Dark Water

Posted on June 28, 2005 at 1:18 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, use of pharmaceuticals
Violence/ Scariness: Very tense and intense scenes of peril involving adult and child, some graphic images, including dead body
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

No matter how many times they film it, the “something creepy is going on in my house” story has a lot of potential. We’ve all heard creaks and wondered, on dark and stormy nights, if anyone — or anything — was out there. And most of us have enjoyed watching people on screen wonder the same thing…especially if it turns out to be true.

Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind) is Dahlia, a vulnerable young mother recently separated from her husband. We’re not sure whether to believe her or not. Her husband tells the mediators that she “lives in a world of her own.” He even says she is crazy. We know she is haunted by her memories of feeling abandoned by her mother. But she seems to have a very loving and healthy relationship with her daughter, Ceci. They look at an apartment in a run-down building on Roosevelt Island. At first Ceci says she does not want to live there, but after she disappears and Dahlia finds her on the roof holding a brand-new Hello Kitty backpack, she tells her mother she wants to stay. It’s near a good school and they don’t have much time, so she takes the apartment.

And of course immediately things start to go wrong. There is an oooky drippy leak in the corner of the ceiling, and the building manager and the off-the-books handyman give her the runaround about getting it fixed. Ceci’s nice new teacher (a sympathetic Camryn Manheim) tells Dahlia that Ceci is paying a lot of attention to an imaginary friend named Natasha that Dahlia doesn’t know anything about. Or is she real? Dahlia’s been taking pills and sleeping a lot. She discovered the apartment above hers was flooded with water the color of Coca-Cola. Or was it a drug-induced dream?

There are some good “boo” moments and director Walter Salles shows a flair for creepy images and an atmosphere of dread. Tim Roth and John C. Reilly add strong support as Dahlia’s lawyer and the building manager, two more people who are not entirely truthful. But like one of the images that flickers eerily in an elevator shaft, the scares are fleeting. It asks a lot of nicely disturbing questions but then tries to tie it up too quickly.

Parents should know that this is a creepy horror film with very intense scenes of peril and some violence. There are some graphic images, including a dead child. Characters drink and use pharmaceutical drugs. There is brief strong language. Some viewers may be disturbed by the tense secens between an estranged couple or by the supernatural themes.

Families who see this film should talk about times they have felt creeped out and how they responded. Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy The Others, Bunny Lake is Missing, and Panic Room. They may also want to compare this to the original 2002 Japanese version.

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War of the Worlds

Posted on June 26, 2005 at 1:50 pm

“Is it the terrorists?” a frightened child asks, because that is the scariest thing she knows. But what makes this thing scary is that it is something no one knows. It is beyond our knowledge, even beyond our imagination. Earth is under attack and no one knows by whom or what they want.

These are not the “let’s play musical notes together” aliens of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the Reese’s Pieces-loving, bicycle-flying botanist alien from E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. There’s no “Take me to your leader,” or Klaatu Barada Niktu. These aliens don’t even want to keep humans on as slave labor as in Battlefield Earth. They don’t want us to understand or negotiate with them. It does not seem to be about power or plunder. They just want to destroy us. As one character says, “This is not a war any more than there’s a war between men and maggots. It’s an extermination.”

Steven Spielberg knows two things better than anyone else who ever made a movie, and both are in top form here. First is his extraordinarily evocative sense of family life, the way every detail of home and connection (even, maybe especially the most frayed of connections) tell the story and make us care about it. A ribbon, a mirror, a boot, a box of family photographs, a Beach Boys song –- the juxtaposition of the ordinary with the unthinkable sustains a “golly” factor that grabs our throats and our hearts at the same time.

The special effects in the movie are dazzling. Just when we thought that we were so accustomed to the limitless wonders of CGI that we could never be stunned in a theater again, Spielberg just plain knocks our socks off. My husband counted eight spontaneous “Oh my Gods” coming from me during the movie. It isn’t just that it all looks real, seamlessly integrating the effects. It’s that what looks so real is so “Oh my God.”

The images are fresh and imaginative and yet perfectly believable, mixing the normal with the inconceivable, from the vast alien machines to the buckling of the earth and the apocalyptic landscapes. The most vivid images are when we see the trappings of everyday life transformed. In one moment of complete insanity, the bells at a railroad crossing start to clang, and the striped barriers come down as though it is a perfectly ordinary day and the commuter train is about to arrive on schedule. Everyone stops and takes a breath and then the train comes in, filled with flames.

Spielberg’s other great trick is his mastery of scale, and again, that use of context brings the story literally home. At least half of the “Oh my Gods” were responses to wow-style reveals of new threats, new invasions.

