Breach

Posted on February 3, 2007 at 3:44 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content and language.
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations, characters in peril, guns
Diversity Issues: Strong female character
Date Released to Theaters: 2007
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: B000OYAT3U

Robert Hanssen was the head of the Soviet department in the FBI. And he was working for the enemy. Over a period of 22 years, he sold vital secrets to the Soviet and Russian governments for $1.5 million, resulting in what the FBI itself called “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in US history.” He was captured in the act of leaving information at a “dead drop” on February 18, 2001 and pled guilty later that year. He is currently serving a life sentence.


Director/screenwriter Billy Ray, who also wrote and directed Shattered Glass, about another Washington figure who was not what he appeared to be, has made a movie about Hanssen (Chris Cooper), and especially about his relationship to Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), the young FBI agent assigned to be Hanssen’s assistant as the investigators were closing in on him.


The movie was based in large part on the recollections of O’Neill, who was only recently given permission by the authorities to tell his story.


And that is both the strength and the weakness of the story. Hanssen is a character of mesmerizing contradictions, passionately patriotic at the same time he was providing information that led to the deaths of American agents and the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to national security. He was a devoted member of Opus Dei, a strictly observant division of the Catholic Church that believes that all people should aspire to sainthood. And he was deeply involved with pornography. In the movie’s most powerful moment, just after he is captured, Hanssen has just one thing to say to the long-time colleague who is looking at him with mingled disbelief and contempt. He tells him that the tracking device they put into his car needs to be improved because it was interfering with the radio reception, and that might be a giveaway.


As he did in Shattered Glass, Ray ably keeps the tension taut, even though we know the end of the story. Cooper is superb, hard as granite, dense as an imploding black hole. He doesn’t make any effort to make Hanssen’s motives clear, but he clearly conveys the rigid compartmentalization that made it possible for him to encompass such stunning contradictions. It is not only national security and integrity that Cooper’s Hanssen is breaching; it is the most fundamental notion of individual identity.

Laura Linney, as Kate Burroughs, the woman supervising the investigation, conveys just the right combination of resolute control and laser-beam focus, and that indispensible combination for significant accomplishment — imperishable idealism in the abstract, no-surprises cynicism in the particular. The often-underestimated Phillippe is fine, but the story goes off-kilter when it spends too much time on his cleverness, his conflicts, and his relationship with his wife. What are we supposed to make of O’Neill’s contrast with Burroghs and Hanssen when it comes to having a life outside of work? Who, in the view of the movie, gets the happy ending? Who can we trust?


Ray is too wise to try to give us any kind of explanation for Hanssen’s betrayal. Instead, he gives us a gripping cat-and-mouse story, using the satisfying conclusion of his capture to make us feel safe enough to begin to explore the terrifying horror of the kind of person who is capable of violation and betrayal on the most fundamental level.

Parents should know that the film has some tense confrontations with characters in peril, including gunshots. Characters drink and use some strong language. There are sexual references, including pornography and “deviance.” The theme of the movie is betrayal and treason. Some audience members may be concerned by the portrayal of the characters’ real and assumed religious faith and practices.


Families who see this movie should talk about the compromises that people in these positions must take and what the government should do to prevent and respond to breaches such as these.


Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy one of the finest miniseries ever broadcast, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, inspired by the greatest breach in the history of the British equivalent of the CIA, involving Kim Philby, part of the famous “Cambridge spy ring” that included Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, and Anthony Blunt. Other real-life stories of double agents are portrayed in The Falcon and the Snowman and Aldrich Ames: Traitor Within. An unusual aspect of a double-agent’s story is explored in An Englishman Abroad, based on the experience of actress Coral Browne (who plays herself) when she met with Guy Burgess in Moscow, after he defected. Washington DC’s Spy Museum has an exhibit about Robert Hanssen and the people who caught him.

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Black Snake Moan

Posted on February 3, 2007 at 3:43 pm

C-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong sexual content, language, some violence and drug use.
Profanity: Extremely strong and crude language, n-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: A great deal of drinking, smoking, drug references and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Violence, including gun, characters injured
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2007
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: B000PY52EU

Things are not going well for Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson). He has been living a life right out of a blues song. His wife left him. For his brother.


