Because of Winn-Dixie

Posted on February 12, 2005 at 7:21 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: Mild swearing, rude schoolyard insults
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to alcoholism and drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril, no one hurt, references to absent mother and death of sibling
Diversity Issues: A strength of the movie is the friendships between people of different ages and races
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

This story of a girl, a dog, and the lessons they teach a small southern town is appealing but a bit heavy-handed, starting right at the beginning. It leads off with the sugary cliche trifecta: voice-over narration telling us how much has changed since the days we are about to hear the story of, a syrupy sentimental song, and a child with big, thoughtful, eyes telling God she wants a friend and that someday she’d like to see her mother again.

It also has corne pone character names like “Sweetie Pie” and “Dunlap Dewberry” and an uncertain performance by Annasophia Robb in the lead as Opal. But strong appearances by top talent in the adult roles and graceful evocation of a gently rural community by director Wayne Wang keep it for the most part more sweet than sugary.

Opal and her father have just moved to Naomi, Florida where he is the minister for a church so tiny that the congregants assemble on folding chairs set up in a convenience store. “Nothing wrong with making church more convenient,” good-naturedly says the Preacher (Jeff Daniels).

But the Preacher is worried and distracted. When Opal goes to the grocery store she finds a large and smelly stray dog causing chaos. She impulsively claims him as hers, naming him Winn-Dixie after the store where she first saw him.

Her father says no. And the landlord says “NO!” But Winn-Dixie has his own ideas and he wants to stay with Opal. He also wants to help her make some new friends.

Before too long, Opal has a job working for the shy, guitar-playing Otis (musician Dave Matthews) at the local pet store so that she can earn the money to buy Winn-Dixie a collar. The town librarian (Eva Marie Saint) and a reclusive women reputed to be a witch (Cecily Tyson) both turn out to be great friends and wonderful story-tellers. With the help of Winn-Dixie, Opal also gets to know a girl she thought was too young and a girl her own age she thought was unfriendly, even with twin boys she thought did not like her.

As Opal becomes more confident, she finds the courage to ask the Preacher about her mother. Because of Winn-Dixie, she has developed the maturity to begin to understand the answers. And because of Winn-Dixie, the small town of Naomi becomes once again a place where people know each other’s sorrows and reach out to each other.

The best moments here are not the revelations or the coming-of-age turning points or the dog-causes-trouble slapstick but the small, quiet scenes of people connecting to each other. The film is gently touching when Opal tells the librarian and the “witch” that she wants to hear their stories and then listens attentively and when Otis plays his guitar for the animals. Those are the moments that truly convey the magic of Winn-Dixie.

Parents should know that the movie has brief mild swearing, some rude schoolyard insults, and brief poop humor. Characters refer to alcoholism, parental desertion, time spent in jail, and the (offscreen) death of a character’s sibling.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Winn-Dixie was so important to Opal. They should also discuss the importance of the way Opal listens to the stories Miss Franny and Gloria tell her. If you had to choose ten things to describe each member of the family, what would they be? What do you think of Gloria’s way of recognizing her mistakes? Why did Opal worry that it was her fault that her mother left? Why was it important that the candy was sweet and sad? Do the people in your community know each other’s sorrows? How do you learn what your one important thing is?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Fly Away Home, also with Daniels, and Where the Heart Is.

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Diary of a Mad Black Woman

Posted on February 9, 2005 at 9:33 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some tough and mean language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters include drug addict, drug dealer
Violence/ Scariness: Some violence, including a shooting, domestic violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

Three separate movies collide in this uneven but heartfelt drama of a woman done wrong who has to learn to rely on herself for the first time. The first movie is a soapy, syrupy, over-the-top “women suffering in fabulous clothes” drama, filled with welling eyes and swelling music, somewhere on the scale between Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows) and the Lifetime Channel. The second movie is an over-the top revenge fantasy with scenes rivaling grand guignol like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. And the third is an over-the-top slapstick routine with a drag performance that makes Flip Wilson’s Geraldine look like Audrey Hepburn.

Helen (Kimberly Elise) understands that her wealthy husband Charles (Steve Harris) is all about surfaces; she is less aware of that quality in herself. He wins a prestigious attorney-of-the-year award and thanks her from the podium. When they are alone, however, he is cruel, rejecting her offer of a romantic evening and reminding her that he owns everything and she has nothing. Charles has cut her off from everyone and kept her inside the ostentatiously luxurious mansion like a princess in a tower.

Charles hires a truck to load Helen’s things and move her out of the house so that his mistress and their children can move in. Helen has nowhere to go. The handsome and sympathetic truck driver, Orlando (Shemar Moore), tries to help, but Helen is so angry and terrified she cannot accept it. Finally, she goes to her outspoken but generous-hearted grandmother, Madea, played by writer/producer Tyler Perry. Perry also plays Madea’s salty brother-in-law and Helen’s saintly cousin Brian.

