Catch and Release

Posted on January 22, 2007 at 12:21 pm

For the first time, screenwriter Susannah Grant not only writes but directs with this messy romantic weepie about a woman whose fiance is killed just before the wedding.


Grant is known for writing movies with strong female characters, from Disney’s Pocahontas to Julia Roberts’ starring title roles in Charlotte’s Web and Erin Brocovich. But she is less certain as a director, and the result is an uneven tone and a rickety structure. It might still be watchable except for the more serious problem, a fundamental failure to understand that the characters are far less adorable than the movie needs them to be. Even after reported substantial cuts and reworking, our patience and affection runs out long before the movie is over.


Jennifer Garner is Gray, who ends up at a funeral on what was supposed to have been her wedding day. The presents are in piles, the cake is in the freezer. The flowers and people are there, but they are funeral flowers and the people are sad and shell-shocked. Gray hides out in the bathtub, pulling the shower curtain around her for some privacy. So she is stuck there when her fiance’s friend Fritz (Timothy Olyphant of HBO’s “Deadwood”) stumbles in with the caterer and a joint for a quickie against the sink.


See what I mean about less charming than the movie thinks they are? Later on, in what is clearly intended to be a moment of adorable vulnerability, Gray confides her flaws and quirks to a group of friends and they include stealing library books, having had sex once with another woman, and enjoying natural disasters with lots of casualties.


All of this comes about as Gray finds out that her fiance (oddly named Grady) had not told her everything about himself. There’s a matter of a substantial bank account she never knew about. And another woman. With a child.

But I’m not done with the not-as-cute-as-they-think-they-are cast of characters. Gray cannot afford the home she was going to share with Grady, so she moves into his old room with his old friends Dennis (Sam Jaeger) and Sam (Kevin Smith, no longer Silent and trying to be the new Jack Black). So apparently Grady had that secret bank account and could manage that dream house they were going to live in but was still in a group house? Well, let’s not dwell on that because it’s the only way to get Gray into all those cute situations with the intended-to-be-adorable arrested development crew. And, just to make it all even more cozy, Fritz, the highly successful but not really happy LA commercial director moves in, too. And then, just to make it even more of a sit-com set-up, Grady’s other girlfriend (I know! Let’s make her all into psychic energy and massages and stuff!) and her wild child of a son. Won’t that be cute and touching? Nope.


Reportedly cut down from an unwieldy running time, it feels like a jigsaw puzzle with a few pieces missing — that forms a picture that wasn’t worth waiting for. Perhaps it’s all that fishing, but even the usually endearing Garner looks a little piscatory — those lips, you know.

Parents should know that this movie has some mature material including a very sad loss, a possible suicide attempt, issues of betrayal, and paternity testing. Characters drink, smoke marijuana, and take prescription tranquilizers (mixing with alcohol). There are sexual references and situations, including casual sex and references to being unfaithful. Characters use some strong and crude language.


Families who see this movie should talk about why the people in Grady’s life saw him so differently. Who knew him best? Would you have liked him? Why wasn’t he more honest with Gray?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the book Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object by Laurie Colwin and the movies Moonlight and Valentino and Moonlight Mile.

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Comedy Date movie Drama Romance

The Hitcher

Posted on January 19, 2007 at 12:35 pm

F+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong bloody violence, terror and language.
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic violence, brutal killings, disturbing images, torture
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2007
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: 0783114893

John Ryder returns in this remake of the 1986 horror
film, and this time he has his eyes (and knives, and guns, and fleet
of constantly-changing automobiles-turned-weapons) on not the young
man driving but the young woman in the passenger’s seat. Those who
have seen the original will know the drill: Ryder (originally played
by Rutger Hauer and now by Sean Bean) is a deranged roadster who
follows his target down the long, winding roads of desert highways,
plowing through innocent people and framing his mark for the
resulting murders in an unexplained chase.


The premise sounds simple enough, and indeed it is:
“Don’t pick up strangers.” Unfortunately for this film, the
lesson is one that needs no further explanation, certainly not in the
form of gratuitously violent and frustratingly sub-par filmmaking.

Primarily a music video
director known for his long list of musical clients, Dave Meyers has
shown talent in previous work, but seems to have approached “The
Hitcher” as a formulaic hit for the MTV crowd, foregoing any
sophisticated terror techniques in favor of canned dialogue and
predictable hunt-escape maneuvers. While there are a number of
startling, jolt-inducing moments, by far the most shocking moments
are each time one of the two main characters has a choice to make and
without fail picks the only-in-a-movie worst possible option. There are a few
redeeming moments, most of which involve the skilled pairing of music
and action (especially notable in a car chase), but one
could get all of the benefit of similar skill in Meyers’ music videos, thus
avoiding the unnecessary carnage that litters this dead-end project.


