Men of Honor

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Barracks language -- profanity and racist comments
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters abuse alcohol and smoke
Violence/ Scariness: Characters in peril, one badly injured
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

Carl Brashear, Jr. was the first black man to achieve the rank of Master Diver in the Navy. He was also the first amputee to be returned to active duty in the armed services. In this movie, produced by Bill Cosby, Brashear gets the kind of respectful, go-for-the-Oscar® treatment that reached its zenith in the 1960’s. Everyone tries very hard, but the story is old-fashioned and predictable — even down to the marriage proposal that melts the girl’s heart and the courtroom climax. The real problem is that the characters are so one-dimensional, the good guys so good and the bad guys so bad, that it has the feel of an after-school special.

This is the kind of movie that begins with one character being transported by MPs and then goes into a flashback of a little black boy running through the woods and diving into the water. It has big-serious-movie cinematography, with every autumn leaf perfectly outlined against every cloudless sky and diving gear that looks like burnished armour in its grandeur.

Brashear’s saintly sharecropper parents (Carl Lumbly and the woefully underused Lonette McKee) urge him to get as far away as possible and not come back for a long time. He has to quit school in 7th grade to help out at home, but when he grows up (played as an adult by Cuba Gooding, Jr.) he enlists in the Navy. The armed services have just been desegregated, and he has hopes for new opportunities.

It turns out that desegregation is more theoretical than real, and he is relegated to one of the few positions open to blacks — kitchen duty on board an escort carrier. When the ship’s captain discovers what a strong, fast swimmer he is, he is promoted to the search and rescue team, though he still has to bunk with the stewards. He dreams of becoming a master diver, one of the men who go on the most dangerous underwater missions. He sends over 100 letters of application before being accepted. Then, when he gets to the training facility, first they won’t let him on the base and then all of the white sailors but one refuse to stay in the barracks with him.

Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro) a master diver grounded due to an embolism, is in charge of diver training. He is a profane, angry, alcoholic, racist, abusive guy who, deep down inside, has more integrity than all those pretty-boy officers put together blah blah. Sunday begins by mentioning his namesake, the famous evangelist, explaining that “the only difference between me and that old preacher is that he worked for God and I am God.” He throws every possible obstacle in Brashear’s way, and even gives a medal Brashear earned to another sailor. But Brashear, true to his father’s orders, never gives up. He gets help from a pretty med student named Jo (Aunjanue Ellis) on the academic side, and relies on his own natural talent and determination to pass the performance tests. Despite the orders of Mr. Pappy, the commanding officer (Hal Holbrook), that no black sailor graduate, Brashear makes it. Then Brashear’s star is on the rise. And Sunday’s begins to fall.

Ultimately, Brashear marries the pretty doctor and becomes a star diver. But he loses a leg and the command wants him to retire. Sunday re-appears to help him prove that he can return to active duty.

The story is a stirring one. De Niro, Gooding, Charlize Theron (as Sunday’s beautiful, well-bred, but unhappy and alcoholic wife), Michael Rapaport (as Brashear’s one friend), and Holbrook all do their best, but the script does not give them enough to work with and the result is that movie feels simultaneously overstuffed and empty. Brashear candidly discusses his alcohol abuse problem in his book, but in the movie other than being an absent husband and father he is portrayed as just about perfect.

I couldn’t help thinking about the recent Spike Lee movie, “Bamboozled.” The need to make the fictional Brashear so idealized echoes Lee’s concerns about the minstrel show aspect of popular culture, making a real story less real to make it more entertaining. It would show more respect for both Brashear and the audience to let us see a character with more depth and complexity. It is especially disappointing that the story is so simplified that it should be suitable for kids, but it has strong profanity, earning it an R rating.

I could not help being very curious, too, about Jo Brashear. A black woman doctor in the early 60’s must have a story that is at least as interesting as this one. But we get no sense of what went into her life choices or how she handled her challenges. In real life, the marriage did not survive. But in the movie, she shows up at the crucial moment to provide love and support.

Parents should know that the R rating is primarily based on salty Navy language, including racist comments. Characters are in peril and one is badly injured. There are some sexual references. Characters have alcohol problems and one is shown in rehab.

