Beautiful

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Brief bad language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters abuse alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Minor character commits suicide
Diversity Issues: Tolerance of individual differences
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

Minnie Driver does her best, but, sadly, she gets no help from the movie’s producers (14 of them!). She gets no help from the screenwriter, whose only previous credit was Jerry Springer’s “Ringmaster.” Driver does not even get much help from first-time feature director (but two-time Best Actress) Sally Field. In other words, this is a bad movie.

The people in this movie can’t even be referred to as “characters” because they do not behave like any human being who ever thought, spoke, or breathed. The actors might as well be wearing signs that say, “Plot device!” as they are moved around the set like chess pieces, because that is the only possible explanation for their behavior. And basic elements of plot are slapdash or just missing.

Mona is a little girl who lives with a mother who does not seem to care much about her and with her mother’s out-of-work boyfriend, who does not like her at all. So, she makes her bedroom into a private world, decorated with cheery little signs that say things like, “Never give up!” and “U can do it!” For her, beauty pageants are a vision of perfection, grace, and validation. So, she decides that what she needs to make her feel beautiful and loved is to win one or maybe all of them. She earns money for lessons and braces and does statistical analysis of each year’s winners. She picks just one girl from school to be her friend — the one who can sew costumes for her.

When she grows up, Mona (Minnie Driver) is relentless. She is incapable of any thought that does not relate to winning a pageant. Her friend Ruby (Joey Lauren Adams) is happy to devote all of her efforts to Mona’s competitions, too. When obstacles arise, Ruby takes care of them, from smoothing over allegations of cheating at a pageant to becoming the mother of Mona’s child (Hallie Eisenberg, the little girl from the Pepsi commercials). A parent or guardian is ineligible to be Miss American Miss. And nothing must get in Mona’s way.

Beauty pageants certainly provide material enough for several movies, and some, like “Smile,” manage to do them justice. But this movie has no point of view, a wildly inconsistent tone, and no understanding of its characters — I mean people.

Is Mona supposed to be a caricature? Then you can’t expect all of America to adore her at the end. Is she supposed to be a likeable person with flaws? Then she can’t possibly be as overwhelmingly self-absorbed as she is throughout the movie. It isn’t just that she responds to a question about “human interest” by admitting that there just aren’t that many humans she finds interesting. It is more that her best friend is in prison on a murder charge and it never even occurs to her that she might want to, say, get her a lawyer? Come to the trial? Try to help her in any way? And does anyone think that it is a good thing to confess your biological relationship to your best friend’s daughter on national television? Or that the daughter would consider this good news?

The movie has some funny moments. Kathleen Turner is magnificent as a beauty pageant diva. One pageant contestant announces that she has a double degree in genetic engineering and cosmetology, and another has a ventriloquist act. When a woman goes into labor in a grocery store, Mona seizes the opportunity to get some good publicity and pushes her to the hospital in a shopping cart, singing, “Wind Beneath My Wings.” But these bright spots are just not worth the sloppy mess that comes along. Maybe sixty years ago Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins or Mary Astor might have pulled off this kind of a plot (come to think of it, they did, in “The Big Lie” and “Old Acquaintance”). Maybe thirty years ago, Carol Burnett could have pulled off a parody version. But with these people and in this decade, it is not just bad — it is positively annoying.

Parents should know that the movie has occasional strong language and sexual references (mild by PG-13 standards, but still vivid). Mona cheats in the pageants, causing serious damage to another contestent’s hand, without any remorse. Indeed the injured woman’s bitterness is portrayed with as much callousness as though the screenwriter shared Mona’s conviction that all that counts is winning. There is an out of wedlock pregnancy and a minor character commits suicide by taking pills.

Families who see this movie should talk about Mona’s comment that love is a language that has to be taught, and Ruby’s comment about letting bad things go. More cynical family members may want to count up the logical inconsistencies and plot holes.

