Get Rich or Die Tryin’

Posted on November 8, 2005 at 11:00 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Extremely strong language, including n-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters use and deal in drugs, drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: A lot of violence, including fights, stabbing, shooting, reference to rape, many characters injured and killed, reference to suicide
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

It begins with a burst of energy and charisma as Marcus (rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) and his friends break into a store so they can rob it. They don’t break in so much as explode in. Director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In America) creates an electric sense of high testosterone and tension. And then Marcus looks over at the terrified child of the store proprietors and gives him a reassuring wink.

But it’s downhill from there. Like 8 Mile, the film starring 50 Cent’s mentor, Eminem, this film has a top-level screenwriter and director adapting his life story. But it is not as successful, because, despite his unquestionable charisma and buff torso, 50 Cent is not an actor. He has attitude. But he only has one attitude. He might as well be botoxed (or still have his jaw wired shut from the bullet wound); whether he is supposed to convey sorrow, regret, fear, love, anger, or ambition, it’s all just the one facial expression.

The story isn’t much more gripping than the performance. We’ve seen it before, not just in gangtsa movies, but before that in gangster movies, Westerns, and just about any other “how I triumphed over all my obstacles” story. It’s a little bit 8 Mile (young man from poverty dreams of rapping), a little bit Goodfellas (rise and fall of a gangster), and a little bit Oliver Twist (the only father figures a poor boy can find are the local bad guys who show him attention just so they can use him).

Marcus/50 Cent never knew his father and his mother, a drug dealer, died when he was 8. He went from being the well-loved son of a mother who was not around much but showed her love by buying him “the best of everything” to being one of a large, scruffy bunch fighting for space, food, and the good pair of shoes at his grandparents’ apartment. After he gets kicked out of a bed shared by several people, his grandfather sets up a cot next to the washing machine, asking the child, “You gonna be all right here for a few years?”

So it wasn’t long before Marcus went into “the family business,” selling drugs on a street corner to buy the two things he most wanted — a fancy pair of sneakers and a gun. The message all around him is that the only thing that matters is “respect,” and the only jobs that get any respect — the only occupations with any authenticity — are gangster and rapper. Best of all is both. “After Tupac, everyone wanted to be a gangsta rapper.”

Marcus knows that on an hourly basis he is making less than minimum wage, and that the job he has taken will inevitably get him shot, put in jail, or both. But “respect is the most important thing in life” and living the thug life gets him the only kind of respect that he, well, respects. He says, “My mama didn’t raise no second-class n—–; I’m a gangsta, Grandpa, and proud of it.” He never thinks about the effect of what he is doing on his own life, the lives of the people who care about him, or his community. He wants is to run with the big dogs (he tells the kingpin, “You’re like a god to me”). And he wants to find his father, and kill the man who killed his mother, even if they might be the same person.

There are some very strong moments and some very impressive performances, especially Terrence Howard, this year’s breakout star, with another incendiary appearance. Howard conveys more with the angle of his hat or the way he exhales cigarette smoke than 50 Cent does in his most dramatic moments. The always-impressive Viola Davis is fine as the grandmother who has seen too many people she loves get shot. Joy Bryant lends some grace to the thankless role of “fantasy girlfriend,” ever loving and true-hearted, despite the fact that her boyfriend provides almost no financial or emotional support and puts not just himself but also her and her baby at risk.

Director Sheridan has a good feel for place and there are some vivid images, especially a brutal fight in a prison shower, followed by a conversation between men who happen to be lying down, cuffed, and naked. But the story is predictable (especially since it is told in flashback after Marcus is shot and we all know he survives and becomes a star). At crucial moments, it falls back into formula or, worse, a winking self-referential love letter to 50. One nemesis is a rapper named Dangerous (Michael Miller), supposed to be based on 50’s feud with Ja Rule. But 50 is more interested in dissing Ja Rule by portraying “Dangerous” as a wimpy wannabe who looks like a woeful fetus than he is by creating an arresting dynamic between the two characters. It’s not the predictability of the movie that is the problem; it is the emptiness. 50 Cent doesn’t want to rap because he has something to say (like Eminem). He just wants to rap because it’s cool. We never get a sense of his learning, growing, or giving back. 50 Cent fans would be better off with a concert film. But at least he makes his priorities clear; it’s not called “Make a Good Movie or Die Tryin’.”