Families who see this movie should talk about what motivates the characters. Brashear is asked why he wants to be a diver and he says, “Because they said I couldn’t have it.” Brashear asks Sunday why he is helping him after the amputation, and Sunday says, “To piss people off.” It is pretty clear why Mr. Pappy does not want Brashear to graduate — he’s a racist. But why does the later commanding officer want Brashear to retire so badly? Talk, too, about the meaning of “ASNF” on Brashear’s father’s radio, and Sunday’s response to it.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “An Officer and a Gentleman,” but there the R rating is well-deserved for explicit sexual situations, so parents should watch it before deciding whether it is appropriate for teens.

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Nutty Professor II: The Klumps

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Many, many raunchy euphemisms
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Cartoon-style peril and pratfalls
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

Parents should not be fooled by the PG-13 rating into thinking that it might be appropriate for middle schoolers and younger kids. The people who rate movies for the MPAA seem to think that if it’s a comedy and no one uses the f-word, anything goes. But parents should be warned that the people behind this movie include the folks who brought us “Ace Ventura” and “American Pie.” In other words, if there’s a bodily function — or dysfunction — to make fun of, you’ll see it in this movie.

This is a sequel to Murphy’s popular remake of the Jerry Lewis classic, “The Nutty Professor.” In that movie, overweight professor Sherman Klump (Eddie Murphy) experiments with a weight-reduction formula that turns him into the svelt but mean Buddy Love. As this movie begins, Klump is no longer turning into Buddy Love, but he finds Love’s nasty comments coming out of his mouth, especially when he is around dream girl Professor Denice Gains (Janet Jackson). He tries to eradicate Buddy Love for once and for all through genetic alteration, but when the excised genetic material is mixed with a dog hair, Buddy Love emerges as a separate person, albeit one who likes to sniff things and play catch. Meanwhile, the university wants to sell Professor Klump’s youth formula of $150 million, but Buddy Love wants that money for himself.

There are jokes about poop pellets shooting out of the rear of a giant hamster, an old couple having sex, and a middle-aged couple who are not having sex. At the screening, the seven-year-old sitting next to me leaned over to ask her mother, “Mommy, what’s Viagra?” In one extended sequence, intended to be humorous, a man is sexually abused by the giant hamster. Then there is a huge bulge that grows behind Dr. Klump’s zipper until his alter ego — or rather his alter id — Buddy Love bursts forth.

Eddie Murphy is phenomenally talented, and the technology is stunning. Together, Murphy, make-up wizard Rick Baker, and the special effects wizards create six different completely believable characters. They make it all so seamless that you will forget that one person is playing six parts (seven, if you count one brief clip shown when one character watches television). The high point of the movie is the credit sequence, with outtakes that show just how good a job Murphy does in playing the brilliant, sweet geneticist Dr. Sherman Klump, his loving but anxious mother, his father, insecure about losing his job (and who tries the youth formula), his jealous brother, his earthy grandmother, and Buddy Love.

The real shame is that somewhere inside this gross-out raunch-fest is some real acting and some real stories and characters we’d like to know better. Mrs. Klump is a sweet woman, struggling to keep her family happy. Murphy’s portrayal is genuinely touching, even moving, reminiscient at times of Carol Burnett’s best moments as Eunice. The romance between Sherman and Denice had a lot of possibilities — two brilliant but insecure scientists trying to connect to each other. Murphy allows us a tantalizing glimpse of how tender Sherman is, and how much he longs for Denice — until the next hamster poop joke comes along.

Parents should know that in addition to the examples given above, the movie includes many, many gross and raunchy episodes, including a harsh portrayal of the sexuality of middle-aged and elderly people. When the grandmother grabs a man for a big, sloppy kiss, he throws up.

Families who see this movie should talk about how we control our impulses, and about how understanding and accepting all of our thoughts and feelings is the first step in letting them help us instead of getting in our way. Families can also talk about how the people we love can help us feel better about ourselves.

Families who enjoy this movie may also like “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” in which Alec Guinness plays seven members of the same family.

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Proof of Life

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters drink and smoke and use drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Shoot-outs, torture, tense scenes of peril, many deaths
Diversity Issues: Ethnic prejudice
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

Another stunning performance from Russell Crowe holds together a movie that is otherwise not sure exactly what it wants to be.

Inspired by a magazine article about “K and R” consultants and a real-life hostage negotiation, this is the story of an American executive who is kidnapped and held for ransom. That’s what “K and R” stands for — “kidnap and ransom,” and not, as one might think, “kidnap and rescue.” But the movie makers know that audiences expect to see more than tense bargaining over price. They want some Rambo action, and in this movie, they get it.

