Thunderbirds

Posted on July 24, 2004 at 2:36 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: A couple of "damns" and a crude word
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Characters in constant peril but not too intense, no shooting
Diversity Issues: Diverse good and bad guys
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

There are two kinds of people in the world, the people who know the 1960’s British television show “Thunderbirds” well enough to hum the theme song and those who say “who?”

The show was enormously popular with children and something of a guilty camp pleasure for older fans, who could not resist the combination of low-tech marionettes with wobbly heads and static expressions playing the very high-tech heroes of International Rescue, ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy (played by Bill Paxton in the film) and his five sons, whose names were inspired by the first five Americans in space: Alan, Virgil, Scott, John, and Gordon.

The Tracys live on a secret island in the South Pacific in a spectacular house filled with gadgets to help monitor the globe and operate their rescue equipment — submarine, plane, rocket ship, space station, and pod vehicles. Super-geek Brains (Anthony Edwards) keeps all the technology running smoothly, so that whenever anyone in the world is in need of rescue, Jeff Tracy calls out “Thunderbirds are GO!” and those folks in peril are on their way to sleeping safe and sound in their own beds.

This live-action update directed by Star Trek’s Jonathan Frakes owes more to Spy Kids and Agent Cody Banks than to the original television series. They’ve made the youngest son a teenager (Brady Corbett as Alan), added the children of Brains (Soren Fulton as Fermat) and loyal aide de camp Kyrano (Vanessa Anne Hudgens as Tintin) and put them at the center of the story.

Just after Alan and best friend Fermat return from boarding school to the secret hideaway in the South Pacific, his father and brothers are lured away by the evil Hood (Ben Kingsley). He plans to use the rescue equipment to rob the world’s biggest banks, bringing down the global economy and framing Jeff Tracy as the thief. The Tracy everyone thought was too young to go on missions has to work with his friends to rescue the rescuers.

Corbett, last seen as the younger brother in thirteen is an attractive and appealing hero and the kids have a nice natural chemistry together. Kingsley is clearly enjoying himself as The Hood (though that eyeshadow is a serious mistake), but the highlight of the movie is the delicious Sophia Myles as Lady Penelope, the most adorable combination of coutoure and kickboxing since The Avenger‘s Emma Peel. Lady Penelope is always game to trounce the bad guys while tossing off quips and maintaining her exquisite coiffure, as Parker, her chauffeur/lock-picking expert/sidekick, maintains her fleet of remarkable pink vehicles and helps out whenever needed.

The action sequences are exciting without being too scary. Kids will enjoy seeing the bad guys sprayed with Nickelodeon-style green slime and the way that Fermat uses Alan’s retainer to save the day at a crucial moment. The equipment is also very cool, especially Lady Penelope’s very chic pink car/plane and Alan’s hovercraft. The film drags a bit when the kids are chasing the bad guys all over the island while we are impatient for them to just get on the darn plane, but overall, these Thunderbirds are GO!

Parents should know that the movie has a couple of mild swear words (and implied bad words), brief crude humor, and the use of wire from a bra to aid in an escape. There are some boy-girl references and a comment that a young girl is “blossoming.” The characters are in frequent peril and there are a number of fight scenes, but it is not overly intense, there is no gunplay, and no one gets badly hurt, though someone gets kicked in the crotch. A strength of the movie is the portrayal of diverse characters as both bad and good guys, including characters with a speech impediment.

Families who see this movie should talk about how kids can sometimes feel that their parents do not realize that they are ready to grow up and the importance of listening carefully. Why does Alan insult his best friend, and what does he learn from that? They may want to talk about the feeling of learning that your parents are not perfect and understanding the strengths and weakenesses of those around us — and ourselves. What does it mean to “use your opponent’s strength against him?”

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy learning more about the television series. This site has online clips and information about ordering the series on DVD. They might like to look up the inspiration for Fermat’s name, mathematician Pierre de Fermat, whose theorum has kept people guessing for hundreds of years. “General Hospital” fans may recognize the television news correspondent as Genie Francis, who played Laura for many years. Serious Trekkers will recognize her as the real-life wife of director Frakes.

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy Spy Kids and the sequel, but don’t waste time on the third in the series. They may also enjoy Clockstoppers.

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Catwoman

Posted on July 23, 2004 at 12:18 pm

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Mild
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters drink, beauty product is addictive
Violence/ Scariness: Comic book/action violence, Peril, robbery, psychological spousal abuse, murder
Diversity Issues: Strong minority and women characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

“Catwoman” is kitty litter.

Awkward and clumsy as a cat in high heels, this version of the comic book character Catwoman does not have enough to sustain one life, much less nine.