And now, he has found an almost-naked young woman, badly beaten, outside his house. Things have not been going well for Rae (Christina Ricci) either. She has slept with just about everyone, but the only man she has ever loved is Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) and he has joined the military. Rae is no good at being on her own, and she has an unfortunate tendency to respond to stress by drinking, taking drugs, and having sex. Lazarus lives up to his name by bringing her back to life.


His technique for doing this involves chaining her to his radiator.


It is fair to say this raises some issues — male/female, black/white, sacred/profane for example. And that, too, sounds like a blues song.


The music in the film is terrific — searing, gut-twisting wails of loss and despair. This is a film in which Samuel L. Jackson sings (well) and Justin Timberlake does not. There are some powerful moments, particularly those featuring John Cothran Jr. as a preacher named Reverend R.L. But the characters are — even by blues standards — so over the top that we never feel their connection to us or to each other. A relationship like Lazarus and Rae needs some authentic moments — a confession, exchanges of confidence, a willingness to let each other see them at their best and their worst. But we never get any of that.

The confrontation between Rae and her mother approaches a parody of the long line of Southern slattern films from Baby Doll to Temple Drake. There is nothing approaching the subtle complexity of the relationships in Hustle & Flow, the previous movie from writer/director Craig Brewer. Worst of all, it undermines Lazarus’ attempt to give Rae some dignity and sense of self-worth in its own treatment of her — and of the actress who plays her. The portrayal of Rae
‘s compulsive need for sex and of her always-perfect, always exposed little body (really little, even more troubling given Ricci’s history of anorexia) is exploitive, more trashy than steamy. Rae’s got a right to sing the blues — and this movie is just one more reason why.

Parents should know that this film has extremely mature material that may be offensive even to adults. There are very explicit sexual references and situations, including nudity and promiscuity. Characters drink, smoke, use drugs, and use very strong and crude language, including racial epithets. There is violence, including punching and guns. Strengths of the movie include the portrayal of an inter-racial friendship (with frank acknowledgement of the concerns it could raise in parts of the community) and the portrayal of a sincere and honorable religious leader.


Families who see this movie should talk about why it was important for Lazarus to try to help Rae. What is the significance of his name? Why was Rae so troubled? Why did she care about Ronnie? What is likely to happen to them?


Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy exploring some of the work of the Southern blues artists featured on the soundtrack, including Son House’s The Original Delta Blues and R.L. Burnside’s A Bothered Mind.

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Comedy Drama Movies Romance

Bridge to Terabithia

Posted on February 3, 2007 at 3:34 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements including bullying, some peril and mild language.
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death, references to child abuse, family tensions
Diversity Issues: Strong female characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2007
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: B000OYCM5I

Thirty years ago, a young mother named Katherine Paterson wrote a book to console her son David after his close friend was killed in an accident. That book went on to win the Newberry, children’s publishing’s highest honor, and to become a schoolroom classic for its vivid portrayal of the enchanted land of friendship and sensitive exploration of the range of emotions that accompany a wrenching loss. Now David Paterson has lovingly adapted the novel into a first-rate family film that does justice to the novel and its characters and themes.


Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson of Zathura) feels isolated though he lives with his parents and three sisters. His family is struggling and no one seems to pay much attention to him except to bark at him about chores. He practices running because he wants to be the fastest kid in his class. And he draws pictures because there is something in him that loves to put the images that fill his eyes and heart on paper.


The first day of school there is a big race. A new student — a girl named Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb of Because of Winn-Dixie and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) — enters, and wins. She and Jesse become friends and together they imagine a magical land they call Terabithia. Jesse is happy. Together, their adventures teach them not just about imagination and exploration but about bullies, different kinds of families, growing up.


But Leslie must also teach Jesse the hardest lesson of all about growing up, the pain of loss.


One of the great strengths of the book is its perfect pitch in exploring Jesse’s thoughts and reactions, all presented in a matter-of-fact tone of understanding and acceptance. It is a very interior story, an enormous challenge for adaptation to film. The movie gently makes all of that work on screen through an understated screenplay and sensitive performances by its young actors. And Terabithia itself, only imagined on the page, is brought to life with imagination and heart. We only get glimpses, but they are tantalizing and witty, with glimmers that show us how even the most fantastical creations are grounded in our own thoughts and experiences.

