The Perfect Man

Posted on June 15, 2005 at 7:29 am

D
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional scenes, mild peril
Diversity Issues: Gay character with some "comic" stereotyping
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

The word “perfect” should not be used anywhere near this disappointing and downright icky would-be romantic comedy, in which a teenage girl creates a fake online boyfriend to cheer up her lonely mother.

Jeane (Heather Locklear) is a gifted baker and a loving parent but who is foolish about men. Every time one of the losers dumps her, she leaves town, taking her daughters with her, most recently settling in Brooklyn. Holly (Hillary Duff, looking raccoon-ish in much too much dark eyeliner and wearing pants that reveal much too much lower midriff) is tired of moving and can’t bear to see her mother in another bad relationship. When Jean begins to date a Styx-loving bread baker, Holly decides her mother needs a “perfect man,” even if she has to make one up.

It begins with an orchid and a note, but soon escalates to emails, instant messages, and a phone call. Holly gets guidance from her friend’s handsome Uncle Ben (Chris Noth). Jean begins to fall in love with a man who is perfect in every respect except for not actually existing.

Even by the suspended-disbelief standards of fluff like this film, the story quickly tips over into the uncomfortable category of severe dysfunction that is made even more unnerving because this behavior exists in a movie world that has no idea of the boundaries that are being violated.

It’s bad enough that Holly is continuously untruthful and manipulative. She violates her mother’s trust, taking advantage of her greatest vulnerability. She is careless and selfish. Her plots are portrayed as charming and well-intentioned, but they cause real damage to feelings and to property and she never accepts responsibility for what she has done.

And the ick factor keeps intruding. A boy who likes Holly (the likeable Ben Feldman as Adam) becomes a part of the plot when Holly makes him get on the phone with Jean. Instead of “breaking up” with her, as Holly told him to, he says to Jean what he would like to say to Holly. Gazing at a photo of Holly, he says lovey-dovey things to her mother. Ewww. Later, things are reversed and Jean sends instant messages to Adam, who thinks he is getting them from Holly. Ewwwwww.

There is something unsavory about the idea of a daughter romancing her mother by proxy. The script’s complete cluelessness about that key point creates its own boundary issues and it goes from charming to creepy very quickly. The creepiest thing about it is that it does not realize how creepy it is.

Locklear is, as always, a warm and inviting presence (though never persuasive as a woman who is desperate for a boyfriend), and Duff, as always, can deliver at most three different expressions — shy, wistful, and uncertain but determined. “Queer Eye’s” Carson Kressley is on hand for some warmed-over wisecracks delivered without any of his trademark tszujing. In fact, the movie, far from “perfect,” is an entirely tszuj-free zone.

Parents should know that while this movie does not have the usual triggers for an MPAA rating of higher than PG, it does have some behavior that will be of concern to some families, especially the complete lack of boundaries, Holly’s constant lying and manipulation (portrayed as light-hearted and well-intentioned, but causing real damage to emotions and property). There are some mild language issues — for example, Holly is referred to as a “skin virgin” because she has no tattoos or piercings. Holly wears skimpy and revealing clothing. A strength of the movie is the positive portrayal of a gay character, but it is undercut with some stereotyped humor.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Jean had such bad judgment about the men in her life. What would have been a better way for Holly to help her mother?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Duff’s other films, including The Lizzie Maguire Movie and and A Cinderella Story. They will also enjoy a WWII-era film called Dear Ruth, about a teenage girl who writes to a soldier, pretending to be her older sister, and Dear Frankie, about a mother who writes letters to her young son, pretending they come from his father. Families might also like to listen to some Styx classics. Look closely at the lead singer in the Styx tribute band in the movie, by the way. It is none other than real-life Styx-er Dennis DeYoung.

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Batman Begins

Posted on June 14, 2005 at 1:32 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and sometimes graphic violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

Every so often, it’s time to re-boot Batman.

Bob Kane created Batman in 1939. What made him different was that in an era of superheroes, he had no super-powers. All he had was a bat costume and a burning mission for revenge. Oh, and immeasurable wealth (which is a sort of superpower itself), and lots of very cool toys.

