Cradle 2 the Grave

C

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language, many racial epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril and violence, child in peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, mild gay stereotype
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

This slapdash mess of an explosion movie wastes the talents of its cast and can’t even slow down to let us enjoy the fight scenes. I don’t care if the plot doesn’t make sense to me, but I like to have it make sense to the people who are in the movie. No such luck. At least two times, characters avoid having to deal with trivialities like analyzing clues or explaining how they know where they are supposed to go next. They squint their eyes and say, “I just know.”

I just know, too. They have to go to wherever so that we can check off one more on the list of things someone thought would be cool in an action movie. Strip club? Check. Tank crashing into a building? Check. Race through city streets and up stairways in all-terrain vehicles? Check. Blowing up a helicopter? Check. Escaping from a blowing-up helicopter? Check. Letting us get an inside-the throat perspective when a character gets and explosive devise shoved into his mouth, so we can see him blow up from the inside? Check. Making any sense, including any dramatic tension, letting us watch any individual fight scene for more than a short-attention-span-theater-style 20 seconds? Nah.

To the extent that the movie is about anything, it is about this: a lot of different people want some fancy black diamonds, so everyone steals them from everyone else and then all the international rogue nations get together and bid on them commodities-style, though they show so little understanding of commodity pricing that they would be wiped out faster than pets.com and they are far more civilized than commodities traders, too. Then there are some more fights. Then they have the nerve to set things up for a sequel.

DMX showed some charisma and promise in “Exit Wounds,” the last film by this director, but he does not have enough to do here. His character — high-tech superstar thief who preys on bad guys by day/loving daddy who prays with his adorable and spunky daughter by night — just does not work. The delicious Gabrielle Union (“Deliver us from Eva”) is wasted as kick-boxing arm candy who is even forced to do a strip tease to provide a distraction while her boyfriend is tossing the room next store. Jet Li looks like he’d rather be someplace else. Tom Arnold and Anthony Andersen provide some flashes of humor.

The plot is not just murky, which is forgiveable; it is manipulative, which is not. It is shameless to have the little girl kidnapped by the bad guys to make us see how truly evil they are and make us feel some commitment to the outcome. It is even more shameless to have the black diamonds turn out to be a power source for super-destructive weapons. But what is really unforgiveable here is the waste of the movie’s primary asset, Jet Li’s ability to fight, by filming the scenes so poorly that we don’t really get a good look at what he can do.

Parents should know that the movie is extremely violent, with a lot of intense peril, many character deaths, and graphic wounds. A little girl is in peril and bound and gagged. Characters use extremely bad language, including racial epithets, but the group of good guys is racially diverse. Characters drink and smoke. A character pretends to be gay in order to distract a gay security guard, and there are some mild stereotypes.

Families who see this movie should talk about how a movie like this may be seen differently now, when the world seems poised on the brink of war, then it might have when the script was written.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “The Transporter.”

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Bringing Down the House

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Strong language for a PG-13
Alcohol/ Drugs: A lot of drinking, drug humor, references to drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Mild scariness and peril, mostly comic
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

This movie falls squarely in what I call the “Cat in the Hat” genre, one of the most popular and enduring movie themes, in which a straight-laced person (A) who plays by the rules has his or her life turned upside down by someone (B) who represents uncertainty, vitality, and taking risks. After A complains about how B is irresponsible and how B is messing everything up, there is always a scene in which A tells B, “I learned/got so much more from you than you ever did from me! This is the best day of my life!”

In this variation, Steve Martin plays Peter, a lawyer who works too hard. He is separated from his wife and cancels a long-planned vacation with his children because he is under a lot of pressure to land a wealthy and very proper new client (Joan Plowright). He meets a woman on the internet and makes a date with her, thinking she is a pretty blonde lawyer. But it turns out to be Charlene (Queen Latifah, who also produced), a convicted felon who wants him to help her clear her record. She not only knows how to torture him into helping her — she enjoys it. And while he is fuming on the outside, it is clear that at some level, he is enjoying it, too.

