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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Chocolat

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Scary fire (no one injured), reference to domestic abuse, sad death
Diversity Issues: Tolerance of individual differences is a theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

This choice little fairy tale even begins with “once upon a time.”

It takes place in rural France, in a “quaint little village whose villagers believed in tranquility.” They have “learned not to ask for more.” The village is all but untouched by the outside world, and they seem to like it that way. A young priest sings an Elvis Presley song and it as though he is a visitor from a time machine.

The town is overseen by the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), the mayor. He acts as a sort of moral policeman, making sure that everyone is keeping to the straight and (very) narrow. Into this paragon of rectitude and abstemiousness the wind blow a mysterious red-cloaked mother and daughter.

Vianne (Juliette Binoche, Oscar-winner for “The English Patient”) and Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) open up a chocolate shop. The Comte takes it as an affront to his authority. How dare they! In the middle of Lent! He does his best to keep customers away. But the chocolate is luscious and Vianne always seems to know just what people need. She knows how to add a touch of chili pepper to hot chocolate for spice and she has an uncanny way of giving everyone the kind of chocolate they cannot resist. She gives her chocolate to her grumpy landlord Amande (Judi Dench, Oscar-winner for “Shakespeare in Love”). She gives some to Josephine (Lena Olin), a woman who is considered a little crazy by the town, but who behaves that way to protect herself from her abusive husband. The chocolate — and Vianne’s warm heart — help both women to bloom. Vianne takes Josephine in and helps Amande get together with her estranged family.

Then the Compte is affronted further when a group of itinerants dock their houseboats in the town. Vianne becomes friendly with Roux (Johnny Depp) and this is too much for the Compte and his sidekick, Josephine’s husband Serge. Both the Compte and Vianne have to confront near disaster and their own fears. The young priest has to find a way to speak from his own heart and his own faith, to become a true spiritual leader for the community.

This whimsical little story is as delicious as its chocolates, with a terrific score and lots of great issues for family discussion.

Parents should know that Vianne never married her daughter’s father, and that in a flashback we see that she and her own mother left her father to wander. Vianne gives some chocolates to one woman to use as an aphrodisiac, and we see the gleam in her husband’s eye as he watches her, after he eats them. Later, a dog who eats some of the chocolates is similarly inspired (brief shot of dogs having sex). There are mild sexual situations with brief and inexplicit nudity. There is some social drinking and a scary fire (no one hurt). A character dies peacefully.

Families should talk about why the Compte is so threatened by Vianne and her chocolates. He seems to feel that his efforts to keep himself and others from feeling joy and passion will help him avoid sadness (and dishonor) from the desertion of his wife. Why do Vianne and Roux wander? Why is there one person whose favorite she can not guess? What is the significance of Anouk’s imaginary friend? Why is Armande’s daughter so angry with her? What do you think about the priest’s conclusion that we are judged by what we do and those we embrace rather than by what we stay away from and those we exclude? Families might also want to talk about what some of the names mean in English. For example, reynaud means fox and roux is the base that holds a soufflé together.

Families who enjoy this movie should enjoy some of their own favorite chocolates together. Some family members will also enjoy Like Water for Chocolate, another movie about a woman whose food has some magical properties (mature material).

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Dinosaur

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Intense scenes of peril, characters killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

Instead of the annual G-rated musical cartoon released just as school lets out, this year Disney’s big summer release is “Dinosaur,” a stunning integration of computer graphics over live backgrounds.

Aladar is an orphan Iguanodon raised by monkey-like lemurs. When flaming meteors destroy their home they join a group of dinosaurs trying to find food and water. The leader of the group, Kron, insists that stopping to help the older or slower dinosaurs is too dangerous. But Aladar shows the others that cooperation, teamwork, and kindness make more sense because then everyone gets a chance to contribute. That resolution brings to mind another dinosaur — a big, purple one on PBS. Aladar just is not that interesting a character. Disney worked very hard to make sure that the faces of the dinosaurs were expressive, but should have worked a little harder on giving them some more complex and subtle emotions to express. Even in a movie for kids, it is not enough for the characters to overcome some external challenge. What makes a story get into your heart is seeing the characters learn and grow and overcome internal challenges. It is a marvel of skill, but does not have half of the heart or wit of either of the “Toy Storys” or “A Bug’s Life.”