But Batman kept going through all of his iterations, including the campy 1960’s television series, brilliantly re-imagined by Frank Miller (who went on to do Sin City) as the Dark Knight, various animated series, and the Tim Burton Batman that deteriorated into the awful Joel Schumacher Batman and Robin. But what always mattered most was the villains. The Joker, whether played by Jack Nicholson or Cesar Romero; Catwoman, whether played by Eartha Kitt, Michelle Pfieffer, or (most memorably) Julie Newmar; the Riddler, as interpreted by Frank Gorshin or Jim Carrey — these are some of the most unforgettable bad guys any hero ever got to tangle with.

The new version has acquired all of the trendy enhancements of Batman’s post-modern re-imagining.

  • 1. Looming, steamy, urban landscapes, with stylish mixes of eras and genres.
  • 2. A far eastern master with an exotic mystical martial arts boot camp,
  • 3. Battles in a variety of settings, including the ever-popular urban mass transit train speeding out of control through the city (see Spider-Man 2).

So here we are with what has to be at least Batman version 8.0, directed by Christopher Nolan (Memento). It takes us back to the beginning, that moment when the young scion of the wealthy Wayne family saw his parents killed by a mugger and decided to devote his life to protecting his home city of Gotham from criminals.

Part of what makes Batman a compelling character is that he is damaged. The trauma of seeing his parents murdered has been handled differently by different artists and directors through the years. For some it led to a corrosive sense of guilt and loss. For others it led to uncontained fury. For some it was as much the source of his inspiration to fight crime as a passion for justice.

“Batman Begins” is beautifully designed, with a grittier, more traditionally noir-ish design than the last four films. This Gotham is not inspired by New York, but by Chicago, with glimpses of the Marina Towers and Wacker Drive, with bits and pieces from other places, including a block from a Hong Kong slum. Instead of looking like the love child of a Ferrarri and an Exocet missile, the Batmobile now looks like a tank designed by Frank Gehry — on Bizarro World. The bat costume has, thank goodness, been rescued from its last appearance, which looked like a Chippendales costume, and returns to its dark grandeur, especially when the cape is spread. We see how Bruce Wayne creates his identity and mission as Batman. He says that “as a symbol, I can be incorruptable; I can be everlasting.” There are moments when his Batman really makes us believe it.

The film’s elegaic pace sometimes feels grand and sweeping, but it also feels slow and indirect. The momentum of the storyline is uneven and the flashbacks intended to add context and texture are just disruptive. There are too many villains running around with the result that none of them are developed enough to be interesting or vivid or even especially scary. The comic book did a much better job of exploring the potential for some of these eccentric madmen. Some of the fight scenes are well staged, but the big finish is both too serious to be fun and too diffuse and uncontained to be genuinely gripping.

Christian Bale has the single most important qualification to play Batman — great lips. More important, he has the chops to play Bruce Wayne, and he gives a thoughtful, sensitive performance that shows us that it is Bruce Wayne who is the secret identity — Batman is who he really is. Morgan Freeman as a scientist and Michael Caine as the indispensible family retainer Alfred are as warm and solid as aged wood beams — and as much of a support. But some of the best acting is done by the swarms of CGI bats swirling around the confrontations. They contribute more to the film than Tom Wilkenson, Cillian Murphy, and Gary Oldman (all with American accents) and Rutger Hauer, who don’t have enough to do to be more than distractions. It’s all too toned down. Batman needs bad guys who are real, over-the-top nut jobs. Leave the more cool and cruel bad guy types to James Bond.

Parents should know that the movie has a dark and disturbing tone and a lot of peril and violence, including a child who sees his parents shot to death and is haunted by it. There is brief strong language. Characters drink and one appears tipsy.

