Batman

Posted on July 21, 2008 at 8:00 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Profanity: Some rude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic book violence and mayhem, some disturbing
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 1989

The critical and box office success of The Dark Knight is a reminder to take another look at the last re-booted Batman and Joker, Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s broody re-imagining of a character then best remembered for the campy 1960’s television series. Ledger is sensational in “The Dark Knight,” but so is Nicholson in a performance included in the American Film Institute’s list of the 50 all-time best movie villains. The visuals, the music, and most of all the performances make this movie a very worthy precursor to the current re-imagining of the enduring story.

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Women Critics on Superhero Movies

Posted on July 5, 2008 at 6:00 pm

The members of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists speak out on superhero movies. Are they just for boys?
ironman-05_normal.jpgMaryAnn Johanson, who’s carved her critic’s niche by taking superhero movies seriously, provides an introduction:
“Comic books and comic book movies ain’t just for boys anymore-if they ever were. The latest slew of superhero flicks, which began to come of age with 2000’s “X-Men,” have gotten increasingly sophisticated and now focus equally on the existential dramas of their heroes and the mythic arcs of their typically tragic stories as they do on slam-bang action…Today we’re seeing fantasy drama with an accent on the drama. Superhero movies are not longer lighthearted comedies dressed up in capes-as in 1978’s “Superman”-or expressions of over-the-top outrageousness-as in Jack Nicholson’s Joker in 1989’s “Batman,” for example. Even “Hancock,” which was marketed as a comedy, turns out to be more intensely dramatic than it is funny.

Lexi Feinberg comments, “I’d say they’re mythic. Adam Sandler movies represent the dumbing down of audiences much more than “Spider-Man” or “Batman”.”
The critics overwhelmingly chose “Iron Man” as the best recent superhero movie and hope for better superhero movies featuring women. The survey quotes my comment about Elektra and Catwoman: “they were made by people who don’t understand women, comics or movies.”

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MirrorMask

Posted on September 18, 2005 at 2:21 pm

A curiously distant story is surrounded by enchanting visuals and special effects in this Alice in Wonderland-style tale of a young girl who has to solve a puzzle in a magical land in order to get back home and help her mother get well.

Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) has, as her mother points out, a life most kids her age would love to run away to. Her parents own a little circus. Helena performs as a juggler, but wishes she could stay in her room, making up stories and drawing pictures. Other girls might wish they could join the circus, but Helena wishes she could run away to “real life.” In an angry moment, she says she wishes her mother was dead.

And then Helena’s mother (Gina McKee of Notting Hill) becomes ill and has to have surgery. While she is gone, Helena somehow gets transported to The Dark Lands, a place of fantasy and magic. Nothing is right because the Queen of Light is sleeping and cannot awaken until a missing object is found.

Helena doesn’t just not know where it is; she does not know what it is. Still, she is confident she can find it. She sets off with Valentine (Jason Berry), an adult but an unreliable companion. Helena has to answer the riddle, find the key, and outsmart those who try to stop her to figure out why there is a young woman who looks just like her in what looks like her bedroom, behaving in a way that appalls her. She meets up with two queens, one asleep, one who will do anything to keep her, both looking a little familiar. And through these adventures she learns more about herself and begins to grow up.

But this movie is all about the sights, not the story, and the sights are glorious, all burnished shades of gold and scritchy lines. The magical images will engage and fire the imagination of the audience, even if the story sometimes feels cool and understated.

Parents should know that sensitive viewers of all ages may find some of the images and characters in this movie disturbing. Characters are in peril and a young girl worries about whether her mother will survive an operation. There are unhappy confrontations. Teenagers kiss, which another character finds gross and upsetting.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Helena wanted something different from a life that many kids her age would love to have. What was the most important thing she had to learn on her journey? What was the most important thing that Valentine had to learn? Parents and children often feel, like Helena, that adolescence is like swapping the person you know for someone who looks the same but feels and behaves very differently, the “real” one feeling as though he or she is living in a strange new place. What stories, like this one, have that as a theme?

Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy The Wizard of Oz and (for older children and teenagers) Return to Oz, as well as other movie visits to fantasy lands like The Never-Ending Story, Labyrinth, Willow, The Dark Crystal, The Phantom Tollbooth, My Neighbor Totoro and Alice in Wonderland. They may want to take a look at the work of Saul Steinberg and Ronald Searle, whose drawings may have inspired some of the images in this film. And they will enjoy the novels of Neil Gaiman.

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Spider-Man

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Remember when “Superman” was released with the tagline, “You will believe a man can fly?” Well, “Spider-Man” will not only make you believe that a teenager can swing from the skyscrapers; it will almost make you believe that you are up there swinging with him.

Comics were hugely popular back in the days when they could show us stories that no one else could. But now, movies can show us anything that can be imagined, and a movie like this does it so well it makes you think that this is what imagination is for.

Toby Maguire plays Peter Parker, a brilliant and sensitive high school senior, so deeply in love with his red-headed next door neighbor Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) that he can barely bring himself to say hello to her. On a school field trip, he is bitten by a genetically engineered spider and the next morning he wakes up with some distinctly arachnid-like qualities. He can see without his glasses and he has become muscular. He can climb walls, eject webbing with the swinging power of rope and the strength of steel, and anticipate danger.

