One Night at McCool’s

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Lots of drinking and smoking, scenes in bar
Violence/ Scariness: Intense comic violence, characters killed, lots of blood
Diversity Issues: All major characters are white
Date Released to Theaters: 2001

This black comedy about the different way that people can see the same characters and events is disappointingly uninvolving, too violent, and just not very funny.

Liv Tyler plays a literally femme fatale named Jewel, a con woman who will do anything and use anyone to get the only thing she cares about, a home of her own. She meets likeable bartender Randy (Matt Dillon) when he rescues her from an abusive boyfriend. Or so he thinks. After he brings her home and they have wild sex, she admits that it was all part of a scam, and that her boyfriend is on his way there so that they can rob him. But when she finds out that he owns the house, she switches gears, and before he knows what hit him, Randy has confessed to a murder he did not commit, lost his job, and gained a full-time, in-house decorating machine.

Meanwhile, Randy’s lawyer cousin Carl (Paul Reiser), is tantalized by Jewel, too. Before he knows what hits him, he and Jewel are fitted out in all kinds of leather and chains for some steamy S&M action.

And in the middle of all that, a kindly cop (John Goodman) sees Jewel as the sweet replacement for his late wife. Each of these three men recounts their involvement with Jewel to a slightly sympathetic listener — the cop to a priest (Richard Jenkins, knocking back some sacramental wine as the details raise his blood pressure); the lawyer to a therapist (Reba McEntire, the classiest presence in the movie); and the bartender to a sleazy hitman (producer Michael Douglas, with a toupee that looks like a possum died on his head). The movie attempts to derive some humor from the intersection and inconsistency between the various stories.

One funny visual gag with a DVD and one funny joke about the Village People are not enough tomake this movie worthwhile. Tyler certainly looks beautiful, especially when she is soaping down a dirty car in slow motion and soft focus. But she does not have the range to make Jewel interesting with any of the three men. And the movie never establishes its tone.

Parents should know that the movie has extremely strong language, vivid sexual references and situations, including S&M and oral sex, and explicit violence, some shown very casually. Major characters are killed and no one seems to care about it very much. The characters lie, cheat, steal, and kill. Many viewers will be offended by the portrayal of the priest, who munches on communion crackers and behaves in an overall un-priestly manner.

Families who see this movie should talk about how different people see the same events and characters differently, and how they can best communicate their different views to each other.

Audiences who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “To Die For,” a better movie with Matt Dillon as a man whose wife (Nicole Kidman) persuades some teenagers to kill him.

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Return to Never Land

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: Theme that girls are as brave and capable as boys
Date Released to Theaters: 2002

This pleasant but forgettable sequel to Disney’s “Peter Pan” is not just not up to the original animated feature. It is not even up to the standard set by the vintage Pluto cartoon (“Pluto’s Fledgling,” from 1957) that precedes it.

The original has terrific songs (“You Can Fly,” “Never Smile at a Crocodile”) and one of my all-time favorite movie moments, as Peter, Wendy, Michael, and John soar around Big Ben and look down on Victorian London. This version manages a couple of magical moments, especially the opening credit sequence and Captain Hook’s pirate ship flying through London, but the music, performances, animation, and story are strictly at the straight-to-video level.

Wendy has grown up, and is married with two children, Jane and Daniel. She loves to tell them stories about Peter Pan and Captain Hook. But World War II is underway, and London is blasted by bombs. Wendy’s husband leaves for the war, telling Jane to take care of her mother and brother. Jane is strong and brave, leading Nana 2 through London in the midst of an attack. But she can’t let herself believe in Peter Pan or fairies, because that would make it even harder to bear the loss and destruction – and the fear. So she gives her little brother socks for his birthday (a size large, so he will have room to grow), and is given to crisp pronouncements like, “I’ve no time for fun and games” and “I don’t know why you fill his head with silly stories.”

Just before Jane and Daniel are going to be sent away to the countryside, where it is safer, Jane is kidnapped by Captain Hook. He thinks that if he captures Wendy, Peter Pan will come to save her. Because he lives in Never Land, he does not realize that Wendy has grown up. But then, neither does Peter, who does come to rescue her, and is just as happy when it turns out to be Jane. But she does not want to stay with the Lost Boys, even when they make her a Lost Girl. Before Jane can go home, though, she will have to learn to believe in “faith, trust, and pixie dust.”

