What’s Up Doc?

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 1972

Plot: “Once upon a time there was a plaid overnight bag,” this movie begins. But actually there are four, identical on the outside, but with very different contents. One contains a set of rare rocks on their way to being presented at a conference of musicologists. One contains a very valuable collection of jewelry. One contains top secret government documents. The last one contains nothing more than a change of clothes. All four bags converge in a large hotel to provide the framework for an affectionate valentine to the classic screwball comedies of the 1930s. Like “Bringing Up Baby,” this centers on a madcap young woman (Barbra Streisand), Judy Maxwell, who decides to show her appreciation for a shy professor in spectacles (Ryan O’Neal), Howard Bannister, by disrupting his life as much as is humanly possible and then some. The attempts by a spy to steal the bag with the documents and a thief to steal the bag with the jewels help to make things a bit more complicated.

Professor Bannister is at the hotel to present his findings about the musical qualities of rocks used by ancient societies as primitive instruments. He is accompanied by his stuffy and overbearing fiancée, Eunice (Madeline Kahn). He hopes to get a research grant from wealthy Mr. Larabee, who will be attending the conference. Judy, who came to the hotel to cadge a free meal, is drawn to Howard, and stays on to be near him. She impersonates Eunice at the opening dinner, utterly captivating Larabee. She then proceeds, as Howard says, to “bring havoc and chaos to everyone,” including the destruction of a hotel room (and Howard’s engagement), and a wildly funny car chase through the streets of San Francisco, before it all gets straightened out.

Discussion: This movie is a lot of fun, but it does not come close to meeting the standards of the movies it is trying to emulate. The main flaw is that Judy and Howard (and the actors who portray them) are simply not as appealing as their prototypes in classics like “Bringing Up Baby.” For example, as we meet Judy, she is stealing a meal from a hotel, something which may have had more appeal in the “anti- establishment” early 1970s, but which now seems less than charming. The big laugh line at the end of the movie, a poke at O’Neal’s overwhelmingly successful previous movie, “Love Story,” will not mean anything to today’s kids.

Questions for Kids:

· What do you think about the way Judy behaved? Did she ever think ahead, or did she just do what seemed right at the moment?

· Eunice tells Howard that she does not want romance because she wants something stronger — trust. What is the point of view of the movie about that? How can you tell?

· Which is the funniest part of the movie? Were there any parts that were supposed to be funny that you did not think were funny? Why?

Connections: See “Bringing Up Baby” and compare it. Some of the other classic screwball comedies are “My Man Godfrey” and “The Lady Eve.”

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A Knight’s Tale

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Lots of jousting and sword-fighting violence, not too graphic
Diversity Issues: Class differences are a theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2001

If the idea of a medieval jousting movie set to classic rock songs like “We Will Rock You,” “Low Rider,” and “The Boys are Back in Town” bothers you, forget this movie and rent “Ivanhoe” instead. But if the idea appeals to you, get some popcorn and get ready for a ravishingly good time. This is “Ivanhoe” crossed with “Rocky” for the MTV/WWF generation, and it is great silly movie fun. In other words, leave skepticism behind and it will rock you.

Heath Ledger plays William Thatcher, a knight’s squire who steps into his liege’s armor when the knight is killed in a jousting match. All he is thinking of is winning the match so that he can get some food for himself and the other two squires (“The Full Monty’s” Mark Addy as Roland and “28 Days’” Alan Tudyk as Wat). But once the armor is on and the lance is in his hand, his childhood dream of being a knight is awakened, and he persuades Roland and Wat to help him pretend to be a nobleman, so he can continue to compete.

A young writer named Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany), forges the appropriate documents and acts as his herald, and William becomes Sir Ulrich. Although his greatest skill is in the sword-fighting event, the big money is in jousting, so that is where he decides to compete.

Of course William meets a beautiful princess (newcomer Shannyn Sossamon) and an arrogant champion who competes with him for the princess and the title (Rufus Sewell, wonderfully brooding as Count Adhemar). The secret of William’s low birth is revealed at the most dramatic moment. But there is a happily-ever-after ending that is just right for this fairy tale.

Ledger holds his own well in his first leading role, and Bettany is completely winning as Chaucer, who may have a gambling problem but who knows the value of words. Sossamon, in her first role, is pretty, but unimpressive. The art direction sets the scene beautifully, and, if you are willing to give it a chance, the music works very well, especially in a dance sequence that shifts about 600 years into David Bowie mid-step. I’m sure that if Bachman Turner Overdrive had been aroundin the 1400’s, they would have played “Taking Care of Business” during combat.

Parents should know that the movie is very violent, with a lot of shattered lances and battered combatants, but little gore. There is some strong language and a mild sexual situation.

