexes shows like “Balance of Power,” hosted by Meredith Viera and a reality show called “I Can Do Better.” When the outcome of one show leads to tragedy, Joanna is fired, and she and her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick), a mid-level executive at the same television network who quit in solidarity, move to the idyllic gated community of Stepford, Connecticut.

But everything seems just a little bit too perfect, from the row of shiny SUVs to the huge homes with spotless furnishings in impeccable good taste. And the women are all Barbie-doll-like “perfect sex kitten bimbos” who seem to glide into a room, wait on their husbands with adoring smiles, go to aerobics in full make-up and high heels and whose idea of the ideal book club subject is the Golden Treasury of Christmas Keepsakes and Collectibles. Serenely presiding over them all is Claire Wellington (Glenn Close in a deft performance).

Joanna’s only confidantes are two other new arrivals, an outspoken author named Bobbi (Bette Midler) and a caustic gay man named Roger (Roger Bart). Joanna is appalled. But then she wonders if maybe she is missing something. All of those Stepford husbands seem very happy, while Walter is ready to leave her, because “Your attitude makes people want to kill you.” She thinks he might be right when he tells her that “Only castrating Manhattan career bitches wear black!”

So, with the same drive and energy she once gave to developing television shows, she gets to work, making zillions of cupcakes and checking up on one of her neighbors who seemed to have had some sort of seizure at a Stepford party. “We need to be supportive. That’s how people behave outside of Manhattan.” Joanna thought she saw sparks coming from the neighbor’s ears, but Roger reassures her that it was just cheap jewelry.

Joanna does her best to try to fit in, but when Bobbi and Roger are completely transformed, she decides to find out what is going on in that mysterious Stepford men’s club.

It’s less a movie than a string of jokes (including a very funny one about AOL), and it loses some momentum in the middle when it seems unsure of its point of view. When Joanna suddenly seems to remember that she has children and she cares about them, it is not clear whether this is just another comic contrivance or an attempt to create some sort of character growth. A surprising twist at the end helps to add a little zest. And the idea that a generation later, some women might consider escaping their “over-stressed/over-burdened/under-loved” lives to return to a simpler world of domestic perfection (one could almost imagine a pre-insider trading Martha Stewart presiding over a Stepford wives Garden Club meeting) is an idea that deserves some exploration. Maybe by the next time they remake this story, the Stepford wife will be the one who has figured out how to make it all balance.

Parents should know that the movie has strong material for a PG-13, including vulgar humor, very explicit sexual references and an overheard sexual situation and comic violence. Characters drink, smoke, joke about psychotropic prescription drugs and Viagra, and use some bad language. There are some very nasty characters plotting some very nasty things. The main characters are all white and the movie has some comic stereotyping, but a strength of the movie is its portrayal of a gay couple who are accepted by the community.

Families who see this movie should talk about why a thriller plot from 29 years ago makes more sense as a comedy today. How are both inspired by the conflicting pressures on both men and women? What do you think about what the movie has to say about defining success and happiness? About perfection not really working?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Death Becomes Her, How to Murder Your Wife, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and of course the original The Stepford Wives. But forget about the dumb made-for-television sequel, 1980’s Revenge of the Stepford Wives.

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The Chronicles of Riddick

Posted on June 7, 2004 at 8:03 pm

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: A few four-letter words
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic violence, characters in frequent peril, many killed, suicide
Diversity Issues: Diverse good and bad guys, strong women
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Pitch Black was an outer space horror film about a group stranded on a planet with some very scary creatures. One member of the group was Riddick (Vin Diesel), a convict being transported to prison. His ability to see in the dark made him the group’s best hope for survival.

In this vastly less ambitious sequel of sorts, Riddick (Deisel again) is once more the best hope for survival, this time of just about everyone.

As explained to us in numbing sci-fi blah blah crisply delivered with impeccable diction by Oscar-winner Dame Judi Dench, an evil race called the Necromongers is capturing planets as it moves toward its interplanetary version of something between Mecca and Valhalla. They offer the inhabitants of each planet two choices — surrender or death — and they don’t really care which one they pick. The leader of the Necromongers, Lord Marshal (Colm Feore) has been told that he will be killed by a member of the Furia race, so he has ordered all of them killed. But one remains — Riddick — and as soon as he says, “It’s not my fight,” you know he’ll be opening up a can of whup-ass on just about everyone pretty soon or it would be a pretty short movie.

It almost makes it as a brainless popcorn summer explosion movie. The movie’s graphics are very striking, especially the neo-fascist baroque of the Necromonger’s massive weapons, armor, machinery, and monuments and the enormous underground prison on a planet with temperature swings of hundreds of degrees. It’s nice to see someone thinking up advanced technology that is not computer based. Instead of digital read-outs there are some fascinating mechanical contraptions. There are also some good action sequences and some cool special effects.

But the script is a dumbed-down version of The Matrix, complete with characters who are hooked into soul-destroying machinery through their necks, with a little bit of The Wizard of Oz and (heaven help us) Battlefield Earth thrown in for bad measure. The names are so unimaginatively obvious they border on parody, with the angry race called the Furia and the hot planet called Crematoria. The dialogue is dreadful, both the faux portentious exposition (“They are a plague that now sweeps through the worlds of man leaving behind a trail of dead planets and towering icons, monuments to their unholy crusade”) and the faux tough-guy talk (“Sister, they don’t know what to do with just one of me.”) Thandie Newton plays the Lady Macbeth-style scheming wife of one of Lord Marshal’s henchmen with a space-age mullet. She looks lovely but gives a ludicrously over-the-top performance, swinging her hips until they almost smack into the walls on both sides as she walks. And the big finish is just a little too convenient.

Parents should know that the movie has intense and graphic violence for a PG-13, including people getting fried in intense heat and a lot of fighting. Characters are in constant peril and many are killed. There are a few four-letter words. A character speaks of being forced into prostitution. A strength of the movie is the diverse characters on both sides and the way it makes clear that the good guys stand for tolerance.

Families who see this movie should talk about the inspiration for some of the movie’s terms like Necromonger and Crematoria and some of its themes, patched together from sources like the Bible (especially the story of Moses and the Pharoah) and Shakespeare (especially Macbeth). They may also discover parallels between the conflicts in the movie and some historical conflicts between totalitarian regimes and those who fight for freedom.

Families who enjoy this movie might enjoy the Star Wars series and the R-rated Pitch Black, which introduced the Riddick character. They will also enjoy the R-rated The Matrix and its sequels. And they might enjoy the space-movie parody Spaceballs, which has more in common with this movie than one might think.

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