For a story about the power of imagination, the movie is especially lackluster. The original story’s crocodile has been replaced by an octopus for no particular reason, and the action sequences are replays of the first version. The sexism and racism of the original are excised – Jane rescues Peter in this one. But that is not enough to make up for a script that even at under 90 minutes, is just too long. Of all the changes, though, I think the one that would most upset James M. Barrie, the very British man who created Peter Pan, is probably hearing Peter speak with an American accent and even use baseball slang.

Some of Disney’s recent follow-ups have been quite good, especially the sequels to “The Little Mermaid” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” with theater-quality voice talent and animation and some bright new songs. It is hard to figure out the reasoning that had both of those movies go straight to video and give this one a theatrical release.

Parents should know that while the movie is rated G, there is some peril, much comic but some a little scary. Children may want to know more about the Blitz (the movie never tells us who it is that is dropping bombs on London, we briefly see children being sent away from their families by train, and we can’t tell from the end if the war is over or not).

Families who see this movie should talk about “faith, trust, and pixie dust,” and how even children have to be brave and helpful during difficult times. Some children may make a connection between the Blitz and the terrorist attacks.

Families who enjoy this movie should watch the original, one of Disney’s best. They will also enjoy another Disney classic, like “Peter Pan” written in Victorian times and filmed in the 1950’s, “Alice in Wonderland.”

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Sleeping Beauty

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Very scary confrontation with the dragon
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 1959

Disney has beautifully restored one of its most treasured classics, “Sleeping Beauty,” in honor of its 50th anniversary.

The King and Queen happily celebrate the birth of their daughter, Princess Aurora. The young Prince who is betrothed to the baby and three good fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, join the celebration. But wicked Maleficent, a bad fairy, is enraged when she is not included. She arrives at the party to cast a spell on the baby Princess. When she turns 16, she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel, and die.

The good fairies cannot remove the spell, but they change it from death to a deep sleep from which Aurora can be awakened only by love’s first kiss. The King and Queen try to protect the princess by sending her off with the good fairies to live in a tiny cottage in the woods until her sixteenth birthday is over. They cannot use their magic powers because it would lead Maleficent to the princess. Aurora (called Briar Rose) grows up. Out in the woods, she meets the Prince, and they fall in love, not knowing they are already engaged. But the fairies prepare for her birthday party and argue about whether the dress they are making for Aurora should be pink or blue, and cannot resist using their magic. Maleficent discovers where they are and is able to make Aurora prick her finger and fall into a deep sleep. Maleficent also captures the prince to make sure he cannot break the spell. After the fairies help him escape, Maleficent turns herself into a dragon to stop him. He kills the dragon and wakes Aurora with a kiss. At her birthday party, they dance, not even noticing that her dress turns from blue to pink as the fairies continue to argue about the color.

In this classic story, as in “Snow White,” a sleeping princess can only be awakened by a kiss from the prince. Psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim and others have written extensively about the meaning of these stories, and the ways in which they symbolize the transition to adulthood and sexual awakening. Bettelheim’s theory was that such fairy tales begin to prepare children for developments they are not ready to assimilate consciously.

There is no reason to discuss this interpretation with children, of course. But it is worthwhile to talk with them about Maleficent, one of Disney’s most terrifying villains, and why her bitter jealousy makes her so obsessed with vengeance. Is that what she really wants? Isn’t she doing exactly the opposite of what is required to achieve her real goal, acceptance? Children also enjoy the little squabbles of the three good fairies, which may remind them of arguments with their siblings.

NOTE: The Blu-Ray DVD includes a bonus “regular” DVD for families who have not yet switched to Blu-Ray but plan to in the future.

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The Basket

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Brief war scenes, character threatened with a gun
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

The term “family movie” tends to evoke eye-rolling and sighs from all but the youngest kids, calling up memories of sugary stories about adorable children, cute pets, and bouncy songs. What it should evoke is a movie like this one, an ambitious, complicated, thoughtful, and meaningful story of fear, loss, love, opera, and basketball.

It is set in a small town near Spokane, Washington, in 1918. A soldier has come home from the war, ill and injured. His parents are devastated, blaming themselves for letting him go. Two German orphans are taken in by the minister, over the objections of neighbors who blame them for the war. The community’s farmers need an expensive new thresher, but they do not have the money. A charismatic new teacher from Boston holds his students spellbound as he lets them listen to an opera on his gramaphone, telling them a little more of its story each day. He also tells them about a new game that has become popular back in Boston, one where the players try to throw the ball into a basket nailed to a post.

All of these stories and more come together like the musical themes in the opera played for the students by the teacher. That opera (created for this movie) is also the story of a mysterious stranger who helps a small village triumph over challenges that at first divide and then unite them.