Helen has to deconstruct her life and rebuild from the inside out. She gets a job as a waitress and visits her mother (Cecily Tyson) in a nursing home. She is at first angry with Orlando, then too proud to accept his help and unable to believe that any man could be good to her, but finally ready to give and accept love. Then Charles comes back into her life. This time he needs her. Helen has to decide what she wants and who she is.

But the movie never decides what it wants and what it is. It tries to have it both ways, asking us to root for Helen when she is a pious victim and a, well, “mad black woman.” It teeters unsteadily between crude humor and soulful faith.

Elise is a lovely actress who looks exquisite as she suffers and she makes the most of the soapy melodrama. Moore is an appealing knight in shining armor and Tyson, as always, adds some class. Perry’s wild caricature of a drag performance as Madea seems to be from an entirely different movie. If the movie had been written by white people, the portrayal would have been called racist, sexist, and just plain embarrassing. Perry’s old man is a one-joke dud, but his role as Brian shows some presence and conviction. One-note characters like the crack addict and the drug dealer probably worked better on stage but just seem cardboard-y on screen. Helen’s next diary entry just might be to wish for a better script.

Parents should know that the movie includes painful confrontations, violence (including shooting and assault), drinking, drug use, and sexual references. One strength of the movie is its unabashed portrayal of religious conviction as a mainstay for believers. Another is its depiction of the careful consideration and commitment that should be involved in deciding when to become sexually involved. The movie also benefits from its portrayal of strong and devoted women and African-American characters.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Helen was willing to give up so much of herself for Charles.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Waiting to Exhale and the novels of E. Lynn Harris. Perry’s other Madea plays are available on video. Families may also appreciate some other women-learning-to-get-over-the-loss-of-a-man-and-finding-themselves movies like Shoot the Moon, An Unmarried Woman, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Sirk’s “suffering women in beautiful clothes” movies like Imitation of Life.

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Hitch

Posted on February 9, 2005 at 1:45 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language, one f-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, drinking as a response to stress
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril
Diversity Issues: A strength of the movie is colorblind romantic relationships and friendships
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

“Is Hitch a noun or a verb?” Sarah (Eva Mendes) asks Alex “Hitch” Hitchens (Will Smith). “It depends,” he answers. It’s actually a little of both. Hitch is a “date doctor,” a sort of Straight Eye for the Straight Guy who advises men on how to appeal to the women of their dreams. Hitch as in “stick with him if you want to get hitched.”

He tells his clients that “any man has the chance to sweep a woman off her feet. You just need the right broom.” He advises them on everything from the first look (“Sixty percent of all human communication is non-verbal. Thirty percent is your tone.”) to the first kiss (he advises the men to lean in ninety percent of the way and let her come that last ten percent toward him). He gives them tips on grooming and attire. And he reminds them to listen and respond, to let the women know really get to know them — just maybe not all at once.

Hitch has it all figured out — for other guys. His heart was broken back in college and he’s never risked it again.

And in the other corner, ladies and gentlemen, we have Sarah, a gossip columnist who is cynical about love.

Hitch is advising a nebbishy accountant (Kevin James) who is in love with a beautiful heiress (Amber Valetta). This is the very same heiress whose love life is documented on a daily basis by Sarah, who cannot seem to understand this new relationship. Meanwhile, not knowing what his connection is to the the beast to the heiress’ beauty, Sarah goes on two dates with Hitch, both of which develop serious, uh, hitches along the way.

It’s all familiar romantic comedy territory — evasions, followed by complications, humiliations, the course of true love’s not running smoothly, and then…running a bit more smoothly. And then not smoothly again.

Kevin James is wonderfully funny and just as wonderfully sweet. His joyously dorky dance is sublime, but so is the shyly happy look on his face when he hands the heiress a pen, almost overcome by the thrill of just touching something she will use.

The movie’s biggest asset is Smith, who has everything it takes to be a romantic comedy superstar. He has the timing of an atomic clock and can handle all kinds of comedy — physical and verbal, high and low, along with a dazzling smile and the presence and conviction to carry off the tender moments, too. Plus, no one is better at talking to the camera than he is. Mendes never makes the character sparkle (as she did in Stuck on You) or sizzle (as she did in Out of Time), but that is the fault of the script, which leaves promising set-ups unfinished to pursue ideas that are far less interesting or appealing, especially a joke(?) about a serial killer. If it does not knock it out of the park, it at least qualifies as a triple, a pleasant date movie that delivers several laughs and — harder to find these days — a couple of satisfied smiles.

Parents should know that some of the material in this movie is on the R-edge of a PG-13 with some strong language (one f-word), alcohol (including drinking as a response to a bad day), and sexual situations and references. But parents should also know that this movie comes down very strongly on the side of romance. It takes kissing very seriously. A man and woman who have a one-night stand are both very unhappy with the outcome (for different reasons). There is a character who sexually exploits women whose behavior is portrayed as reprehensible. The focus of this movie is on romance and lasting love. Another strength of the movie is its color-blind casting, with diverse characters sharing friendships and romantic relationships.