And Spielberg makes invasion into a theme, from the very beginning, when with stunning economy he sets the stage for all that is to come.

Our hero-to-be, Ray (Tom Cruise) arrives home late. His ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto), pregnant by her new husband, is standing there with a hand on her hip. The new husband is handsome, a little sleek-looking in a black turtleneck, but clearly so nice you can’t even bring yourself to hate him, though Ray has clearly tried. Even though the ex-wife is late, she decides to carry their daughter’s suitcase into Ray’s house. Ray is very uncomfortable as she opens his all-but-empty refrigerator and peeks into his messy bedroom. He feels invaded. His children seem alien. And yet, in one of the most understated but meaningful moments in the movie, a shared joke between Ray and Mary Ann shows us a glimpse of Ray’s asperity and resolve.

But all of that is under the surface. When we meet him, Ray has long been used to disappointing people. It is not clear which is worse, the sullen animosity of his son Robbie (Ray wears a Yankees baseball cap; Robbie pulls out one with a Red Sox logo) or the patient lack of expectations from his daughter, Rachel (Dakota Fanning). But when it becomes clear that something very, very bad is happening, Ray will do anything to keep his family safe. This will be his story more than it is the story of the battles. The movie is at heart, well, heart.

And Cruise does heart well. He and Fanning anchor the film with outstanding performances of conviction and charisma. Rachel’s protection of her “space” and Ray’s efforts to care for her memory and spirit all echo the invasion theme. The story moves well from the large scale destruction of a city to a small-scale intrusion into a shattered basement retreat occupied by three people. Throughout, the focus is on Spielberg’s favorite subject, the family as fortress. The government barely exists, the army is dedicated and honorable but overmatched.

And, as Ray points out, the humans are almost as dangerous as the aliens. Ray is not the only one who will do anything to keep his family alive and the ochlochratic chaos means that nowhere is safe.

The story is affecting, the action scenes are thrilling, the issues are resonant. Yet it is not ultimately as satisfying as less skillful movies like Independence Day. It may be wiser and it may have more artistic validity, but summer explosion movies call out for a more complete resolution than the Wells book allows. A valid but subtle point is lost, not for lack of respectful presentation, but perhaps because ot it.

Spoilers alert: Parents should know that this is an extremely tense and intense movie, with constant peril and violence. Many characters are killed. Many are neatly vaporized, but there are scenes with dead bodies, a brutal off-camera murder, a death by impalement, guns, grenades, lasers, and other weapons, and some grisly images. Characters use brief strong language. There are tense confrontations between family members. Some viewers will find the behavior of the humans more disturbing than that of the aliens.

Someone once said that the aliens in movies tell us more about what we are thinking about than about any likely real-life extraterrestrials. The UFO movies of the cold war era were, under this analysis, a reflection of our fears about communism and the atomic bomb — with the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day the Earth Stood Still as examples, contrasted with the more benign aliens of Spielberg’s other movies. What does this movie tell us about our current fears?

Families who see this movie should talk about how the story has changed since it was originally written by H.G. Wells more than 100 years ago. How was that era’s interest in the relatively recent scientific discoveries reflected in the book and how has the current version used modern concerns to connect to a contemporary audience? What do you think about the balance of the story between the action and the personal drama as Ray’s character has to become more responsible and
find a way to communicate with his children. How did both parts of the story help each other? In a situation like this, who do you help? Who do you accept help from?

Families who appreciate this film may enjoy listening to the legendary Orson Welles broadcast. This version of the book has the radio script as well. The text is also available online at Project Gutenberg. The new version has a small tribute to the George Pal movie. They will also enjoy Independence Day, one of the all-time best alien invasion movies, and they might get a kick out of Battlefield Earth, one of the worst, and Signs, one that has a bit of both.

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George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead

Posted on June 24, 2005 at 8:56 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Pervasive profanity, very strong expletives, abusive language including racial slur and mocking of a mentally challenged character
Alcohol/ Drugs: Barroom scenes of drinking and smoking, characters smuggle alcohol, implicit reference to smoking marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Full spectrum of zombie grotesqueries, lots of flesh eating and explicit gore, constant peril, pervasive violent and graphic deaths
Diversity Issues: Strong female, minority and undead characters, socio-economic friction
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

A groaning buffet table of cannibalistic carnage and cheesy dialogue, “Land of the Dead” unevenly masks its stale plot elements with campy winks and a dash of humor. The extreme carnivore’s ultimate popcorn genre, the zombie flick, is back in the trustworthy hands of legendary cult-movie director, George Romero, although some might not recognize his touch, cloaked as it is in a big fat budget. This movie is not for sensitive audiences of any age: as a litmus test, if you ever felt queasy hearing a friend describe a medical procedure, this movie is not for you.

