The Recruit

B+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, sometimes excessive, and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Peril, torture, and violence, character deaths
Diversity Issues: All major characters white, strong females
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

When you lie all the time, how do you remember what is true? How do you remember to care?

That is a theme of most spy movies, and it is right at the center of this twisty story about a grad student from MIT who is recruited for the CIA, put through a brutal training period, and then sent out to find a mole, someone from the inside who is working for the bad guys.

In what used to be the Tom Cruise part (supremely talented but hot-headed kid with father issues), we have Cruise’s co-star in “Minority Report,” the supremely talented and magnetic Irish actor Colin Farrell. His Obi-Wan Kenobi equivalent is grizzled veteran Burke (Al Pacino), who has mastered the art of identifying the right candidates and enticing them to join up, even though there is no chance of money or recognition. You might win a medal, but they just show it to you and take it back — you aren’t even allowed to keep it.

Burke tells James Clayton (Farrell), Layla Moore (Bridget Moynahan), and the other recruits that everything is a test; nothing is as it seems. CIA training facility (called The Farm) is like boot camp crossed with “Fear Factor.” They learn not to believe anything or anyone. They learn to lie without quickening their pulses or dilating their pupils. And they learn that nothing matters — no feelings, no friendships — except for completing the mission.

The other students are told that Clayton was dropped, so that Burke can use him undercover to find which one of them is working for the other side. Is it Layla?

It’s a “Top Gun”-style part, and Farrell has everything it takes to be a huge star, but it is unlikely that this movie will make it happen for him. There are some supple plot twists, but the story sags in the middle, there aren’t any gee-whiz gadgets, and the preview gives too much away. It’s an above-average thriller, but not especially memorable.

Parents should know that the movie has strong language and sexual references and situations, some exploitive (intended to get access to secrets). Characters smoke and drink, sometimes to excess, especially after receiving bad news. There is a lot of peril and violence, including torture that is graphic for a PG-13. Characters are killed.

Families who see this movie should talk about the classic conflict we confront when we allow the ends to justify the means. How do we create an organization of liars and keep them honest? Would you like to be a spy?

Families who enjoy this movie should watch the brilliant BBC miniseries, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” inspired by the real-life British mole Kim Philby.

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Biker Boyz

B+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Characters in peril, one killed, one badly hurt
Diversity Issues: Most characters strong, brave, African-Americans, interracial friendship and loyalty
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

It’s just a bunch of music video-style motorcycle races punctuated with brief interludes that are more dramatic place-holders than story, but a top-notch cast, some flashy camera work, and attitude to spare make “Biker Boyz” highly watchable.

Like “Saturday Night Fever” or “The Hustler,” it gives us a look at a vibrant sub-culture that is in a direct line from the knights of the roundtable through to the cowboys of the old west. They operate a fully-functioning society based on honor, dreams, loyalty, flair, and, of course, a huge helping of extravagently macho contests.

Jaleel (“Antowne Fisher’s” Derek Luke) adores his father Will (Eriq La Salle), the mechanic and best friend of the “King of Cali,” Smoke (Laurence Fishburne). A hundred and fifty years ago, he would have been the fastest gun in the west. Now, he’s the fastest biker in California and a guy who can make an entrance a Vegas headliner would envy.

Will is killed standing on the sidelines of a race. Jaleel is devastated. He blames Smoke. He stays away for six months and then shows up, bitterly angry and bursting to take Smoke down. But Jaleel has to earn the right to race Smoke, first by joining a gang and then by winning some races. Each confrontation moves the story forward until the big moment when Jaleel and Smoke, more alike and more connected than they realized, challenge each other to do what Will always said, “Burn rubber, not soul.”

The plot tries to be epic and primal, but it is just derivitive and creaky. What works, though is the vibrant presence of some of today’s most arresting actors. Fishburne, Jones, Luke, and Vanessa Bell Calloway as Jaleel’s mother give a lot of snap to the lukewarm dialogue. In small roles, Djimon Hounsou, Lorenz Tate, Rick Gonzalez, and Meagan Good manage to be vibrant and distinctive. One of the movie’s strengths is the way that this sub-culture has its own dignity and honor; it is clear that cheating, hustling, and disloyalty are not allowed and that any challenger is welcome. There is a nice moment when we find out that the character we know as “Soul Train” has a daytime persona — as a pinstripe-suited lawyer.

Parents should know that characters drink, smoke, and use strong language. There are sexual references and situations. There is some sexual humor and there are references to promiscuity and issues of paternity (with a traumatic discovery), but the relationship of the main characters is loving and devoted. Characters are in peril and there is serious injury and one death. Characters also “hustle” by pretending not to be able to race and betting a lot of money. While most characters are African-American, the gangs are open to all races, and Jaleel’s group has white, Hispanic, and Asian members. Characters get tatooed. The bikers engage in racing that is not just very dangerous but also illegal, and at one point some are arrested.

