Rocky

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a sweet-natured but not very bright boxer and small-time enforcer for a loan-shark. He has a crush on Adrian (Talia Shire), the painfully shy sister of his friend, Pauly (Burt Young). Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is the heavyweight champion, whose big upcoming fight is canceled when his opponent is injured. Creed and his promoters decide to give an unknown a shot at the title, and pick Rocky.

Rocky has never really committed to anything before, but this opportunity galvanizes him. He works with Mickey (Burgess Meredith) a demanding trainer. He takes Adrian on a date, and they fall in love. When her brother becomes furious over their relationship, she moves in with Rocky. Rocky knows he cannot beat Creed; his goal is to “go the distance,” to conduct himself with class and dignity in the ring and still be standing at the end of the fight. Apollo, sure of himself and busy marketing the fight, neglects his own training. Apollo wins, but it is a split decision. Rocky goes the distance. Surrounded by fans and the press, he bellows over and over “Adrian!”

Discussion: In Rocky’s first fight, we get a glimpse of his potential. But it is also clear he has failed to make a commitment to anything. Mickey wants to throw him out of the gym because he doesn’t take boxing seriously enough. It is less an insult to boxing than an insult to himself. He takes pride in small things, like his pet turtles, and the fact that his nose has never been broken. When he gets the call from Apollo, he assumes that he is going to be invited to be a sparring partner for the champion, the greatest honor he could imagine for himself.

But Apollo’s impetuous offer gives Rocky a chance to see himself differently. That offer does for him what Paul does for Billie in “Born Yesterday,” what Miss Moffat does for Morgan in “The Corn is Green,” or Obi-Wan does for Luke in “Star Wars.” Rocky has a chance to think of himself as someone who can hold his own with the world champion, and once he has that image of himself, it is just a matter of taking the steps to get there. That image also gives him the courage to risk getting close to Adrian. Rocky also gives Adrian a chance to see herself differently. He was told when he was young that he was not smart, so he should concentrate on his physical ability; she was told she was not pretty, and should concentrate on her mental ability. Each of them sees in the other what no one else did. He sees how pretty she is; she sees how bright he is; each sees the other as loveable, as no one has before. This, as much as anything, is what allows both of them to bloom.

Rocky is realistic about his goal. He does not need to win. He just needs to acquit himself with dignity, to show that he is in the same league as the champion. In order to achieve that goal, he will risk giving everything he has, risk even the small pride of an unbroken nose. He develops enough self-respect to risk public disgrace. This is a big issue for teenagers — adolescence has been characterized as the years in which everything centers around the prayer, “God, don’t let me be embarrassed today.” Rocky begins as someone afraid to give his best in case it is not good enough, and becomes someone who suspects that his best is enough to achieve his goals, and is willing to test himself to find out.

It is worth taking a look at Creed as well. Like the hare in the Aesop fable, he underestimates his opponent. He is so sure of himself, and so busy working on the business side of the fight that he comes to the fight unprepared.

It is especially meaningful that the action behind the scenes paralleled that in the movie. Stallone, a small-time actor, was offered a great deal of money for this script, which he wrote. But he insisted instead on selling it for a negligible sum, provided that he play the lead. The entire movie was made for less than $1 million. Stallone beat even longer odds than Rocky did when the movie went on to win the Oscar as Best Picture. Stallone also became only the third person in history (after Charles Chaplin and Orson Welles) to be nominated for both Best Actor and Best Screenplay.

Questions for Kids:

· Why did Mickey want to throw Rocky out of the gym?

· Why didn’t Rocky have higher aspirations, until after he got the offer from Apollo?

· How is Apollo like the hare in the fable about the tortoise and the hare? Why is it so hard for Rocky and Adrian to get to know one another?

Connections: There are four sequels, all increasingly garish and cartoonish. They are barely more than remakes, and are only for die-hard fans.

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Drama Series/Sequel Sports

Spy Kids

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: One brief almost-swear word
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, mostly comic
Diversity Issues: Strong female characters, several Latino leads
Date Released to Theaters: 2001
Date Released to DVD: August 15, 2011
Amazon.com ASIN: B004SIPAFK

This week’s release of the fourth in the “Spy Kids” series is a good reason to revisit the original.

