Fantastic Four

Posted on July 23, 2005 at 11:00 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Action violence and peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

There are four of them, and they are fantastic. Idealistic scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) has a reach that exceeds his grasp. Beautiful and brilliant Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) loves him but feels that he doesn’t really see her. Her hotheaded daredevil brother Johnny has impulse control issues. And their friend Ben (Michael Chiklis) is the rock they rely on. When they get hit by cosmic rays, their DNA is changed and they develop superpowers. Reed becomes elastic, Sue becomes invisible (and can create invisible force fields), Johnny turns to flame and can propel himself through the air. And Ben turns into solid rock, strong enough to throw an SUV.

All of this takes up most of the movie, and then there is something about a bad guy near the end.

When people decide to make a movie about comic book heroes, they need to remember that origin stories get published after the characters and their powers and adventures are already well established. We know it all too well — exposure to cosmic rays, confusion and then exhilaration on the part of the supes, suspicion and then vindication on the part of the community and the cover of People. What should have taken up only a portion of the credit sequence gets dragged out so long that the big confrontation plays like an afterthought.

That aside, however, the movie is an entertaining summer popcorn flick. And one benefit of taking its time to get going is that it spends some of its special effects budget on scenes that are less violent than the usual superhero fare. This movie is about the relationship between the four main characters; the villain is all but incidental.

The best fight scene in the movie is between Reed and Ben. And some of the best special effects are the small ones as Johnny tries out his new powers, snapping his fingers like a cigarette lighter or casually making a pan of Jiffy Pop without using a stove.

The Fantastic Four were a transition between the cardboard-y good guys and the post-modern, noir-ish heroes. They didn’t have secret identities or sidekicks. They were unpretentious and nerdy and they bickered with each other and had to cope with life in the city. All of that is not as surprising as it was in 1961, when the FF first appeared. But it still gives the film a loose, engaging quality that keeps things buoyant in between action sequences. And those sequences are well-staged and exciting (aside from a completely unnecessary and distracting X-treme skateboard scene) without being too terrifying or gratuitously destructive. If it is not exactly fantastic, the movie is a lot of fun.

Parents should know that the movie has a great deal of peril and comic book-style action violence. In most cases, no one is hurt, but some characters are injured or killed. Characters use some strong language (including “Oh, Jesus!”) and there are some mild sexual references including implied (non-sexual) nudity and a bit of crude humor.

Families who see this movie should talk about what kinds of superpowers they would most like to have and what they would do if they had them.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the comic books and the animated series as well as other comic book adaptations like Spider-Man and X-Men and their sequels. Hard-core FF fans will want to track down the legendary first movie version of the story, which was made quickly and cheaply in 1994 just to maintain the rights to the characters and was never intended for release. And they may be amused at reading about the 2002 disclosure that, as long suspected, Ben Grimm (the Thing) is Jewish.

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Bad News Bears

Posted on July 23, 2005 at 7:47 am

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Extremely crude, vulgar, and profane language for a PG-13
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character abuses alcohol and smokes
Violence/ Scariness: Mild comic peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, but some stereotyping
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

Here is a list of reasons to remake The Bad News Bears:

1.

2.

3.

And here is a list of reasons not to:

1. It’s been done. And re-done. And re-re-done. The original 1976 movie sparked a perennial series of movies about scrappy little sports teams made up of losers and klutzes who somehow, in the space of one quick montage or two, develop skills, understand the importance of teamwork, find some respect for themselves and each other, and provide redepmption — and often romance — for their previous cynical and/or burned-out and self-centered coach. In the last few weeks alone, Kicking & Screaming and Rebound have tried to apply the formula to soccer and basketball.

2. Times have changed. When the original was released almost 30 years ago, less than a decade after the institution of the Motion Picture Association’s rating system, it was still a shock to hear crude, vulgar, and profane language spoken to and by children. In 1976, the idea was so outrageous it was impossible to take it seriously and there was some appeal in the frank unpretentiousness, even subversiveness it brought to a post Ball Four-world just getting used to the idea of athletes being less than idealized all-American heroes. Since then, we are used to, even exhausted by the no-illusions bad behavior by athletes. And, in part because of the success of the original movie, we are used to, even bored by the idea of kids using bad language.

3. The original wasn’t that great to begin with, and whatever appeal it had has diminished over time. Take away the gimmick of the bad language, and there’s not much left in the original version or the remake. The script’s idea of updating is to change the sponsorship of the kids’ team from “Chico’s Bail Bonds” to “Bo-Peep’s Gentlemen’s Club.” This provides an excuse for frequent reaction shots of the Bo-Peep girls cheering in the stands.

