Along Came a Spider

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Morgan Freeman returns as Dr. Alex Cross in this prequel to “Kiss the Girls.” Like the original, this movie has a nursery rhyme title and centers on a kidnapped girl. This time it is not a serial killer, just a madman inspired by the Lindburgh kidnap case, trying to make a name for himself with the crime of the new century. And this time the kidnap victim is not a woman but a little girl, the daughter of a United States Senator.

Freeman, as always, is a pleasure to watch, bringing a complexity and weight to every scene that almost makes up for a dumb plot. But even he cannot make up for Monica Potter, who replaces Ashley Judd as Freeman’s co-star, and who is as bland as a Barbie doll, and with an even blanker facial expression.

Potter plays Jazzie, a Secret Service agent assigned to a fancy school for the children of big shots and rich people. It’s the kind of place where every desk has an internet hookup and there are more Secret Service agents around than hall monitors. Let me just point out here that the Secret Service does not protect the children of Senators or even Senators themselves, who are in a different branch of government. We’ll give them some leeway for movie logic on that one. But there are some lapses, like having the President of Russia living in Washington, DC, that are inexcusably preposterous.

Jazzie blames herself when Megan (Mikka Boorem) is taken, and she is grateful when Alex Cross, himself recovering from a disastrous sting operation, wants her to work with him. They track down the kidnapper and prevent a second child from being taken. And there are shoot-outs, chases, and near-misses, some well staged. But the final twist is just plain dumb, and neither the performers nor the script’s explanation of the characters’ motivation have the panache to carry it off. No one could, especially when they resort to that hoariest of clichés, the good guy figuring it all out and then going out to the deserted location where it is all happening all by himself! At least they spare us the long explanation by the villain about the master plan.

Parents should know that the movie is very violent, with many deaths and some of the brightest-colored blood I have ever seen spurting in a movie. Characters use strong language. Many people may be upset by seeing children in peril, though Megan and her friend are strong, brave, loyal, and very smart. Other characters betray the trust of people who have been good to them, which may be disturbing to some viewers.

Families who see the movie should talk about what people do when they have to pick themselves up and go on following a disaster. They may also want to talk about how we decide whom we will trust and how we find reserves of strength when we are in scary situations. They should discuss Cross’ statement that everyone is born with a gift or gets good at something and “you don’t betray that.” They might also want to talk about whether criminals really are motivated by the prospect of fame, and whether there is or ever will be again a hero as universally adored as Lindburgh was.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Kiss the Girls” and an enjoyably dumb movie with a similar theme, Masterminds, a kind of “Die Hard” in a fancy prep school, with Patrick Stewart as the bad guy. Next to this one, “Masterminds” looks like “Citizen Kane.”

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Based on a book Series/Sequel Thriller

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some scary moments and mild language
Profanity: Some mild language ("bloody")
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Characters in peril, minor injuries, tense scenes, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse cast, strong female characters, all major characters white
Date Released to Theaters: 2001
Date Released to DVD: July 11, 2011
Amazon.com ASIN: B000W74EQC

Prepare for the final movie in the Harry Potter series by watching the first one again:

I loved it. And I can’t wait to see it again.

Based of course on the international sensation, the book by J. K. Rowling, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” is filled with visual splendor, valiant heroes, spectacular special effects, and irresistible characters. It is only fair to say that it is truly magical.

Fanatical fans of the books (in other words, just about everyone who has read them) should take a deep breath and prepare themselves to be thrilled. But first they have to remember that no movie could possibly fit in all of the endlessly inventive details author J.K. Rowling includes or match the imagination of readers who have their own ideas about what Harry’s famous lightning-bolt scar looks like or how Professor McGonagall turns into a cat. Move all of that over into a safe storage part of your brain and settle back with those who are brand new to the story to enjoy the way that screenwriter Steven Kloves, production designer Stuart Craig, and director Chris Columbus have brought their vision of the story to the screen. Even these days, when a six year old can tell the difference between stop-motion and computer graphics, there are movies like this one to remind us of our sense of wonder and show us how purely entertaining a movie can be.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), of course, is the orphan who lives with the odious Dursleys, his aunt, uncle, and cousin. They make him sleep in a closet under the stairs and never show him any attention or affection. On his 11th birthday, he receives a mysterious letter, but his uncle destroys it before he can read it. Letters keep coming, and the Dursleys take Harry to a remote lighthouse to keep him from getting them. Finally one is delivered to the lighthouse in the very large person of Hagrid, a huge, bearded man with a weakness for scary-looking creatures. It turns out that the letters were coming from Hogwarts, a boarding school for young witches and wizards, and Harry is expected for the fall term.