The story begins with its hero, Terry Thorne (Crowe) sitting in a conference room giving a dry recital of his most recent success, the official report belied by scenes of what really happened, a shoot-out and perilous rescue by helicopter.

Then we see Alice and Peter Bowman (Meg Ryan and David Morse), a loving but discontented couple living in South America, where Peter is supposed to be overseeing construction of a dam. Alice is frustrated and unhappy, still mourning a miscarriage eight months earlier. Peter is also frustrated, because none of his equipment has arrived as promised, and because he feels that he cannot make Alice happy.

Then Peter is kidnapped, and Terry arrives to handle the negotiations — until it turns out that Peter’s company has not paid its insurance premiums, and Terry’s firm orders him home. Terry leaves, but then returns, out of a sense of honor or because he is drawn to Alice, or both.

The story shifts back and forth from Terry’s attempts to get the kidnappers to agree to a ransom Alice and Peter’s sister can pay to Peter, being held in the mountains. Peter’s scenes are intended to show his response to the deprivation and torture and his efforts to fight back or escape, but they are the weakest in the movie, failing to maintain tension or even sympathy. Meanwhile, Terry learns that he will have to go in commando-style to rescue Peter.

Crowe is magnificent, a reluctant hero out of a Bogart movie, with Bogart’s combination of ideals and complete lack of illusion. Offscreen, Ryan and Crowe had a romance that made headlines, but onscreen, there is not much beyond some meaningful glances and one brief conversation that Crowe makes heartbreaking. Ryan does her best to make Alice smart and tough, but neither she nor Morse as Peter are able to make us care very deeply. Pamela Reed makes a welcome appearance as Peter’s sister and David Caruso is excellent as Terry’s friend and compatriot.

Parents should know that the movie is very violent, with a lot of shooting and explosions and many deaths. Characters use very strong language. One of the bad guys uses drugs, and some of the good guys drink as a response to stress and as a way of bonding.

Families who see this movie should talk about how people evaluate risks and how they decide whom to trust. Why did Terry come back? What will he do next?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Missing” with Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek.

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Shallow Hal

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language for a PG-13
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2001

The Farrelly Brothers, known for shattering the good taste barrier with gross-out comedies like “There’s Something About Mary” and “Dumb and Dumber” have taken a couple of giant, if uncertain, steps toward the mainstream with a fairly conventional romantic comedy. It even has an undeniably sweet moral. If you’ve ever seen one of their movies, you know that “moral” is not the first word that comes to mind, unless you could say that the moral of “There’s Something About Mary” is that guys should be very careful when they zip up their pants and girls should watch what they put in their hair. But here the moral is that true beauty is seen with the heart, not the eyes (short pause for everyone to say, “Awwwwwww”).

Hal (Jack Black) and his best friend Mauricio (Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander) are two pudgy guys who insist on women with absolute physical perfection. We see why Hal feels that way in a brief prologue from his childhood. His dying father, a minister, tells him that the one thing for him to remember is that “hot young tail is what it’s all about” and he should “never settle for average.” Even though Hal grows up to be a pretty nice guy who is good at his job, when it comes to women, he is undeniably shallow.

Then he and infomercial star Anthony Robbins (playing himself) get stuck in an elevator together, and Robbins gives Hal a gift — from now on, Hal will see people the way they are, not the way they look. Suddenly, all around him are gorgeous girls who are very interested in him. They’re interested in him because he thinks they are beautiful, and he thinks they are beautiful because they are kind, generous, beautiful people. Mauricio is horrified, especially when Hal falls for Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow), who volunteers at the local hospital and works for the Peace Corps. Mauricio looks at her and sees a hugely obese woman. Hal looks at her and sees — Gwyneth Paltrow.

Black is one of my favorite comic performers. His performance was the best part of “High Fidelity” and he made “Saving Silverman” almost worthwhile. His speciality is a sort of frenzied but charming energy, and unfortunately, this movie does not give him much opportunity to show it off. Paltrow has some nice moments as Rosemary. She makes us see the vulnerability of a woman who has felt humiliatingly invisible all her life. But one problem with the movie is that instead of the characters themselves being funny, the jokes in the movie happen around them. A bigger problem is that almost all of the jokes are in the commercial and coming attraction. Black and Paltrow do the best they can, but there just is not enough comic energy at the core of the movie.