Families who enjoy this movie will like “Smile” even more. And they may also enjoy “We’re Not Married,” a cute comedy in which Marilyn Monroe plays a married beauty queen who all of a sudden becomes eligible for the single woman competitions when it turns out that her wedding ceremony was invalid.

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Cats & Dogs

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Characters in peril, mostly comic
Diversity Issues: Symbolic, all human characters white
Date Released to Theaters: 2001

Anyone who has ever lived with a cat or dog already knows what this movie finally reveals to the rest of the world – they are the ones who are really in charge. While humans go about their business, tossing a ball here, scratching behind the ears there, they never notice that cats and dogs use extensive technology to conduct all kinds of surveillance and spy missions – and then to clean up all the mess afterwards, before the humans get back home.

It turns out that once cats ruled, back in the days of ancient Egypt. But with the help of dogs, humans took over, and cats have been trying to regain their position ever since. As this movie begins, an evil rogue cat named Mr. Tinkles (that name would probably make any cat into an evil rogue) has a plot to foil the development of an injection that would cure allergies to dogs. If he can get the formula, reverse its effects, and expose every human in the world to it, then everyone would become allergic to dogs, and cats could take over. This is the worst affront to dog dignity since those Siamese-if-you-please cats got Lady into such big trouble.

The movie is silly fun, a throwback to the classic Disney days of “The Absent-Minded Professor” and “The Shaggy Dog.” It moves along swiftly thanks to a brief running time (less than 90 minutes) and spectacularly seamless special effects work. It also benefits from outstanding voice talents: Tobey Maguire (Lou, the young pup called upon to save the world), Alec Baldwin (Butch, the senior agent, using some of the same world-weary courage and avuncular twinkle that he gave to James Dolittle in “Pearl Harbor”), and Susan Sarandon (kind-hearted canine femme fatale Ivy), as the good guys, and Sean Hayes (from “Will and Grace,” enjoying the role of evil villain Mr. Tinkles), and Jon Lovitz (his sidekick) as bad guys. Live action duties are undertaken with good spirits by Elizabeth Perkins, Jeff Goldblum, and Miriam Margolyes, who does a funny twist on her role as the Nurse in the Leonardo DiCaprio version of “Romeo and Juliet.”

All of this is aimed at 8-year-olds, so expect some PG-rated litter box humor, a couple of mild references to whether a male dog has been fixed and a lot of slapstick pratfalls and head-bonks. All of this was a huge hit with the kids in the screening I attended. They got a special kick out of the ninja cats (with a now-obligatory “Matrix” joke). There were a couple of good moments for parents, too, including a dog who explains that she is not homeless, just “domestically challenged,” a canine news commentator named (of course) Wolf Blitzer, and having the dogs read the Miranda warnings to thousands of arrested mice. The movie comes down on the side of loyalty and families. And Mr. Tinkles’ punishment is both funny and (literally) fitting.

Parents should know that the movie features several potty jokes and a great deal of comic/fantasy violence (no one hurt). Some children may be upset about an elderly character on life support, especially when his condition is used for comedy. A boy is sad when his dog disappears, and is reluctant to make friends with a replacement. The movie is mildly sexist -– although one of the spy dogs is female, she is not a part of the team, and the message that goes out to the spy dogs is prefaced with “gentlemen.” A boy’s feelings are hurt when he does so badly at soccer try-outs (off screen) that the coach suggests that he try out for the girls’ team. Although Michael Clarke Duncan (of “The Green Mile” and “See Spot Run”) provides voice talent, the movie has an all-white Dick and Jane feeling.

Families who see this movie should compare the way that the cats and dogs deal with failure and setbacks and their ability to work as a team. Those are the keys to the resolution. Families should also talk about Ivy’s comment, “Sometimes mad is just a way of hiding how sad you are.” This is a very important concept for children to understand. They may also want to talk about the way that Goldblum’s character gets so caught up in his work that he forgets how important it is to spend time with his son.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Absent-Minded Professor (Colorized) and it’s colorful but dumber remake, Flubber. They might also enjoy a gentler comedy featuring a dog and cat, The Adventures of Milo & Otis/ And every family should enjoy the irresistible pig story, Babe.