Hagrid takes Harry to buy his school supplies in Diagon Alley, a small corner of London that like so much of the magic world exists near but apart from the world of the muggles (humans). We are thus treated to one of the most imaginative and engaging settings ever committed to film, mixing the London of Dickens and Peter Pan with sheer, bewitching fantasy. A winding street that looks like it is hundreds of years old holds a bank run by gnomes, a store where the wand picks the wizard, and a pub filled with an assortment of curious characters.

Then it’s off to the train station, where the Hogwarts Express leaves from Track 9 ¾. On the train, Harry meets his future best friends, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) and gets to try delicacies like chocolate frogs (they really hop) and Bertie Bott’s Everyflavor Beans (and they do mean EVERY FLAVOR).

And then things really get exciting, with classes in potions and “defense against the dark arts,” a sport called Quidditch (a sort of flying soccer/basketball), a mysterious trap door guarded by a three-headed dog named Fluffy, a baby dragon named Norbert, some information about Harry’s family and history, and some important lessons in loyalty and courage.

The settings manage to be sensationally imaginative and yet at the same time so clearly believable and lived-in and just plain right that you’ll think you could find them yourself, if you could get to Track 9 ¾. The adult actors are simply and completely perfect. Richard Harris turns in his all-time best performance as headmaster Albus Dumbledore, Maggie Smith (whose on-screen teaching roles extend from “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” to “Sister Act”) brings just the right tone of dry asperity to Professor McGonagall, and Robbie Coltrane is a giant with a heart to match as Hagrid (for me, the most astounding special effect of all was the understated way the movie made him look as though he was 10 feet tall). Alan Rickman provides shivers as potions master Professor Snape, and the brief glimpse of Julie Walters (an Oscar nominee for last year’s “Billy Elliott”) as Ron’s mother made me wish for much more. The kids are all just fine, though mostly just called upon to look either astonished or resolute.

A terrific book is now a terrific movie. Every family should enjoy them both.

Parents should know that the movie is very intense and has some scary moments, including children in peril. Children are hurt, but not seriously. There are some tense moments and some gross moments. A ghost character shows how he got the name “Nearly Headless Nick.” There are characters of many races, but all major characters are white. Female characters are strong and capable.

Families who see this movie should talk about what made the books so popular with children all over the world. Why did Dumbledore leave Harry with the Dursleys? Why did Harry decide not to be friends with Draco? Harry showed both good and bad judgment – when? How can you tell? What do you think are some of the other flavors in Everyflavor Beans?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and How The Grinch Stole Christmas.

DVD notes — this is one of the most splendid DVDs ever issued, with an entire second disk of marvelous extras including deleted scenes, a tour of Hogwarts, and CD-ROM treats.

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Action/Adventure Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Fantasy School Series/Sequel

Ice Age

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for mild peril
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, off-screen deaths including family members of main characters
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2002

Ice Age” is a clever, funny, and touching story of an unlikely trio of animals who band together to return a human baby to his family.

The story is set when glaciers covered much of the earth, 20,000 years ago. As all of the other animals migrate south in search of food, three characters are moving in the opposite direction. They are a wooly mammoth named Manny (voice of Ray Romano), a sloth named Sid (John Leguizamo), and a saber tooth tiger named Diego (Denis Leary). In classic road movie fashion, they don’t like or trust each other very much at the beginning and the journey becomes a psychological one as they share experiences and confidences that make them see each other – and themselves – very differently.

This does not reach the level of Shrek for wit, there is no romance to keep the grown-ups happy, and the plot has no surprises. But it is told with terrific energy, imagination, visual invention, and humor and it moves along very quickly. Interestingly, the three lead voices are provided by performers who began as stand-up comics rather than actors. Their voices are edgy and distinctive, perfectly matched with their characters.

