Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Characters in peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2001

For the third time in a row, Disney departs from its traditional animation release formula with this non-musical, intense-action adventure (rated PG for violence) about the search for the legendary city that mysteriously disappeared in ancient times.

Michael J. Fox appealingly provides the voice of Milo Thatch, a scholar and linguist who dreams of realizing his late grandfather’s quest to find Atlantis. He works at Washington’s Smithsonian Institution, where he is relegated to the boiler room. A wealthy and eccentric friend of his grandfather’s offers to fund an expedition, and Milo finds himself on a submarine led by Commander Lyle T. Rourke (James Garner). The crew includes hundreds of sailors led by Helga, a sultry mercenary (Claudia Christian); Sweet, a genial half-black, half-Native American doctor (Phil Morris); Audrey, a teenaged Latina mechanic (Jacqueline Obradors); Vinnie, a demolitions expert (Don “Father Guido Sarducci” Novello); Mrs. Packard, an unflappable, chain-smoking communications officer (gravel-voiced Florence Stanley); and the Mole, a geologist who loves dirt (Corey Burton).

They set off on a journey reminiscent of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” culminating in a ferocious battle with the Leviathan, a mechanical sea monster that destroys the ship and kills most of the crew. Those who are left struggle through every obstacle imaginable but finally make it to Atlantis, where they meet Kida, a Pocahantas-style princess (Cree Summer) who speaks every language and is thousands of years old. She wants to make friends with the strangers, but her father wants them killed, so no one else will ever find them. Milo helps Princess Kida uncover the secret source of her country’s power but another threat appears – it turns out that Rourke and the others are only there to loot Atlantis. Milo has to find a way to save the place that has become his real home.

Parents should know that this movie is more intense and scary than the usual Disney release, with lots of (highly anachronistic) dive-bombing planes, lots of guns, a huge robot monster, fire, and the death of hundreds of anonymous sailors. Characters are mean to each other and some betray each other. Major characters are in peril and some are killed. One character is a chain-smoker, and there is a joke about whiskey, one about sleeping in the nude, and a whoopee-cushion gag. Milo becomes seasick. The movie does a good job of showing an inter-racial cast working well together, and there are both male and female good guys and bad guys.

Families should talk about the rise and fall of cultures over time, and how the study of history is essential in keeping a culture alive. Kids might want to learn more about the legends of Atlantis and read about the Greek Island of Santorini, which may be the source for some of them. Families might also want to talk about some of the anachronisms and plot holes in the movie. A key element of the plot involves a reference in an ancient document to Iceland, not Ireland, which, of course, had different names and were spelled with different alphabets thousands of years ago. The technology is also inaccurate – we are willing to suspend belief for Jules Verne-style science fiction machinery, but this features airplanes and trucks as commonplace items.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “The Thief and the Cobbler” – the character of the thief (voice of Jonathan Winters) may have inspired this movie’s Mole.

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Big Fat Liar

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: Some crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Adult social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters at all levels
Date Released to Theaters: 2002

In this likeable family comedy, Jason Shepherd (Frankie Muniz of “Malcolm in the Middle”) plays an 8th grader who relies on his easy smile and even easier lies to keep him out of trouble, with a little help from his reluctant but loyal friend Kaylee (Nickelodeon’s Amanda Bynes). But it all catches up with him when he tells his teacher an elaborate story about being late with his homework because his father choked on a meatball. Though he thinks he has backed it up by pretending to be his father on the phone, he is busted when his parents show up at school. He has until 6:00 pm to turn in the paper, which must be in his own handwriting. If he doesn’t get it in on time, he’ll have to repeat the class in summer school.

He writes a story called “Big Fat Liar.” Racing to get it in on time, he collides with a car that turns out to contain an even bigger liar than he is, Hollywood producer Marty Wolf (Paul Giamattti). Jason gets into Wolf’s car and everything falls out of his backpack. He shoves it all back in, but when he gets to the school, the story is missing. Summer school is bad enough, but even worse is that no one believes that he really did write the story or that he got a ride from a Hollywood producer. He is literally the boy who cried (Marty) Wolf.

Summer comes, and summer school is miserable. At the movies, Jason sees a coming attraction for a Marty Wolf movie called….”Big Fat Liar.” Wolf has taken the story Jason left in the car and turned it into a major motion picture!

Jason sees this as his chance to prove to his parents that for once he really was telling the truth. When his parents go away for the weekend, Jason take his entire bank account and buys two tickets to Los Angeles so that he and Kaylee can find Wolf and make him tell Jason’s father the truth.