Parents should know that the movie includes the very sad death of a child. There are also some family tensions, including money problems, and a reference to child abuse. The movie’s strengths include the portrayal of intelligent, kind, imaginative, and capable female characters and a rare Hollywood portrayal of sincere religious faith and the kinds of questions that concern children (and adults).


Families who see this movie should talk about what was most special about Leslie and why her friendship was so important to Jesse. They should also talk about what their own Terabithias would look like and draw some pictures. Why didn’t Jesse invite Leslie along on the trip with Miss Edmonds? Jesse had many different feelings about what happened to Leslie. What were some of them? Why is the title about the bridge?


Families who enjoy this film should read the book and some of the author’s other popular titles, including The Great Gilly Hopkins and The King’s Equal. They might also like to see the PBS version of the story. Other classic books that deal with sad losses include Roller Skates and The Yearling.


Other movies families will enjoy are The Secret Garden (all movie versions of this book are excellent, but my favorite is the BBC miniseries), The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland.

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Action/Adventure Drama Family Issues Movies

The Namesake

Posted on February 3, 2007 at 2:14 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexuality/nudity, a scene of drug use, some disturbing images and brief language.
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Accident, dead bodies, injuries, sad deaths
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2007
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: B000U2U0E4

Ashima (Indian superstar Tabu) pauses before entering the living room to meet her prospective bridegroom and his family. Their shoes have been left outside the door, according to the customs of her home in India. Ashima sees that inside the shoes it says “Made in the USA.” She quietly slips her foot inside, trying them on for size. This lovely moment sets the stage for a thoughtful and engrossing study of identity, assimilation, and finding the way home.


Years later, when that prospective bridegroom, Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) has been her husband for decades and the father of her children, he asks why she picked him over the other candidates her parents presented to her. She smiles and says he was better than the alternatives. But we know that she, like us, is thinking back to that moment of slipping her foot in his shoe. Later in the film, Ashoke’s son Gogol (Kal Penn) will also try on his father’s shoes, and again it will mean the beginning of a journey.


In fact, there are many journeys in this story about the Ganguli family and their life in America — trains, airplanes, carts, and automobiles fill the screen. It begins with Ashoke on a train ride that has significance we will not learn until Gogol does, near the end of the film. It is not until then that he learns the meaning of his name.


Or, one of his names. In the American hospital, a nurse asks Ashima the baby’s name for the birth certificate. Ashima explains that they must wait until they hear from the maternal grandmother what the name will be. It is her responsibility to select the child’s “good name.” But the hospital needs a name right away, so it is his “pet name” of Gogol that goes onto the birth certificate.


Gogol grows up very American, a little embarrassed by his funny-sounding name and his family’s traditional customs. He is bored on his family’s trips back to India. But it is there that he decides what he will become — the Taj Mahal inspires him to study architecture. He becomes engaged to a pretty blonde whose family accepts him warmly (though introducing him as “the Indian architect”). But he comes to feel — and need to feel — a deeper connection with his heritage, though it will take a while to understand what that means.


Director Mira Nair and a superb cast tell the story of Jhumpa Lahiri’s prize-winning book beautifully. It is so spacious and epic in scope that it feels a little truncated at times, especially when there are great leaps in time. But the engrossing and multi-layered performances of Penn, Kahn, and Tabu and Nair’s luscious imagery constantly draw us in, making the story at the same time very particular and utterly universal.

Parents should know that this movie includes some strong language, sexual references and situations (including adultery), and brief nudity. Characters drink and smoke cigarettes and marijuana. There is a train accident and in the aftermath we see dead and injured people, and there are sad deaths. A strength of the movie is its sensitive and perceptive exploration of racial and cultural issues.


Families who watch this movie should talk about their own family heritage and the issues that arise in the United States from its history as a “melting pot.” Most American families have stories about efforts of family members to either be “more American” or to hold on to cultural and ethnic traditions. What made Gogol change his mind about his name? Why was his name so important? What do you think about the idea of having a “good name” and a “pet name?”

Families who enjoy this movie will want to read the book by Jhumpa Lahiri and, of course The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol. Another good book exploring the immigrant experience is Anne Tyler’s Digging to America. Families will also enjoy Nair’s other films, including Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding and Gurinder Chadha’s films Bend It Like Beckham and What’s Cooking?

