American Dreamz

Posted on April 18, 2006 at 6:07 pm

The Roman rulers used to distract the populace from the problems of corruption and decadence with “bread and circuses.” Today’s equivalent might be junk food and television, especially “reality” television. It plays to our fascination with both “real people” and celebrities and especially with the magical moment of transformation — the magical possibility of our own transformation — from one category to the other.


This wild and wildly uneven satire imagines a dim and detached President from Texas, a bald, Machiavellian Vice President who calls the shots, and a television show in which contestants compete to be selected for stardom.


Sound familiar?


Writer-director Paul Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy) says he got the idea for this movie when he found that more people vote for “American Idol” than vote for President. He took those two things, combined them, cranked it up a notch, and tweaked it a little.


Dennis Quaid plays the distracted President, just re-elected and not able to grasp exactly what the world situation is and how he should respond to it. He just wants to stay in bed and read newsapers. Willem Dafoe is the Vice President, whose relationship with the President appears to be modeled on the relationship of a ventriloquist to his puppet.


“American Dreamz” (“with a z”) is the “American Idol”-equivalent and Hugh Grant is the Simon Cowell-equivalent, supercilious, arrogant, but looking like Hugh Grant and being on television so people let him get away with it. He hates just about everyone and everything, or he would if he had the energy to work up that much emotion. He’s more like bored and cranky.


But he’s clear on what he wants — a show everyone will watch. And so he has to make sure this year’s contestants are the most watchable ever, including Sally (Mandy Moore), a rapaciously ambitious small-town girl, and Omer (Sam Golzari), a show-tune-loving terrorist from a sleeper cell. Sally will do anything to win. Omer finds he may not be willing to do anything for his cause. And the President thinks he can improve his approval ratings by being a guest judge on the show.


The highlight of the film is Moore, a treat as Sally, clearly enjoying herself but clearly in control of the performance, so sincerely insincere that it’s almost appealing. The set-ups are better than the pay-offs, but the film effectively makes its points about celebrities — political and show business, and about American dreams (with an s), especially the foolish but endearing dream that we are all just a wish and a chance away from being a star.

Parents should know that the movie has some mature material, including some strong language and some sexual references and non-explicit situations. The subject matter, while satiric, includes terrorism and suicide. Characters drink alcohol. The movie includes diverse characters but some audiences may find the satiric exaggeration to be offensive stereotyping, or, with regard to the President, disrespectful.


Families who see this movie should talk about the appeal of “American Idol,” and why more people vote for the best singer than vote for in the presidential election. They should also talk about the role of satire as political commentary.


Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Wag the Dog, Saved! (with Moore), and Primary Colors (all with more mature material). They may also enjoy my interview with writer-director Paul Weitz.

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Comedy Musical Television

The Wild

Posted on April 11, 2006 at 6:16 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
Profanity: Some mild but crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and some scary moments, apparent injuries and apparent death but no one hurt, children separated from parents
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: 2006
Amazon.com ASIN: B000G75AZC

“The Wild” is more like “The Mild.” But it is pleasant enough; its the timing that’s rotten.

Like last year’s suprisingly successful Madagascar, this is an animated film about zoo animals who have to learn to fend for themselves in the, um, wild. Like last month’s Ice Age: the Meltdown, it has jokes about dung beetles and a character being treated like a god by the natives. In some ways, this film is better than both, but its thunder has been so definitively stolen that it may not recover in time to make much of a showing at the box office.


Kiefer Sutherland lends his warm, deep voice to Samson, the lion, a loving father who is concerned about his son, Ryan (voice of Greg Cipes). At age 11, he still has the roar of a younger cub.

Samson tells Ryan inspirational tales of his own courage back in the days when he was growing up in the wild, but Ryan can’t seem to manage anything more than a sort of mewing squeak. He is disappointed in himself and thinks his father is disappointed in him.

When Ryan impulsively stows away in a container on its way to the docks, Samson goes to rescue him, along with his best friends Benny the squirrel (Jim Belushi), Larry the snake (Richard Kind), Nigel the koala (Eddie Izzard), and Bridget the giraffe (Janeane Garafolo).

Everyone ends up going all the way to Africa, where they have to rescue themselves and each other from predators, would-be predators, and a very ominous-looking volcano.


This would make a better than average straight-to-video but it doesn’t quite have what it takes to hold a big screen. There are some cute characters and one fine, if brief, musical number. A couple of jokes are actually quite funny, making up for the more frequent un-funny ones, many involving getting bonked on the head or crotch or references to bathroom functions. The CGI animation is perfectly acceptable with glimpses of even better now and then, especially Benny’s body language and facial expressions, but from Disney animators we expect our socks to be knocked off and this movie leaves them securely on our feet. Most important, the story, even without the been-there-with-penguins feeling, is not very strong, leaving us wishing it was all a bit more…wild.