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Crossroads

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Mild
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Character miscarries after falling down stairs
Diversity Issues: Inter-racial friends
Date Released to Theaters: 2002

Here is the good news: Britney Spears is a better actress than Mariah Carey. Here is the bad news: the movie is not very good. Here is the worse news: it is not appropriate for the girls who should have been its prime target, Britney fans ages 8-14. Instead, the movie has subject matter that is too mature for that age group, but treats those subjects without any of the originality, maturity, or genuine understanding that would hold the attention of older teens or adults. Its biggest fault is not having a clear idea of its audience.

Britney plays Lucy, who finds herself feeling empty as she prepares for her high school graduation. She has achieved all of her father’s dreams for her, graduating as valedictorian and preparing to enroll in a rigorous pre-med program. And she is about to fulfill someone else’s dream, too — she has agreed to have sex with her lab partner so that they can go to college and not be ostracized as virgins.

She can’t go through with it, though, because it isn’t special enough. When her estranged pregnant friend invites her to come along with a guy neither has ever met before and drive to Los Angeles, she impulsively accepts. So does a third estranged friend, the engaged prom queen, who wants to go to LA to see her boyfriend.

So off we go on a road trip, which will give these old friends a chance to remember their connections and have some adventures. Yes, the car breaks down. Yes, they don’t have the money to repair it. Guess what? There’s a karaoke contest! Maybe if they win, they can earn enough money to pay for the repairs! Britney sings the old Joan Jett song, “I Love Rock and Roll” and the crowd throws tomatoes and runs them out of town. Okay, no, just kidding, the crowd goes wild and showers the girls with money.

Everyone learns some important lessons, and the three wishes made by the girls when they were eight and swore to be lifelong friends turn out to be not exactly what they had in mind. But they learn that the friendship was more than they had expected, and that not knowing exactly what their dreams are might make life more interesting.

Parents should know that in addition to one of the girls being pregnant (we learn later, the result of a rape when she was drunk), the girls get drunk (and giggle about who has “touched it”). Lucy has sex with a man, and it is clear that unlike the planned prom night encounter, it is very special. The girls take a very big risk by getting in a car with a man they do not know, who turns out to have a prison record, and setting off with him for California with no plans and no money. They all stay in the same rooms along the way. Some family members may be upset by Lucy’s meeting with the mother who left her when she was three.

Families who see this movie should talk about why it was so difficult for Lucy to talk to her father and why Kit thought that all she wanted was to get married. What do you think the girls will do next? How did Lucy decide that it was the right time for her to become intimate with Ben?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Britney’s video collection.

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Dumbo

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Dumbo and his friend Timothy accidentally become drunk and have "Pink Elephants on Parade" hallucinations.
Violence/ Scariness: Younger children may be scared when Mrs. Jumbo is locked up, or when Dumbo has to jump in the clown act.
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, but racist characters
Date Released to Theaters: 1941

The stork delivers babies to the circus animals, including Mrs. Jumbo’s baby, an elephant with enormous ears. The other elephants laugh at him and call him Dumbo, but Mrs. Jumbo loves him very much. When Dumbo is mistreated, she is furious and raises such a fuss that she is locked up. Dumbo is made part of the clown act, which embarasses him very much. He is a big hit and, celebrating his good fortune, accidentally drinks champagne and becomes tipsy. The next morning, he wakes up in a tree, with no idea how he got there. It turns out that he flew! He becomes the star of the circus, with his proud mother beside him.

The themes in this movie include tolerance of differences and the importance of believing in yourself. It also provides a good opportunity to encourage empathy by asking kids how they would feel if everyone laughed at them the way the animals laugh at Dumbo, and how important it is to Dumbo to have a friend like Timothy.