Imagine James Bond crossed with “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and you might have an idea of what to expect in “Spy Kids,” the best family movie of the spring. It has just the right combination of giddy fantasy, exciting adventure, wonderful special effects, and sly comedy to be ideal for 7-12 year-olds and their families. It is doubly welcome, after the terrible “See Spot Run,” and especially because it features strong females and characters and performers from the Latino culture.

Carmen and Juni Cortez (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) are the children of Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino), once the cleverest spies in the world, but now loving parents who make a living as consultants. Or so they say.

It turns out that once the kids go to bed, Gregorio and Ingrid flip a few switches to connect to a command center that keeps them involved in spy missions, though now from a safe distance.

When top secret agents start disappearing, Gregorio and Ingrid call on “Uncle Felix” (Cheech Marin) to watch the kids and climb back into their spy gear to go off and save the world. But then they, too, disappear, and it is up to Carmen and Juni to rescue their parents, and, while they’re at it, the rest of the world, too. But first, they have to learn to respect and trust each other.

They also have to learn how to use a bunch of gadgets that would leave James Bond, Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, and even Inspector Gadget green with envy. I loved the way that instead of ray guns or other destructive devices the kids use fantasy versions of stuff that kids know best. They fight the bad guys with bubble gum that gives the enemy an electric shock, silly string that turns into cement, and, that ultimate dream, a back-pack-y sort of thing that enables them to fly. Similarly, instead of scary ninjas or soldiers, most of the bad guys are either thumb-shaped robot creatures who are literally all thumbs or a bunch of robot children whose most menacing aspect is glowing eyes and super strength.

Any good adventure story needs a great villain, and this one has the always-great Alan Cummings as Floop, the star of Juni’s favorite television program who is also the mastermind of the plot to create an army of robot children. His sidekick is Minion (Tony Shaloub), who transforms the captured spies into backwards-speaking, silly-looking mutants for Floop’s show. But one of the interesting things about the movie is that nearly everyone turns out to be something different than what they or others thought, even Minion and Floop. The transforming in the movie is not limited to the mutants.

Parents should know that the movie includes a little bit of potty humor (which most kids will find hilarious) and one almost-swear word. Younger children might be frightened by the mutant creatures, but most will find them more silly than scary. Characters are in comic peril and there is a certain amount of head-bonking violence, but no one even gets a scratch except for one villain whose encounter with flames leaves her having a very bad hair day.

Be sure to tell kids that the thumb-robots were inspired by drawings writer/director Robert Rodriguez did when he was 12, and ask them to come up with some pictures of things they’d like to put into a movie someday. Good topics for family discussion include how to know which secrets to share, the challenges of siblinghood (a two-generation challenge in the Cortez family) and the movie’s conclusion that spy work is easy compared to keeping a family together, which is not only more of a challenge, but more important.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach.”

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Action/Adventure DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Family Issues Series/Sequel Spies Stories About Kids