Parents should know that this movie has a great deal of very intense adult material that makes it unsuitable for younger audiences or sensitive audience members of any age. Characters use extremely strong language, including the n-word. There is a great deal of peril and graphic violence, including shooting, stabbing, and punching and references to rape and suicide. Many characters are hurt and some are murdered. Most of the characters are drug dealers and many are drug users. There are sexual references and situations and sexual and non-sexual nudity, including a fight in a prison shower that includes frontal male nudity.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Marcus felt his best option for getting what he wanted was to become a “gangster,” even though he knew that on an hourly basis he was making less than minimum wage. What do you think about the priority the characters in this movie put on “respect?” How did they define what respect meant to them? Why did they believe that “love will get you killed?” Families should also talk about how much the drug business in this movie resembles any other business or, indeed, any other organization, with (literal and metaphorical) turf battles, communication issues, leadership, motivation, and vision concerns, succession planning concerns, and even research and development of new products.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy New Jack City, Boyz N the Hood, and 8 Mile. They willl also appreciate the outstanding documentary, Tupac: Resurrection.

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Zathura

Posted on November 4, 2005 at 1:39 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: Very crude language for a PG
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Constant action-style violence and peril, no one hurt except for some aliens
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

There’s a lot to look at in this movie, but unpleasant characters keep getting in the way. And I don’t mean the bad guys.

In this follow-on to Jumanji, like this movie, based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg, children once again come upon an old board game that turns out to be real. So when Danny (Jonah Bobo) draws a card that says, “Meteor Shower: Take Evasive Action,” and asks his big brother Walter (Josh Hutcherson) what it says, a tiny but very real meteor burns through the card before Walter can finish reading it aloud. And then things really get out of hand — and out of this world. When they open up the front door, they are in outer space.

The only way to get back home is to keep playing until someone wins. And that means picking card after card to move around the board. An astronaut (Dax Shepard) needs to be rescued. A robot needs to be reprogrammed. And there’s an attack from alien lizards called Zorgons who like to burn things and eat people.

Through all this, Danny and Walter (and, near the end, their sulky teenage sister Lisa) need to find a way to get over their sibling animosity and develop some mutual respect and teamwork.

The good news is that this movie avoids some of the mistakes of Jumanji. It doesn’t waste our time with a distracting backstory or superfluous Big Star. This is all about the visuals and special effects, and they are superb. The game itself has an engagingly authentic retro feel and the special effects serve the action without being overly intrusive.

I wish I could say the same for the kids, who are dismally unappealing. If you’re going to have the plot center on sniping siblings who need to learn how much they really care about each other, there has to be some spark of heart from the beginning. They have to show us that they behave that way because they are hurting, that they are not just brats. No luck here. Director Jon Favreau did well with Elf because he was directing pros like Will Ferrell and James Caan. He shows no skill whatsoever with the children; he barely seems interested in them as more than props. The robot gives a more believable performance. Favreau allows the kids to use unforgiveably crude and downright mean language and their older sister to come across as unforgiveably skanky for a movie directed at children. That gives it an unsavory tone that further undermines the cozy conclusion. It doesn’t feel heartwarming; it feels more mechanical than the Zorgon spaceship.

Parents should know that this movie continues the MPAA’s disturbing trend of allowing very crude langauge in PG movies. One child calls another a “dick” (though gets a quick reprimand for it). Another uses the word “bi-atch.” And (spoiler alert) there is a really ewww-ish moment as a character has brief romantic feelings toward someone who turns out to be a relative. Of more concern is the overall behavior of the siblings in this movie. They are consistently unkind to each other and generally bratty in a way that goes far beyond anything that can be redeemed with the brief reconcilliation at the end. Parents should also know that there is a great deal of action-style peril and violence in the movie, though no one gets hurt except for an alien or two. Some families will be concerned about the issue of separated parents and the impact that has on the way the children see their role in the family (and their responsibility for the divorce).