Parents should know that this film has some peril and apparent injury and death, though ultimately no one gets hurt. Some children may be upset by the separation of children from their parents, in one case apparently permanently (and following parental disapproval that could be interpreted as leading to abandonment). Characters use some mild crude language and there is some potty humor and some humor based on getting hit on the head and in the crotch. A strength of the movie is the loyal friendships (and one romance) between diverse species.


Families who see this movie should talk about how each of us must find our “roar.” They might also enjoy learning more about the Serengeti and the animals that live there. This does not include koalas, of course, who are from Australia.


Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Ice Age and The Lion King.

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Action/Adventure Animation Comedy Family Issues Movies

Phat Girlz

Posted on April 7, 2006 at 12:09 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexual content and language, including some crude sexual references.
Profanity: Very strong language for a PG-13
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, character gets tipsy
Violence/ Scariness: Confrontations, comic peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: 2006
Amazon.com ASIN: B000FUH35U

It occured to me as I watched this movie that this was the third time in the last few months that I was watching a large black woman bringing shock and awe to to a bunch of slender, clueless white chicks at a chi-chi spa. We had Queen Latifah in Last Holiday and Martin Lawrence (pretending to be a woman) in Big Momma’s House 2.

And now we have Mo’Nique as Jazmin Biltmore, a store clerk with big dreams of becoming a fashion designer to bring style and pride to women who are not what she refers to as skinny b—-es. And even though this movie is a bit of a mess, it turns out to be unexpectedly sweet and funny. Its very amateurishness gives it freshness and authenticity, a sharp contrast to the overfed formulas of the other two films and most of the rest of the multiplex fodder the studios crank out.


This movie is really a throwback to those 1940’s films about the deserving heroines with big dreams. I think most of the time, they were played by Susan Hayward. Jazmin talks about how proud she is of the way she looks and when she feels insulted by someone who calls her fat she proves herself by throwing tougher and sassier insults calling her victim ugly. But when it comes time to stand up to her petty despot of a boss and show her fashion designs to the store’s buyer (Eric Roberts) or believe she might be worthy of love from Tunde (Jimmy Jean-Louis), a handsome Nigerian doctor, her insecurity shows. She makes some mistakes and learns some painful lessons. But when she is really ready to love herself, the world is ready to love her, too.


Parents should know that this movie really pushes the edges of the PG-13 rating with extremely strong language and sexual references and situations that take it right up to the edge of an R. It would have received an R rating but for the MPAA’s looser standards for comedies. There is frequent use of the b-word, but there is also a very good scene in which Tunde shows Jazmin that her casual use of the word is a symptom of her conflicted feelings about herself. While one couple has enthusiastic casual sex and Jazmin is willing to have sex with Tunde almost immediately, he also shows her that it is a sign of respect and hope for a long-term relationship to wait. A gay character is portrayed with some stereotyping but is also treated with affection and respect.


Families who see this movie should talk about what Jazmin was secure about and what made her feel insecure. How did her experience with Tunde change her? What will happen next? Families should talk about what we should and should not let others’ images of us determine about the way we feel about ourselves.


Families who enjoy these movies will also enjoy Tyler Perry’s Medea movies, How Stella Got Her Groove Back and other “ugly duckling” stories from Funny Girl to Roxanne, which has an insult-trading scene inspired by Cyrano de Bergerac, its source material, that is much like the one in this movie.

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Comedy Movies

The Benchwarmers

Posted on April 7, 2006 at 11:47 am

F+
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for crude and suggestive humor, and for language.
Profanity: Very crude and vulgar language for PG-13
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, character gets drunk
Violence/ Scariness: Comic violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, but homophobic humor
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: 2006
Amazon.com ASIN: B000G0O5I2

Booger jokes. Potty jokes. Hit on the head jokes. Hit on the crotch jokes. And underdog characters so annoying that they have you rooting for the bullies. These guys should have stayed on the bench.


On behalf of everyone who has ever been assaulted or insulted by a bully, three men take on bunch of kids in a round robin creatively titled “Little Baseballers vs. 3 Older Guys.” The prize — a fancy new baseball field, offered by another former picked-on nerd-turned zillionaire.


The three guys are Richie (David Spade), a video store clerk with a Prince Valiant hairdo who has never had a date and lives with his agoraphobic brother, Clark (Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder), who delivers newspapers on his bike, lives with his mother, and has never talked to a girl, and Gus (Rob Schneider), who has a real job (landscaping) and lives with his wife, who keeps reminding him of her ovulation schedule because she wants to get pregnant. They see a kid named Nelson and his friends getting thrown off the field by bullies, they decide to stay and hit a few balls. The other two are hopelessly incompetent, but Gus can hit and pitch.

Nelson’s dad (Jon Lovitz) a fabulously wealthy man who hates to see his son picked on the way he was, thinks that if the men take on the bullies on the Little League teams (coached by their bully fathers), it will provide encouragement for all the nerds and oddballs.