Written in the comic books as Batman’s female foil, Catwoman is a creature of the night, living on the edge as an accomplished burglar, sometime do-gooder and occasional animal rights protector, given to wearing a rather remarkable bodysuit and carrying a whip. She is elegant, confident, strong and every so often vulnerably naive when it comes to getting her claws into those pretty, shiny baubles.

In this version, the skyline is devoid of costumed crusaders and Patience Philips (Halle Berry) is a sweet and frumpy artist working as an advertising designer but lacking the confidence to stand out from the wallpaper. Despite clear evidence that her employers, the Hedares, are balmy in that oozing evil way, life for Patience at the cosmetics company is about finding a little square of calm, which with the help of her admiring friends, she seems to do just fine.

Of course, all that changes when Patience discovers that the Hedare’s new facial cream, Beau-line, is an addictive drug with skin-warping damage for any who would try to break the habit. Clearly, Patience must be gotten rid of, but little do the Hedare henchmen know that when they kill her they are only awakening a vengeful, fish-eating leather fetishist who really knows how to apply make-up and fight in stilleto heels. There’s something hypocritical at best and absurd at worst to pretend to be about empowerment and freeing women from the need to conform to narrow standards of youth and beauty when the movie’s heroine looks like Catwoman Barbie at a goth B&D rally.

The plot is thin enough to demand a love-interest and the likeable cop, Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt in another lawman-as-arm-candy role),is the first to develop feelings for the daytime kitty, Patience, and an allergy to her nightly alter-ego, Catwoman. Patience’s guide to her new life is the cat lover, Ophelia (Frances Conroy, in a very believable foray out of her “Six Feet Under” mortuary), who introduces her to both catnip and the hefty history of her new identity. It turns out that all women have two sides and, since Ancient Egypt, for certain special females getting in touch with their inner feline allows them to un-cage a panther.

One of the largest hairballs that choke this movie is the complete inability of Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone, playing a botoxed megalomaniac with lethargic grace) to be suitably over-the-top enough to make the final catfight memorable. There are rules to costume crusader stories and one of them is that the bad guys have to be just as fantastic in their own way as their counterparts, even when they are fighting morally ambiguous, prowling kitties like Catwoman. Berry herself has no grasp of the character at all. Her Catwoman is all lipstick and hissing and she seems to confuse a cat walk with a catwalk, prancing in heels as though she is an unusually busty runway model in next year’s dominatrix fashion show. The script and editing have an unfinished, even inept feel. Special effects wizard-turned-director Pitof (just one name) is better at creating a mood than telling a story, but not good enough at either.

Maybe if the next movie is Catwoman versus 101 Dalmatians villainess Cruella de Ville, that might change the tiger’s stripes, but until then save your purrs and paws for the comic books.

Parents should know that despite the lack of profanity and nudity, Catwoman will scare younger viewers with its dark feel, peril and adult themes. There is a pervasive sensuality to all scenes featuring Catwoman and there is a scene of implied sex as well as references to adultery. Several characters die and there are numerous scenes of peril, including a child trapped on a broken ferris wheel. Anyone who has seen the ads featuring the very suggestive leather suit and whip that that the protagonist wears will be aware of the “fantasy” element of Catwoman’s character.

Families who see this film should talk about the twin-nature theme that runs throughout the movie. Why might many comic book characters, including Catwoman, have such strong dichotomous characters? What does this mean about their ability to express their “true selves” in their ordinary lives? Ophelia discusses seemingly contradictory traits that she describes as female, yet she herself does not seem to wear a mask. How might Ophelia and other characters express themselves fully without splitting their personalities so dramatically? Why did they pick the name “Ophelia,” associated with Hamlet’s tragic love?

For those families who enjoyed this movie, there is a rich assortment of DC Comic superheroes who have graced the big screen from the popcorn pleasure of Michael Keaton’s Batman and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in Batman Returns, to the slightly dated but enjoyable Superman: The Movie. From Bob Kane’s original conception of Selina Kyle, who each night donned a mask and become the female cat burglar, Catwoman, in the early 1940’s, to her current incarnation as the plain Jane who traded the purple-black dresses of yore for weapons and a body-suit, Catwoman remains a staple of the comic book racks. Most of the stories in the past focused on the love/hate relationship between Batman and Catwoman, however, more recently Catwoman has been succeeding on her own. Families who enjoy the movie might want to look for some of the original collections from the 1940’s available in trade paperback to see how the character has and has not changed.

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The Bourne Supremacy

Posted on July 21, 2004 at 7:09 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, character drinks to excess
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic violence including fights, guns, and explosions, characters killed, suicide
Diversity Issues: Strong female character
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

This is a smooth thriller for grown-ups. That means it has lots of chase scenes and action scenes but the mood is dark, even grim. The dialogue is smart but not smart-alecky. No one wears a dinner jacket and there are no nuclear scientists trapped in the body of a swimsuit model.