Families who see this movie should talk about what kind of game they would like to be able to make real. They should also talk about why the children in this movie are so mean to each other and what kids can do to respond to feelings of being hurt and lonely.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Jumanji and the books by Chris Van Allsburg, especially The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

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Chicken Little

Posted on November 1, 2005 at 8:42 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: Brief crude humor
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

You know that nightmare of appearing at school in your underwear? That happens to poor Chicken Little (voice of Zach Braff of TV’s “Scrubs”), a tiny little chick with big glasses perched uncertainly on his beak, but he has the heart of a lion. And Disney’s first-ever fully computer-animated movie movie has a wonderfully fresh and unpretentious energy that is a lot of fun to watch.

How does his story begin? Disney signals this film’s departure from the grander traditions of the past by addressing that question head on. Should we try the old but reliable “Once upon a time….?” No. How about a huge orange sunrise over the Serengeti? It’s been done. The classic beginning — a leather-bound book, pages fluttering artistically as it opens to a lovely old illustration? Nope. This one is going to begin right in the middle of the action, with Chicken Little ringing the town’s alarm bell and everyone in the town of Oakley Oaks getting, well, very alarmed. That underpants incident turns out to be the least of his problems.

It turns out that what Chicken Little thought was the sky falling on his head was just an acorn. At least, that’s what his father (voice of Garry Marshall) sheepishly admits in his apology to the town. He doesn’t believe his son’s story about being hit by a stop sign-shaped piece of the sky.

Chicken Little is sure he can start over and prove to everyone that he’s not a lunatic and a loser. But things get off to a bad start on the first day of school when he misses the bus and loses his pants. Mean girl Foxie Loxie (voice of Amy Sederis) keeps cough-insulting him. But Abby, the kind-hearted and wise Ugly Duckling (voice of Joan Cusack), a merry little fish (with a diver’s helmet to keep his head in water), and the anxious but sweet-natured piggy named Runt (voice of Steve Zahn) believe in Chicken Little and he believes in himself.

That’s how he knows that he can prove himself to everyone by becoming the star of the baseball team, just like his father. “All I need is a chance to do something great and my dad will finally have a reason to be proud of me.”

There is one very small problem however, and that is Chicken Little’s very small stature. On the one hand/wing, he has an almost-microscopic strike zone. On the other hand, he can barely lift the bat. Meanwhile, Foxy Loxy is the closest thing to Babe Ruth that Oakley Oaks has ever seen.

Still, Chicken Little seems to be making some progress when once again he is the only one to see that the sky seems to be falling. Will he risk his refurbished reputation to warn everyone?

The computer animation is meticulously crafted, from the broadest gag to the tiniest detail. Each of Chicken Little’s over 70,000 feathers is individually and perfectly rendered and each joke/visual pun/pratfall/wisecrack/political satire is perfectly paced to balance the tension and sentiment. Yet the film still has a nicely casual feel, due in part to a mix-tape selection of pop standards but mostly to not taking itself too seriously. A meta-moment at the end proves a perfect capper.

The voice talents are exceptionally well chosen, especially Marshall and Cusack, along with hilarious bits from Don Knotts (as ever-equivocal Mayor Turkey Lurkey), Patrick Warburton, Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara, and Adam West. The visuals are technically superb, but we take that for granted now. What captures us is the worth-a-second-viewing visual wit, from a chameleon who changes color with the traffic light to a china shop proprietor who happens to be…a bull, and the subtle chicken theme in everything from a hood ornament to the wallpaper pattern and a three-eyed Mickey Mouse (trust me, it makes sense).

The artists have a lot of fun with the physical properties of their animal characters, especially the bulky rooster (watch him try to get up from the bed). And the story is a sweet reminder of unconditional love and the importance of “talking about something until it’s resolved.” Unlike its hero, this film does not swing for the fences, and that works in its favor. The technical focus on detail is balanced with a nice, casual looseness on the story side. The folks at Disney all know that even something as small as an acorn can still make a difference.

Parents should know that (spoiler alert) some children may be frightened by the tentacled aliens and apparent evaporation of some characters, though it all turns out fine. There is brief crude humor (character in underpants) and a sweet kiss. Some children may be upset by Chicken Little’s having lost his mother. Spoiler alert again: Some audience members will also be concerned about Foxy Loxy’s transformation from a rude but confident and athletic girl into a simpering, ruffle-wearing “girly” girl.

Families who see this movie should talk about Abby’s advice to Chicken Little. What is “closure?” How can we make sure that families always talk about the things that are important to them? Why do family members sometimes find it hard to see how much they are loved? Or that they don’t need to prove themselves? They should also talk about Chicken Little’s courage and resilience in looking at each day as a new beginning.

Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy The Emperor’s New Groove, Lilo and Stitch, and A Bug’s Life.

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Jarhead

Posted on November 1, 2005 at 5:29 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Constant extremely strong and vulgar language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, including drunkenness, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Battle violence, guns, charred bodies, fighting
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters are brave and loyal
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir wait for someone (God?) who never arrives, evoking the absurdity and powerlessness of the modern condition. In “Jarhead,” based on the memoirs of Persian Gulf veteran Anthony Swofford, Marine recruits wait for something (war) that never arrives. The absurdity and powerlessness of their condition is evoked as they try to find some sense or meaning in their deployment.

Swofford was trained as a sniper, then sent to a war that was all in the air. His platoon spent more time showing a reporter what they would do if they got to fight than they spent actually fighting. They are warned that Saddam Hussein would use poison gas, but their protective gear falls apart. They are given pills to counteract the effects of biological warfare, but first they have to sign a waiver because no one knows whether the pills themselves will cause permanent damage. And for months at a stretch they are stuck in the desert, where it is scorchingly hot, far from any other people, and thousands of miles from home.

They went through brutal the training that turned boys into killers who aim for “the JFK shot — pink mist.” It transformed them so that what they once dreaded — whether going into battle or being branded USMC — became what they desired. But it was even tougher to be put in the desert and not given the chance to do what they have been trained for.

They are told to maintain a constant state of suspicious alertness. For months of nothingness, they shoot and throw grenades at nothing, then hydrate, tell a reporter they love to serve their country, wait for letters from home, and hydrate again. And on a bus, they see a Viet Nam war veteran, looking haggard and broken, and they wonder, if they do survive, whether that is how they will end up.

In its structure, this is the classic war memoir. There is the terrifying drill instructor and the almost-as-terrifying initiation ritual. There is a sensitive hero (he is reading The Stranger by Camus) thrown together with a diverse group of recruits by circumstance, getting on each other’s nerves but establishing the bonds of loyalty that are only forged in the direst human circumstances.

There is boredom. There is horror. There is loneliness. There is loss and betrayal. There is courage, loyalty, honor, and, finally, sometimes, understanding.

But in the traditional war movie, all of this comes through battle that replicates and reinforces the battle inside. In this movie, it almost is all inside. They say that the military always prepares for the last war. In this case, this platoon prepared for a war that made their skills obsolete. Echoes of Viet Nam are everywhere as the Marines joyfully sing along to Wagner while watching “Appocalypse Now” and later, listening to The Doors, ask plaintively whether this war will ever get its own music.

Mendes is a master of visual sumptuousness, from the nightmare landscapes of endless oil-soaked sand and charred bodies to the small confines of a testosterone- and liquor-soaked Christmas party in the tent. Brilliant performances by Jake Gyllanhaal as Swofford, Jamie Foxx as his sargeant, and Peter Sarsgaard and Lucas Black as fellow Marines make the characters vital and moving. He gets the chemistry of the frustrated all-male energy right. But the screenplay has some holes, especially about Sarsgaard’s character that make it, like Swofford’s deployment, unsatisfying.

Parents should know that as one might expect for a movie about Marines in wartime, this has constant obscene, profane, and vulgar language, extremely explicit sexual references and situations, and battle violence, including charred bodies, shooting, and scuffles and fights. A Marine is branded by his platoon. Characters drink and get drunk.

Families who see this movie should talk about what kind of training and equipment are required in order to make enlistees into effective soldiers. They may want to talk about family experiences in the military and what it is fair for people who choose not to serve to expect from those who do. How do the experiences of these characters reflect the changing nature of combat? What does it mean to burn the fat off our souls?

Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy Three Kings, Appocalypse Now (watched by the Marines in the film) and M*A*S*H. They may appreciate the deeply disturbing Full Metal Jacket. Families should also watch Gunner Palace, a documentary about the current conflict that is not pro-war or anti-war but pro-soldier. It allows them to tell their own stories in their own words. They should see Mr. Roberts, a WWII drama about those whose wartime responsibilities take them “from tedium to apathy and back again, with a side trip to monotony,” and The Red Badge of Courage, about a young civil war soldier’s fears that when the battle comes, he will not be able to muster the bravery necessary to demonstrate his value to those around him, more important to him, at least at the beginning of the story, than demonstrating it to himself.