So, like any teenager, the first thing he does is impress a girl and humiliate a bully. He enters a wrestling match to get money so he can buy a car to impress the girl even more. His decision not to interfere with an armed robber has tragic consequences, and so he learns that his uncle was right in telling him that with great power comes great responsibility. Great risk comes as well — everyone he cares about is put at risk because of who he is.

Meanwhile, Peter’s best friend’s father, industrialist Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) has decided to try out his company’s new product on himself. He, too, develops extraordinary power and a mad fury. He is dubbed the Green Goblin for his bizarre armor-like covering.

Maguire is just right as Peter, thoughtful, sensitive, thrilled with his new powers. You can believe that he is the kind of kid who would spend his time a little bit apart from the others, taking photographs that are clear and perceptive. The supporting cast is great, especially stage star Rosemary Harris as Aunt May and J.K. Simmons as Peter’s bombastic editor. The script is excellent, and strikes just the right note of respect and affection for the source material. It has a contemporary feel without being showily post-modern or ironic.

The special effects are thrilling. New York City is brilliantly stylized. Peter’s relationship with MJ is sweetly romantic. And when a bunch of New Yorkers throw things at the Green Goblin, yelling, “This is New York and we fight back!” it is genuinely touching.

The movie’s weakest point is that it fails in the single most important requirement for a comic book-based movie — the villain is not unforgettably crazy or evil or larger-than-life. The best Batman movies featured Jack Nicholson as The Joker and Jim Carrey as The Riddler. Willem Dafoe is a brilliant actor (just take a look at his Oscar-nominated performance in “Shadow of the Vampire”), but the part of Osborn/Green Goblin is just not interesting enough to be truly scary. The flying surfboard he rides around on is very cool, but his exoskeleton costume and mask are just dumb-looking.

Parents should know that the PG-13 rating comes from a couple of mild words, a clingy wet t-shirt, and a great deal of violence. The violence gets very intense, and includes not just fires and explosions but people getting vaporized, shot (off-camera), and impaled. Characters lose people close to them to violent deaths. A group of schoolchildren are in peril. Parents emotionally abuse their children.

For parents who are struggling with whether this movie is appropriate for kids under 13, the best guide I can provide is to say that it is about at the level of X-Men. I recommend caution, especially for children under 10. Keep in mind that just because a child can repeat after you “it’s only pretend” does not mean that he fully understands what that means until he is 10 or even older, and that the terrorist attacks may make some of the material scarier than it would have been before (scenes featuring the World Trade Center have been removed from the movie). Some kids may see the movie and appear to have no problems with it, but may act out in other ways. Be watchful for kids who respond by desensitizing themselves to violence or re-enacting it. And if you are going to let childrn see the movie, make sure that they know that this is an exception and that you will not be permitting them to see any PG-13 just because you allowed this one.

Families who see this movie should talk about the idea that the people we love make us feel good about who we are at the same time they make us see a way to be better. Do you agree that “people love to see a hero fail?” Characters in the movie keep a lot of secrets. What makes them decide not to tell, and who is and is not right in making that choice?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Superman and Batman. Mature audiences will enjoy Toby Maguire’s outstanding performances in “Wonder Boys,” “The Cider House Rules,” and “The Ice Storm.”

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Pokemon: The First Movie

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Human scientists have figured out a way to create a bigger and stronger clone of the most powerful Pokemon ever, Mew. The result is a sort of Maxi-Mew called Mewtwo. Mewtwo decides to go after that goal of all movie bad guys worth their salt, total world domination, by capturing and cloning all the Pokemons.

Mewtwo lures the best Pokemon masters to his island for the ultimate battle. He points out – and here I have to side with him – that the Pokemons are slaves to the humans. Then each of the Pokemons has to fight its clone in a sort of existential crisis. This was very appealing to the little boy in front of me, who chanted happily, “Two Pikachus, two Jigglypuff, two Bublasaur…” like a Pokemon Noah. Then it all ends happily – if hypocritically, with everyone in favor of cooperation instead of fighting. (NOTE: The movie is preceded by a strange short movie about a Pokemon trip to an amusement park.)

Anyone who has ever seen the TV series, played the game, or bought the cards knows what to expect here. Every generation of children has some hideously annoying cartoon series to provide parents with much agonizing and many, many buying opportunities. The characters usually undergo some transformation or make use of a secret to attain power. This theme is endlessly interesting to kids who can feel overwhelmed by a world built on a scale that is often too large for them.

Kids, especially those ages 6-10, also love to memorize and sort endless facts, whether about Pokemons, dinosaurs, cars, or Beanie Babies. It gives them a sense of mastery, especially because they can do so much better than adults. And it becomes an important part of their social development, creating a shared language with their friends. This can be particularly meaningful for kids who are insecure about talking to other children.

Still, excruciating as it can be for parents to endure, it may be worthwhile for kids to see the movie. If it makes it any easier, remember that before too long, this will be over and by the time the next one comes along your children will be past that stage.

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