Posted on October 31, 2006 at 12:11 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive strong crude and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language.
Profanity: Extremely strong, graphic, obscene, bigoted, and offensive language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Comic violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: 2007 ASIN: B000MMMT9G

First and foremost, let me make it clear that this movie has extremely outrageous and offensive material and is not for the faint of heart or the easily shocked, and inappropriate for sensitive or impressionable viewers. But it’s also very funny. If you’re going to this movie, take a deep breath because when you aren’t gasping with laughter, you’ll just be gasping. No matter how unshockable you may think you are, this movie is going to do its best to shake you up — at a level that is measured by the Richter scale.

British actor/comedian Sacha Baron Cohen plays Borat, a television journalist from the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan who comes to the United States with his producer, Azamat (Ken Davitian), to make a documentary. Borat is not very bright or knowledgeable but he makes up for that with boundless enthusiasm and self-confidence. In other words, he’s just the guy to update Alexis de Tocqueville and tell the rest of the world what America is all about.

Borat first introduces us to his country, smiling broadly as he explains local customs like “The Running of the Jews” and proudly introduces us to his sister as he explains that he has personal knowledge of her abilities as a prostitute.

And then he comes to the US, in what has to be the most extensive and subversive practical joke ever made by a Hollywood studio. America, you’ve been punk’d.

Apparently, the real-life participants in the film were told that it was a legitimate Kazakh documentary. They were given release forms so extensive and mundane-looking that they had no idea it was an elaborate put-on. And so the fake guileless offensiveness of the character created by a real-life comedian is somehow sanitized (nearly) by the real-life guileless offensiveness of the people he meets. Never suspecting that what they say and do will be featured in a major Hollywood feature film, they display to “Borat” — and to us — some of what is worst about America. And, once in a while, what is best, too.

Normally, I am not a fan of the comedy of discomfort and humiliation, and I especially dislike the kind of pranks that seem to me to be easy and cheap — you can always make someone look foolish by knowing something he does not know.

What makes this movie work, what in essence disinfects what would otherwise be a tedious and too-long segment of “Punk’d” or “Jackass” is that is is mesmerizingly revealing. As Rosario Dawson says in Clerks 2, “I’m disgusted and repulsed and — I can’t look away.”

Sacha Baron Cohen’s characters have been popular with Brits as part of “Da Ali G Show” since 2000. But Baron Cohen’s arrival in America –- coinciding with the stateside arrival of his Kazakh alter-ego, Borat the journalist -– has gained him both fans and enemies here in what he calls “the US and A”.

His film, endowed with the cumbersome title “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”, blends the crude humor of “South Park” and the wit of “The Daily Show,” resulting in a combination that understandably and intentionally offends viewers. As Borat, Baron Cohen walks like a stiff-legged, six-foot Pinocchio, stumbling through America as clueless as Will Ferrell’s Buddy the Elf. Like Buddy, Borat isn’t laughable because he’s stupid; he’s laughable because he’s sweet and misunderstood. Through his eyes, we can see ourselves from the outside. Borat takes America and, by exuding innocence, reveals how dark a place it can be. His racist, homophobic, and sexist comments are appalling, but that’s the joke — his eyes are sincere, his love is sweet, his heart is innocent, and his excrement is carried to the dinner table so that he can ask the hostess what to do with it. The joke is, “Isn’t it ridiculous to have extreme opinions about other people based on sex, race and ethnicity?” and the reality is that not everyone believes it is. Some people laugh uncomfortably, some people get angry, and some people agree with Borat. Some people are so ignorant about people outside the U.S. that it never occurs to them that he is not for real. That’s when the film hits on isolated but serious moments that cut deeper than most other comedy.

The genius of Baron Cohen is that in creating a racist and sexist character, he reveals the absurdity of racism, sexism and stereotyping. His film becomes sharp exploration of our own prejudices and stereotypes — Kazakhstan’s most high-profile (if most fictional) resident is portrayed as innocently uncouth and impossibly un-PC, and for much of America, he represents everyone from Kazakhstan. The ease with which Borat’s unsuspecting victim truly believe him to be genuine belies how deep the stereotypes run.