Jason and Kaylee scam their way into getting a limo ride from the airport and duck off the Universal Studios tour bus to find Wolf’s office. Then they scam their way into his office, but Wolf refuses to tell the truth. So Jason and Kaylee, along with a growing group of fellow Wolf-haters, set up a series of pranks designed to torture Wolf into admitting that Jason wrote the story for his new movie.

Muniz and Giamatti are deft comic actors, but the highlight of the movie is Bynes as Kaylee. Her two different but equally hilarious renditions of Hollywood secretaries are gems. Giamatti is so relentlessly selfish and egotistical that it gets a bit tedious, but he does do a wonderful little dance to “Hungry Like a (what else?) Wolf.”

Parents should know that, while the movie’s theme is the importance of telling the truth and being trustworthy, the message is a little mixed. In order to prove that he was telling the truth about finishing his story, Jason and Kaylee have to lie, steal, vandalize, and generally behave in an irresponsible – and illegal – manner, even by the standards of comic fantasy. And at the end, Jason’s parents are proud of him for proving that he was not lying when he said he had written his paper, never mentioning that perhaps two 14-year-olds should not have flown to California when they were supposed to be at home. One small bright spot worth mentioning is that all of Jason’s efforts are intended to show that he was telling the truth. His motive for pursuing Wolf is never getting any money or credit for his story. Another strength of the movie is its racially diverse cast.

Families who see this movie should talk about why people lie and how it feels not to be trusted. When someone is caught in a lie, how can he or she regain the trust of those who have been disappointed? Would you like to see the movie based on Jason’s story? What do you think it would be like?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Harriet the Spy. The Kid, and Snow Day.

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Charlotte Gray

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Battle violence, tense and scary scenes, characters killed
Diversity Issues: Strong, brave, capable female character, Nazi treatment of Jews
Date Released to Theaters: 2001

This is an old-fashioned WWII movie, with gallant heroes and vile bad guys, romantic longing and fabulous 1940’s clothes, heartbreaking betrayal and even more heartbreaking loyalty, odious collaborators and valiant resistance fighters, a purse containing both lipstick and a cyanide pill, and characters who are idealists and cynics, sometimes both at once.

This is the kind of movie that used to star actresses like Maureen O’Hara, the kind they mean when they ask why no one makes those kinds of movies any more. And this is the kind of movie that starts with an exquisitely gloved woman riding on a train, looking out the window at the countryside and thinking to herself, “It all seemed so simple then,” while, as the wheels turn, we go back into the past to see what brought her to that point.

Cate Blanchett plays Charlotte Gray, a Scottish woman working in London who is recruited to assist the French resistance. The pilot she loves has been shot down over France, and she has some hope that if she gets there, she will be able to find him. Charlotte is brave, smart, highly principled, and well trained. But nothing can prepare her for the reality of being behind enemy lines, the relentlessness of it and the agony of the moral compromises and all-around physical and emotional grubbiness.

Charlotte, now under cover as Dominique, a Parisian whose husband is a prisoner of war, hands over the package she has been sent to deliver, only to see her contact captured with its contents. She becomes the housekeeper to a testy old man (the magnificent Michael Gambon of “Gosford Park”) who lives in a crumbling mansion. She cares for two young Jewish boys who are hiding out there because their parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. And she helps to blow up a German train, delivers messages from Britain (once with tragic consequences), and tries to find out what has happened to her pilot.

Parents should know that the movie has brutal wartime violence and wrenching emotional scenes, including children in peril and the deaths of important characters. There is some strong language and a non-graphic sexual situation. Characters smoke and drink. The issue of Nazi anti- Semitism is frankly portrayed. The female main character is brave, smart, and heroic.

Families who see this movie should talk about how we can never know what we will do until we are fully tested, which is why stories and movies about war are as much about our internal challenges as about our historical ones. An RAF pilot tells Charlotte, “war makes us into people we didn’t know we were.” How is that good, how is it bad, and how is it both? Why did Charlotte make the choice she did? Why did Julien make the choice he did? Why did the schoolmaster make the choice he did? Does war present different choices to us than peacetime, or just the same ones more starkly?

One of the most touching moments in the movie is a small act of generosity that Charlotte risks her life to perform. Families should talk about how, when it seems that nothing can be done to solve a problem, we can sometimes make great contributions with small kindnesses. Charlotte asks, “Can you forgive yourself if you’ve been part of something terrible but didn’t know?” and is answered, “Otherwise what use are you to anyone?” It is worth talking about how we learn when to forgive ourselves.

Families who enjoy this movie will also appreciate other WWII movies about the resistance effort, including To Have and Have Not, Lucie Aubrac, “The Two of Us,” a French movie about a Jewish boy who is hidden by a French farmer, and the documentary about French complicity with the Nazis, The Sorrow and the Pity.