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Drama Movies

The Messengers

Posted on February 2, 2007 at 3:50 pm

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, disturbing violence and terror.
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Reference to drunk driving
Violence/ Scariness: Supernatural references, images, and violence, some disturbing, domestic violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2007
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: B000OVLBGM

The trailers for “The Messengers” don’t do it justice —
there’s a lot more potential in this movie than appears in the
Grudge– and The Omen-like snippets shown as teasers. The idea isn’t bad. It’s in living up
to this potential that the film slips from an enjoyable, somewhat
innocuous PG-13 fright fest (on par with Signs and The Twilight Zone)
to a dead-end dragger with way too much buildup for the minimal reveal.


At the center of the story is Jess Solomon (Kristen
Stewart), who moves with her mother, father and little
brother from Chicago to the farmlands of North Dakota. As the parents
(played by Dylan McDermott and Penelope Ann Miller) continually hint,
Jess has some growing up to do — after being teased for what seems
like decades, audiences finally learn that 6 months prior, Jess was tipsy when got into an accident with her brother in the
car, which lead not only to obvious strife in the family but also to
the family’s savings being spent on medical bills for the toddler. His only remaining effect from the injuries is a reluctance to speak. How Original. That fact alone should tell you all you need to know about the big
finale.

The family is moving to make a fresh start, and what better
place than a rickety abandoned structure that despite being
surrounded by sunny fields remains perpetually in shadow.


As the father, McDermott seems content to act as if the
role of dad could be accomplished by simply directing the phrases
“We’ve got to make this work,” “That’s what I’m talking
about,” and “I love you sport,” to his wife, guy friend, and
daughter, respectively. He is determined to deny all the signs of a
family about to enter a horror movie, in favor of proving that he can
do it — he can run the farm, he can hold the family together, he can
be completely oblivious to every bad omen possible cliche.


By the time all the family secrets are revealed,
however, hints about the family’s past — Jess’s “mistake”
especially — have been hinted at so much that the satisfaction of
finally being told is outweighed by both resentment for
having been teased and (in “mistake’s” case) distaste at the
seriousness of the offense. This pattern of excessively long, drawn
out teases followed by anticlimactic unveilings and ultimate
disappointment is not, to put it diplomatically, limited to this one
instance.


As Jess begins to experience haunting that only she and
her little brother perceive, the film shows glimpses of
promise. The intensity of the suspense and creepy images and the intensified trust issues between Jess and her parents lies a glimmer of a better film. The
shock at realizing that walls torn apart, lamps broken and windows
shattered reassemble miraculously before the mother and father return
home is thrilling in a surreal, psychological way, bringing not only
ghosts and ghouls to the table but dream-like mind games as well.
Given this and a few moments of strategic misdirection, and it’s
refreshing to see a horror film that tries to get its shocks from plot twists rather
than gore. But ultimately, these messengers show up empty-handed.


Parents should know that characters refer to driving
under the influence, and the opening scenes depict a mother and
daughter being beaten by an invisible force while a young son looks
on in terror. There are moments of suspense and some
frightening and disturbing images of ghosts. Most of the film’s
violence stems from the spirit world, but there are several instances
of living characters directing violence at one another. Keeping the
film well under the R-rating radar, however, the language is tame and
sexual content limited to a bad pun on the Kama Sutra.


Families who see this film should talk about the
importance of trust between parents and children. Jess tells a peer
that when her parents asked her to pick up her brother and drive him
home, she was afraid to tell them she had been drinking with friends
(and thus made the incredible mistake of going to pick up her brother
while still under the influence). Why does staying silent about
having been drinking betray her parents’ trust? Could Jess have
trusted her parents to respect her honesty if she told them the truth
about not being able to drive, even if it meant facing their
disappointment in her decision to drink?


Families who enjoy this film might also enjoy Poltergeist and the
classic television series The Twilight Zone — the complete series is now available on DVD. Families will also be
interested in the work of M. Night Shyamalan, the director behind thrillers featuring children
Signs and The Sixth Sense, and might also explore the previous work
of Danny and Oxide Pang, twin brothers who only recently Americanized
their angle after being active in the Hong Kong filmmaking world for
nearly a decade.

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Drama Movies Thriller
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