All this might make the film seem like a somber exploration of prejudice. Yet it has men running naked through hotel hallways, drunken frat boys, street kids willing to provide some coolness tips, exasperated feminists, an evangelical group only too happy to bring Borat to Jesus, a search for gypsy tears to refill his protective vial, and a Jewish couple from a bed and breakfast who bring Borat a little snack that he assumes must be poisoned. And Pamela Anderson.

In his film, Baron Cohen has Borat refer to a Trojan Horse. But just as the audience leaves the theatre wondering whose prejudices have been most exposed, the question of where the real Trojan Horse is lingers as a fake Kazakhstan anthem accompanies the credits across screen. And that’s Baron Cohen’s trick — he’s crafted an intricate invasion of America in movie form, on the surface a laugh-out-loud comedy and inside, an expose of the audience itself.

Parents should know that this movie revels in every possible category of offensive humor and is not appropriate for underage audiences or for many adults. It includes extremely strong and vulgar language, ethnic insults (while satirizing bigotry), sexist humor, explicit and crude sexual humor (including incest jokes), explicit potty humor. There is very graphic non-sexual nudity and comic violence, including a long nude wrestling match. It should be emphasized that while the characters often make racist, homophobic, and sexist comments, the movie’s intention is to satirize these views, not to endorse them. Yet Cohen is determined to be offensive, and he succeeds.

Families who see this film should discuss world geography –- perhaps placing Kazakhstan on a map -– American perceptions of other cultures and their perception of ours. How does daily contact with people from other cultures enhance understanding? What are some other ways to understand various world customs? (Reading, music, food, festivities?) Parents should also discuss ethnic conflicts with their children – what are some of the ethnic conflicts that have had the most influence on current events? What are some important historical conflicts to understand?

Families who enjoy this film might also enjoy 2004’s Team America: World Police and the film based on the South Park television series, South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut. Both films have extremely strong and potentially offensive language, scenes and concepts, but share Baron Cohen’s sense of humor.

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Comedy Movies -- format

Flushed Away

Posted on October 29, 2006 at 12:13 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for crude humor and some language.
Profanity: Some crude schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and some scary moments and chase scenes, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, strong, brave, female character, some mild ethnic humor
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: 2007 ASIN: B000M343BC

Aardman has applied the sweetly demented sensibility of the “Wallace and Gromit” claymation films to their first CGI film and it is an irresistible treasure. It has their trademark intricacy of design, thrilling, hair’s-breadth-timing of action sequences, mastery of physical properties and spaces, delightful characters, and fresh and funny moments from the most sophisticated (a cockroach reading Kafka) to the least (a floating brown blob in the sewer turns out, whew, to be a candy bar), to those that transcend all categories (singing slugs, trust me on this one). There are movie references from Lady and the Tramp to Terminator 2 and a merry family meal that could have been thought up by Dickens. And of course everything revolves around the World Cup.

Roddy St. James (voice of Hugh Jackman) is a pampered pet rat who lives in the posh Kensington Gardens section of London. He has everything, thanks to his doting owners. When they go out of town, he enjoys himself, racing around in his little red convertible, playing volleyball with the fashion dolls and action figures, trying out his various outfits, from the tux with the gold cufflinks to the cruise wear and the spangly late-Elvis jumpsuit.

But then a sewer rat named Syd shoots up out of the sink and starts to mess up everything — literally and metaphorically. Roddy tries to lure him into a “jacuzzi” (the toilet), but ends up getting flushed away himself, and ends up in a swarming metropolis in the swere system underneath London.

It says a great deal about the story and characters that they are able to hold the audience’s attention because the “city” is the most endlessly beguiling and clever since the metropolises of Monsters Inc. and Robots. Every detail of every street corner is made-for-the-DVD-pause-button meticulous, imaginative, and witty.