This is Steve Martin’s best film in years. The character and situations are made for him. Queen Latifah is sensational — warm, funny, and sexy and utterly charming. Audiences will wish she would come over and bring down their houses. The script loses its way several times, particularly with a tasteless plot line about Peter’s racist society party girl of a sister-in-law. A catfight scene does not work at all (except for the Tae-Bo joke). Don’t think about the plot too much, because most of it makes no sense at all. But this is still a better-than-average comedy that works very well much of the time. Queen Latifah’s wonderfully radiant star quality, Steve Martin’s comic grace and Eugene Levy’s masterful turn as Peter’s besotted partner do bring down the house.

Parents should know that the movie has some very strong material for a PG-13, including explicit sexual references and a graphic apparent sexual situation, very strong language, a lot of drinking, and drug humor (it is supposed to be very funny that a very dignified elderly lady gets stoned on marijuana). A young teenage girl sneaks out with a boy and finds it more than she can handle when he takes her to a party where people are drinking and doing drugs and he tries to force her to have sex. It is supposed to be funny that Peter’s son reads a dirty magazine (that belongs to Peter) and that Peter’s sister-in-law is essentially a paid girlfriend for very elderly rich men. Some people may be offended by some of the racist language and stereotypes, but the movie is clear that it is offensive and stupid to be bigoted and cowardly and foolish to be silent when those views are expressed.

Families who see this movie should talk about Charlene’s advice to Peter on how to communicate with his teenage daughter. They should also talk about how the adults in their family try to maintain a balance between work and family and how to best communicate to family members that they are the top priority.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy a sweet British movie with a similar plot, “Molly and Me,” as well as the best of all “Cat in the Hat” genre movies, “Bringing Up Baby.”

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Old School

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong frat-house language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking as male bonding, including drinking to excess
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters very loyal and supportive
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

After a long, long series of gross-out slob would-be comedies that thought it was enough to be disgusting, it is a relief if not always a pleasure to see one that has some very funny moments. Yes, it is morally bankrupt and completely politically incorrect. But what can I say, I laughed.

Think of “Old School” as the reunion of the gang from Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds. Three 30-year-old men, feeling squashed by responsibilities (represented by women), end up turning a house into a fraternity with all of the fun of torturing pledges, throwing wild parties, and essentially relinquishing all trappings of civilization.

In even the best of this genre, there is about a five-to-one joke ratio of failures to successes. It really isn’t very funny when a character finds out after the fact that the young lady he had sex with while drunk was not just a high school student, but the daughter of his boss; when a character calls out “earmuffs” to his six year old son so that the boy will cover his ears when his father is about to use bad language; when a character’s wife asks for a divorce just weeks after their marriage; or when an elderly character is so struck by the sight of slicked-up topless girls waiting to wrestle him that he keels over dead. But over and over, Will Farrell and Vince Vaughn throw themselves so completely into the material that they make it work much more often than it deserves.

Parents should know that this movie has a great deal of very mature and sometimes offensive material. There are homophobic references, a stereotyped Jewish character (wearing a “chai” necklace) shows up for group sex, characters drink to excess, and have casual sex. There are references to group sex and to other activities like wrestling with topless girls covered in KY jelly. There is a “fun” blow-up doll. A group of women hire a man to teach them how to give oral sex and we see them practicing on vegetables. The fraternity is welcoming to men of all races and ages and — aside from some hazing of the pledges — the men are all very supportive of each other. One character who seems most bent on abandoning all rules turns down sex with a young women because he will not cheat on his wife.

Families who see this movie should talk about whether people need to feel that their responsibilities are suffocating when they become adults.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, and a more serious treatment of some of these themes, Lord of the Flies.

