High Crimes

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcoholic character
Violence/ Scariness: Violence, including peril, dead bodies and car accident
Diversity Issues: Strong black, latino, and female characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2002

High Crimes” is merely mediocre, an all-but-thrilless thriller of the “loved not wisely but too well” betrayed-woman genre.

Ashley Judd plays spirited and telegenic defense lawyer Claire Kubik, who thinks she has things pretty well figured out. She knows just when and how much time she needs for a sexual encounter with her handsome and devoted husband (Jim Caviezel) so that she can get pregnant. She feels confident that she is doing the right thing in freeing man accused of rape by claiming that his rights were violated by a technicality. As she explains to the television cameras, “When the rights of any defendant are violated, we are all at risk until justice has been redressed.” And then, just in case we missed the message, we get to hear it again when she watches herself on the news.

But when a bungled robbery attempt leads to a fingerprint check of their house, she discovers that there are some things she didn’t know. For example, she did not know that her husband’s name is really Ron Chapman, that he was once a Marine, and that he is wanted by federal authorities for his part in a massacre in El Salvador.

He is arrested by military authorities, and Claire is almost as disoriented by her unfamiliarity with the military justice system as she is by the unfamiliarity of the husband she thought she knew. But she swings into action. The lawyer assigned to Chapman is willing, but inexperienced. Claire hires a “wild card” lawyer who has “beat the Marines before and is hungry to do it again.” Charles Grimes (Morgan Freeman) may be a recovering alcoholic with a run-down practice, but she hires him. Then there are some predictable twists and turns and betrayals and threats, and then it ends. Badly.

Freeman and Judd have a lot of chemistry, as we saw in the much better “Kiss the Girls.” But the script is at or below the level of the average Lifetime made-for-tv movie. Here’s hoping they find a better one for their next movie together.

Parents should know that the movie has some violent moments, including flashbacks to a massacre by US armed forces and a bombing that kills civilians. Characters are in jeopardy, and some are wounded, one has a miscarriage, and one is killed. A character is an alcoholic and there are scenes in a bar. There are sexual references and situations, including prostitutes, and some very strong language. The issue of betrayal may also be upsetting for some audience members.

Characters in this movie deal with many conflicts about trust. Families who see this movie should talk about how we learn whom to trust and how we feel when our trust is betrayed. Characters also have to deal with ends-justify-the-means conflicts. How do you feel about the way they resolve them? Some family members may want to talk about the choice Charles makes when he is asked to take a drink.

Families who enjoy this movie may also enjoy the much more graphically violent “Kiss the Girls” and a movie about a Justice Department lawyer on the trail of a female serial killer, “Black Widow.

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Lara Croft: Tomb Raider

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: A few swear words, some innuendo
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense action violence, guns, explosions, peril, some deaths
Diversity Issues: Strong female lead character
Date Released to Theaters: 2001

Something more than a video game but something less than a movie, “Tomb Raider” has some great action sequences and the ever-watchable Angelina Jolie. What it does not have is much of a plot, interesting characters, or a reason to care about the outcome. A clumsy salute to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is just a reminder of how much better that movie is. At least when you are playing the game you have points to keep you going. Here, all you have is a dreary old “cryptic letter from long-dead father” and “mean lawyer from some mysterious coven wants to take over the world by controlling time” story, and the movie sags whenever the action stops.

Lady Lara Croft (Jolie) is something of a cross between Indiana Jones, Batman, and Barbie. She lives in a huge old mansion with an Alfred-style butler and a computer geek (Noah Taylor) who helps her with technology, except when she doesn’t let him – as he meticulously documents each screw he removes from an antique clock she interrupts by smashing it apart. The planets are about to align for the first time in 5000 years, which means that she has just days to collect the two pieces of a triangle that controls time from ruins on opposite sides of the globe. Meanwhile, the bad guys want it, too, and will do anything to try and stop her.

The action sequences are fine, especially one that shifts from Lara’s lyrical, acrobatic session on a bungee cord in her cavernous living room to a full-scale, window-smashing invasion by a small army of masked intruders. I also liked the icy ruins in Siberia. Jolie has the kickboxing skills and the acting chops to deliver what people who go to this movie want to see (she even walks in character, moving like a great panther), but the screenwriter and director let her down when it comes to the boringly generic bad guys and the missing-father motivation. I guess it is too much to expect the people behind this kind of movie to attempt to create a real character or know very much about women, but even by those standards, this movie gets it so wrong that it interferes with our connection to Lara. She is so tough that she shrugs off the near destruction of her home, but she is willing to risk her live to save a man who has done nothing but betray her. She responds to her butler’s “A lady should be modest” by dropping her towel, but her appearance in a dress and hat is considered to be some kind of progress. Lara always looks a little relieved when she gets a chance to fight, and we agree with her.