Parents should know that this film is exceptionally
gory, with many deaths including profusely bleeding stab wounds, a
very graphic throat-splitting, and a scene in which a living person
is shown tied between two trucks and torn apart. Granted, they are in
a difficult situation from the beginning, but for purposes of keeping the thin plot going the two main characters,
Grace and Jim (Sophia Bush and Zachary Knighton), make disastrously
poor choices throughout the film, including being belligerent with
police officers instead of complying with protocol and then sharing
their story.


Families who see this film should talk about what might
have gone differently had Jim and Grace cooperated with the police
officers; although they were suspects, the two young students could
have appreciated that the officers were following protocol, and
instead of resisting could have talked calmly with the police to
clarify the situation. Parents should also discuss road safety with
teenagers and decide
on procedures to follow in specific situations (what to do, for
example, if they see someone standing on the road with a broken-down
car).


Families who enjoy this film might also enjoy the original and the very
similar film Joy Ride, in which three young people are pursued by a
blood-thirsty trucker (played by Steve Zahn). They should also see how a brilliant director handles a similar story in the made-for-television Duel, the first feature directed by Steven Spielberg.

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Action/Adventure Movies Thriller

Alpha Dog

Posted on January 10, 2007 at 12:38 pm

“This whole thing is about parenting,” explains the ironically named Sonny Truelove (Bruce Willis). He is telling an off-screen questioner about his son Johnny (Emile Hirsch). Or, the questioner is trying to get some answers from Sonny, but not making much progress.


The credits come up as Eva Cassidy sings “Over the Rainbow,” and we see tender home-movie footage of sweet children playing at home, on the beach, at parties, a bar mitzvah. And then we see Johnny, a drug dealer always surrounded by his posse and their girlfriends, in a constant haze of pervasive anomie characterized by exhausted macho and empty sensation-seeking. They bump blindly through an endless series of joyless thrills — video games, rap music videos, insults and posturing, sex, drugs, drinking, and smoking, an R-rated version of the Pleasure Island where Pinocchio turned into a donkey. There are petty quarrels and petty protestations of loyalty, both involving outlandish posturing followed by interest fading as fast as whatever buzz they’re on. Two people owe Johnny money. First is Elvis (Shawn Hatosy), who is paying it off by performing menial tasks and enduring abuse, choking back his fury. Second is Jake (Ben Foster), hot-headed and with no patience for being told what to do.

The dispute escalates when Jake trashes Johnny’s house. Johnny, out with a couple of his friends looking for Jake, sees Jake’s 15-year old half-brother Zach (Anton Yelchin). At first they start to beat him up but then they take him, a human marker for his half-brother’s debt.


Hopped up on drugs, desperation, and gangsta fantasies, they tug Zach from one house to another in a kind of floating party. Zach is happy to go along with it. In some vague way, he thinks he is helping Jake. The pretty girls call him “Stolen Boy,” and he enjoys the attention and the drugs. It is thrilling to hang out with people who seem so tough and cool. And back home, his parents are waiting to yell at him about the bong they found in his room. “It’s a story to tell my grandchildren,” he says, turning down several chances to get away.


But he won’t have any grandchildren. And he won’t make it home to get in trouble over the bong. Johnny panics and offers call it even with Elvis if he will get rid of Zach for good. Elvis sees a chance to get out from under and stop being treated like less than a man.


With a feeling of terrible inevitability from the beginning, the story unfolds, day by day, identifying characters and passers-by as witnesses so we know that sometime in the future they will be swearing to tell the truth before they tell the story of what they saw. There are half a dozen “almost” moments as various people offer Zach a chance to escape, start to back out, or go along or ignore what was going on. There were so many reasons this should not have happened. These boys came from affluent communities. They did not grow up seeing drive-by killings or wearing gang colors. Except on rap videos.

Without any guidance from their parents, the line between the fantasy of the rap lyrics and the reality of taking a life disappears. Every adult in the movie is ineffectual, narcissistic, childish, or absent.

Writer/director Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) says he was inspired to make this film because his daughter attended the same school as the real-life inspiration for Johnny Truelove, the gaudily named Jesse James Hollywood. He conveys the blankness and bleakness of this culture so well that it seems at times like just another rap video, more likely to inspire just another set of foolish, trigger-happy kids than to scare them straight. Hirsch, Timberlake, Milchan, Foster, and Hatosy all give excellent performances, despite the limited vocabulary
that requires most of what they do to be literally between the lines. But Willis and Sharon Stone as Zach’s mother do not fare well in the bleached-out tones of the cinematography. Stone stays at one shrill note except for her last scene, in a fat suit so distracting and bizarre that it obliterated her sensitive handling of the distraught mother’s grief and elicited laughs from the audience.