Parents should note that while respecting individual differences is a theme of the movie, the crows who sing “When I See an Elephant Fly” would be considered racist by today’s standards. One of them is named “Jim Crow” and they speak with “Amos ‘n Andy”-style accents, but clearly they are not intended to be insulting. Families who see this movie should talk about that depiction, as well as these questions: Why does Timothy tell Dumbo he needs the feather to fly? How does he learn that he does not need it? Why do the other elephants laugh at Dumbo’s ears? How does that make him feel? Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy some stories with related themes. The circus train, Casey, Jr., puffs “I think I can” as it goes up the hill, just like “The Little Engine That Could.” Compare this story to “How the Elephant Got Its Trunk,” by Rudyard Kipling (read by Jack Nicholson in the wonderful Rabbit Ears production), in which another elephant finds his larger-than expected feature first ridiculed and then envied by the other elephants. Kids may also enjoy comparing this to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “The Ugly Duckling,” and other stories about differences that make characters special.

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Head Over Heels

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some raunchy language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, drug joke
Violence/ Scariness: Sitcom-style violence and peril
Diversity Issues: Characters from all races and sexual orientations
Date Released to Theaters: 2001

Amanda Pierce (Monica Potter) is an art restorer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with very bad taste in men. When she comes home to find her current beau in bed with another woman (“This isn’t what it looks like,” he protests), she has to find another apartment. She moves in with four towering fashion models and promptly falls (literally) for Jim Winston (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), the Prince Charming across the street who makes her weak in the knees. One little problem — as she gazes into his window, it appears that he has killed someone. Amanda is caught between fear and longing as the models act as sort of combination Greek chorus members/evil stepsisters/fairy godmothers guiding her to solve both the mystery and the romantic dilemma.

This plot could be played a number of ways from slapstick (think Lucille Ball) to terror (think “Rear Window” or “Gaslight”). The tone this version tries to strike is something like “date movie for teenage girls whose boyfriends love Adam Sandler.” So what we get is some swoony romance, a lot of pratfalls, and intermittent gross-out jokes. For example, not once, but twice the snooty supermodels are trapped in the bathroom to no end of would-be comic chaos. The first time they are hiding out in Jim’s shower while he has a post-pirogi visit to the bathroom. The models get to engage in frantic breath-holding and face-squinching. The second time they are in a restaurant men’s room and listen to two plumbers engage in conversation misperceived as sexual before a toilet explodes. The movie’s first ten minutes include two gay jokes and a crack about menopause, all of which, like the bathroom scenes, miss rising to the level of actually being funny.

The models are good sports and enjoy making fun of their image as vapid gold-diggers. Potter (the wife in “Con Air” and the girlfriend in “Patch Adams”) is pretty and appealing but she has no comic sparkle. The movie needs Meg Ryan or Jenna Elfman (and a better script). What we get instead is a standard-issue blue-eyed blonde with an acting range as narrow as her roommates’ hips. Prinze has real star appeal, but deserves much better than this generic role.

Parents should know that the humor and plot may be juvenile, but the movie is raunchier than many PG-13s, with some very strong and graphic language. When the models do a makeover on Amanda, they tell her to clench her behind and tweak her nipples. Amanda’s lesbian friend grabs her breast. The dog Prinze walks for a neighbor tries to mount Amanda, which is supposed to be funny. There is violence, including an apparent murder and some shooting, but it is not explicit or very threatening. Some parents may also be concerned about the way that the models exploit the men who want to date them and about the foolish chances taken by the characters.

Families who see the movie should talk about why some people make mistakes in trusting the wrong people. They may also want to talk about whether a life devoted to looking beautiful can lead someone to be superficial and self-centered.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Charade” (the perfect combination of thrills and romance) and romantic comedies like “If a Man Answers.”

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