Some Farelly trademarks make it into the movie, including a disabled character (athlete Rene Kirby, who has spina bifida) and a bizarre physical aberration. But overall, it seems as though it is something of a transitional film for the Farrellys, enjoyable on its own and as a suggestion of better things to come.

Parents should know that the movie has very strong language for a PG-13, especially the sexual references. Characters drink, and several scenes are set at a bar/nightclub. The overall theme of the movie is the importance of judging people based on their behavior, not their looks. Robbins explains that Black is not hypnotized now — he was hypnotized before, when he thought that all of the television and movie images of beauty were what mattered. Some viewers may feel that the movie itself makes fun of people who do not fit current standards of beauty. A disabled character is treated with complete naturalness — he is by no means perfect (because he gets around on all fourts, he tells girls he recognizes them by their panties), but he is good-hearted and respected.

Families who see this movie should talk about what we look at and what we look for when we meet people. If we saw the way Hal does, who would be the most beautiful person you know? How would you look? Would you like to see people the way Hal does?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Outside Providence based on a book by Peter Farrelly.

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Super Troopers

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Extremely strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug and alcohol humor
Violence/ Scariness: Comic violence
Diversity Issues: Inter-racial couple, inter-racial colleagues, strong woman character
Date Released to Theaters: 2001

Toward the end of this movie, a character explains the difference between the pranks he and his friends play and those devised by a colleague. “Our shenanigans are cheeky and fun. His are cruel and tragic.” It’s a relief to hear that the people behind this movie recognize that distinction in theory, even if they are not always able to do so in practice.

“Super Troopers” feels like the kind of movie five college buddies who didn’t want to go to law school would dream up after a weeklong marathon of smoking dope and watching John Landis movies. In fact, that’s pretty much how it came about. Five recent Colgate graduates who created a comedy group called Broken Lizard wrote and star in it and one of them directed it. The result is a sort of “Animal House” crossed with Cheech and Chong with a touch of the 70’s Erik Estrada television show “ChiPs.” It is a slob comedy story of the rivalry between a group of Vermont highway patrolmen and the local police. Budget cuts are looming, so it escalates from taunts and practical jokes to a struggle over turf and then to a struggle for survival.

The members of Broken Lizard play the troupers, whose idea of “cheeky” hijinks includes making bets about how many times one of them can use the word “meow” while giving a motorist a speeding ticket or donning a hippie wig and racing the other troupers to the Canadian border.

In classic college fashion, drugs, alcohol, humiliation, and sex provide most of the subjects for humor. For example, it is supposed to be funny when a college student swallows two bags of marijuana and mushrooms, a character told to create a distraction concocts an elaborate prop to make it look like he is having sex with a bear, a character is hosed down naked and subjected to a fake delousing done with powdered sugar, and a German couple in a stolen Porsche offer sexual favors to get out of trouble — an offer that is happily accepted.

This is in the middle range for bad taste comedies, in both the bad taste and comedy categories. There are a lot of gross jokes that are cheerfully politically incorrect (even one about television cartoons made in Afganistan -“Afganimation”) but not as offensive as some of what is out there. They are not as stupid as some of what we’ve seen in recent movies, but they are not terrifically funny either. It falls somewhere between “American Pie” and Tom Green.

No one in Broken Lizard has what anyone might deem star quality — in those uniforms, they look more like they are auditioning for a local franchise for the Village People than like anyone who might know how to hold a radar gun on a speeding 18-wheeler. But director Jay Chandrasekhar and one or two of the others clearly have fun on screen and it occasionally reaches the audience.

Parents should know that the movie is mostly sex, alcohol, and drug humor, including depiction of masturbation, exhibitionism, bestiality and implied group sex. An unmarried couple has a child to whom both are clearly devoted. There are several depictions of a vulgar drawing of a cartoon character. Some law enforcement officials are shown as corrupt or stupid. Others, both male and female, black and white, are shown as high-spirited but loyal and honest. One strength of the movie is its positive portrayal of inter-racial relationships.

Families who see this movie should talk about what it might feel like to fear losing a job you like and how friendships develop among people who work together.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Caddyshack and the Police Academy and Naked Gun movies.

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