Inured to the now-predictable threat of zombies, a city has walled itself off, protected on three sides by water and the fourth by electric fences. Hired scavengers led by Riley (Simon Baker) and Cholo (John Leguizamo) foray into surrounding towns in armored trucks to scavenge food and medical supplies while distracting the zombies with fireworks. Back in the city, all-powerful Mr. Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) runs the city as a three-class system with the “haves” shopping and amusing themselves in a central tower named “Fiddler’s Green” (wink), the “have-nots” providing services (wink-wink) and amusements to the “haves” and the security teams who protect the perimeter.

Riley and slow-talking burn-victim, Charlie (Robert Joy), observe a handful of zombies in one town who demonstrate some basic intelligence and communication, lead by “Big Daddy” (Eugene Clark). A confrontation between Cholo and Mr. Kaufman results in Fiddler’s Green being held hostage as these new, “thinking” zombies advance on the city. The last twenty minutes brings an explosion of gore, violence and frantic races by the living to escape an array of gruesome deaths. The penultimate scene is so hokey that getting eaten alive by the undead suddenly might not seem so bad, however, for the most part the movie feels exactly like a summer screamer should feel – mindless, gross and perversely fun.

Romero is the Godfather of zombie flicks, having made his name with the horror classic Night of the Living Dead (1968) and its more popular sequel Dawn of the Dead(1978). Clearly someone who appreciates scabs, scars, ingestion of body parts, and things that make others say “ewwwww”, Romero gleefully turns the camera to zombies tearing the flesh off bones or pawing through a corpse’s chest cavity to extract the juiciest organs. Parents should know that there is more butchery here –- of the walking undead and of the ill-used living—then in most abattoirs. Explicit depictions of human flesh being consumed make this inappropriate fare even for many mature viewers.

While the undead zombies are predictable in their behavior, the living exhibit all sorts of reprehensible behavior. Characters kill for financial and political gain. The most dependable and loyal character is mocked and called names, and those who cheat or lie die horrible deaths. There is a brief scene of two women kissing, of a barroom stripper topless, and of a character caged for the amusement of onlookers. Parents should be aware that there is frequent and strong profanity as well as several slurs on ethnicity and intelligence. Some characters drink and smoke.

Families who watch this film might want to discuss the political allusions to revolution as well as to several current events. How are the immoral punished and how are the people who keep their word rewarded? They might want to laugh together at all the nicknames people go by and what they would call themselves if they lived in a b-movie such as this one.

Families who enjoy this genre of movie might consider other Romero zombie flicks, keeping in mind that the special effects now look quite dated, or 28 Days Later, a grittier and more intelligent movie (with zombies who move very quickly). Similarly, they will want to check out Shaun of the Dead or Army of Darkness, both of which have a strong measure of humor caged for the amusement of onlookers. Both, of course, have intense and graphic violence and other mature material.

Many thanks to guest critic AME.

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Herbie: Fully Loaded

Posted on June 21, 2005 at 8:04 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some mild peril, including race car crashes and demolition derby, no one hurt badly
Diversity Issues: Strong female character
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

Lindsay Lohan tries for three for three with another remake of a Disney classic, following The Parent Trap and Freaky Friday with an updated version of The Love Bug, but this one doesn’t quite make it across the finish line.

Herbie (the VW bug who thinks he is a race car) is as cute as ever, and gives by far the most endearing and convincing performance in the film. But the rest of the story is formulaic and tired, with retro effects that are dull rather than nostalgic and a soundtrack of oldies as uninspired as a K-Tel “Hits of the 70’s” compilation.

This time, Herbie’s driver is Maggie (Lohan), who has just graduated from college (arriving at the ceremony via skateboard, cap and gown over tiny miniskirt). Before she goes to New York to start a job at ESPN, she goes home to visit her dad (Michael Keaton as Ray, Sr.) and brother (Breckin Meyer as Ray, Jr.), NASCAR racers whose poor performance has lost them sponsors. Maggie picks Herbie out of a junkyard — well, she may think so, but in reality, Herbie picks Maggie. The glove compartment pops open and there is a note inside, explaining that Herbie will help solve her problems. “Great,” she says, “A fortune cookie on wheels.”