Families who see this movie should talk about what Bruce has to say about fear and compassion, and about the survivor guilt he felt over his parents’ death. They may also want to talk about how the portrayals of Batman have changed over the years and what that tells us about how our culture and priorities have changed.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy reading the original comic book, the Dark Knight, and watching Tim Burton’s Batman with Michael Keaton, and Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever with Jim Carrey as the Riddler. They will also enjoy the underrated Empire of the Sun, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring then 12-year-old Christian Bale. For more information about the use of Chicago as the inspiration for Gotham City, see this site.

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High Tension

Posted on June 13, 2005 at 7:31 pm

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language in French and English
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character drinks heavily, references to hangovers, cigarette smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Slasher-movie violence including dismemberment, extremely bloody deaths, child chased and shot, constant peril
Diversity Issues: Strong females, negative portrayal of gay character
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

This French gore-fest is two-thirds ripe and one-third rot, resulting in an initially promising but ultimately disappointing horror movie that is not for sensitive or discerning audiences of any age. Dripping with tension both violent and sexual, “High Tension” (“Haute Tension” in the original) strains to trick the horror trap of predictability and, by severing all pretext of consistency, instead lands with a thud when audience disbelief can be suspended no more.

The majority of the movie is solid classic horror. Two attractive young law students, Alexia or “Alex” (Maïwenn Le Besco) and Marie (Cécile De France), head out to the countryside where Alex’s family lives amid the corn fields. The two young women banter about their upcoming exams, the parties they frequent, how Alex sleeps around, and how Marie never seems to meet the right guy. These light scenes are interlaced with ones of impending menace; a beaten-up van parked in corn fields where a bloody-fingered man appears to receive a sexual favor from what turns out to be a dismembered head.

By the time Alex and Marie reach the farmhouse, it is dark and there is just enough time for Alex’s mother, father, and young brother to meet Marie before retiring to bed. When the lights go out only Marie, awake in her attic guest room, hears the van pull up outside and sees the bloody-fingered man force his way into the house. Marie witnesses the ensuing, extremely explicit deaths of Alex’s family –- mother, father, brother and pet — while hiding from “le teuer” (the Killer), and she sees Alex, chained and gagged, taken out to the van for further attention. Stowing away in the back of the van with Alex, Marie tries to find ways to save Alex, as the Killer drives toward his mysterious destination.

The ultimate rescue, however, comes when the credits roll and the lights come up. That is when the audience can try to fit the scenes of the movie together in a way that makes some sense of the last thirty minutes. “High Tension” could be a memorably good horror movie but it strives to be something even better than that and, in throwing everything behind an unworkable ending, comes up short at just mediocre. The trick of the movie is not a perfectly packaged albeit predictable Hollywood twist, but instead it is a heavy-handed tire-iron blow to the head, one that ultimately leaves only blood and bewilderment.

Parents should know that this is an extremely scary movie with constant peril and the violent deaths of almost all on-screen characters. A family is slaughtered and even teens who are fans of the horror genre might be disturbed by the nonchalant violence. Parents should know that a little boy is chased and shot, kindness is rewarded by violence, terrible acts are committed in the name of love, and the deaths are explicit and bloody. Characters swear, smoke, drink, masturbate and refer to casual sex. There is a brief shower scene of frontal nudity. A gay character is portrayed as dangerously obsessed.

Families who see this movie might talk about the character of Marie and her dual role as observer and attempted rescuer. They might discuss how “love” is treated in this movie as a motivator and whether the Killer’s callousness is a mask for stronger emotions. Most likely, though, they will ask each other “but…?” and if they figure out how to make the last thirty minutes make sense, then hearty congratulations from this movie-goer.

Families who like scary, French movies might like “Crimson Rivers” (detective story with Jean Reno) or “Malfique” (prison movie whether the Killer’s callousness is a mask for stronger emotions. Most likely, though, they will ask each other “but…?” and if they figure out how to make the last thirty minutes make sense, then hearty congratulations from this movie-goer.

Families who like scary, French movies might like Crimson Rivers (detective story with Jean Reno) or Malfique (prison movie with supernatural themes).