But Roddy is too determined to get back home to pay much attention, so soon he is caught between Rita (voice of Kate Winslet), the sea captain (think Han Solo in trousers made from the Union Jack) and kingpin Toad (Ian McKellan), whose neck bulges out with emotion at awkward moments.

Toad, of course, has henchmen, the dim little guy and the dimmer big guy. And then he brings in reinforcements, his French cousin (of course), Le Frog (voice of Jean Reno). He has his own back-ups, the kind of frogs who break for five-hour dinners, whose battle cry is “We surrender!” and who include, of course, a mime.

The characters are wonderfully appealing and the story is exciting, warm-hearted, and inspiring. The unabashed British perspective (with some tweaks of the Americans as well as the French) enhances its fresh perspective. And those slugs sure can sing.

Parents should know that there are some scenes of peril and confrontation that may be too intense for younger children, even though no one gets hurt. Parents of younger children will want to remind them not to flush things down the toilet. The movie includes some brief crude jokes (nutcracker as a threatened torture device, brief bare tush) and, of course, some potty humor. There is also some mild British-centric ethnic humor, with gentle ribbing of the French and Americans. Roddy does not seem to care much about the rights or feelings of the family that cares for him. A strength of the movie is the strong, brave, female character.

Families who see this movie should talk about what Rita had that that Roddy admired and envied. Why?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit – The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Wallace & Gromit in Three Amazing Adventures. Aardman’s website has ecards and a showreel featuring their delightful commercials.

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Action/Adventure Comedy Family Issues Movies -- format

Running With Scissors

Posted on October 27, 2006 at 12:17 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong language and elements of sexuality, violence and substance abuse.
Profanity: Extremely strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, characters abuse alcohol and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Intense emotional confrontations, suicide attempt
Diversity Issues: Characters discuss feminism and opression
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: 2007 ASIN: B000M5B98A

The appeal for actors of movies about hideously dysfunctional people is obvious. They’re fun to play, and always good for awards consideration. Which script would you go for, the umpty-umpth “meet cute” romantic comedy or the one where you play a wildly disturbed and pathologically self-centered character and get to say things like, “Let’s dig up the cat we buried. I can hear him saying he is not really dead.” The appeal for audiences of stories that teeter on the edge between horror, tragedy, and over-the-top comedy is less clear. And in this movie, brilliant performances are not enough to make up for a story that is no deeper than the perky 70’s hits on the soundtrack. The actors fill the characters with life and conflict. But they can’t fill the movie, which feels hollow.

There are movies where the heroes take on aliens or Nazis or fire-breathing dragons. And then there are movies where the heroes take on something really scary — family. Just about everyone at one time or another has rolled his eyes and confided to a friend that his family is really nutty. Perhaps that is why we are drawn to stories about families that really are crazy, whether benign and charmingly light-hearted (the Oscar-winning You Can’t Take it With You), mordantly funny (The Addams Family), profoundly tragic (The Glass Menagerie, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, both based on the authors’ own families), gothic (Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte), or downright deranged (Nothing But Trouble). This story seems to have a bit of all of the above. It’s based on writer Augusten Burroughs’ memoir of his childhood. While there have been some allegations and even a lawsuit filed by some of the people he wrote about alleging that some of the wilder stuff is not true, but it is hard to imagine anyone making this stuff up.

Augusten is raised by a distant father (Alec Baldwin) and a narcissistic mother (Annette Benning) who treats him as something between a co-conspirator and a lackey. As long as he tells her what she wants to hear (he assures her that her poem is just what the New Yorker is looking for), she allows him to skip school, polish his allowance, and fix her hair. But his parents’ marriage fractures and his mother becomes increasingly unstable — and increasingly in the thrall of a charismatic therapist named Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), who gives her drugs. She gives custody of Augusten to Finch.