4. Most important of all — it may have been possible to make a worthwhile remake of The Bad News Bears, but this is not it.

This is a one-joke movie, and the joke is not a good one. The 2005 edition is, it must be said, Bad News.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Morris Buttermaker, a washed-up baseball player (his career in the major leagues lasted less than one inning) turned exterminator who is hired to coach a baseball team made up of 12-year-olds that is only in the league because of a lawsuit. Buttermaker is there for the paycheck.

The kids are obnoxious and hopeless. So is the coach. They get so badly creamed in the first part of their first game that they forfeit. But then, inspired in part by the arrogance of the championship team’s coach (Greg Kinnear), Buttermaker decides to do some actual coaching. The kids improve. And when Buttermaker seeks out the daughter he has not seen in three years to get her to join the team as a pitcher and gets her to entice onto the team a juvenile delinquent-type with an attitude problem who can throw and hit, the team starts to score, then win. And guess whose team they play in the season’s last big game?

There was a 10-year-old sitting in front of me who laughed uproariously every time someone in the movie used the s-word. He laughed a lot. Most of the movie is the same thing over and over — either Buttermaker or the kids saying something completely obnoxious and inappropriate. It doesn’t work any better the 99th time than it does the first.

Furthermore, for anyone who cares about these things, Buttermaker’s decision-making and redemption seem completely arbitrary. I’m not saying we need an “aha!” moment with a light bulb going on over his head, but there should be some sort of narrative basis for character development, even in a slob comedy.

Director Richard Linklater, who handled the same theme superbly in School of Rock, does not have the benefit of a terrific script this time. The characters are not involving or believable.

The movie’s one asset is the always-underappreciated Billy Bob Thornton, whose understated delivery and impeccable timing give the flimsiest of dialogue some snap and verve. He has the kids come with him on an exterminating job and when two of them start to spray each other with the lethal chemicals, he tells them to stop. You just have to hear how he then says, “That stuff’s expensive” to understand what it means to be a movie star. Someday someone will give him a part in a much better movie and that will be very, very good news indeed.

Parents should know that this is one of those movies that drives a truck through the loopholes of the MPAA rating system. Most will find it unsuitable for chldren. It features constant crude, vulgar, profane, insulting, racist, sexist, homophobic, and otherwise imappropriate language used by and to children, but because it does not include the limited “automatic-R” words, it gets a PG-13 rating. It has jokes about cancer, child abuse, casual sex (a t-shirt reads, “She looked good last night,” a visit with the children to Hooters), and disabilities. A coach insults his players and they insult eadch other (though it omits the most famous quote from the original movie, with a highly un-PC description of the team). Fathers speak abusively to their children. The coach is unrepentent (most of the time) and irresponsible. He drinks constantly (including drinking and driving). He smokes, lies (and tells a child to lie), and has what appears to be a one-night stand with the mother of one of his players. A strength of the movie is its portrayal diverse characters, including a disabled kid who is tough and resilient.

Families who see this movie should talk about Buttermaker’s comment that once you quit, it makes it easier to keep quitting. What is a “moral victory” and was this a good example?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the original The Bad News Bears as well as some of the movies it inspired, including The Mighty Ducks and Sandlot.

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Wedding Crashers

Posted on July 18, 2005 at 9:30 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Frequent, extremely strong profanity, blaspheme, explicit references to sexual acts, and name-calling which includes derogatory epithets for homosexuals, Italians and others
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking but also drinking to excess and prescription drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Social embarrassment, character is shot in the rear with buckshot, several fist fights, a book about suicide, character is given extremely strong medication to induce nausea
Diversity Issues: Strong female characters, background scenes include diverse religious and ethnic characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

A bawdy summer comedy for adults and mature teens, this movie features rapid-fire dialogue and sincere affection between best-friend leads and strong chemistry between the actors who portray them, thereby elevating what could have been a brainless ode to never growing up into a very funny, genuinely warm-hearted, but uneven and morally ambiguous movie.

John (Owen Wilson) is an optimistic womanizer with a romantic side as big and confused as his monologues about love, while Jeremy (Vince Vaughn) cloaks his insecurities in a brash, party-boy exterior. At work, the two are mediators for couples heading for divorce, but their real passion is crashing weddings. They tell themselves they do it to pick up vulnerable women who are drunk on the promise of true love and the longing for a wedding of their own. They never acknowledge to themselves or each other that a large part of appeal is the way weddings give them a sense of being part of something — of their own connection (they seem to be all the family each other has) and at least pretending to be a part of the families whose happiest moments they are sharing.

