Posted on May 20, 2005 at 8:41 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: Some crude schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Tranquilizer hallucination
Violence/ Scariness: Cartoon-style violence, references to predators
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

Some charming performances and saucy humor cannot save this movie from its surprising insensitivity. Its core question is what happens to best friends in captivity, who, once returned to the wild, realize they are predator and prey.

The makers of this film might have had an idea that they were giving the audience an example of how even those with very different natures and cultures can find a way to live together, but this is not about conflict between the star-bellied sneetches and the plain bellied sneetches or even the ranchers and the farmers. This is about a lion whose best friend the zebra looks increasingly delicious as the zoo animals have to learn why it’s called “the wild.” The film does not gloss over or cute-ify that conflict the way The Lion King did with its salute to “The Circle of Life.” That film somehow managed to omit the details about the benefits of being at the top of the food chain, even if you’re a bug-eating lion. In this one, the lion looks at the zebra and is horrified to discover that his best friend is starting to look….delicious.

As the story begins, Alex (voice of Ben Stiller) is perfectly happy as the star of the show at the Central Park Zoo. He’s a downtown sort of lion, who loves being pampered and having his nice juicy steaks brought to him on a platter. His best friend, Marty (voice of Chris Rock) dreams of being in the savanna. He gazes at the mosaic mural of the veldt and wonders what it would be like to run without any cages to stop him.

When Marty escapes from the zoo, Alex and their two other friends, a warm-hearted and sensible hippo named Gloria (voice of Jada Pinkett Smith) and a hypochondriacal and nervous giraffe named Melman (voice of David Schwimmer) go after him. After they are recaptured, the authorities decide to send them to an animal preserve in Africa. But things go wrong and they end up on the shores of Madagascar. How will they survive without humans to take care of them? What will they do without audiences to entertain?

Up to this point, the movie is pleasant, even witty, with the reliable combination of cute characters, potty humor, and slapstick to appeal to kids and knowing wisecracks and pop culture references (“Twilight Zone” to “Planet of the Apes” and “Castaway” plus a managed care joke) to appeal to teens and parents. But then things go badly when the last part of the movie turns into an existential crisis for Alex, who realizes for the first time what being a carnivore really means. He doesn’t just want to have them to dinner — he wants to have them as dinner.

This fails its intended audience on the merits of the story and as a matter of appropriateness of content. Wile E. Coyote may chase after the Road Runner and Elmer Fudd may chase after Bugs Bunny, but in both cases the fun of the cartoons is seeing the prey outsmart the predator. The antagonists are not friends; there is no sense of betrayal.

The shift in tone is uneasy and sour, and the conclusion is too unsatisfying. Then the movie doesn’t end. It just stops, which is even more unstatisfying.

And there just isn’t enough in the rest of the film to make up for that mistake. The design is very good but animation looks a bit two-dimensional. We’ve seen computer wizards can make fur and water look even more real than reality before, so the technological marvels are all taken for granted.

The performances are nothing special, either. As is usual in animated films, the stand-up comics do better than actors in providing voices as vivid and colorful as their cartoon avatars. Rock, along with Cedric the Entertainer and Sasha Baron Cohen (Ali G) as lemurs outshine Stiller, Smith, and Schwimmer. But the show is stolen by the penguins, who are by far the funniest and most engaging and exciting characters on screen. If the movie had been about them, it could have been terrific.

Parents should know that a major element of the plot concerns whether Alex will eat his friends, which may be disturbing to some children. In addition to this and other references to predators, there is cartoon-style violence, including a kick in the crotch and guns that shoot tranquilizer darts. The inconclusive ending may also be unsettling. The characters use some crude schoolyard language and there is some potty humor. Parents may also want to reassure young children that telling your wishes is not “bad luck.”

Families who see this movie should find Madagascar on a map and learn more about the animals, including lemurs and foosa. They may want to visit the Central Park Zoo and the famous San Diego Zoo, described admiringly by the characters in the film. Families should talk about why Alex liked the zoo but Marty wanted something different. What does it mean to say that “everyone has a day when they think the grass is greener someplace else?” What should Alex and the others have done when they found out Marty left the zoo? Why did Marty and Alex find it hard to forgive one another? What did they learn from their time in the jungle? How did Alex learn to do something that was contrary to his nature as a lion?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Racing Stripes, about a zebra who wants to race horses, and Disney’s animated The Jungle Book and the live action The Jungle Book made 25 years earlier. They will also appreciate Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson and the classic Born Free (whose theme song can be heard at the beginning of this film), based on the real-life story of a tame lion who had to be taught to live in the wild. The film is a bit dated now in its portrayal of colonialism, but it is still a moving story. Families with older children should read Last Chance to See, the hilarious and touching book by Douglas Adams (of the “Hitchhiker’s Guide” series) about his real-life travels to see endangered species, including a Madagascar lemur called the Aye-Aye.

