Emily Bazelon writes in Slate about the scariness of G-rated movies. Like several of the commenters on this site, she found The Tale of Despereaux scarier than she expected and so did her 5-year-old. Even though he had heard the audio book and knew the storyline, for at least a third of the time he “watched the movie with a pained expression and his hands over his ears. ”
Why, given this likely audience, did the moviemakers feel the need to include extended sequences with fear-pumping music; a giant menacing cat that charges after Despereaux in a gladiator ring; and Botticelli, the torture-obsessed leader of Rat World? And what’s the point of a G rating if movies like Despereaux fall into that category? This movie confirms my feeling that it’s past time to replace G with better age-tailored guidance. I remember sad G-rated kids’ movies from childhood: Disney classics like Pinocchio
, Dumbo, and Bambi. But my kids didn’t find “Bambi” distressing. Instead, what’s hard for them to handle are new movies, ostensibly created for their age group, from which they emerge metaphorically dripping in sweat, wrung out by an hour and a half of suspense and overexcitement.
Bazelon is looking for some mathematical formula to help her evaluate the movies she is considering for her children. But it is not that easy. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2000 produced the utterly predictable conclusion that every one of the 74 G-rated movies they reviewed had at least some violence in it. That includes comic bops on the head and various kinds of mild peril as well as fights with weapons that conclude with fatal injuries.
The study found a total of 125 injuries (including 62 fatal injuries) in 46 (62%) of the films. Characters portrayed as “bad” were much more likely to die of an injury than other characters (odds ratio, 23.2; 95% confidence interval, 8.5-63.4). A majority of the violence (55%) was associated with good or neutral characters dueling with bad characters (ie, using violence as a means of reaching resolution of conflict), and characters used a wide range of weapons in violent acts.
Classic G-rated films from The Wizard of Oz (flying monkeys, Scarecrow set on fire, scary witch) to The Black Stallion (sinking ship, loss of a parent) as well as, yes, Pinocchio (another sinking ship, child turns into a donkey, characters swallowed by a whale), Dumbo (scary fire, mean bullies), and Bambi (death of mother, forest fire) have both scared and enchanted children for generations. And every generation thinks, as Bazelon does, that the new movies are just scarier. But that is not the problem.
The problem is that (1) every movie and every movie scare is different; it is almost impossible to say whether one movie is scarier than another in the same rating category in part because (2) every child is different. A child who handles the death of Bambi’s mother without blinking one week (seen at home, on a small screen) may be very disturbed a week later in a dark theater with a big screen seeing the mother of the princess die of shock after seeing a rat in her soup at the beginning of The Tale of Despereaux, a moment I (apparently incorrectly) expected to be more upsetting to children in the audience than the gladiator scene with the bound princess delivered to the hungry rats to be devoured (but rescued before they get even a nibble). Children’s developmental rates are uneven and unpredictable and you can never be certain how they will process the moments of peril and tension in a story.
I’ve never met anyone who couldn’t immediately tell you about some movie that they found traumatic as a child or teenager (I get the flying monkeys a lot). I take that seriously; after all, a large part of what I do here is help guide parents to give them the information they need to protect their children. And I urge parents to leave the theater or turn off the TV if they think children are unhappily frightened. But I realize, as all parents should, that one of the purposes of story-telling is to give us the opportunity to test our emotions and our responses and give us a sense of control over our inexpressible fears. Before there were scary movies there were scary fairy tales and nursery rhymes and before that there were scary stories around the campfire. The best we can do as parents is to protect our children when we can and teach them how to handle their fears when we can’t.
Has there ever been a cinematic pairing as eagerly anticipated as this one? Perhaps, but I can’t think of one that has been anticipated as long. Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro were both in 1974’s “The Godfather II” but their storylines encompassed different generations and there was no overlap. They both starred in “Heat” 21 years later, but shared only one scene. A mere 13 years after that, we finally get to see them together at last, starring in “Righteous Kill” as New York City detective partners investigating a serial killer who might be a cop. In real life, we have been waiting for a long time to see them together but in the parallel universe of the movie, DeNiro and Pacino have been partners for three decades and are each other’s closet friends and most respected colleagues. The pleasure of the movie is not in its predictable story but in seeing two of the greatest actors of our time play with and off of each other on screen, especially in the unimportant moments that give you a sense of a lifetime of connection and understanding.
That’s just about the only pleasure, though. The ending is predictable, the progress toward it derived from any of a dozen of interchangeable cop films. DeNiro and Pacino connect and compete, DeNiro cooling down and Pacino heating up. But we’re watching them, not their characters. They get some solid support from John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg as a rival team of younger detectives with some personal and professional gripes, but Brian Dennehy looks worn in the under-written over-used character of the exasperated lieutenant and Carla Gugino’s forensic detective is a fantasy figure — too young and too kinky for this kind of set-up. Except for 50 Cent, who can’t act a smidge, the actors are game but the script is tired.
Happy birthday, Elvis! In honor of The King’s birthday this week, we present one of his best movies, the delirious Viva Las Vegas, co-starring the combustible Ann-Margret.
Elvis plays a race-car driver named Lucky who meets a spirited girl named Rusty. For once he has a co-star who is as dynamic a musical performer as he is. It includes classics like the title tune and saucy duet “The Lady Loves Me,” plus a sizzling Ann-Margret dance number. And a car race! Just the thing to start off the new year.
The Washington Post covers Rotten Tomatoes’ round-up of the year’s worst movies and what makes it fun to read is not just the list of what-were-they-thinking horrible films but the quotes from the reviews by the critics who suffered through them. My own pick for the worst film of the year is featured on Rotten Tomatoes along with the choices from Ben Mankiewicz, Roger Ebert, and others invited to participate by the RT editors.
Maybe it’s just a case of new year’s optimism but for me the good news from this article is less about the lousy movies (what did we expect from Paris Hilton, Uwe Boll, or those “Epic Movie” people?) that it is about the good work done by the critics who reviewed them. The movies may have been a waste of time but the reviews, as quoted on Rotten Tomatoes and in the Post, were not. Anguished, maybe, even angry at times, but often funny and always clever, thoughtful, and game.
It doesn’t take a critic to know that a movie is awful, but it can take a critic to help us understand how and why it is awful. The movie may not be fun to watch but the critic can make explaining why it is not fun to watch a lot of fun to read and, on a good day, we will learn something, too. And I give extra credit to the intrepid souls who make the effort to see the “cold opens,” the films that are not shown in advance to critics because the studios are certain they won’t get a single good review. They’re better prognosticators than they are film-makers; several of those cold opens ended up on the worst list including the dead last, “One Misssed Call,” which did not get a single good review.
I usually don’t mind seeing bad movies. The really horrible ones can be easier to watch than movies that are just dull and mediocre. My son and I used to joke that the motto of our movie-going club was “just because a movie is no good is no reason not to see it.” He has generously accompanied me to some legendary flops, including Catwoman and Battlefield Earth. It is often easier to write a good review of a bad movie than a good review of a great movie, and the Post article reminds us that terrible movies often inspire some very well-written complaints.
All of this is a good way to get ready for the first releases of 2009. The big prestige movies of December, released in time for awards consideration, are inevitably followed by the January left-overs. We normally don’t see much worth recommending until mid-February at the earliest. So this round-up of last year’s worst movies as reviewed by some of the best critics is a timely reminder to sharpen my metaphorical pencils and get ready to do my best to make reading about bad films as entertaining as I wish it had been to watch them.