We first see John and Jeremey mediating a divorce settlement between snarling soon-to-be exes Dwight Yoakam and Rebecca De Mornay. The duo soothe a dispute over the division of the frequent flier miles by explaining that “the real enemy here is the institution of marriage.” Then we hear a rapid-fire monologue by Jeremy about the horrors of dating, and we speed right into the weddings. A brilliantly edited montage shows John and Jeremy as the ultimate guests, with a name and a backstory for every situation and ethnic group. They know wedding cliches better than a clergyman, placing bets with each other on whether the Bible reading will be Corinthians or Galatians and whether the bride will be a crier.

They take advantage of the fact that no one knows everyone at a big wedding. And they don’t hide out in corners; they are the life of the party. The crashers dance with flower-girls and grandmothers, they propose meaningful toasts about soul-mates and guide the new couple through the cake-cutting, they entertain children with magic tricks and balloon animals, and they make everyone around them feel good about themselves.

That these steps serve to get bridesmaids and other available women in bed with them at the end of the night is treated as a footnote to their antics, since the two are clearly as high on the nuptial endorphins as their female counterparts.

John and Jeremy meet their match, however, when they encounter the Cleary sisters at the “Kentucky Derby of weddings”, a high-society affair with well-connected and wealthy society doyens watching their impeccably groomed off-spring sipping champagne and chatting about sailing and summer homes as they stroll on impeccably groomed lawns.

Jeremy goes after Gloria Cleary (Isla Fisher), a perky bridesmaid turned “stage 5 clinger” who turns out to have a vibe somewhere on the brink between scary stalker and intriguingly kinky. This leaves Jeremy on the brink between terrified and mesmerized.

John is drawn to Claire Cleary (Rachel McAdams), who has a dazzling smile and an ambivalence similar to his own when it comes to weddings, love, and family. They connect, she reveals she has a fiancé (an arrogant preppy destined for a downfall). John chases her, he is revealed, he pines, he makes a last attempt to demonstrate his love.

Cleary parents (Christopher Walken and Jane Seymour) are caricatures, both humorous but with few surprises, except perhaps Treasury Secretary Cleary’s inexplicable switch from upper-class snob to loving father. Certainly Mrs. Cleary’s substance abuse and Mrs. Robinson-style come-on are neither surprising or amusing.

And the laughs seem harsher and the movie’s tone more sour in scenes featuring Cleary brother, Todd (Keir O’Donnell), who is a rejected artist desperate for his father’s approval and portrayed for laughs as a predatory homosexual. Mean-mouthed Grandma Mary (Ellen Albertini Dow) spouts invective including derogatory terms to the embarrassment of family. The attempts at mining comedy from homophobia and outrageous comments made by the elderly are the film’s weakest moments.

Immature “innovator” Chazz (Will Ferrell -– who else? -— in a spot-on cameo), Jeremy’s guru for the wedding-crasher ethos, serves as the terrifying ghost-of-the-future for John as he introduces him to “funeral crashing”, a morbid twist on using those events’ heightened emotions for his own interests.

It comes as no surprise that everyone turns out just fine although they all have scenes of humor and humiliation along the way. Vaughn is the movie’s comic center and his wild, improvisational, always off-center riffs are bracingly funny. The repartee between John and Jeremy is zingy and quick, and some scenes were completely inaudible due to audience laughter. McAdams is spirited and lovely and Fisher makes borderline stalkerism funny and appealing. And director David Dobkin (who also directed Wilson in Shanghai Knights and Vaughn in the under-appreciated Clay Pidgeons) has a sure sense of pacing and an expert sense of what is funny.

While the cast are clearly enjoying themselves and the banter is funny, this party is not for all audiences and many will find that the movie’s answers -– that the ends can justify the means, that no wingman can go too far, and that lying and manipulation can be fun for the whole family — are a regrettable hang-over.

Parents should know that this movie is very raunchy. While starring cast members and humor similar to Dodgeball, Old School, and Anchorman, the whole premise of this film puts it in another category. The primary goal of the two main characters is to have as much meaningless sex as possible and to achieve this through lies and manipulation. It is hardly redeemed by an ending that half-heartedly comes down on the side of love, telling the truth (sometimes), and (sort of) monogamous relationships. Scenes include a series of women flopping topless onto bed, women initiating American Pie styled attack sex, public sex-acts, and references to cheating, phone-sex, lap dances, and ménage-a-trois, and a non-sexual same-sex kiss. The language in this movie is very strong and explicit and includes harsh terms for gays, Italians and other groups. A character slips a rival a nausea-inducing drug (supposedly comic), a parent drinks heavily and refers to prescription medication, a character drinks to feel better, people drink to celebrate and to forget. A child makes a joke about marijuana. Fist fights are unfair and painful and a character is shot in the rump, which is played for laughs. Some of the humor borders on homophobia and the gay character is very creepy.