Families who see this movie should talk about how it can be nerve-wracking to try to make a good impression on the opposite sex, especially someone who seems very desirable. What do you think of Hitch’s rules and advice? They should talk about the idea that you should “Begin each day as if it were on purpose.” What does it mean to be “all about the short game?”

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy other romantic comedies like Barefoot in the Park, You’ve Got Mail, and French Kiss.

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Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior

Posted on February 8, 2005 at 8:02 pm

There are three reasons to see this movie. First: the dazzling martial arts moves of Tony Jaa, whose lightning reflexes and breathtaking gymnastics are both impressive and entertaining. Second is the authenticity. As the tagline says, this film has “no safety nets, no computer graphics, and no strings.” This is not the kind of movie that inspires critics to use words like “balletic” and “graceful.” This is the kind of movie that shows you that everything but the injuries is really happening on screen. The third reason is so that you can see the first leading performance by a man who is set to become the next big action star.

With all of that, the reasons not to see the movie — predictable script (“The fate of the whole village lies in your hands!”), effective but not especially artistic direction, and adequate but not especially impressive movie-making, with a lot of those hiccup-y little instant replays that show you the most exciting stunts a second or even third time.

Jaa plays Ting, who must retrieve the head that has been stolen from the statue of Buddha in his small rural town in Thailand. So for the first time he goes to the big city. Then he has a lot of chase scenes and fights. Then the movie ends.

But the fights are very cool. Ting fights in the street. He fights in a ring. He goes underwater. His legs catch fire. He fights with his hands, with his fists, and with knives.

Jaa is an electrifying performer and the movie is primarily designed to show off what he does best, with what little story there is just there for breathing room and a change of location before the fight scenes start up again. There is a wheelchair-bound bad guy who can only speak through an electronic voicebox (it is really eerie when he laughs) and a female sidekick with an annoying voice that may be intended to be funny but just sounds somewhere between a whine and a screech. But the movie is a showpiece for Jaa, whose talent is well worth showing and viewing.

Parents should know that the movie has constant, intense, and graphic violence with bone-crushing injuries. Some characters are killed. The plot involves drug dealers and drug use and characters smoke and drink. They also use strong and sometimes crude language (as translated in the subtitles).

Families who see this movie should talk about how Ting makes the decision about whether he will fight or not. Why did George change his name? Why was Ong-Bak so important to the village?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the films of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li.

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Not specified

Pooh’s Heffalump Movie

Posted on February 5, 2005 at 2:42 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

Small children will enjoy this gentle story of making friends. Their families will be grateful for the fact that there is a suitable movie for younger kids and they might enjoy the pretty water-color backgrounds and a couple of funny moments. And if they take advantage of the the well-under-90-minute running time for a bit of a snooze, they can be grateful for that, too.

Previous features put Tigger and Piglet in the spotlight, but this time the focus is on Roo, the spirited kangaroo son of sweet-voiced Kanga. When the citizens of the 400 Acre Wood decide to capture a heffalump, they tell Roo he is too young to go along on such a scary expedition. But Roo sneaks out to show the others that he is grown-up enough to capture a heffalump on his own.

Roo finds a heffalump, but is surprised to find that not only is he not at all scary, but he is just as frightened of Roo and his friends as they are of him. Indeed, this heffalump is called Lumpy and he is just a child, like Roo. They quickly forget all about being scared of each other as they play games and enjoy getting to know one another.

But when Roo tries to take his new friend home so that Kanga can help Lumpy find his mother, Rabbit, Pooh, Piglet, and Tigger do not understand. They try to capture Lumpy. But friendship — and mothers — come to the rescue.

Newcomer Kyle Stanger, who provides the voice of Lumpy the heffalump was just five when the movie was made, and he is the highlight of the movie. He gives Lumpy so much personality and charm that every child will want a heffalump playmate of of his own. Brenda Blethyn provides the understanding and loving voice of his mother. And be sure to stay for the credits, as the scenes of Lumpy and Roo playing are among the best in the movie.

Parents should know that the movie has some mild peril that the most sensitive young viewers may find unsettling.

Families who see this movie should talk about how we can make sure we do not let fear of anything that is different prevent us from meeting new friends. And they can talk about how children are sometimes impatient to be allowed to do things that adults tell them they are not old enough to do and what “your own call” means. Parents will want to make sure that children understand, however, that they should not talk to strangers and that they should never let anyone persuade them that they do not have to answer when their mother calls them. They might also want to talk about how Roo and Lumpy will have to clean up the mess that they made in Pooh’s house and Rabbit’s garden.

Every family should read aloud the wonderful works of A.A. Milne, both the poetry and the stories about Winnie the Pooh and his friends. The heffalump” in the book is imaginary. Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the other Pooh stories available on DVD and video.

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