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Lords of Dogtown

Posted on May 19, 2005 at 3:53 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Strong language for a PG-13
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Punches and wipe-outs, sad illness and (offscreen) death
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

In the late 1970’s, a group of kids in Venice, California who loved to surf invented a new kind of skateboarding and a new kind of cool.

Three ingredients came together. The first was technology. Skateboards were a fad that had pretty much gone the way of the hula hoop. The clay wheels broke easily. But the invention of polyurethane wheels meant more speed and durability, and they had enough of a grip to enable skateboarding on ramps and other stunts.

The second was empty swimming pools. California was experiencing a drought, and throughout Venice people drained their pools to conserve water.

And the third was time. The kids had a whole summer with nothing else to do. No one was paying much attention to them; they were like Peter Pan’s Lost Boys and Venice was their Neverland. They figured out that they could apply surfing techniques to the newly souped-up skateboards and ride the sides of the pools like concrete waves. Until then, skateboarding had always been horizontal and its few tricks were things like handstands. The polyurethane wheels in the empty pools led to the discovery of “the vert.” The Venice Lost Boys found a way to make their skateboards go up the sides of the pools, spin around in the air, and skate back down.

And they did it with attitude. They were rude, arrogant, explosive, extreme. Of course they became a sensation.

A local surf shop called The Zephyr sponsored them as a team, so they became the Z-Boys. When they showed up for their first competition, Skip Engbloom (Heath Ledger), slammed the entry fee down on the registration table and demanded they hand over the prizes. If the skateboarding world up to then was like a soundtrack by Herb Alpert and Jan & Dean, the Z-Boys arrived to the tunes of Aerosmith and Jimi Hendrix. They changed the rules and soon they ruled the world. When all they wanted was to create cool tricks, they were friends to the end. But then they wanted different things, as though each of them could only hold onto one third of their dream. Peralta wanted to use skateboarding to lead to other opportunities, Alva to being the greatest skateboarder in the world, Adams to being cool and outside. Each thought he was being true to where they came from.

Success is a tougher challenge than a multiple 360, espcially when your coolness comes from being an outsider. The Z-Boys who maintained their balance on the most dangerous skateboard stunts began to wipe out the way anyone who has ever watched an epsiode of VH1: Behind the Music knows all too well.

This story, originally told in a superb documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys, has now been turned into a feature film, written by Stacy Peralta, one of the original Z-Boys, and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, whose thirteen was a searing portrayal of a middle-schooler who was enticed by a “cool” friend into drugs, shop-lifting, and sexual experimentation. They do a good job of creating the real and gritty feel of the hormone-charged impetuousness and taut, sinewy energy of a group of teenaged boys no one was paying much attention to. As in her previous work as a production designer (Laurel Canyon, Three Kings) she is able to tell us a lot about the characters and the story with the setting, and as in thirteen, she shows sensitive and perceptive insights into the mixture of bravado and insecurity of adolescence.

But the script falls short for a couple of reasons, one small, one big. The small reason is that it is supposed to be an objective look at the entire group but is limited by Peralta’s own experience and occasionally self-serving viewpoint. While it may be true that he was more stable and mature than the two other Z-boys who are given most of the attention here, Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk of Raising Victor Vargas) and Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), at times the Peralta character (John Robinson) looks like an angel and seems almost saintly.

The more serious problem is that in both form and content it is all but impossible not to suffocate the appeal of the outsider and the rebel by trying to contain or imitate them. The very accidental nature of the Z-boys’ inventions and the found art aspect of the amateurish early footage in the documentary are what provide authenticity and a sense of discovery. Any attempt to re-create, especially as a PG-13 version of a very R-rated story inevitably feels forced and formulaic. Hardwicke has a superb sense of the time and place — you can almost smell the ocean and even the faint residue of chlorine in the empty pools. Hirsch and Rasuk are excellent and the wonderful Michael Angarano (of television’s “Will and Grace) has a fresh but low-key quality as a guy who can hang on to friends more easily than he can hang on to a skateboard, but it is a shame to see thirteen’s Nikki Reed and Real Women Have Curve’s America Ferrera relegated to arm candy. The one who fares worst, though, is Ledger, who acts as though he’s afraid those prosthetic teeth are about to slide out of this mouth. His performance is a wipe-out.