And we’re off to the races, literally, as Herbie drives Maggie and her chldhood friend Kevin (Justin Long), who happens to be a mechanic, to an event featuring reigning NASCAR champ Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon). When Herbie beats Trip’s car in an impromptu street race, Maggie and Kevin decide to get him ready for the big time.

This is a special effects slapstick movie, and on that level it works pretty well and will amuse little kids. But whoever decided to give a “story by” credit should be sued for false advertising, as there is no story here whatsoever, just a tired formula sent around a tired track. Lohan and Keaton achieve sincerity, but without any sense of character or conviction. Long and Cheryl Hines (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) are wasted in parts that are nothing but filler in between races and pratfalls. But that’s better than the clutter from pointless cameos by NASCAR drivers who deliver lines with the stiffness of shirt cardboard. We love Herbie because he has a heart and soul. We don’t love this movie because it has no idea how to find either one.

Parents should know that the movie has some mild cartoon-style peril, including car crashes and a demolition derby, but no one is seriously hurt. There is a reference to a past crash that led to some injuries. There is a very sweet kiss and a mild reference to peeking when someone changes clothes. Characters use very mild (“swear to God”) and briefly crude language.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Ray had different views on letting his son and daughter race. How did Ray feel when he found out that Maggie lied. How did Herbie feel when Maggie talked about driving Trip’s car?

Families who enjoy this movie willl also enjoy the original Herbie movies and they might also enjoy some of the other stories about anthropomorphic automobiles, from Knight Rider to “My Mother the Car” and Stephen King’s very scary Christine.

Families who appreciate the race sequences will enjoy learning more about NASCAR and about women race car drivers like Danica Patrick and Shirley Muldowney, whose life was portrayed in Heart Like a Wheel. Teens and adults may enjoy reading Turn Signals are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles, which shows us how the way cars are designed is in part a reflection of our willingness to see them as having emotions.

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Posted on June 20, 2005 at 12:40 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Bloody nose, animal accidentally killed, barf humor
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

It’s called “Rebound,” but it’s more like “Retread.” This is right off the conveyer belt of underdog-team-of-kids-matched-with hot-headed-and-self-centered-coaches-used-to-sliding-by movies.

That means it is yet another in the endless series of movies about scrappy little sports teams made up of losers and klutzes who overcome a complete lack of talent in one quick montage to learn the meaning of teamwork and beat the meanies who think they’re all that.

Begin with the requisite arrogant guy who has forgotten his love of the game. That would be Martin Lawrence as Roy, a college basketball coach who sends a recorded pep talk to the team so that he can do a photo shoot while they’re at the game. He’s all about the endorsements and the high life and losing his temper at the refs. When he accidentally kills another team’s mascot, the college basketball association suspends him. He has to prove that he can behave himself, but no college team will take him.

Cue the losers and klutzes. Roy ends up in the literally minor leagues, back at the middle school he attended, coaching a team that has only one good player, a kid who conveniently has a beautiful single mother. They’ve never won a game. No one can remember the last time they scored. And that team on the way to the state championship is coached by an arrogant bully. Where could this be leading?

It’s not very good, but it’s relatively painless. There are a couple of genuinely funny moments. Megan Mullally of television’s “Will and Grace” brings her acid delivery and impeccable timing to the role of the principal. When she sees a nationally-known sports figure come into her office, she is sure she knows why he is there. “Community service?” she asks. “We get a lot of athletes in here that way.” Two girls provide a sort of Statler and Waldorf-style commentary on the team’s performance. Roy comes up with a sweet compliment and some better-than-average advice to his team and has a nice chemistry with the kids.

But the movie wastes too much time with silly diversions like an extra character added just to give Lawrence a chance to dress up and a useless detour about whether Roy will go back to coaching a college team. And even by the standards of this category, it overdoes the crude humor. It doesn’t just try to make barfing a source of humor and it doesn’t just do so repeatedly; it actually has the barfing character named “Ralph.”

Parents should know that the movie has some gross-out humor (barfing, crotch injuury) and brief strong language (“damn”). Some family members will be concerned about Roy’s rudeness and lack of consideration, even though the movie is clear that he is happier when he learns better behavior.

Families who see this movie should talk about what lessons each of the players learned from Roy and what lessons he learned from them. Why did he forget what was important to him about the game when he was coaching college students? Do you agree that teamwork beats out talent? Do you agree that “courage is just well-concealed fear?” Can you think of an example? They might want to talk about some of their own experiences with team sports.

Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy some of the underdog classics about kids’ teams, including The Sandlot, Air Bud, and The Bad News Bears (very strong language and some mature material), which is being remade with Billy Bob Thornton.

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