Families will also appreciate Swofford’s book, Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles as well as other wartime memoirs and novels, from Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five to John Crawford’s The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell : An Accidental Soldier’s Account of the War in Iraq. For a General’s eye view of the Persian Gulf war, families can read Norman Schwartzkopf’s It Doesn’t Take a Hero. They can see Cooper and Gyllanhaal as father and son in October Sky.

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Bee Season

Posted on November 1, 2005 at 1:58 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional scenes, mental illness
Diversity Issues: Religious differences a theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

A little girl who thought she was the ordinary member of the family discovers a talent for spelling, in this thoughtful movie based on the best-seller by Myla Goldberg. But this is not a fictionalized version of the superb documentary Spellbound. It is a story about breaking apart, from the letters in a word to the connections and relationships we most rely on, and about the way we try to hold on, and, if we fail, to heal what is broken.

Images of breaking apart appear over and over again in the stories we tell. Yeats described it in his poem, “The Second Coming.” “Things fall apart,” he wrote. “The center cannot hold.” And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. E.M. Forster said the most important rule was “only connect.” According to Jewish folklore, the world began with a great splintering when the divine light God poured into vessels shattered them. So it is the obligation of all people to put the pieces back together again. The duty is called “tikkun olam,” which means “to heal the world.”

The scholars within the Jewish community who take this command most literally are those who study Abraham Abulafia and kabbalah, from the Madonna-chic red bracelet-wearers who skim along the surface to the mystics who believe they can see the world in the patterns of its pieces.

In this story, Saul Nauman (Richard Gere) is a professor who studies kabbalah but has never achieved the transcendent ecstasy of those who have mastered it, especially Abraham Abulafia, the subject of his dissertation. He is devoted and affectionate, but not always sensitive or aware. Saul does not realize how narcisisstic his attentions are.

He does not see that his daughter Eliza (Flora Cross) feels left out and unimportant because of the attention Saul gives her brother Aaron (Max Minghella). He does not see that Aaron is seeking something to heal his own sense of being incomplete. He does not see that his wife Miriam (Juliette Binoche) feels both smothered and disconnected, that she is seeking something even she does not understand to help her make sense of her own perception of what is broken.

And he can never guess that these things will be revealed by Eliza’s simple but inexplicable gift for spelling. Somehow, she just seems to know how words break down into pieces. Saul becomes fascinated with this — can it be that she has found a way to tap into Abulafia’s ability to understand the way the patterns are where the whole universe is found?

Screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (mother of Maggie and Jake) creates a mosaic of her own, an assemblage out of small, shiny pieces: the family members and their various fears and dreams. Saul and Miriam see connections that do not exist while their children long for connections they wish they had.

The underrated Gere, not anyone’s first thought to play an observant Jew, is fine, in part because he makes no effort to “act Jewish.” He just acts like a man who does not recognize his self-involvement and who can only see his family as reflections of himself. Cross is solomnly lovely as Eliza, and when she looks out from the stage, visualizing the word she has to spell, we feel her sense of wonder, magic, and mastery.

This is an ambitious undertaking, and translating such an intensely metaphorical story to screen inevitably unbalances it so that it often looks like just another dysfunctional family story instead of a meditation on the nature of connection. It is uneven and ultimately, inevitably, unsuccessful in making that part of it work. But it raises the questions powerfully, and that is enough to begin that connection — that healing — it calls upon all of us to try for.

Parents should know that this movie includes brief strong language (two f-words), an explicit sexual situation and some implied nudity. There are tense and unhappy family confrontations and (spoiler alert) a character becomes mentally ill.

Families who see this movie should talk about why it was hard for the members of this family to talk to each other. They should also talk about tikkun olam and their own faith or value traditions of the responsibility for “repairing the world.”

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Spellbound, the wonderful documentary about the national Spelling Bee, and Searching for Bobby Fischer, based on the real-life story of chess champion Josh Waitzkin, and the impact his experience had on his family.

Families who want to know more about Abraham Abulafia and kabbalah will find many resources online. The national Spelling Bee website has information about participation and some great materials for spellers and anyone else interested in words.

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