Parents should know that the movie has very strong material for a PG-13, on the edge of an R-rating. There are sexual references and situations, including groupies. Characters, including those who are underage and one who is a parent, drink, smoke, use drugs, use very strong language, and engage in a lot of high risk, irresponsible, and illegal behavior. A character goes to jail on drug-related charges. There are tense and unhappy scenes between friends and family members and there is a sad death.

Families who see this movie should talk about why the boys went in different directions. Was it the influence of their families? Was it because they wanted different things?

Families who enjoy this movie should see the superb documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys, written and directed by Stacy Peralta and narrated by Sean Penn. They should also see Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator, a documentary about skateboarding champion Mark Rogowski, who spun out of control and is now serving a life sentence for rape and murder. They will also appreciate two documentaries about surfing, Step into Liquid and one by Peralta, Riding Giants.

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Posted on May 15, 2005 at 5:25 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Extremely strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Scenes in bars, references to drunk driving
Violence/ Scariness: References to violent accidents and injuries, very violent sport
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

You know those thousands of heartwarming, triumph of the human spirit, disease-of-the-week movies? With heroes and heroines who suffer through every possible medical catastrophe and become better people and learn the meaning of life? I know they are supposed to be all reassuring and inspiring and all that, but they don’t come close to being as reassuring as this film, which lets us know without any equivocation that even the most dramatic, the most traumatic, the most catastrophic injuries do not change people.

The fact that the “us” of ourselves continues, that people who are injured don’t cross some big divide to find inner peace and transcendence so that they feel better off for what happened to them — now that is the kind of resilience of the human spirit I can appreciate.

Not that the stars of this documentary, the United States Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby team, are not awe-inspiring examples of heart and courage. You will never find better on screen — documentary or fiction. It’s just that they were all that before they were confined to wheelchairs, and they kept every bit of it. Another thing they were before they were confined to wheelchairs was badass guys with impulse control problems, and that hasn’t changed either. What has changed is that now they are in wheelchairs and now they feel like they don’t have anything left to lose. This is not heartwarming, cuddly, or safe. it is bracing, brash, harsh, and angry. And it is thrilling.

It doesn’t seem right to call people with such determination and eneregy “confined.” Their spirits just explode out of the chairs, especially when they are playing a game that was originally called Murderball. They had to change it to “Wheelchair Rugby” because for some reason no corporate sponsor wanted to be affiliated with a game called Murderball.

It doesn’t really have anything to do with rugby. Basically, there are two rules. The first governs the team. It is a complex point system assigned to each player based on his ability to move his arms (none of them can grip well enough to hold onto the ball — they have glue on their palms). To make sure that the sides are evenly matched, each side’s players may add up to no more than an 8 at any given time. The second rule governs the play and it is very simple — “kill the man with the ball.” The game they play owes less to rugby than it does to hockey, dodgeball, battering rams, and bumper cars in their most extreme forms. This movie makes clear that there is no doubt these are athletes who are full-out all the time and give everything there is.

As it opens, the U.S. has won the world championship 11 times, every year since the beginning. The unquestioned greatest player of all time is repeated MVP Jose Soares, the Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods of Wheelchair Rugby.

An athlete can fight just about any physical limit except for time. When Soares is not picked for the team because he is getting too old, he decides to coach Team Canada. And they beat the Americans. So the primary focus of the movie is the efforts of the US team to win back the title.

As they train, we meet the players and their families and we hear their stories, especially the story of Mark Zupan, a risk-taker and party animal who was injured in a drunk driving accident in which the driver, his best friend, was not badly hurt. We see Soares with his wife (on their anniversary, she toasts, “To you” and he toasts, “To Team Canada. To the gold.”) and with his son (who hopes the game won’t keep his father from an important event of his own).

We learn about how they manage everything from getting dressed to eating pizza to having sex (including footage from a very explicit but very amateurish how-to-video). And we follow a recently injured man as he goes through rehab and, in a wrenchingly bittersweet scene, returns home. The memories of his able-bodied life impress upon him all that he has lost more than all of the months of rehabilitation. But the specially equipped rugby chair gives him a different perspective.

It gives us one, too.

Parents should know that this movie includes constant very strong language and explicit sexual references and situations, drinking (including drunk driving), smoking, and drug use. Explicit images of surgery and references to serious accidents and injuries may be disturbing to some audience members.