Parents might want to talk with teenagers who see this film about how sex is portrayed as a casual amusement, while love is still held out as the ultimate goal. As the sexiest scene in the movie is actually a fairly chaste kiss, families might want to talk about how the relationships portrayed are often deeper for not having sex involved. While they love and support one another, John and Jeremy fight when one becomes more seriously involved in a relationship. Why is this breaking the rules? Why is the other so emotionally hurt? Finally, the depiction of the Cleary family portrays a fractured but supportive group. How do they show love and support and how do they hurt one another?

Families that enjoy this movie might wish to see Dodgeball, American Pie 3: An American Wedding, Old School, or the previous generation of mature-content comedies such as Animal House or Caddyshack.

Thanks to guest critic AME.

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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Posted on July 18, 2005 at 9:13 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: Name calling, inaudible ranting, and a comment about nuts
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to over-eating, addiction to candy and television
Violence/ Scariness: Wild boat/elevator rides, creative punishments for bad behavior look to be fatal but are not, character runs away from home
Diversity Issues: Characters from different countries, economic backgrounds
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

Like a bowl of peanut butter-pretzel, chocolate ice-cream with a marshmallow swirl, this “Charlie” is a delicious confection that is gluttony for the senses and has novel twists placed in a familiar favorite. True to form, director Tim Burton has scooped a rich treat that is a feast for the eye but might be too much for some sensitive viewers.

Young Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore, who co-starred with Johnny Depp in Finding Neverland) is as poor as a church mouse and gentle as a lamb, a stark contrast to the other children in the movie who are beasts of very different natures. He lives with his parents (Noah Taylor and Helena Bonham Carter, stretching credibility with her upper-crust accent) and four bed-ridden grandparents eating cabbage soup in a crooked little house, where he can watch the snow fall through a hole in the roof. He loves his annual birthday chocolate bar and hearing Grandpa Joe (David Kelly, the scene-stealing co-star of Waking Ned Devine) tell stories about working for reclusive chocolate maker, Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp), in by-gone days.

When a special lottery is announced and Willy Wonka proclaims that five lucky children will be allowed into his factory, Charlie longs to find one of the five golden tickets. What results is pure fairy tale and closer to Roald Dahl’s original book, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” then to the 1971 movie version, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, that starred Gene Wilder. The factory is everything a child -– and most adults — would wonder to see, with fabulous confections, curious people, and imaginative rooms behind every door. While Charlie and Grandpa Joe see delights of all kinds, they do not fall prey to their own weaknesses the way the four other children do with such memorable results. Johnny Depp plays Willy with a quirky, almost prissy tone, a lonely child in an adult’s body, who reveals in flash-back his own uneasy youth and his estrangement from his dentist father.

With Danny Elfman’s music, Roald Dahl’s text, and Tim Burton’s eye for scenery, this visual and musical feast will appeal to viewers who enjoy odd and, at times, biting humor. The movie’s stylish tone, relevant message, fabulous sets and imaginative story make it worth a bite.

Parents should know that, as in the original book, this movie has an atmosphere that might unnerve sensitive audiences, indeed a five-year-old child at this screening left crying after the candy boat ride down the chocolate rapids. There are some brief disturbing images, including burning, melting dolls, an attack by and nut-sorting squirrels, comic but sometimes grisly injuries, and a grotesque dental appliance. Depp’s portrayal teeters into creepiness. But the really creepy people in this movie are the children in who fall to their weaknesses (loosely speaking: gluttony, avarice, pride, and sloth) and are punished for not heeding warnings. The punishments appear dangerous, even fatal, but are not –- in all cases, the punishments are leveled as much at the parents who allow these characteristics as much as at the children. Characters are on a rough boat ride, on a magical elevator, play violent video games. They disobey parents, and name-call in a quirky but honest way. Characters who behave well are rewarded.

Families who see this movie might wish to discuss the differences between the five children who win the golden tickets and how the “lessons” -– sung by the Oompa Loompas (all played with panache by Deep Roy) —- have stayed relevant over the years since Roald Dahl first penned them in 1964. They might wish to discuss how the lessons highlight not just the child’s behavior but that of the parent. Which characters do you admire? What traits to you see you in yourself?

Families that like this movie should read some of Roald Dahl’s books, including “Mathilda”, “The Witches”, “James and the Giant Peach” and, of course, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”.

All of the aforementioned have been made into enjoyable movies, including Tim Burton’s animated version of James and the Giant Peach. Parents might want to share the original Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) with their children.

Thanks to guest critic AME for this review.

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