Parents should know that in addition to the extensive action sequences with characters in peril and many deaths (mostly anonymous minions), there are a couple of bad words and some implied nudity.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Lara is such a loner, and whether she has any interest in the history or art of the treasures she raids from tombs. They may want to discuss some of the conflicts between people who see antiquities as art for universities and museums and those who consider them sacred items that should never be moved. If you had the chance to stop time and see one person who has died, who would it be?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the Indiana Jones trilogy and the director’s previous “Con Air.”

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Monster’s Ball

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Extremely strong language, including racial epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Brutal violence, excplicit execution, suicide, death of a child
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2001

“Monster’s Ball” is the derisive term the prison guards use for the gruesome ceremonies the night before a death row prisoner is to be executed. In the movie of that name, Hank (Billy Bob Thornton), one of those guards, clings to his hatred and racism as a way of distancing himself from his loneliness and misery. He throws two black boys off his property, even though they are his son’s friends. He cannot even allow himself to agree to call a condemned man’s child just before execution to tell him that his father will not be allowed to say goodbye to him. And when his son (Heath Ledger), now a third generation death row guard, gets sick while escorting the prisoner to the electric chair, Hank brutally assaults him physically and emotionally. Although it is clear that it is Hank’s own vulnerability and isolation that terrifies him, the attack and its aftermath are horrifying.

Meanwhile, Leticia (Halle Berry), the condemned prisoner’s wife, is desperate. Her son drowns his misery in candy and is very overweight. She has lost her waitress job, her car has broken down, and she is about to lose her house.

Hank and Leticia see their lives as hopelessly bleak, and they get worse as unspeakable tragedy strikes them both. In a way, the tragedy frees them. Having lost everything, there is no longer any reason to try to hold on to old notions and old fears.

The artificiality of the plot is a distraction, at times seeming like a bizarre version of the old Hollywood imperative that the romantic couple has to “meet cute.” But Thornton and Berry are magnificent. Berry deservedly won an Oscar for her brave and vulnerable performance and Thornton matches her every step of the way. The dignity and poignancy of both performances is deeply moving. Sean Combs is outstanding in his brief appearance as Leticia’s husband, demonstrating great dignity and a range of emotion as he prepares for his execution.

Parents should know that this is an extremely brutal movie. It includes an explicit execution, a suicide by gunshot, the death of a child, and extremely explicit sexual situations, including prostitution. There are very disturbing family situations involving emotional and physical abuse. Characters use very strong language, and they drink and smoke.

Families who see this movie should talk about how people become racist and how we find help when we need it. Do you agree with what Hank decided about his father? What is Leticia thinking at the very end of the movie? What do you think will happen next?

Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Sling Blade, which Thornton wrote, directed, and starred in.

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Ordinary People

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Mild
Alcohol/ Drugs: TK
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: Anti-Semitic remark by Conrad's grandmother (and lack of objection by Beth) intended to show insularity
Date Released to Theaters: 1980

Plot: Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) has returned home after four months in a mental hospital. He tried to kill himself following a tragic boating accident with his brother, Bucky, who drowned. He is trying to find a way to fit in, both at home and at school. His father, Calvin (Donald Sutherland), tries to reach out to him, but is afraid of saying the wrong thing, and is shy about his own emotions. His mother, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), is uncomfortable with emotions and with anything else that might be “messy” or hard to control.

After some hesitation, Conrad seeks out Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), a psychiatrist recommended to him when he left the hospital, telling him that he is seeking “control.” Berger warns him that control is tough to achieve, but says he will do what he can. He advises Conrad to start from the outside, work on his actions and let the feelings follow.

Conrad begins to reach out to a sympathetic girl at school, Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern). He makes contact with Karen (Dinah Manoff), a friend from his hospital stay, who seems to have “control,” to be busy with friends and activities and sure of herself. He is devastated when he tries to call her again, and hears that she has killed herself. He calls Berger in the middle of the night, and insists on seeing him. He relinquishes what he thinks of as “control” to confess to Berger — and himself — that he can’t forgive himself for surviving when his brother died, that he feels guilty and unworthy.

Calvin begins to realize that Beth’s unwillingness to connect to her own emotions or anyone else’s is suffocating the family. They had had the appearance of closeness, but the tragedy revealed how superficial it was. Their relationship unravels quickly, and she leaves, as Cal and Conrad begin to share their feelings.

Discussion: This is a movie about emotional honesty, about the courage and emotional vocabulary that are necessary for the connections and intimacy we need to be able to survive challenges like the tragedy faced by this family. Berger says, “If you can’t feel pain, then you’re not going to feel anything else, either.” The characters represent a wide variety of approaches and abilities to emotional openness and “control.” Conrad and Calvin are both groping their way toward a better understanding of themselves and others and the ability to communicate.

Beth does not want to try. She is by no means an ogre. Indeed, it is clear that the director and writer of the movie feel sorry for her. She has chosen emptiness she can control rather than “messy” feelings. Beth preferred Bucky to Conrad because Bucky’s easy confidence did not place any emotional demands on her. Conrad says, “I can’t talk to her! The way she looks at me! She hates me!” What Conrad feels as rejection is really Beth’s fear that his sensitivity and vulnerability will put demands on her that she can’t or won’t be able to respond to. She can’t bear the thought that she might somehow be responsible for Conrad’s pain, while Calvin is willing to confront that issue in order to be able to help Conrad.