The technological mastery is dazzling to watch, though, especially the textures. Fur, scales, eggshell, water, and goo are all so vivid you can almost feel them. It is a shame that the story and characters are not as strong as the visuals, though that will be more of a problem for the adults in the audience than the children.

Parents should know that the movie is dark and scary at times. Characters are frequently in peril and some are killed. A three year old sitting near me cried for more than half of the movie. But most kids find enormous appeal in the idea of creatures that are amazingly huge and powerful and reassuringly long departed. While they may not connect to these characters the way they do with the animated films, most kids will like watching the dinosaurs and will find the conclusion satisfying.

Families who see the movie may want to talk about the narrator’s comment that “sometimes the smallest thing can make the biggest changes of all.” What is the “smallest thing” and what are the changes? How did being treated with kindness change the way some of the characters behaved? How did making Baylene feel needed change the way she behaved? Why was Aladar’s point of view so different? Could it have been due to the loving way he was raised? How did Aladar help Neera see things differently?

Families — especially blended, foster, and adoptive families — may also want to talk about how the lemurs decide to “adopt” the huge dinosaur, and about how some species were intolerant of others. Older children may want to talk about Kron’s view that the only way to keep some members of the herd alive was to sacrifice those who could not keep up, and the way his behavior showed that he believed the only way to maintain power was to refuse to listen to anyone else.

Kids who like this movie will enjoy “The Land Before Time” and its sequels and “Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend.”

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Field of Dreams

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to drug use, including pot and LSD
Violence/ Scariness: Costner threatens Jones to get him to go to the baseball game, but both know he does not really have a gun.
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 1989

Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), who grew up in New York and went to college at Berkeley, stands in the middle of his first Iowa corn crop and hears a voice say, “If you build it, he will come.” He begins to understand that this means he must plow under the corn crop and build a baseball field so that Shoeless Joe Jackson, barred from baseball since 1919 and dead for years, can play on it. Ray and his wife (Amy Madigan) know this is a crazy thing to do, but they do it. And “Shoeless”Joe Jackson does show up, with his teamates. Jackson had been the hero of Ray’s father, a former minor leaguer, with whom Ray had never been able to connect.

The voice speaks again: “Ease his pain.” Ray comes to understand that this refers to an iconoclastic author of the 1960s named Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones), now a recluse. Ray finds him, and together they hear the voice say “Go the distance.” This leads them back in time to find an elderly doctor (Burt Lancaster), who had a brief career in baseball but never got a chance at bat in a major league game. On their way back to the farm, they find him again, as a young man, and together, they go home, just as the farm is about to be foreclosed. The doctor gets his chance at bat. Mann gets to tell another story. And Ray gets a second chance to do what he regrets not doing as a teenager, to play catch with his father.

Discussion: The themes of this movie are dreams, family, and baseball. There are echoes of Ray’s father throughout the movie. It begins with Ray’s description of growing up, using his refusal to play baseball as his teenage rebellion, and as a way to test his father’s love. Ray tells Mann that his father’s name was used for a character in one of Mann’s books. Ray builds the field to bring back Shoeless Joe, his father’s hero, the hero Ray accused of being corrupt because he knew that would hurt his father. And of course at the end, it turns out that the dream all along was not bringing back the greats of baseball, but of a reconciliation with his father that was not possible before he died. “I only saw him when he was worn down by life,” Ray says. His own understanding and maturity are what enable him to see his father as he really was, even before he reappears on the baseball field. Ray asks his father, “Is there a heaven?” and his father answers, “Oh yeah. It’s the place dreams come true.”

Family discussion: Why doesn’t Annie’s brother Mark see the baseball players at first? Why is he able to see them later? · What did Ray mean when he talked about how he needed to insult his father’s hero when he was a teenager? · How do you know when to follow a dream that seems crazy or foolish?

If you like this, try: Find out more about Shoeless Joe Jackson and the famous “Black Socks” scandal. “Eight Men Out,” with D. B. Sweeney as Jackson, tells this story sympathetically. The Ken Burns PBS documentary about the history of baseball also has a video devoted to the story. See also baseball history movies “Bingo Long” and “Sandlot” (both also starring Jones) and “A League of Their Own.” And listen to James Earl Jones as the voice for Darth Vader in “Star Wars.”

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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
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