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Dark Victory

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character abuses alcohol, drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death
Diversity Issues: Some class issues
Date Released to Theaters: 1939

Judith Traherne (Bette Davis) is an impetuous and headstrong heiress who lives life with furious energy. Her life revolves around parties and horses. She sees Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent) for her headaches and dizzy spells, and he tells her she has a brain tumor. He operates, and she believes she is cured. Her soul is cured as well, because she and the doctor have fallen in love, and for the first time she feels genuine happiness and peace.

She learns that Frederick and her friends have kept the truth from her; her prognosis is negative, and she has very little time left. She breaks the engagement, telling Frederick he only wants to marry her out of pity. At first, she returns to her old life, trying to bury her fears and loneliness in a frenzy of parties. But she is terribly sad, and when Michael, her stableman (Humphrey Bogart) tells her that she should allow herself to see that Frederick really loves her, and take whatever happiness she can, in whatever time she has left, she knows he is right.

She marries Frederick, and has blissful months with him on his farm in Vermont before she dies, having had a lifetime of love and happiness in their time together.

This classic melodrama is also almost an encyclopedia of emotions. At first, Judith is in denial about her illness and about her feelings. She shows displaced anger when she breaks her engagement to Frederick. Most important to discuss with kids, though, is that she makes a classic mistake of confusing pleasure and happiness. The contrast between her frantic efforts to find distraction through parties (“horses, hats, and food”) and fast living, and the peace and joy of her time in Vermont with love and meaningful work (okay, it’s her husband’s meaningful work, but this was the 1930s) is exceptionally well portrayed by Davis and by director Goulding. This is one of the most important emotional distinctions for kids to learn, especially teenagers.

Families who see this movie should talk about questions like these: Why is it so hard for Judith to find happiness, even before she learns she is sick? How can you tell that she does not understand herself very well? Why does she break her engagement with Frederick? What does Michael tell her that makes her change her mind? Why doesn’t she tell Frederick that she is close to the end, sending him away instead?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “The Big Lie,” another romantic drama with Davis and Brent.

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Exit Wounds

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language. including the n-word (in soundtrack)
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters deal in drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Extreme and prolonged violence, some very graphic
Diversity Issues: Black and white good and bad guys, strong women characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2001

Steven Seagal is definitely in “Fat Elvis” mode in this color-by-numbers honest-cop against corruption story. He’s got Wayne Newton-style black hair and a William Shatner-style sucked-in paunch, and I suspect that at least some of the cuts in the fight scenes were added to give him some time to catch his breath.

No surprises here at all. Seagal plays a break-the-rules cop who takes on a whole team of commandos to save the Vice President and then gets dressed down by his commanding officer (“You don’t follow orders! You’re unmanageable!”) and assigned to the toughest precinct in town as punishment. He even gets put on traffic duty and sent to anger management class by the gorgeous precinct commander. But somehow, wherever he goes, trouble finds him, and people we think are good guys turn out to be bad and people we think are bad guys turn out to be good. Yawn.

Seagal has aged since his “Under Siege” days, and he now does more shooting than kicking. The movie tries to help him out with a lot of support from talented co-stars. Rapper DMX has a very strong screen presence, though it wavers when he has to say more than a dozen words at a time. It is always a pleasure to see Isaiah Washington, who deserves a leading role the next time around. Michael Jai White makes the most of his brief time on screen. Tom Arnold and Anthony Anderson (quickly becoming the movies’ favorite fat funny sidekick) are there to provide comic relief. Their raunchy improvised dialogue that accompanies the credits is one of the movie’s high points. The low point is certainly the plot, which has logic holes big enough for Seagal, Arnold, and Anderson to jump through, followed by the dialogue, which is pretty much cut and pasted from a dozen other scripts of this genre. The title is just a menacing term that has nothing whatsoever to do with the story, further evidence that no one involved really cares very much about this movie.

Parents should know that the movie is very violent, with graphic injuries and the death of at least one major character. There is also the obligatory nightclub scene with erotic topless dancers smearing something all over each other. Characters use strong language and there is even stronger language in the soundtrack, including repeated use of the n-word. On the positive side, there are strong, loyal, brave women and minority characters.

Families who see this movie should talk about real-life cases of police corruption and the temptations presented to people who risk their lives for low pay and little thanks. They may also want to talk about how we decide whom we will trust, and what happens when that trust is violated, and about “anger management” and how it works.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Gone in 60 Seconds” and “Romeo Must Die,” as well as Seagal’s best film, “Under Siege.”

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