Star Wars

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

In what is now Episode 4 but what was the first episode filmed, the story starts right in the middle of the action, with a battle on a spaceship. Two robots or “droids” escape, the elegant C-3PO and his counterpart, the gurgling and beeping R2D2. They carry a message from Princess Leia to Obi-Wan Kenobi, asking for help. When they arrive at a desert planet, they are bought by Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who is then captured by “sand people,” but rescued by Ben Kenobi (Alec Guiness). Ben gets the message from Princess Leia and tells Luke they must go to help her fight the Empire. He tells Luke that his father was once a great fighter, a Jedi knight, “the best star pilot in the galaxy and a cunning warrior.” Luke says he cannot. Although Luke is restless and eager to explore the universe — he had begged his farmer uncle to let him go — he tells Ben, “I can’t get involved. I have work to do.” He will do as his uncle insisted and stay on the farm another year. Besides, this is not his fight. It all seems very far away.
But he gets back to the farm to find his aunt and uncle have been killed by Empire warriors trying to capture the droids. He and Kenobi hire Han Solo, a sometime smuggler, to get them to a planet called Alderan. Ben teaches Luke about “the force,” a power within and around everyone.
They arrive only to find that Alderan has been destroyed. The Empire has a new weapon capable of eliminating whole planets. Luke, Leia, and Han, trapped on this “death star,” must first escape, and then find a way to destroy it.
Discussion: George Lucas, who wrote and directed this movie, was deeply influenced by Joseph Campbell’s work on myths, and by his love for the great movie classics. This movie is rich in classic themes from both. The scene in the bar, with all the aliens, is very much like the bar scene in a Western movie. Han Solo resembles the cowboy ideal, the loner with no loyalty to any cause, but with his own sense of morality. Even his costume is reminiscent of a cowboy outfit, with boots and a gun holster at the hip.
Han and Luke must both decide whether to join the fight. At first, both are reluctant; in fact, Han leaves. But they accept the responsibility, as they must. The concept of “the force” in the movie may be something your children want to know more about.
Questions for Kids:
· Why does Luke decide to fight the Empire? Why does Han?
· Why does Han leave, and why does he come back?
Connections: There are two sequels, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi,” both re-issued in 1997 with additional scenes and special effects, and both exciting adventures. A new cycle of three movies, set a generation before “Star Wars” is currently in production, with Ewan McGregor as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi.

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Classic Fantasy Science-Fiction Series/Sequel

The Scorpion King

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Some very scary looking guys are about to kill a guy who would be even scarier-looking if he wasn’t tied up. But then everyone steps back in awe of a guy who steps in looking scariest of all and as they hesitate, he cocks an eyebrow and says simply, “Boo.” That is the Rock (WWF star Dwayne Johnson) and he plays the title role in this prequel to the “Mummy” movies, giving us the background of the character who appeared briefly but memorably in the second one as half-man, half very large bug.

This movie does not pretend to having anything like the wit and charm of the “Mummy” movies, which were a loving tribute to Saturday morning serials. It is produced by Vince McMahon, Chairman of the WWF (and one of its star performers). McMahon has made a fortune making wrestling matches into stories, with vivid characters and dramatic confrontations. “The Scorpion King” just takes it one step further, a three-act wrestling drama with computer graphics. Maybe the next step will be adding arias and turning it into an opera.

On the silly popcorn scale, it works pretty well, largely due to its star. The Rock has genuine screen presence. He even manages most of the material better than Michael Clarke Duncan (“The Green Mile,” “The Whole Nine Yards”) who is just too much of an actor to deliver the cheesy dialogue with the right mix of sincerity and irony, and Peter Facinelli (“Can’t Hardly Wait,” “The Big Kahuna”), whose thin-voiced delivery doesn’t convey the necessary petulant malevolence.

The Rock is the good guy. He has a comical sidekick. No one bothered to give him a name. He is actually listed in the credits as “Comical Sidekick” (Grant Heslov). There is also a bad guy (English accented, of course), evil dictator Memnon (Steven Brand), who relies on a sorceress (Kelly Hu) to guide him in battle. The sorceress is beautiful. You get where this is all going; I don’t have to spell it out.

There is one innovation worth mentioning. In action movies, the hero is almost always stoic, even when he gets hurt. Think of Rambo sewing up his own wounds. But the Rock, carrying over the conventions of professional wrestling, grimaces in pain when he gets hurt. It doesn’t rise to the level of acting, but in a funny way I think that it adds some heart to the story.

Parents should know that the movie has a lot of action violence, meaning that it is not too graphic or gory. There are some vivid images, including attacking cobras, an impaled body, and a dead child. And there are very vivid sound effects making on- and off-screen violence more explicit with spurting and squishing sounds. There are sexual references and non-explicit sexual situations, including two women in a man’s bed. There are no four-letter words, but there are some strong epithets.

Families who see this movie should talk about Memnon’s claim that order was better than freedom. They may also want to talk about how the sorceress protected herself from Memnon.

Families who enjoy this movie should watch The Mummy and The Mummy Returns.

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Action/Adventure Series/Sequel

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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