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Rize

Posted on June 12, 2005 at 8:11 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to drugs and drinking
Violence/ Scariness: References to gang violence, murders, other crimes
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

In West Side Story, Anita says that the boys dance like they’re trying to get rid of something. There is no trick photography in this film. It begins by advising the audience that the movie has not been sped up in any way. The people in the movie really do dance as fast as it appears on screen.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Freestyle, a documentary about extemporaneous rap, and OT: Our Town, a documentary about a high school production of Our Town in a Compton high school that has not put on a play in 20 years.

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Bewitched

Posted on June 11, 2005 at 6:04 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic, cartoon-style pratfall violence, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

This update of the 1960’s television series that is still running on TV Land is as cute as the magical twitch of Samantha Stephens’ nose. Director and co-writer (with her sister Delia) Nora Ephron have given us more than the usual retro-infused with a wink of irony-style updates of the television shows loved by the kids of the 1970’s who are now working in Hollywood like Starsky and Hutch and Charlie’s Angels. The Ephrons have given it a bit of a meta-tilt. The television series about a witch who marries a mortal has been turned into a movie about an update of the beloved series, starring a has-been movie star (Will Ferrell) and a newcomer who has never acted before but who happens to be, in real life…a witch.

Isabel (Nicole Kidman) doesn’t know very much about what it means to be “normal,” but she knows she wants to try it. She wants to debate the color of the walls and make popcorn in the microwave. “I want to have days when my hair is affected by the weather!”

Over the objections of her father (Michael Caine), she moves into a suburban house, buys some groceries, and settles in, dreaming of finding someone who will need her.

So, of course she runs into the neediest guy alive, Jack Wyatt (Ferrell), a movie star whose combination of professional and personal disasters has left him professionally and personally vulnerable to the point of complete desperation. He agrees to be in an updated television series based on the classic “Bewitched,” as long as this time it is his role — Darren the mortal husband — who has the lead. For that reason, the part of Samantha the witch must go to an unknown.

At first, Isabel is delighted to go along with this plan. Her unfamiliarity with the human world leads her to accept whatever people say without looking for attempts to mislead her — intentional or not. Things get complicated, and like the character Isabel plays, she finds herself unable to resist using her powers.

There are some sharp and clever takes on the differences between the sexes (especially the interest of older men in younger women) and on the similarities between being a witch and being a star — in both cases, “you snap your fingers and pretty much anything you want happens.” There are even sharper takes on the similarities between being a witch and just being a woman. Jack finds out that the most powerful “hex” isn’t when Isabel twitches her nose but when she puts her foot down.

Kidman makes Isabel’s innocence fresh and beguiling as nose-tickling champagne bubbles. Ferrell’s reliable cluelessness works well for his spoiled baby of a movie star: “Make 20 cappucinos and bring me the best one!” he bellows. Fans of the series will appreciate the tweaks and salutes of the original (which still looks pretty good in clips from the first episode, even in black and white). Just like the original Samantha, Isabel and Jack learn that real magic is no match for falling in love.

Parents should know that this movie has some mild language and sexual references and a non-explicit sexual situation. There is some social drinking and some comic, pratfall-style violence.

Families who see this movie should talk about why someone with the kind of powers Isabel had would want to be “normal.” Why was it important to her to be needed? When you have a problem, how do you decide whether to “put up with it, quit, or just get mad?”

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the original Bewitched television series. As shown in this movie, the first season was filmed in black and white, so avoid the colorized DVD and stick with the authentic version.

Fans of the series will also enjoy this book about the show, with a foreward by series director (and former husband of Elizabeth Montgomery) William Asher. Where the Girls Are is a fascinating book about the movies and television of the Bewitched era, with a thoughtful assessment of the difference between the powers of Samantha Stevens and Jeannie, both, according to the author, responses to some of the cultural controversy over the changes in expectations and opportunities for women.

Families will also enjoy movies with similar themes, including the classics I Married a Witch and Bell, Book, and Candle. And they will enjoy the movies written by the screenwriter parents of Nora and Delia Ephron, especially Desk Set.

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