Families who see this movie should talk about how the players decide what is important to them. Who is right about Jose’s decision? How did Jose’s relationship with his son change? What do you think about Zupan’s parents’ comments about Igoe, the friend who caused Zupan’s injuries? Why was it hard for Zupan and Igoe to talk to one another? Why did Zupan want Igoe to see him play? Why does the movie end where it does?

Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy Inside Moves, co-starring Harold Russell, the WWII disabled veteran who was a two-time Oscar winner for The Best Years of Our Lives. They might like to compare this movie to an early film about people adjusting to wheelchairs, The Men, with Marlon Brando in his first movie role.

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Tell Them Who You Are

Posted on May 12, 2005 at 6:12 am

A young man sees someone he would like to meet, but he is shy and unsure of how to approach him. His father pushes him, saying, “Tell them who you are.” What he means is, “Tell them you’re my son.”

The father, two-time Oscar winner for cinematography, leftist political activist and high-maintenance pain in the neck Haskell Wexler.Haskell Wexler, knows that his name is will open doors for his son. The son, Mark Wexler, knows that when you use someone else’s name to open doors, even your father’s, it doesn’t count. He grew up to make this movie about his father as a way of telling us who he is.

For starters, he is not his father, the genius cinematographer who thinks he could have done a better job than any of the directors he ever worked with — including this one. From the very first moment, when Mark asks his father to tell the audience where he is, Haskell tells him he doesn’t need to, and he spends the rest of the movie arguing with his son about how the shots should be set up, what the movie should include, whether he will sign the release and allow the movie to be made at all, and just about everything else, especially politics.

I am very taken with the growing movies-as-therapy genre of “working out my issues with Dad” documentaries. Part history, part biography, part appreciation, and all therapy, it is a funny, wrenching, profound, and deeply moving film, reminiscient of the brilliant My Architect. This time, the subject of the film is very much alive, and his efforts to direct the movie and his son provide some of the film’s most meaningful moments.

Parents should know that this movie has extremely strong language and some sexual images and some references to sexual situations, including adultery. Some viewers may also be disturbed by the tense family scenes and a sad scene of illness.

Families who see this movie should talk about what Mark and his father are proudest of about each other. How did making the film change their relationship? Why did Mark decide to include the scene with his mother?

Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy other worthy films in this category, including My Architect, and Five Wives, Three Secretaries and Me, Tessa Blake’s 1998 documentary about her multi-married Texas millionaire father, whose relationships with his secretaries lasted longer than any of his marriages (and whose wives had even more cordial relationships with each other than their still-friendly relationships with him). Two fine movies with related themes are Tarnation, Jonathan Couette’s movie about his mentally ill mother, and Martha and Ethel, Jyll Johnstone’s film about two nannies who played a larger role in the lives of the film-makers than their parents did.

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Ladies in Lavender

Posted on May 12, 2005 at 5:52 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

The title of the movie suggests faded characters fussing over antimacassars and sipping tea. But the beauty of this film is that it shows us that the feelings of these women are anything but simple and their scope is as broad as the ocean outside their home.

Janet (Maggie Smith) and Ursula (Judi Dench) are sisters who live together in pre-World War II Cornwall. Janet is slightly more practical and worldly. She has loved and lost. Ursula is slightly more tender-hearted and vulnerable. One day, they find a unconscious young man named Andrea (Daniel Bruhl of Goodbye, Lenin) washed up on their shore. They bring him back to their house and care for him. He will not be the only one in the house who is awakened. And when he does wake up and it turns out he does not speak English (he is Polish), he will not be the only one who learns something new.

Andrea’s presence is disturbing, causing the sisters to feel emotions so new the sisters barely recognize them. They have no framework, no vocabulary for them. Andrea is exotic in every category, in a time and place when there wasn’t much that was new or surprising. His newness, his non-English-ness, his youth, his masculinity, and, when he gets a chance at a violin, his music — all are stirring.

If the story had been written by D.H. Lawrence, it could have gone in another direction, all undercurrents and disruption. But it was written by William J. Locke and adapted for the screen by first-time director Charles Dance with a delicacy that these two great ladies (and grandes Dames) have responded to with brilliantly subtle performances of stunning skill and beauty. It would be so easy to make the ladies look foolish and skittish. But Dance, Smith, and Dench give us characters who remind us that even ladies in lavender have hearts and minds and memories and longings.

Parents should know that the movie has brief strong language and social drinking and smoking.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Ursula and Janet responded differently to Andrea. How did Andrea feel about them?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Enchanted April and Room With a View. They should also see more of the two leading ladies, including their Oscar-winning performances in California Suite, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Shakespeare in Love

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