Instead of flashy fights where one dazzling kick to the throat knocks the bad guy out for good, the battles are messy and breathless and brutal. The chase scenes are like extreme bumper cars. And the primary pleasure is not some big save-the-world triumph, just the fun of seeing smart people outsmarted.

In the first episode, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is rescued from the ocean, shot but still alive. He can remember how to speak in many languages and how to kill someone a dozen different ways but he does not remember who he is. He does not remember who is after him. Or why.

The last movie lift him with a girl he loved and what seemed like a lifetime guarantee of being left alone on the beach to try to recover the rest of his lost memories and make some new and better ones. But happily ever after doesn’t make for a good sequel, so as this movie opens, someone is after him again. The CIA believes he was behind a recent assassination of two agents. CIA big shots Pamela Landry (Joan Allen), who is new to the mysterious Treadstone operation and Ward Abbott (Brian Cox), who knows more than he wants to tell, work together to try to track him down, though perhaps they have different purposes and goals.

Bourne still remembers very little of what went on before he was fished out of the water. But now finding out is a matter of life or death.

Allen strides around in long, cool, black Matrix-style coats and Damon is nicely inexorable and relentless. Julia Stiles adds punch as Bourne’s former liaison to the Agency. She explains how the Treadstone operatives worked: “They don’t make mistakes. They don’t do random.” When asked who is assigning Bourne’s targets, she says, “Scary version? He is.” Damon doesn’t get to do much acting but delivers a servicable performance in what is a servicable movie. Like its title character, it does the job. And the last exchange of dialogue tops it all off nicely.

Parents should know that the movie has themes of betrayal and intense and graphic violence, including bloody injuries. Characters are killed and one commits suicide. Characters drink and a character gets drunk in response to stress. There is some strong language and some intrusive product placement.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Bourne wanted to see Irena. Abbott says that “Conklin had these guys wound so tight they had to bust.” What are the risks of training an operative like Bourne? Of not having one?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the original The Bourne Identity and other spy thrillers like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View and the superb PBS miniseries Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

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The Manchurian Candidate

Posted on July 17, 2004 at 7:20 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic violence, battle violence, charcters in peril, several murders, lab animals mistreated
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

This sleek and supple thriller features powerhouse performances but never quite persuades us that it has anything to add to the cold war classic starring Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury.

As in the first film, the focus is on soldier Ben Marco (Denzel Washington in the Frank Sinatra role), whose nightmares about his time in combat (now the Persian Gulf war) are beginning to seem more real to him than what he thought of as his memories.

Marco knows the story of the incident that got him his medal. Everyone knows the story. Everyone who was there even uses the same words to tell the story and especially to describe Raymond Shaw (Liev Shreiber in the Laurence Harvey role), the soldier who got the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery in fighting the enemy while Marco was incapacitated. Marco meets up with a member of the platoon who is badly damaged. Is it post-traumatic stress, Gulf War syndrome, or is it his brain fighting back from something it has been programmed to believe? “I remember it perfectly,” he says, “I just don’t remember doing it.” Or, “as if I know what will happen but never actually get to the point where it does happen.”

Meanwhile, Shaw is struggling as well. The recognition he got as a war hero helped him be elected to Congress and he is now a contender for the vice-presidential candidacy of one of the major parties (not named). His mother Eleanor (Meryl Streep in the Angela Lansbury role), a Senator, is pushing him very hard. He resents it, but cannot seem to resist. No one can resist her. In one short meeting, brilliantly acted by Streep, the Senator purrs, seduces, and finally brutalizes a group of politicos into abandoning their choice for the VP spot, Senator Thomas Jordan (Jon Voight) and taking Raymond instead.

But Marco is increasingly troubled. Shaw is at first glad to see him again, then sympathetic, then skeptical. What Marco is suggesting seems absurd, impossible. But in his heart, Shaw knows that it might explain everything.

Demme ably creates a believably creepy atmosphere and there are some great visual effects, especially Shaw’s hotel room, which includes an infinitely refractive illusion in a picture that hangs over the bed. Streep is mesmerizing. But some of it gets overheated, especially a mad scientist who of course has an English accent and is scrupulously polite and a murder assignment that makes no sense as a matter of logistics. And the big reveal about the bad guys does not have the same punch of the original; it is not as successful at tapping into the fears of the moment.

Parents should know that the movie is a thriller with intense and graphic violence including many murders (gunshot, strangling, drowning) and injuries. Characters drink, smoke, and use drugs. There is some very strong language. A mother-son kiss is briefly played for a mild indicator of emotional incest. A strength of the movie is its portrayal of strong, intelligent, loyal, and capable women and minorities.