It’s a lovely thought. But it is undermined by slack, lazy, peurile humor, and by the fundamental hypocrisy at its core. While Gus is kind and the “nerdy” kids are far more competent and mature than the adults, the movie relies a great deal on the same kind of crude insults it purports to be against, making fun of gay men (though videos with lesbian sex scenes are highly esteemed) and disabled people and suggesting that the ability to insult other people is an indicator of intelligence and worthiness.


It’s a relief to see Rob Schneider staying away from his usual gross-out roles, but he doesn’t find a way to make Gus very interesting or sincere. The script gives Heder no opportunity to create a distinctive and disarming character, as he did in Napoleon Dynamite, and gives Spade no opportunity to show his only talent, snarkiness. The best performances in the movie come from inanimate objects: a robot and a Darth Vader security system (voice of James Earl Jones) and KITT, and the car from the television show, “Knight Rider.” If there’s a Most Valuable Player in this league, it’s the talking machines.

Parents should know that this is an exceptionally vulgar movie with very strong material for a PG-13. Characters use very strong language, including the b- and s-words as well as many ugly insults like “ho,” “retard,” and “spaz” and some crude words for body parts. There are several homophobic comments and jokes and a reference to lesbian sex scenes in movies. Characters are made insulted for not having had sex and there are other sexual references including a joke about a fun doll. Characters smoke and drink, one to excess, and there is a joke about Alcoholics Anonymous. There is comic violence. While the movie purports to be about treating everyone fairly and there are some diverse characters, it engages in a lot of stereotyping and ugly humor. There are also annoyingly intrusive product placements for a fast food restaurant, a video game set-up, and an internet provider.


Families who see this movie should talk about bullies and the best way to deal with them — and to prevent becoming one. They can also talk about the power of apologies.


Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the original Bad News Bears and Revenge of the Nerds (some mature material). They might also enjoy seeing KITT in Knight Rider.

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Comedy Movies Sports

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Posted on April 2, 2006 at 12:21 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, drug content, and language including a sexual reference.
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to legal and illegal drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Tense and sad situations, some peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: 2006
Amazon.com ASIN: B000GNOSGS

It’s not just that an interview with a rock star while he is in the dentist’s chair having his teeth drilled is far from the weirdest thing in this movie. It’s more that the whole story is so weird that by the time you get to the interview, it seems like the most natural thing in the world.


Daniel Johnston lives in that fragile no man’s land between genius and sanity. His mental illness keeps him viscerally in touch with primal adolescent anguish. And of course primal adolescent anguish is the best possible fuel for rock songs — and the people who listen to them. The songs are undiluted emotion, as focused as a laser beam, emotion so all-encompassing that its simplicity is heartbreaking.

Look at his self-produced album titles: “Songs of Pain,” “More Songs of Pain,” “Rejected Unknown,” “Why Me.” The album covers are his simple line drawings of comic book characters and weird creatures. They look like doodles made in study hall. The Whitney Biennial, the most prestigious forum in the United States for new artists, features an entire wall of Johnston’s drawings.


Johnston was prodigious and prolific from beginning, obsesively documenting himself even as a young teenager. The hundreds of hours of archival tapes and footage are the heart of this film, surrounded by interviews with friends, fans, and family.


Johnston alternated between mental hospitals and performances. He had a small but vibrant cult following. It included influential rock stars like Kurt Cobain, who wore a t-shirt featuring one of Johnston’s album cover drawings often during the last year of his life. His songs were covered by Cobain, Sonic Youth, and Yo La Tengo. And he still lives with his parents, who are getting old and very tired.


Director Jeff Feuerzeig is sympathetic but clear-eyed. He understands that Johnston has a tortured soul, but he understands that he has also inflicted great pain on those around him. He abruptly fired Jeff Tartakov, the manager who was utterly devoted to him. His father was piloting a small plane when, in the midst of some massive delusion, he reached over and yanked the keys out of the ignition and threw them out of the window. The plane crashed into the treetops. It was shattered but Johnston and his parents survived.


Feuerzeig has a fractionated, mosaic approach that suits the high-strung nature of his story. Johnston’s music and artwork are a matter of taste, but his story is compelling and sensitively explored. It is hearbreaking to see the once-so-hopeful and promising teenager become a lumbering, uncertain, unhappy man who does not seem to feel connected to anyone else. But it is inspiring to see those who feel so connected to him and to become connected ourselves.

Parents should know that the themes of this film may be very disturbing for some viewers. There are tense and sad moments and references to drug use, and characters use some strong language.


Families who see this film should talk about the choices made by Johnston’s parents and what their views are about the best way to care for family members who cannot take care of themselves. Would Johnston be as interesting and as successful if he was less disturbed?

Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy Tarnation. And they will enjoy this interview with the director. They might like to listen to Discovered/Covered, with both Daniel Johnston’s original recordings and covers by Beck, Tom Waits, Vic Chesnutt, Bright Eyes, Calvin Johnson, and others. They might also like to learn more about visionary art made by those, like Johnston, with no formal training.

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Biography Documentary Movies Musical
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