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Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating:
Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence
Release Date:
October 24, 2014

 

Moms' Night Out
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
MPAA Rating:
Rated PG for mild thematic elements and some action
Release Date:
May 9, 2014

John Wick
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating:
Rated R for strong and bloody violence throughout, language and brief drug use
Release Date:
October 24, 2014

 

Earth to Echo
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
MPAA Rating:
Rated PG for some action and peril, and mild language
Release Date:
July 3, 2014

23 Blast
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating:
Rated PG-13 for some teen drinking
Release Date:
October 24, 2014

 

Snowpiercer
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating:
Rated R for violence, language and drug content
Release Date:
July 2, 2014

In the Cut

posted by rkumar
C
Lowest Recommended Age:Mature High Schooler
Movie Release Date:2003

Meg Ryan sheds more than her clothes in this would-be steamy thriller. She sheds her twinkle. We don’t get the nose-wrinkling smile. No adorable befuddlement. No irresistible misting of the eyes. Unfortunately, that leaves her — and us — with not much of a performance. And unfortunately the script leaves us with not much of a movie.

Ryan plays Franny, an English professor who is deeply moved by words. She drinks in the scraps of poetry on the subway placards. She writes down the latest slang terms she hears from her students. And when a police detective (always-watchable Mark Ruffalo) comes to ask whether she saw anything on the night of a murder, she writes down a word he used to describe the body: “disarticulated.” But she holds her own words in, communicating very little to anyone except for her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Franny and the detective begin an intensely charged affair, but they know very little about each other and the very intensity in the midst of the investigation of a series of brutal makes them pull away from each other. Franny even begins to wonder whether the detective may be the killer. Threats loom all around her, including a needy ex-boyfriend (a stringy-looking Kevin Bacon) and a student (the charismatic Sharrieff Pugh) who seems interested in a much closer relationship.

Director Jane Campion uses arty tricks like a hand-held camera and a rust-colored cast to the settings to try to make the movie about something deeper. She may want it to seem dreamlike, even nightmarish. But it just feels incoherent. The verbal and physical encounters that are supposed to be dark and edgy and sexy are just flat. Ryan can handle dramatic roles, as she showed in When a Man Loves a Woman and Flesh and Bone. But she does not have enough to work with in the affectless Franny. The story itself is just weak, with an especially dopey ending that seems grafted on from another movie. If this were a smarter or more linear or more focused movie, I might think that Franny’s reaction to the detective — first impulsively getting too close and then impulsively pushing him away — was a reflection of the character’s conflicts about herself or perhaps symbolic of the human ambivalence about intimacy, physical and emotional. But I think it was just over-heated and muddled.

Parents should know that this movie is very close to an NC-17. It has exceptionally explicit sexual references and situations and extremely strong language, including racist and homophobic comments. There is nudity, including scenes in a strip bar. The movie also has very grisly images including bloody body parts and blood-drenched rooms. Characters are killed. The movie includes a lot of smoking and drinking, including drunkenness.

Families who see this movie should talk about the importance of Franny’s story about how her parents got engaged. How did the director use the way the camera moved and the color schemes of the settings to help tell the story?

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the better Sea of Love and Final Analysis.

Elf

posted by rkumar
B+
Lowest Recommended Age:Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Movie Release Date:2003

Will Ferrell is a very funny guy. His lanky cluelessness has a slightly muddled but imperishable sweetness that gives an endearing quality to all the characters he plays, from SNL’s exemplar of ultimate school spirit, Craig the cheerleader, to the streaking newlywed who stole Old School from ostensible leads Luke Wilson and Vince Vaughn.

Ferrell’s first lead role is made to order, a sort of human Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a North Pole misfit who shows his value and saves the day. Ferrell plays Buddy, a human raised as one of Santa’s elves, who discovers at age 30 that he has a real father named Walter (James Caan) who lives in New York and is on Santa’s “naughty” list.