Families who see this movie should talk about the pros and cons of the use of anachronisms (Wat says, “It’s a lance – hel–LO!”) to tell this story, and about the loyalty shown by William, Jocelyn, Roland, Wat, and Geoffrey (and Coville) to each other. They should also talk about why Adhemar was willing to do anything to win and how he would have felt if he had been successful. William is not the only knight who competes under cover – why does the Prince want to compete without letting anyone know who he is? Why was it important for William to allow Coville to lose with honor? And families should discuss Jocelyn’s order to William that he lose to prove his love for her, and whether that was fair or kind. Take a look at Leigh Hunt’s poem, “The Glove and the Lions” at http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/poems/275.html for a similar story that concludes, “No love,” quoth he, “but vanity sets love a task like that.” They might want to take a look at a modernized version of “The Pardoner’s Tale” (http://www.luminarium.org/medlit/pardoner.htm) to see if Geoffrey Chaucer kept his word and got his revenge.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Ivanhoe,” though it’s a little slow between the jousting matches and, as in the book, Ivanhoe ends up with the wrong girl. They will also enjoy “Gladiator” (warning: much more violent than this movie).

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Birthday Girl

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: A lot of drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Scary situations including violence
Diversity Issues: Cultural differences
Date Released to Theaters: 2002

A very uneven thriller-romance is brightened by dark comedy and another magnetic performance by Nicole Kidman as the 21st century equivalent to a mail order bride. Shy bank teller John (Ben Chaplin) orders his bride from an internet company called “From Russia With Love.” He orders a brand new double bed and cleans up his little suburban house in anticipation, though he is not able to (foreshadowing alert) rid his house of an infestation of ants, and then goes off to the airport to pick her up.

The good news is, well, she looks like Nicole Kidman. The bad news is that she does not speak English, she smokes, and on the way home from the airport she has to throw up.

John has some second thoughts, but he can’t get anyone from the agency on the phone. Meanwhile, Nadiya efficiently discovers his stash of porn and even more efficiently makes herself sexually indispensible.

Nadiya stays at home and knits, and John goes off to the bank with a spring in his step and the ring she brought him on his finger. He presents her with a Russian/English dictionary and she uses it to tell him that it is her birthday. But the celebration is interrupted by the arrival of her cousin and his friend.

At this point, things start to go wrong. Many betrayals, a bank robbery, a lot of smacking around and threats with guns later, there is a resolution as uneven as the movie’s tone. There are some signs of real talent here in John’s generic performance evaluation and the bank’s “trust” exercises, Nadia’s monologue about her binoculars and her bright red knitting. The movie’s director, screenwriters, and producer (three brothers) clearly intended to make a movie that transcends genre, but it does not really work. It just feels unsettlingly muddled.

Parents should know that the movie has very strong language, a lot of violence and explicit sex, including bondage, references to prostitution, and an out of wedlock pregnancy. Stealing and corruption are positively portrayed.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Kidman’s sensational performance as a woman who entices two teenage boys to kill her husband in To Die For and Francois Truffaut’s mail-order bride thriller Mississippi Mermaid.

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Chicken Run

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Characters in peril, minor character (chicken) killed with an ax
Diversity Issues: Strong, smart female characters (also strong female villain)
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

Chicken Run” has arrived to the joy and relief of the many fans of Nick Parks’ Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit short films. In his studio’s first feature-length movie, a brave chicken plots an escape from a small Yorkshire chicken farm.

The stern and angry Mrs. Tweedy (voice of Miranda Richardson) and her brow-beaten (should we say hen-pecked?) husband have bullied their hens into producing eggs, but now they have set up a fierce-looking machine that turns chickens into chicken pies. Ginger (voice of Julia Sawalha) is a smart, brave, loyal chicken who will not leave unless she can take the others with her. When an American circus rooster named Rocky (voice of Mel Gibson) arrives, Ginger gets him to agree to teach the chickens to fly over the fence, so they can find a place where they can live in freedom.

Parks is a master at creating a world that is enchantingly believable. The farm seems to be set in the 1950’s, and every detail, down to the last nail in the last board on the hen house wall, looks exactly as it should. Though his painstaking process produces only a few seconds of film footage each day, every frame is filled with vivid personalities who seem to be moving in real time, each creating an instantly recognizable character. One look at Mrs. Tweedy’s formidable Wellington boots marching into the hen yard for inspection, and we know everything about her. The chickens are highly individual, completely believable, and wildly funny, whether doing Tae-Bo-like exercises for increasing wing power or a celebratory Lindy hop. But I admit that my favorite characters are two forager/thief rats who are so completely charming that it is impossible to imagine anyone objecting to their stealing.

The movie also features Parks’ special talents for creating deliciously malevolent machines and split-second action sequences. Ginger and Rocky fall into the chicken pie machine for a scene that combines Rube Goldberg complexity of gears and operations with the breath-catching near misses of Indiana Jones.

Three cheers for producer Dreamworks, who let Parks be Parks and didn’t focus-group him into making something more linear and accessible. What that means, though, is that the movie does not have some of what both adults and kids expect in a G-rated movie. This is not a musical in which the heroine sits down 15 minutes into the story to sing about her dreams or adorable sidekicks provide comic relief.