Finch’s home is filthy. His family is a cracked parody of Augusten’s sitcom-inspired fantasy. They speak casually, even smugly, about the most deranged concepts and events. At one level, they enjoy trying to shock each other. Perhaps they enjoy trying to shock themselves; at least they will feel something. But other than Finch himself, who seems lost in delusions and denial (but not so lost that he can’t play power games), each of them wants desperately to be “normal.” But each of them feels so damaged that “normal” is out of reach.

Finch’s wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh) is kindly but fragile and overwhelmed. One daughter, Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) adores her father and is jealous of anyone else who has his attention or affection. She insists her cat talks to her. The other daughter, Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), enjoys being outrageous. She is bitterly hurt and dreams of leaving to go to college. Another lost soul “adopted” by the Finches, Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes) seduces and abuses Augusten, who is so hungry for love and attention that he holds on.

Augusten keeps hoping one of his parents will come for him, but his mother is always caught up in a drug- or love- or grandiosity-induced haze and his father is distant. Ultimately, he has to discover on his own who he wants to be and how to get there.

Parents should know that this film is about very dysfunctional and abusive families and includes a great deal of inappropriate, narcissistic, and deeply disturbing behavior. Characters use very explicit language, smoke, drink, and abuse drugs in the presence of children. Underage characters have sex with predatory adults. A character attempts suicide at the direction of another character.

Families who see this movie should talk about the way that Burroughs turned the tragic events of his life into a work of art and a bridge to take him to a place of stability and satisfying work and relationships.

Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy the book and its sequels. This article discusses the lawsuit filed by the “Finch” family alleging that the book misrepresents them.

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Comedy Drama Movies -- format

Catch a Fire

Posted on October 25, 2006 at 12:19 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving torture and abuse, violence and brief language.
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Terrorism, torture
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: 2007 ASIN: B000LC4C24

A sizzling performance by Derek Luke ignites this story about Patrick Chamusso, a South African oil refinery worker who became caught up in the fight against apartheid.

Chamusso who did his best to stay out of trouble and care for his family. But as Trotsky said, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Wrongly accused of a terrorist attack at the refinery, he is captured and tortured. But it is when his wife Precious (Bonnie Henna) is also tortured that he becomes committed to doing anything he can — anything that is necessary — to bring down the racist regime. He leaves his family and goes to Mozambique to join the rebellious ANC forces and under their direction returns to plant a bomb in the refinery.

Tim Robbins plays secret police chief Nic Vos. Like Chamusso, fear for his family leads him to do terrible things. “Twenty-three million blacks to three million whites. We’re the underdogs. We’re the ones under attack,” he says. He has convinced himself that he is not a monster because he draws a line; he will not hold a man he knows to be innocent. But he is willing to torture people he knows to be innocent. He does not seem to do it because he thinks he will get information from them or frighten them away from fighting the system. He seems to do it to convince himself that these people are less than human. He does it to convince himself that he must do it.

If Vos is not a monster, Chamusso is not a saint. He has no alibi the first time he is captured because he was with an old girlfriend, the mother of his child, and his wife may leave him if she finds out. His pride and fear and her jealousy lead to imprisonment, torture, separation, and rebellion. Chamusso emphasizes that the acts he undertakes are designed to blow up equipment, not to injure anyone. But one side’s freedom fighter is the other side’s terrorist, and many people on both sides are killed. The worst betrayal Chamusso faces is not racism but something much more personal. And the biggest challenge he faces is not racism — or fear, or torture, or guns — but forgiveness.

Luke’s African accent is understated and his effortless grace shows real star power. He is utterly convincing and utterly compelling as an easy-going man devoted to his family who is transformed into someone who believes he has nothing left to lose. His performance is all the more wrenching because he resists the temptation to showboat. There are no heroics here, no grimaces of resignation and dedication. His emotions are complex, but they are pure.

Parents should know that this movie includes disturbing scenes of torture and terrorism. Many characters are killed. There is brief strong language and some drinking. A strength of the movie is its portrayal of the agonizing consequences of apartheid.