Buddy leaves the North Pole to find Walter, knowing only what he has learned from the elves. Thus, he is a whiz at making snowflake decorations and spreading good cheer, and he always assumes the best about everyone. But these are not especially useful skills in New York City.

Walter is in trouble with his boss, a publisher of children’s books, because he has to find a successful new story by Christmas Eve. At first, he does not believe that Buddy is his son, but after he passes a DNA test, Walter reluctantly brings him home to meet his wife (Mary Steenburgen) and son. When Buddy stops by the Santa display at Gimbel’s, he meets pretty Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), who is too shy to sing in front of other people. On his way to saving the day and a happy ending for everyone from the North Pole to Manhattan island, Buddy gets many chances to do silly things as he experiences New York city and gets to know Jovie and his family.

Some jokes work better than others. The movie can’t seem to make up its mind whether people should need proof of Santa’s existence or not. And the talents of Caan, Steenburgen, Bob Newhart (as Buddy’s adoptive father) and Ed Asner (as Santa) are neglected. But director Jon Favreau (who appears briefly as a doctor) shows some verve and keeps the story moving quickly enough to keep it from feeling like a series of skits. Deschanel (Big Trouble and Almost Famous) nicely shows us the way Buddy appeals to Jovie’s longing for a place where singing and sweetness are encouraged. And it’s nice to hear the Oscar-winning “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” duet sung so sweetly. Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent)has a marvelous cameo as a haughty French-cuffed author of children’s books, making his appearance much more than a sight gag. And Ferrell is just plain fun to watch. His naive pleasure in the world around him is ultimately almost as endearing to us as it is to (almost) everyone he meets.

Parents should know that the movie has some mild potty humor and a couple of gross-out gags involving burping, barfing, and eating some pretty disgusting things. The plot touches on an out-of-wedlock child and DNA testing as proof of paternity. Some younger children might be upset that Buddy’s mother died and that his father never knew about him. There is mild comic peril. A character gets drunk.

Families who see this movie should talk about how the other characters felt about Buddy’s cheer and enthusiasm. If you arrived in your town after 30 years at the North Pole, what would surprise and delight you the way that the escalator and revolving door surprised and delighted Buddy?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Santa Clause, Home Alone, and the original Miracle on 34th Street. That classic (ignore the palid remakes) is about the rivalry between Macy’s and its then-rival Gimbals, which despite its appearance in this movie, closed for business years ago. Families might even like to try some of Buddy’s holiday decorating ideas, though probably not his recipes!

Beyond Borders

posted by rkumar
C
Lowest Recommended Age:Mature High Schooler
Movie Release Date:2003

An important and affecting story about relief workers gets buried under a syrupy romance in “Beyond Borders,” which has Angelina Jolie and Clive Owen gazing longingly at each other across starving and injured people in three different countries over a 10-year period.

It opens at a posh black-tie fundraiser, with Sarah (Jolie) dancing with her new husband to the prophetic Clash anthem, “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” She is having a wonderful time until Nick (Owen) crashes the party to accuse the organization of cutting off his funding. Sarah realizes the superficiality of supporting relief efforts with fancy parties, and empties out her bank account so that she can deliver food to Nick’s camp in Ethiopia. He alternately patronizes and ignores her (“You’re wearing perfume in the desert?”). But he is moved by her dedication to a child he thought was beyond help.

Four years later, Sarah, working full-time for the UN, unhappy with her husband but devoted to their son, meets up with Nick again, this time in Cambodia, where he is running a camp for the victims of the Khmer Rouge. They meet once more in Chechnya.

Director Martin Campbell is much more comfortable with the action scenes than with the romance. The tension and tragedy and the very different atmosphere of the different locations are vividly portrayed. But the romance serves as a soapy distraction that ultimately does a real disservice to the issues the movie raises and the extraordinary commitment and achievements of the real-life relief workers it attempts to honor.

Parents should know that the movie has very intense peril and violence and many scenes with starving and severely wounded people, including children. Characters are killed. There are moments of great cruelty. A man gives a baby a grenade to play with to demonstrate how little he cares for anyone or anything. There are non-explicit sexual situations, including adultery. Characters drink, smoke, and use very strong language.