This is not a script with jokes that children will necessarily understand. Indeed, given that most of the parents of today’s school-age children were born 20 years after the 1950’s, there are several jokes parents may not understand, like a pointed reference to the delay in the US entry into World War II and a couple of witty tributes to the classic movie, “The Great Escape.” The movie has a decidedly British point of view, with a wonderful range of accents that will be much more meaningful (and understandable) to English children than they are to Americans. Parks is like Bugs Bunny creator Chuck Jones, who, when asked whether he made cartoons for adults or children, replied, “I make them for myself and my friends.” But, as with Bugs Bunny, kids will enjoy the world created by this movie, and will rejoice in the chickens’ adventures.

Parents should know that although the movie is rated G, it may be too scary or hard to follow for children under 6 or 7. A minor character is killed off-screen and characters are in peril throughout the movie.

Families who see this movie should talk about why it was hard for Rocky to tell the truth, and even to understand what telling the truth meant, as when he said, “I didn’t lie to them, dollface. I just omitted certain truths,” and when he tells Ginger that if they want the chickens to perform they have to tell them what they want to hear. Talk, too, about Ginger’s perseverance in the face of “million to one” odds, and her refusal to escape without her friends, and about the importance of leadership and teamwork. Ask kids why Ginger had a dream of freedom that some of the other chickens could not even imagine, and what it meant to say that “the fences aren’t just around the farm – they’re up here on your head.”

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Parks’ Wallace and Gromit videos: “The Wrong Trousers,” “A Grand Day Out,” and “A Close Shave.

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Dick

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Yes
Alcohol/ Drugs: One character is a major drug users, accidental in
Violence/ Scariness: Mild comic peril
Diversity Issues: References to anti-Semitism
Date Released to Theaters: 1999

The better you remember the early 70’s, the more you will enjoy this very funny movie. It purports to reveal the “Deep Throat” who gave the Washington Post the inside information that led to President Nixon’s resignation. And come to think of it, in many ways this makes more sense than what we’ve been led to believe is the real story. According to this film, the downfall of the Nixon administration was caused by two 15-year- old girls who are so dim that H.R. Haldeman (Dave Foley) says, “I’ve met yams who have more going on upstairs than those two.”

Besty (Kirsten Dunst) and Arlene (Michelle Williams) are bubble-headed best friends who accidentally see a burgler breaking into the Watergate when they sneak out to mail in an entry to the “Why I should win a date with Bobby Sherman” contest at Tiger Beat magazine. The next day, they spot the same man (Harry Sherer as Gordon Liddy) while they are on a White House tour. Worried that they might tell someone, President Richard Nixon (Dan Hedaya) tries to co-opt them by appointing them “official White House dog walkers” and “secret teen advisors.”

At first the girls are thrilled, and they believe the President when he tells them that the massive shredding of documents they stumbled upon is for his hobby of paper mache. Arlene even develops a crush on “Dick” and is swooningly recording an Olivia Newton John song for him when she accidentally erases 18 1/2 minutes from one of his tapes. When she hears on the tape that he is not what he seemed, the two girls decide to talk to the Washington Post reporters and end up turning over the key evidence in a parking garage.

Boomer parents who lived through the 1970’s will enjoy this visit to the worst hair and clothes decade of the century. It is a clever tweak on the “Forrest Gump” concept, as the two girls turn out to be responsible for many of the best-remembered historical details of the era. “Satuday Night Live” and “Kids From the Hall” regulars appear as the people Woodward and Bernstein called “the President’s Men” (plus Rosemary Woods) and as Woodward and Bernstein themselves. All are terrific, and the under- appreciated Saul Rubinek is a stand-out as Henry Kissinger, far smarter than the people around him but so needy that he will try to persuade even the girls to agree with him. And Dan Hedaya, the only man in America with a five-o’clock shadow heavier than that of the real Richard Nixon, is sensational, needy, paranoid, and, in an hilarious dream sequence, positively endearing.

Some teens will enjoy it, even without a grounding in the history, but they will enjoy it more if they watch “All the President’s Men” first (Bruce McCulloch does a fine job parodying not just Carl Bernstein but also Dustin Hoffman playing Carl Bernstein). Parents should know that the explitives are not deleted and there is some very strong language, including puns relating to the President’s first name and a whispered explanation of the original meaning of “Deep Throat.” Betsy’s brother is a heavy drug user who is perpetually stoned, and some of his marijuana makes its way into the cookies the girls make for the President. Families will want to discuss the real events underlying the Watergate scandal and the impact it has had on the way we see the Presidency and the way the media covers the Presidents.

Video tip: This movie is reminiscient of the best movie ever about two girls with a crush on an impossible object: “The World of Henry Orient.” A funny and insightful glimpse into the stage of life where we rehearse our emotions by fixing on the unattainable, it is well worth watching. I noticed that “Dick” shares one important prop with “Henry Orient,” the super-modern one-piece telephone, and suspected that it was an homage to a classic film.

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