Posted on May 8, 2005 at 12:24 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic, cartoon-style violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

Jane Fonda is having such a blast being back on screen in a pull-out-all-the-stops performance that it seems a little stingy not to enjoy it more. But this latest variation on Meet the Parents and Cinderella is always a little less charming, a little less funny, and a lot less entertaining than it thinks it is, wants to be, and needs to be.

Jennifer Lopez brings sweetness and charisma but no special talent for comedy to the role of Charlie, a straight-from-the-romantic-comedy-heroine-store plucky but warm-hearted girl who makes a living with a jumble of “won’t this be cute” temp jobs (She walks dogs! She passes hors d’oeuvres! She is a receptionist at a doctor’s office getting handed little paper bags with icky stuff inside!). She has dreams of being a fashion designer. She meets Kevin (Michael Vartan of “Alias”). He’s cute, he’s a doctor, he’s rich and he’s crazy about her. The only thing preventing them from living happily ever after is the wicked stepmother, I mean prospective mother-in-law.

That would be Fonda as Viola, once the top interview host on television, then replaced by a teenaged pop star, now just out of the hospital after a nervous breakdown. Cue the weapons of nuptial mass destruction.

Plucky heroine, handsome love interest, and second-act complication in place. The formula also calls for wisecracking best friends. Charlie has two, a gal pal and of course a gay man (the talented Adam Scott). The 90’s called; they want their most popular accessory for rom-com heroines back. Viola has Wanda Sykes, whose imperishably acid delivery is the best part of the movie, though her character is uncomfortably reminiscient of too many black character actors playing outspoken servants in old movies. But that’s way ahead of Kevin’s best friend (thankfully onscreen very briefly) who has a not-even-a-little-bit-funny thing for very young girls. Ew.

Viola thinks Charlie is not good enough for Kevin, who wisely finds a way to leave town for most of the movie. She tries to make Charlie so miserable that she will — what? it’s never clear how the stunts she pulls relate to the idea of stopping the wedding. Lucy and Ethel could teach this chick plenty.

Things perk up a bit when Charlie decides to strike back and when Elaine Stritch arrives to show J. Lo and J. Fo how it’s really done. But the stakes seem so petty (Viola gives Charlie a gorgeous vintage that won’t fit over Charlie’s generous booty, Viola wants to wear a WHITE dress to the wedding instead of the peach horror-with-ruffles Charlie designed for her) and the tactics so unimaginative (a slap-fest and some allergy-inducing nuts) that it has the appeal of stale wedding cake and yesterday’s bouquet.

Parents should know that this movie has some raw material for a PG-13, including strong language, dogs having sex, jokes about gay sex, sexual arousal, and a man who is interested in underage girls. Some audience members may be disturbed by casual references to crucifix jewelry and church.

Families who see this movie should talk about their own experiences of meeting future in-laws and any differences of style or culture that might have caused stress. What should Kevin have done to resolve the differences between Viola and Charlie? Would Viola have been less upset if she still had her job?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy seeing Fonda in some of her early romantic comedies like Barefoot in the Park and Sunday in New York. Another double Oscar-winner, Jessica Lange, goes over the top as a monster-in-law facing off against Gwenyth Paltrow in the grand guignol drama Hush. But the prize for all-time worst movie mother-in-law is Laura Hope Crewes in The Silver Cord.

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Kingdom of Heaven

Posted on May 7, 2005 at 6:47 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Wine
Violence/ Scariness: Extreme, intense, graphic, and constant violence and peril, grisly images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

This huge, clanging epic about the 12th century Crusades is too beautiful to be bad, too clumsy to be good, too long to be comfortable, too uneven to be powerful, and has a leading character too lightweight to be compelling. “Kingdom of Heaven” has the scope but lacks the power and resonance of the same director’s Gladiator. Ridley Scott is shooting for epic but coming up at — or just short of — entertaining.

The central core value — that peace is possible and that war is not the answer — is undermined by the director’s obvious relish for battle.