Families who see this movie should compare it to the original and talk about how each was a reflection of its times. Marco says, “I thought I knew who the enemy was.” Who was the enemy? What does the choice of bad guy tell us? Is an “emotionally compromised past” a “terrible burden” from which someone must be freed?

Families who see this movie will enjoy seeing the original The Manchurian Candidate as well as paranoia classics Three Days of the Condor, Conspiracy Theory, and The Parallax View.

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Movies

I, Robot

Posted on July 14, 2004 at 9:15 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some harsh language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Intense action violence, characters killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Now this is what I call a summer popcorn movie!

It’s hard to say which has the sleeker profile, Will Smith (everything you could ask for in an action hero) or the Chicago skyline of 2035, as envisioned by director Alex Proyas and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos. Shot in a monochromatic pallette of gun-metal grays by cinematographer Simon Duggan, the movie appears both cool and ominous from the very first moment.

Spooner (Smith) is a homicide detective and apparently the only person in the world who is skeptical about the endlessly patient and obedient robots who now make up most of the labor force for menial and domestic tasks. Spooner is a bit retro — his “old-fashioned” stero runs from a remote control, not voice direction, and he listens to the 1976 Stevie Wonder song “Superstition” as he pulls on some vintage (2004) Converse All-Star high-tops.

Spooner’s friend Dr. Lanning (James Cromwell) is dead, an apparent suicide. But there may be more to the story. Lanning left an enigmatic hologram with a message for Spooner. And he left behind a robot whose behavior is so contrary to the principles of robot behavior that it transcends any sort of context, as though a toaster suddenly could feel fear or a lawnmower could feel jealousy.

Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) is a psychologist specializing in robot-human interaction, making sure that robots are designed to make humans feel comfortable with them. She works for Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood), the richest man in the world, the founder of the USR company. They are preparing for the biggest robot distribution in history, with one robot for every five people about to be delivered as an “upgrade.” It is important to Robertson that nothing interfere with the public’s acceptance of his robots.

Robertson dismisses the idea of a rogue robot as impossible because it would undermine his business. Colvin dismisses the idea because it would undermine her need to believe that USR has successfully avoided any adverse effects of its perfectly logical system. The chief of police dismisses the idea because it would be horrendous to think of the days when people were only killed by other people as “the good old days.” But Spooner knows from experience that logical systems sometimes produce illogical results. He knows that Lanning was trying to tell him something important. And he knows more about robotics than he lets on.

The look of the film helps to tell the story and the special effects don’t let us down. The smallest effects are as seamless and important to the story as the big ones, from Spooner’s examination of 1001 robots standing in formation to massive fight and chase scenes to the wink of an eye.

Smith gets better and better. He has enough movie star charm and charisma to fill any screen and then some, even when competing with some very gee-whiz special effects and some very cool-looking robots. But Smith also shows great sensitivity and understanding in giving Spooner some depth and complexity without throwing off the balance of what is first and foremost an action movie. In brief appearances, Greenwood adds a smooth steeliness, Cromwell shows some longing and regret, and Shia LaBeouf, brings some humor ro the role of Spooner’s friend, whose slang is almost incomprehensible. But Moynahan is chillier and more expressionless than the robots her character tries to make more human.

Speaking of which, the human behind the performance of “Sonny” the robot is the talented Alan Tudyk (A Knight’s Tale and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story).

The movie’s one drawback is the ending, a disappointing retread of too many Star Trek episodes. It has enough to keep both head and adrenaline engaged while watching, but the lack of imagination in its resolution mean that by the time your heart slows down again, your mind will already be long gone in a different direction, probably both by the time you toss that popcorn bucket in the trash.

Parents should know that the movie has strong language for a PG-13 and intense action violence with gunshots, crashes, and explosions. Characters are injured and killed. There is a brief silhouetted shower scene, but no graphic nudity.

Families who see this movie should talk about how our lives have changed over the past 20 years due to the development of computers and how they are likely to change over the next 20 years. What will we gain and what will we lose? Why was Spooner the only one who did not trust the robots? If you could create a robot, what would you make sure it could do and what would you make sure it could not do? When we can create machines that do so many things better than we can, what is it that makes us human? Will machines ever have feelings?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the books of wildly prolific author Isaac Asimov, starting with the one that inspired this movie, a series of stories about the development of robots narrated by Dr. Colvin. The word “robot” was invented by playwright Karel Capek for his 1921 play RUR. Memorable robots have been featured in many movies, from the adorable (Silent Running), the funny (Sleeper), and the beautiful (Metropolis) to the almost-human (Bicentennial Man and Artificial Intelligence: A.I.) and the maniacal (Terminator). Forbidden Planet even has a robot based on a character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Families who appreciate this film will also appreciate Blade Runner and the Star Wars series. Arthur Koestler’s book was the first to explore the idea of The Ghost in the Machine, now a popular notion — and an CD by the Police.

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