Hollywood, captured by the FBI in 2005 after a five-year search, was featured on “America’s Most Wanted.” His flashy name and comfortable background attracted a lot of interest from the press and the public. But it is not always easy to make a true crime story dramatic instead of sensational, and that is where this film falters. It is all sensation rather than insight.

The characters are all flash and emptiness, but so is the story. Yes, the parents are clueless, neglectful, or worse — a mother tells her distraught daughter she can’t talk because she is high, and Johnny’s drug business is overseen by his father. Yes, the guys got swept away in their own gangsta dreams and drug-addled grandiosity. But this movie has nothing more to tell us, and is more a high-style “America’s Most Wanted” re-enactment than a drama.

Ultimately, they were just dumb. And it seems solipsistic, superficial, and short-sighted to put so much energy into the story of this murder when so little attention is paid to murders of non-white, non-suburban kids. It’s not a problem that the movie does not try to answer the why of the murder but it is a serious failure that it never answers the why of its own purpose.

Parents should know that this film has extremely mature material, including constant profanity and bad language, drug use and drug dealing, smoking, drinking, fighting, and very explicit sexual references and situations, including group sex. A 15-year-old is abducted, given drugs, seduced, and murdered. There are profoundly dysfunctional families. Friends abuse each other with mock — and serious — insults and destructive pranks. There are disturbing interactions and there is an overall tone of amoral sensation-seeking that is unsettling.

Families who see this movie should talk about who could have stopped this crime and why they did not. Why does it begin with home movies? Do you agree with Sonny’s statement that the story is about parenting? Why did Zach cooperate with his abductors? Did Elvis and Frankie have different reasons for doing what Johnny told them? What were they?

Viewers who appreciate this film will also like River’s Edge, Wonderland, and The Lost Boys. For more information about the real-life murder of Zach Markowitz and the long search for the man called Johnny Truelove in this film, see this article.

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Not specified

Arthur and the Invisibles

Posted on January 8, 2007 at 12:43 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for fantasy action and brief suggestive material.
Profanity: Some colorful language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Sleeping drops
Violence/ Scariness: Action peril and violence
Diversity Issues: Strong female characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2007
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: B000N4SHNU

Director Luc Besson is known for his striking visuals and his mash-ups of sentimental, even corny moments with intense, graphic violence. At his best, in films like The Professional and The Fifth Element, these juxtapositions work well. But here, in his first film for a family audience, it feels more like a collision. The combination of themes and tones comes across as uncomfortably jarring.


It begins in live-action, beautifully designed to look like traditional children’s book illustrations, with golden tones and intricate details. The characters, language, and behavior also have a timeless feel. Though it is set in the 1950’s, it could easily be taking place in the Depression, especially given the musty colonialism of the set-up. Even the main character’s inexplicable English accent contributes to the feeling that perhaps this is a forgotten classic from the same shelf as The Secret Garden or Wee Willie Winkie.

Arthur (Freddy Highmore of Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and his grandmother (Mia Farrow) will lose their home if they cannot find the treasure hidden by Arthur’s grandfather before he disappeared. The only chance is for Arthur to get help from the Minimoys, a community of very tiny creatures Arthur’s father brought from his travels, who live somewhere deep inside the back yard.


But as soon as Arthur finds the Minimoys, the live action turns into animation, the ungainly and distracting roster of star vocal talent steps in, the tone begins to go haywire, and the story begins to fall apart.


While the opening sequence is understated and reassuringly old-fashioned, the underground adventures are an unfortunate mixture of po-mo snark and potty humor (some just plain pot humor as well). There might be some way to put Robert DeNiro, David Bowie, Jimmy Fallon, Madonna, and Snoop Dogg into the same environment, but Besson hasn’t figure it out, and the voice talents all sound forced and unhappy.

The action sequences are sluggish. The quips are even more sluggish. There are jokes about the age of the character voiced by Madonna, which are weak. But then there is something of a love interest between Arthur and her character, which is downright creepy. The movie tries to appeal to children looking for fairy tales, teens looking for satire, and college kids looking for something trippy. The result is too snotty to be genuine, too sugary to be witty, too uneven to be worthwhile for any audience.


Parents should know that the film has a great deal of cartoon-style action violence. Characters use some schoolyard language. Arthur’s grandmother take sleeping drops and he increases her dose so she will not know what he is doing. Some audience members may be upset that Arthur’s parents do not make it home for his birthday. A strength of the movie is the portrayal of capable, courageous female characters.

Families who see this movie should talk about how children sometimes feel responsible for solving the problems of adults. What was the most important thing Arthur learned?

Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Secondhand Lions, Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, and The Ant Bully.

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Action/Adventure Animation Family Issues Fantasy Movies
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