Families who see this film should talk about the origins of apartheid and the extraordinary story of Nelson Mandela and the non-violent transition to democracy. They should learn about South Africa’s pioneering Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a tribunal that focused on integrity and validation rather than retribution. What did Vos want most? What did Chamusso want? How did each explain to themselves and their families what they were doing? There is more information about the real-life Patrick Chamusso here.

Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Cry Freedom, with Denzel Washington as Steven Biko, Sarafina, Master Harold…And the Boys, and Hotel Rwanda.

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Drama Epic/Historical Movies -- format Thriller

The Prestige

Posted on October 18, 2006 at 12:25 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing images.
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character abuses alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Multiple deaths including suicide, hanging and drowning. Many startling and horrific moments, one involving gunshot. Characters sustain significant bodily harm
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: 2007 ASIN: B000LC55F2

As if we should believe him, Hugh Jackman’s character proclaims in “The Prestige” that magicians have a “circle of trust.” “The Prestige” takes that circle of trust and twists it into a Russian roulette, with Jackman betting on black and Bale on red, and both magicians playing the odds despite risk or consequence.

The film follows Robert Angier (Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) as they duel for supremacy in 19th century England, constantly trying to top or steal each other’s tricks. They strain to impress their audiences but agonize, at the end of the day, over what the other magician thought of the show. It seems as simple as pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but having been crafted by Christopher and John Nolan (the team behind Memento), the plot is, likes its characters, a master of misdirection.

The men’s entire circle of friends, family and colleagues is affected by their contest, and even as an audience we don’t realize how far the “circle of trust” extends until we see we’ve got chips on the table, too. The ball pings from magician to magician, heavy with our emotional investment; it all seems like a game of chance until it becomes clear that, like everything else in the film, it’s rigged: the magicians are passing the audience’s trust around in the same way that they manipulate and manhandle the people close to them. The effect is feeling at once cheated and invigorated by the film’s refusal to play by the rules.

Just as with “Memento” and “Batman Begins” (also directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Bale), the film is heavy on style and concept (deliciously so), but also keenly focused on character and personal motive. Although it’s never quite clear why either man is so enchanted with magic, the rivalry is so believable and well acted that in the end the magic is just a vehicle to get to the characters (much as it is for the magicians themselves).

Surfacing just as “The Illusionist” is leaving theatres, it’s worth noting that the two films are very different. They’re both tales of top hats, trickery and trench coats, but similarities could end there. Those still debating what happpened in The Illusionist will find the explanations here more satisfying. Where The Illusionist impresses with the magic (a funny concept in the CGI age), “The Prestige” goes beyond it, showing the on-stage tricks from the beginning — essentially diverting attention to what the audience thought it wanted to see — while an entire other sequence plays out side stage.

Parents should know that the film is suspenseful and at times horrific. There are deaths involving hangings and drowning, and a suicide, and there are startling gunshot injuries in addition to other shocking “accidents.” The two characters spend much of the film sabotaging each other’s illusions, and the consequences are often appalling.

Families who see this film should discuss the themes of revenge and obsession. They might talk about what drives the magicians’ duel, and what types of sacrifices they make and whom they hurt in their attempts to get back at each other. At one point, Bale’s character professes a wish to end the rivalry. What did it take for that character to get to the point where too much had been lost? Scarlett Johansson as Angier’s assistant, Olivia Wenscombe, is also a complex character worth exploring. Why did she react the way she did to Angier’s request? In what ways did she succeed in maintaining dignity as a person? In what ways did she fail?

Families who enjoy this film might also enjoy Houdini starring Tony Curtis, or the 1998 made-for-television version. Adults and children interested in history of the supernatural might enjoy 1997’s FairyTale: A True Story based on the renowned “Cottingley Fairies” hoax committed by two young girls in England during the first World War. As the movie shows, the real-life Houdini was one of the first to say it was a fraud.

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Drama Movies -- format Science-Fiction Thriller
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