Families who see this movie should talk about how the biker culture is like and not like other cultures they know. What are the rules? How is status determined? How does that compare to groups in school? In sports? Or show business? What do you think about Smoke’s decision in the last race? Why does Jaleel say what he does about the helmet?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy some of the classics with similar themes, including “West Side Story” and “Saturday Night Fever.”

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The Life of David Gale

C+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character abuses alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Explicit snuff film-style footage
Diversity Issues: Strong women, all major characters white
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Somewhere between potboiler and polemic, this overripe melodrama signals every one of its plot twists as hamhandedly as it bangs out its message.

Kevin Spacey plays Texas philosophy professor turned death row inmate David Gale, who agrees to his first interview just days before he is to be executed for a brutal rape/murder. David and the murder victim, Constance (Laura Linney) had been co-leaders of a group that opposed the death penalty.

He will speak to only one journalist, a reporter for a weekly news magazine named Bitsy (Kate Winslet) who herself has just been released after serving a week in prison for refusing to reveal a source.

The terms of the interview are that David will be paid half a million dollars in cash and that Bitsy will see him for two hours a day on the last three days before the execution.

Is the evidence against David overwhelming? Does Bitsy come to believe he is innocent? Does possibly exonerating evidence show up at almost the last minute? Does the car break down so that Bitsy has to run to the prison at the real last minute? Do people in this movie continually behave in the dopiest possible way in an unsuccessful attempt to create some suspense and conceal the “surprise” ending? Oh, yes. Does it work? Oh, no.

Spacey and Winslet give their weakest performances ever. Linney manages one brief believable moment when she is discussing Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages in confronting death (though she gets them in the wrong order). The best performance is by Matt Craven as another opponent of the death penalty. He has almost no lines but manages to bring a little dignity to his moments on screen.

Parents should know that the movie includes very mature material. There are sexual references and explicit sexual situations, including rape charges. A student offers a teacher sex for a passing grade (he declines). There is also non-sexual nudity and footage that may show a murder. Characters use strong language and one abuses alcohol, ultimately becoming an alcoholic. The movie also features suicide in what could be seen as an approving manner.

Families who see this movie should talk about the death penalty. They might want to look at information on sites like Death Penalty Info and Pro Death Penalty to learn more about the current debate on that issue. Families should also talk about how David’s choices relate to the lecture he gave his class. Is our greatest happiness in dreaming of future happpiness? What must we do to make our lives meaningful? How do our values inform our choices? What will David’s son think about his choices?

Families who enjoy this movie will appreciate the far better Dead Man Walking and The Green Mile.

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City of God

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Strong language, homophobic slurs
Alcohol/ Drugs: Frequent explicit scenes of drug use, drug dealing, and addiction
Violence/ Scariness: Brutal violence, casual beatings, spousal abuse, frequent peril, and uncountable deaths
Diversity Issues: Two strong female characters; beyond family and close friends, there is little tolerance and most arguments are settled with shootings
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Brazil’s nomination for Oscar consideration, “Cidade de Deus“ (“City of God”) is a blood-spattered, non-stop ride as much into the life of a ‘favela’ (squatter settlement) as it is into the lives of the youths who inhabit it. There is no self-pity, no soul searching, no explicitly stated social commentary in this mesmerizing and vibrant movie, what is there is a story told by a child, full of sound and fury, but signifying life instead of the nothingness you could expect.

City of God, the favela for which the movie is named, is one of Rio de Janeiro’s most notorious slums and the story is largely based on Paulo Lin’s epic book, in which he describes over 350 of the characters who move among the settlement’s walls. Our narrator is a young boy named Rocket who leads us from the late ‘60’s, when the favela comprises sun-drenched, orderly rows of pre-fab housing for those who had no where else to go, into the early ‘80’s when the City of God has become a warren of bleak apartment blocks for those who cannot escape.

As young Rocket (Luis Otavio, as a boy, Alexandre Rodrigues, as a teen) watches, the favela becomes a petri dish for conditions conducive to crime, the rule of the gun, and, eventually, full-blown turf war. The young favela sports such low grade hoods as the “Tender Trio,” comprising Rocket’s older brother, Goose (Renato de Souza), Clipper (Jefechander Suplino) and idea-man Shaggy (Jonathan Haagensen). The Trio’s antics do not extend beyond stealing fuel from the delivery trucks and, after a robbery goes awry, one boy turns to the church while another is taken firmly in hand by his father. That this incidence is the last intervention into a child’s life by a parent in the movie says much about the future of the favela.

The Tender Trio are soon replaced as the hoods in power by the malevolent Lil’ Dic (Douglas Silva, as a boy, Leandro Firmino da Hora, as a teen) and his side-kick, the forgiving Benny (Phellipe Haagensen). When Lil’ Dic (now renamed “Lil’ Zé”), decides to take over City of God as the resident drug dealer and hood baron, a series of small scale coups escalate into turf war with Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele) and “good” man turned vigilante, Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge).