Families who see this movie should talk about how Sarah, Elliot, and Nick decide what compromises they will and will not make. How can those compromises overtake the good that they are trying to accomplish?

Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate The Year of Living Dangerously, City of Hope, and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.

Brother Bear

posted by rkumar
C+
Lowest Recommended Age:Preschool
Movie Release Date:2003

The most imaginative part of this latest Disney animated feature, set in the Pacific Northwest at the end of the Ice Age, is the sunlight on the glaciers. It is magnificently rendered. Other than that lovely glimpse of majesty and artistry, the movie is right off the assembly line, an uninspired and lackluster story told with some visual flourish and a few cute moments but without much energy.

Kenai (voice of Joaquin Phoenix) is the youngest of three brothers. He is impetuous, careless, and very impatient for the coming-of-age ceremony where he will be assigned a “totem,” a symbol that will guide him through life. But he is disappointed by the symbol he receives, a bear, symbolizing love. His brother Sitka (D. B. Sweeny) has the eagle, for leadership, and his brother Denahi (Jason Raize) has the wolf, for wisdom. Kenai does not think either the bear or the love it symbolizes are very important.

Sitka is killed protecting his brothers from a bear. Kenai, enraged, kills it. The Great Spirits want to teach Kenai a lesson, so they use the Northern Lights to transform him into the creature he despises. When Denahi arrives, he thinks Kenai has been killed, and so he hunts the bear, not realizing it is his own brother.

Kenai must make a journey, physical and spiritual, before he can become his true self. Guided by a cheerfully chatty cub named Koda (Jeremy Suarez), Kenai sets off for the place where he can return to human form. But Denahi is pursuing them and other challenges lie ahead. The most important are the lessons Kenai must learn about loss, love, and brotherhood.

The grandeur of the settings is nicely evoked, especially afer Kenai becomes a bear and the screen literally opens up and brightens. There are some exciting moments when Kenai fights the bear and when Kenai and Koda race through a sulfurous geyser field. There are some funny moments with SCTV veterans Dave Thomas and Ric Moranis as a pair of silly moose brothers. But the music by Phil Collins is mediocre, even when legends Tina Turner and the Blind Boys of Alabama do their best to add some spirit.

All cultures have legends of physical transformation as a way of making more accessible the idea of spiritual and emotional change. These stories can be compelling and deeply meaningful, even for children. But here, the story is just too superficial and the script is too pseudo-mythological. The conclusion may strike some in the audience as jarring.

Parents should know that the movie has some tense scenes of peril and two characters are killed. Some children may be disturbed by the way that those characters return as spirits, but some may be reassured that love never dies. There is a little potty humor. The movie’s multi-cultural range of voices and setting in pre-historic Inuit culture add a lot to the movie’s texture.

Families who see this movie should talk about which totems they would like to pick for themselves and what animals they would most like to get a chance to be. What did Kenai learn as a bear that he could not learn as a human? There is an old Native American saying that you should not judge another person until you have walked a mile in his moccosins. How does this movie make handle that idea? What do you think about his decision at the end of the movie? Talk about the movie’s perspective on what you do to make amends when you have done something terrible, and about how siblings should support each other. Be sure that children notice how the look of the movie changes when Kenai becomes a bear. As Kenai sees through a bear’s eyes, we see through his, the entire shape of the screen changing and the colors brightening. As Kenai also learns to listen, the sound of the movie becomes fuller as well.

Families who see this movie will also enjoy Ice Age. Another Disney movie with a character who takes on animal shapes to learn important lessons is The Sword in the Stone. Families might like to find out more about the Northern Lights and about Inuit culture. They should adapt the bears’ discussion of “the most interesting thing that happened” on family dinners and car rides. And they will enjoy playing “I Spy” if they are able to make it a bit more creative than the moose did!

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23 Blast
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