Jeannine at first pulls back from Conrad’s attempt to connect with her by telling her the truth about himself, but then apologizes. She wants to understand him; it was just that at first she did not know how to respond, so retreated into the more comfortable and familiar environment of joking around. In contrast, Karen, who seems to have so much “control” and goes to elaborate pains to persuade Conrad that she is doing fine, is unable to cope.

Teenagers may know of someone who has attempted suicide, or of someone who has been successful. This movie provides an opportunity to discuss what led Conrad and Karen to consider it, how the perspective of a person about his own worth is very different from that of those around him, and what the other options are for people who are deeply depressed. Questions for Kids:

· Why is control so important to Conrad? Is it important to Beth and Calvin, too?

· What do you think of Berger’s advice about starting from the outside?

· How does Berger help Conrad? How does Jeannine help him?

· Why does he quit the swim team? Why doesn’t he tell his parents?

· How do you feel about Beth? Do you dislike her or feel sorry for her or both? Why is it so hard for her to give her husband and son what they feel they need?

Connections: This film received Oscars for Best Picture, Screenplay, and Supporting Actor (Timothy Hutton). It also popularized the lovely “Canon” by Pachelbel. Viewers of “Nick at Nite” will recognize Mary Tyler Moore from “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

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Rock Star

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug use, drinking, and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Some tense moments, explicit nipple-piercing scene
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2001

There is logic, there is movie logic, and then there is the kind of “throw some big musical numbers and some good-looking stars on the screen and no one will notice that it makes no sense whatsoever — just look at ‘Flashdance'” logic. “Rock Star” is in that last category, and while it is not as preposterously entertaining as “Flashdance,” it is still has moments of guilty pleasure.

The story goes back to “Cinderella,” or at least to “Rocky,” with a little bit from Pinocchio. Chris (Mark Wahlberg) a 1980’s metal band’s biggest fan, gets picked out of obscurity to become the band’s new lead singer, only to find that dreams are not always what they seem from the outside. The equivalent of Pinocchio’s visit to the place where boys get turned into donkeys is Chris’s life of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, with increasingly more of the former. But before you can say “This would make a great episode of ‘Behind the Music,'” he sees the error of his ways, and finds the girl who loved him all along. I think he even invents grunge, the next new music craze, because he somehow goes from shrieking hard rock in leather pants to playing anquished ballads in a Seattle coffee house. Then there’s the clinch and the fade-out, followed by the movie’s most entertaining scenes, the out-takes shown during the credits.

The movie’s biggest problem is that it cannot make up its mind whether it wants to be a satire or play it straight. It tweaks the rock star worldview now and then, but no one could ever send up metal bands better than that masterpiece mockumentary, “This is Spinal Tap,” and they do not even try. That leaves us with an umimaginative rise-and-fall story that never really captures our hearts or even our attention. At least that makes it easier to ignore major lapses in the storyline.

Wahlberg enjoys himself onscreen, but it is impossible not to compare this to his performance in the vastly more complex and intelligent “Boogie Nights,” another movie about a naive young man who is brought into a world of debauchery and corruption. Jennifer Anniston is woefully underused in a standard-issue “good woman who stands by her man and holds on to her values” role that gives her only a few brief opportunities to show her crackerjack timing and ability to give snap to anything within 50 miles of a comeback. It is nice to see the musicians played by real-life guitarists Zakk Wylde and Brian Vander Ark, bassist Jeff Pilson and drummer Jason Bonham.

Parents should know that the movie is rated R for very strong language, nudity, explicit sexual situations (including group sex and bisexual encounters), and abuse of every kind of licit and illicit substance (even hotel room furniture). Many characters give the finger. There is an explicit close-up of a very unhygienic nipple-piercing. A gay character is insulted and fired from his job. The overall message is that the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll lifestyle is empty and destructive, but not unappealing, for a short time anyway. Interestingly, there is some suggestion that it is a cynical marketing strategy, though that appears to be rationalization. One nice shift from the usual format for this kind of movie is that Chris has parents who are entirely loving and supportive of his passion for metal, and genuinely enjoy the music themselves.

Families who see this movie should talk about how some people limit themselves to dreaming that they can be exactly like someone else, instead of thinking about dreams that allow them to be most themselves. Why was it so easy for Chris to lose his way, while Emily saw that it was wrong? Why was it important for her to have her own life and career? What do we learn about Chris from the way he gets back on stage after his fall? What does he learn about himself? Do you agree with the comment that “we all owe somebody an apology along the way?”

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy This Is Spinal Tap (Special Edition) (mature material). They also might like to compare the Steel Dragons’s song “Anything Goes” to a classic song by the same name by Cole Porter.

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