It has beautifully constructed images that convey the pageant of the fierce struggle between Christians and Muslims for old Jerusalem. But this lush depiction of the sights, sounds and smells of the age is anchored to a weak plot and an often puerile script. The characters share none of the grandeur or complexity of the scenery or the history.

As often happens, the more blood that flows on an on-screen battlefield, the more anemic the script. This may account for the thin and implausible story of an unschooled small town blacksmith who, after a few weeks of training, becomes a world-class swordsman and military tactician able to plan the movement of vast armies and defend the empire against shrewder and more seasoned veterans as well as a scientist-farmer statesman and scientist-farmer who knows how to irrigate the desert and how to create an egalatarian society. He is transformed from a bereaved widower who joins the Crusades to redeem his soul and becomes something of a modern secular humanist who just wants to save as many lives as possible and cultivate his garden. He is surrounded by the obligatory movie-isms, including father-son reconciliation and a romantic relationship with a princess with kohl on her eyes, henna on her hands, and a husband who does not understand her. It’s the one-characteristic-per-actor school of epic story-telling. It is not enough that the bad priest is a wicked and narrow-minded hypocrite, he must also be a leering sadist and, for good measure, a sneak thief in case someone in the audience is so overcome with the carnage that he missed the point.

Sometimes an movie that simplifies a story can serve as a set of training wheels to help introduce younger viewers to more complex historical material. But “Kingdom of Heaven” is not that movie. First, it has too much splattering gore (throats pierced by arrows, limbs severed, heads chopped off) to be targeted at younger and more impressionable audiences. Second, the plot is too murky and hobbled by 21st century political correctness to be compelling.

Despite its emotional immaturity, the story does attempt to depict the Rubik’s cube of treacherous alliances between confusing factions during the Crusades, and it evenhandedly makes extremists on both sides the bad guys rather than pitting the Christians against the Muslims. It also contains a message about religious tolerance in the face of “I know what God wants” zealots from both the Christian and Muslim sides. This is always a timely and important message, although as portrayed here it is heavy-handed and half-hearted. The hero preaches a suspiciously modern form of tolerance and equality while the evil villains screech a simple-minded and almost suicidal position based on “faith.”

Kingdom of Heaven is a gorgeous movie. The costumes, weapons and castles are beautifully constructed, and both the intense individual confrontations and the sweeping panorama of battle are expertly conveyed. Scott has a superb sense of pacing and knows when to show fluttering flags and when to cue the choral music. For many, this will be enough, at least while watching it. But because the plot is so thin and uninvolving, even the 2 1/2 hour running time will leave the audience feeling unsatisfied.

Parents should know that the movie has extreme and very graphic violence with a lot of slashing and burning and a lot of spurting blood. Many characters are killed. There are some grisly images, including men being hanged, heads on pikes, and the face of a dead leper and there are references to suicide. There is a non-explict sexual situation and there are sexual references, including adultery.

Families who see this movie should talk about its relationship to the battles — intellectual and literal — in the world today. Who are the moderates? Who are the extremists? How can moderates engage with extremists? How do you respond to those who claim they know the will of God? Families should also talk about the then-revolutionary concept that “you were not what you were born but what you had it in yourself to be” and the words that inspire Balian, “What man is a man who does not make the world better?”

Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy epics like Ben Hur and Scott’s Gladiator. There are plenty of good texts about the Crusades, including about this fictionalized time between the Second and Third Crusades. The story of King Richard the Lionheart is a fascinating tale from his travails in reaching Jerusalem to his clashes with Saladin. Those who want to find out more might like to look at The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades by Jonathan Riley-Smith and Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf.

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House of Wax

Posted on May 6, 2005 at 9:23 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Slasher-movie violence including decapitation, impaling, torture, explicit deaths of characters
Diversity Issues: Stereotypes; the two-dimensional characters include a minority and a "strong" woman
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

Just when it seemed that Hollywood was running out of paint-by-numbers horror movie remakes, along oozes the half-baked “House of Wax” to leave its greasy smear on movie non-history. If the project was an independent label’s small budget scream-fest, with unknown actors and a rougher feel, then there might have been something gutsy to redeem this pallid, tasteless fare. Instead, the mega-budget excesses, the big-named producers, the WB’s hottest young things, and the writers who are experienced enough to know better have turned in a condescending slog of a flick, as mechanical and soulless as a wax golem.