The computer animation is truly magnificent, from the majestic ice-covered mountains to the acorn treasure toted around by a hilarious squirrel who shows up over and over again in the travels of our heroes. The texture of the fur and feathers, the glint of the sun on ice, and soft sparkle of the snowflakes falling at night are perfectly rendered. The pristine settings convey a sense of vastness and promise that will make grown-up viewers pause to think about whether civilization has been all that civilized. All ages will enjoy the facial expressions, body language and — I have to say it — performances of the ice age mammals, so vivid and so true that you may forget that they are pixels, not people.

Parents should know that the characters face peril several times throughout the movie, and it may be upsetting for younger children. The mother of a young child is killed (off-screen) saving the child’s life. Another character recalls the death of his family. While it is fairly mild on the “Bambi” scale, the issues of human hunting of animals, animal predators, and extinction are raised. A character makes a skeptical comment about “mating for life.” There is some mild diaper humor.

Families who see this movie should talk about what Manny says about members of a herd being willing to risk their lives for each other. Why was it so important for Manny to return the baby, even though the humans had hunted his herd? How did that help to heal some of Manny’s sadness? Why did Diego change his mind about Manny? Why did Manny change his mind about Sid? Was it because of something Sid did or because of something Manny learned about himself, or both? What is different about the way that Diego and Manny react to human attacks?

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy learning more about the real Ice Age, and should visit a local natural history museum or look at this virtual tour from the Smithsonian Institution’s museum in Washington. They should take a look at the real cave paintings from that era to see paintings of mammoths and saber tooth tigers by people who really saw them. Families with younger children will also enjoy the “Land Before Time” series of videos and Disney’s “Dinosaur.

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Animation Movies Series/Sequel Talking animals

Next Friday

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

On the one hand, this movie is a lazy, dumb, and misogynistic and it promotes pot smoking, unemployment, and burglary. On the other hand, it is genial and unpretentious. If it does not take drug use, crime, racism, and sexism too seriously, it does not take itself too seriously either. Almost every joke in the movie is taken from another movie, but the cast enjoys them so much that they occasionally make it work.

This is the sequel to “Friday,” a movie that performed modestly in theaters but became a hit on video. In the original, Craig (played by rap star Ice Cube, who co-wrote the screenplay) spent the day smoking pot and beat up the neighborhood bully. The sequel, again written by and starring Ice Cube, has the bully breaking out of prison and looking for revenge. Craig goes off to the suburbs to stay with his uncle, who bought a house with money he won in a lottery.

Craig again spends the day smoking pot — with his Uncle Elroy and Elroy’s sexually rapacious girlfriend, and with Elroy’s son Day-Day and his friend from work (before they get fired). When they have to raise $3600 to pay off delinquent property taxes, it never occurs to them to earn it or to go to the bank to get a home equity loan. No, clearly the best choice is to steal it from some vicious Latino drug dealers across the street.

Parents should know that the movie is extremely raunchy and includes just about every kind of material except for graphic violence that parents try to keep away from kids. Parents whose kids do see this movie should at least try to talk with them about the portrayal of women (either sexual predators, compliant bimbos or terrifying harridans) and minorities and drugs as a way to bond and to escape worries.

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Comedy Crime Series/Sequel

Babe: Pig in the City

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Families who loved the adorable and heartwarming “Babe” need to know that this sequel, co-written and directed by “Mad Max’s” George Miller, is a much darker and more unsettling movie, not suitable for most small children.

Once again, Babe is called on to save the day, as the Hoggett’s farm is threatened with foreclosure. Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) and Babe must appear at a fair to raise the money to save the farm. But everything goes wrong. They miss their connecting flight and are stuck in the strange and menacing city.

Then things get worse. Mrs. Hoggett and Babe are beset upon by every kind of predator, and the warm and cozy scenes of redemption and reconciliation we expect never come. Mickey Rooney plays a genuinely creepy clown. A mildly happy ending is almost coincidental and anti- climactic.

The movie is easier to admire than like, which may be why it ended up on several critics’ end of the year “10 best” lists, and was picked by the late Gene Siskel as the best film of 1998. The visuals are wonderfully imaginative. The city is a miracle of production design, brilliantly conceived. There are special effects of breathtaking skill and small moments of genuine charm. Babe and some of his new friends are adorably endearing. Older kids and teens who are not too embarrassed may appreciate the film’s artistry. But younger children should stick with the original.

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Animation Series/Sequel Talking animals
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