It is Rocket, dreaming of becoming a photographer, who fittingly serves as our Virgil, leading us through a world which no outsiders dare enter. The other inhabitants of this favela may be living their own quiet lives, however Rocket is on the periphery of the action and lives through the turf wars in a deeply personal way. From his first crush (Alice Braga) to his first camera, Rocket shares experiences both touching and humorous (his charmingly inept attempts at becoming a hood are not to be missed) as well as his losses.

Although the bulk of the movie narrates the all-out turf wars between two rival drug dealers, the story is deliberately told with the energy, liveliness and digressions of a child’s tale, somehow managing to leave us hope amongst the corpses as the credits roll.

Parents should know that this movie contains non-stop violence and frequent deaths, including the murders of main characters. In this 130-minute long film, there are only a handful of scenes where the characters are safe from peril and the audience can relax with them. There are explicit references to sexual intercourse and a non explicit but deeply disturbing rape scene which should not be viewed by children.

Families should discuss the evolution of the characters from children into adults. When the boy nicknamed “Steak & Fries” (Darlan Cunha) argues to a crowd of drug dealers that because he has smoked, snorted, killed and robbed, he is a man, the crowd bawls with laughter. It does not matter that the boy, perhaps 10 years old, is only slightly younger than these teenagers. What, besides chronology, does make someone an adult? What choices does Knockout Ned make that turn him from a local hero to just another gangster?

The rise of a younger generation of hoods in the form of the gun-toting pre-teens known as “the Runts” presents us with the specter of never-ending violence. What is the future of the favela at the end of the movie? What could stop the vicious circle? What decision does Rocket make about his photographs at the end? Is this what you would have done?

Where the odd, little-kids-turned-mobsters flick “Bugsy Malone“ (1976) meets the wanton destruction of “Scarface” (1983), “City of God” touches on the theme of children becoming killers in the never ending spiral of retribution. “Boyz in the Hood” (1991) did a powerful job at capturing another young man on the cusp of gang warfare. The rule of children without mercy is much in evidence in the “Lord of the Flies” (1963, 1990). Families who enjoy this movie should not miss the less bloody but beautifully moving “Central Station” (1998).

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Shanghai Knights

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking favorably portrayed
Violence/ Scariness: Action violence, peril, characters killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

There are no surprises in “Shanghai Knights,” but that’s only because it delivers exactly what we came to see: a cheerfully anachronistic buddy/action/comedy movie starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson. Every few minutes it throws in either a classic pop standard, an impossibly agile fight scene, some offbeat surfer cowboy comments, some fish out of water humor, or some combination of all of the above. In other words, it’s everything that made their last movie, “Shanghai Noon” a hit, except that it’s set in London.

Chan and Wilson reprise their roles as serious Chinese Imperial Guard turned sheriff Chon Wang (say it out loud) and amiable bandit turned waiter/giglo Roy O’Bannon. In case anyone bothered to remember the details of the last film, the princess and the treasure the heroes won at the happy end are swiftly dispatched and Roy and Chon are off to London to avenge the murder of Chon’s father and retrieve the great seal that has been stolen from the emperor of China. They arrive just as the celebration of Queen Victoria’s 50 years on the throne is about to begin. Chon’s sister Lin (Fann Wong) is in jail for attempting to kill Rathbone (Aiden Gillen),the Queen’s favorite cousin. Our heroes have to get Lin out of jail, get back the seal, and stop the plots to kill off the nine people between Rathbone and the crown and usurp the emperor of China.

This leaves plenty of time for comedy in encounters with policemen, prostitutes, Jack the Ripper, a street urchin/pickpocket, and a newfangled contraption called the automobile that has a run-in (literally) with an old-fangled contraption called Stonehenge.

The action scenes are ably staged, especially a marvelous battle with Keystone Cops-style policemen in a revolving door, a fight in a fruit market, and some masterful acrobatics with that most British of props, the umbrella. The comedy is more uneven, though Wilson’s way with a line is always deliciously offbeat. Newcomer (to the US) Wong has a dazzling smile and a lethal kick, always a good combination to have on hand.

Parents should know that the movie has some raunchy humor, including scenes in brothels. There is a nude pillow fight (nothing shown) and there are some brief sexual situations. Roy, who happily makes a living having sex with women for money at the beginning of the film, turns down an offer to have sex when he falls in love with Lin, even though he does not know how she feels about him. Characters smoke and drink with a lot of enjoyment. They also cheat, lie, and steal without any remorse. As with all Chan movies, there is a lot of action violence and peril, but only the bad guys get seriously hurt.

Families who see this movie should talk about the puzzle box Wang’s father sent him, and why it was important to show patience before receiving the message. Why was that particular message so important to him? They may want to find out more about Charlie Chaplin, Jack the Ripper, Queen Victoria, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his famous creations, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Shanghai Noon and Rush Hour. They should be sure to watch some of Chan’s earlier Hong Kong movies like Legend of the Drunken Master which show him at his prime. And they should see some of the movies that this one pays sly tribute to, from Singin’ in the Rain to Safety Last.

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