The movie’s low budget shows, but the passion and commitment that went into making it are even more evident. Some of the situations may sound formulaic — no one thinks that the German kids will be unable to prove their value to the community or that there won’t be some surprises in the big game — but the appeal of the characters and the integrity of the production hold the interest of the audience. Peter Coyote is fine as the teacher who must grapple with the demons of his own past as he tries to help his students. Karen Allen, best known for her role in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” is very moving as the loving mother who loses her son and then almost loses her husband to isolation and guilt. Her expressions as she listens to the music and as she begins to speak about what she wants are eloquent beyond words.

Parents should know that this movie includes brief flashbacks to WWI battle scenes, including the death of civilians. A character has an amputated leg and another has epilepsy. There are sad deaths. There are also intense scenes of prejudice and cruelty that may be upsetting to children.

Families who see this movie should talk about the way it shows how basketball was played in its earliest days, when the people who shoot baskets were called “goal tossers.” How has it changed? How do you think that the way we play games like basketball and baseball may change in the future? Think about the sacrifices made by Brigitta and by Martin. What led them to make those choices? Did they get what they were hoping for? Why was it hard for some people in the community to accept Helmut and Brigitta? Which characters did not, and why? Why was the story of “The Basket” like what was going on in the town? How can stories help change the way we see the world?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Rigoletto.” Although it shares the name of a famous real-life opera, its story, about a girl who must become the maid of a wealthy, mysterious, and disfigured stranger, is very different.

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The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
Profanity: A couple of mild naughty words and some potty humor
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Cartoon-style pratfalls, pie in the face
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

First things first — it is better than the original, famously troubled 1994 version that sank under the weight of too many screenwriters (reportedly over 30) and too many commercial tie-ins. This prequel benefits from lower expectations (it was originally intended as a straight-to-video release) and improved technology (the CGI dinosaurs are terrific). Okay, it begins with a fart joke (the guilty party — a dinosaur — says, “Hey, I got three stomachs, cut me some slack!”). And the rest of the humor is only slightly more elevated. And some of its jokes are older than the Stone Age. But it is not too bad, there are even a couple of genuinely funny moments, and it can provide for a moderately enjoyable family outing or a first-class birthday party for anyone in the 5-8-year-old range. The kids at the screening I attended cheered and applauded.

Mark Addy (from “The Full Monty”) and Stephen Baldwin (from “The Usual Suspects”) play Fred and Barney as though they are really enjoying it. The wonderfully talented Kristen Johnston (“Third Rock from the Sun”) is sadly underused as Wilma, but she looks sensational in her “Isaac Miz- rock-hi” animal skins. Wilma is the pampered daughter of the snobbish Pearl Slaghoople (Joan Collins in sort of prehistoric “Dynasty” mode) and the loving but addled Colonel (Harvey Korman). She has no interest in a life of country clubs and snobs. She runs away and is befriended by waitress Betty O’Shale (Jane Krakowski of “Ally McBeal”). They meet Fred and Barney and all goes well until Chip Rockefeller (“Dharma & Greg’s” Thomas Gibson), who is after Wilma’s fortune, invites them to his new resort in Rock Vegas. But all ends well, and we even get to see the origins of Wilma’s upswept hairstyle and pearls.

The highlight of the movie is Alan Cummings. He plays both Gazoo, the space alien who comes to earth to observe human mating rituals, and Mick Jagged, the (what else) rock star, frontman for (what else) the Stones. It’s a real pity that he plays only two roles – the movie fades whenever he is off screen. In the soundtrack’s highlight, Ann-Margret simultaneously salutes two of her career highlights — the original Flintstones cartoon (as “Ann Margrock”) and “Viva Las Vegas” with a terrific rendition of “Viva Rock Vegas.”

Parents should know that there are a few naughty words and mild sexual references (one afternoon Betty tells Barney that she wants to come back to his apartment and make him breakfast, and he wonders what she wants to do until morning), and some pie-in-the-face/pratfall cartoon violence.

Families who see this movie should discuss why Wilma feels unsatisfied despite her wealth, why Fred feels that he has to make a lot of money to compete with Chip, and how Betty and Barney create trouble by jumping to conclusions instead of telling each other about what worries them. Parents will also want to talk about Betty’s decision to go off with Mick when she thinks Barney has been unfaithful. Whether it is out of spite or a way to bolster her spirits, it is a foolish response.

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the old Flintstones and Jetsons cartoons, and may even get a kick out of looking for the similarities between them.

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