Those savvy Warner Bros. execs are betting on the quick and dirty opening weekend draw typical of horror movies and, with the big-screen debut of little-screen’s bored, blond heiress, Ms. Hilton, they know a good sized crowd will go just to see Paris burn. At this screening (and reportedly at many others across the country), the crowd erupted in applause and cheers when Paris Hilton’s character, Paige, dies. Hollywood, please note that Paris Hilton’s novelty value is now officially over. Any other conceivable value she might add to a movie is yet to be demonstrated.

The plot is simple but relies entirely on the stupidity of the protagonists and our desire to watch them die. Six college-age kids set out from Florida to Louisiana on an overnight road trip to see a big football game. They take a shortcut which puts them within reach of a town that does not exist on maps or, more importantly, GPS. The small, quiet town is home to the titular House of Wax, not only housing wax sculptures but made entirely of wax itself. When the travelers meet the inhabitants of the town, it is just a matter of time before the wax — and blood — start flowing.

Most of the scenes focus on supposedly bright, successful, Carly (Elisha Cuthbert of “24” fame), and her mildly delinquent, “bad twin” brother, Nick (Chad Michael Murray, “One Tree Hill” heartthrob). Carly’s best friend is Paige (Paris Hilton, trying to project a down-to-earth sympathy), who thinks she might be pregnant but has been holding off on telling boyfriend, Blake (Robert Ri’chard, Coach Carter), the gung-ho football fan who brought the group together in the first place. Nick’s friend, Dalton (Jon Abrahams) seems to exist to show that Nick is really a good guy. Carly’s boyfriend, Wade (Jared Padalecki, “Gilmore Girls”), whose absurd curiosity dooms him to the most drawn-out of deaths, is one jarring example of badly written character development, literally sacrificed to further the plot.

The denizens of the town range from Southern Gothic of the Deliverance school of stereotype, to twin psychopaths, intent on keeping time from passing by freezing folks in wax. It gives nothing away to say that the writers, twins Chad and Carey Hayes, take the twin symbolism way, way too seriously, invoking unintended laughs with their heavy-handedness along the way.

The movies’ internal consistency, one or two visually interesting scenes, and a glimpse of some decent acting from Ms. Cuthbert are all that stand between this release and a road-kill pit similar to the one occupying an inordinately long scene toward the beginning of the movie. Even for horror and Hilton fans, “House of Wax” is better left unvisited.

Parents should know that this movie’s tagline “Prey Slay Display” is a fair indication of what is to come. Most of the characters die and they do so in manners ranging from bloody hunts to quick decapitation. There is near constant peril and lots of unnecessary–even for a slasher movie detail, ranging from a close-up of a victim’s skin accidentally peeled away to a character’s partial submersion in a fetid pool of dead animals. The characters make frequent sexual references and Paris Hilton’s past video indiscretions seem to be the inside joke in two scenes, including a brief strip-tease she performs for her boyfriend. Characters state they intend to have sex and there is a supposedly funny confusion about whether a character is performing a sexual act on her boyfriend as he drives. There is mild social drinking, as well as some admiration for one character’s “hard-core” attitude and delinquency. Characters have no hesitation about exploring and messing around with other people’s houses or property.

Families who see this movie might want to talk about theme of siblings, especially the theme of one sibling’s goodness compared to one sibling’s “badness”. The choice of the movie playing at the town’s theater is not accidental as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a much stronger study of sibling rivalry.

Families who want to see the inspiration for this movie should see House of Wax, 1953’s 3-D showcase thriller starring Vincent Price in his first horror role, or, if they can find a copy, the wry and witty Mystery of the Wax Museum(1933) or the screenplay on which it is based. Fans of horror movies should go elsewhere, perhaps to tepid new releases such as Amityville Horror which now look better in comparison (but only by comparison).

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