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Gods and Generals

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense battle violence, bloody surgical scenes
Diversity Issues: Issue of slavery a theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Sometimes, what is best for history is not best for drama. And here, where we know how the story of the Civil War ends, the film-maker’s relentless even-handedness removes whatever drama the story might have had by making every one of the characters endlessly honorable, devoted to God, home, and family, good to the slaves, and able to spout poetry, the classics, or the Bible in the midst of the direst circumstances.

This is a movie where the Confederate general Stonewall Jackson (still so revered in Virginia that the place he died is not called a memorial, but a shrine) calls the black man he is about to hire as a cook “Mr. Lewis,” and where Mr. Lewis is so well educated, despite being from a part of the country where educating black people is illegal, that he quotes Napoleon. Later on, General Jackson explains to Mr. Lewis that the South would like to free all the slaves. It just wants to do that without being forced to by the federal government, so that the South can build an enduring friendship with the people who were kidnapped and sold into bondage. Meanwhile, on the other side, a Northern officer who will become the most decorated soldier in the Union army, tells his brother that the war was not fought about slavery, but now that it is underway, it is so terrible that it has to be justifed by making some great, sweeping, change for justice.

So, the bottom line is that this careful, meticulous, lovingly crafted three and a half hour movie feels even longer. Its PG-13 television-ready (it will be expanded to six hours for a miniseries) level of violence may make it suitable for junior high history class field trips, but does not truly convey the tragic carnage of the war that had Americans fighting with each other. All the soldiers have nice uniforms and enough to eat. Officers at the front get visits from their devoted wives at places that 150 years later will be made into quaint bed and breakfast inns. And everyone is on the right side.

And — everyone encompasses a lot of people. Hard core Civil War buffs (there were a couple in the screening I attended in full uniform) may be able to follow the endless series of characters and their advances and retreats, all identified with brief subtitles, but anyone else will have a hard time.

The movie gives us too little information, but it also gives us too much, telegraphing its developments and themes. We can tell when an officer tells a general that he has a better idea and the general rejects it because his plan has been approved by Lincoln that it is a mistake. And we can tell when an impossibly cute little girl becomes too important to a character that she won’t make it to the end of the story.

Parents should know that the movie has sustained battle violence and bloody scenes of caring for wounded soldiers. Many characters die.

Families who see this movie should talk about the way that more than 160 years later, people in the United States still disagree about the causes and effects of the Civil War (which some still call the War Between the States). What did the soldiers on both sides have in common? What were their differences? Given what is going on in the world right now, what did we learn?

Families who want to know more about the Civil War should watch the superb PBS series by Ken Burns, which makes its characters more vivid and its storyline more compelling than this fictional version. They should also see three outstanding movies about the Civil War, Glory, Friendly Persuasion, and The Red Badge of Courage. Thoughtful teens and adults should read the Pulitzer prize-winning The Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz, about the power that the Civil War still holds over many Americans today.

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Dark Blue

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Extremely strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters smoke and abuse liquor and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Very intense peril and violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

This is an ambitious movie. It takes a cop who is corrupt in an ends-justify-the-means sense and contrasts him with a cop who is corrupt in a what’s-in-it-for-me sense and arranges for them to clash just as the jury in the first Rodney King case is deliberating on a verdict.

But when this movie succeeds, it is not in its attempt at a broader statement about integrity and responsibility in a world that is racist and dishonorable. Its strength is in its fine performances and in its smaller moments. Its weakness is a climax that is both melodramatic and formulaic and its unfortunate resemblance to the flashier Training Day by the same screenwriter.

Like that movie, this is the story of a rogue police detective teaching a young partner how to do things his way. Eldon Perry, Jr. (Kurt Russell) comes from a family of lawmen as far back as anyone can remember. He learned from his father what he is trying to pass on to his new partner, Bobby (Scott Speedman) — anything he can do to rid the world of one more bad guy is all right. Bobby is the nephew of Eldon’s mentor and boss, played by Brendan Gleeson (Gangs of New York).

The movie is not subtle. The cops who wear the uniform are the good guys and the bad guys are very, very bad. The quadruple homicide-robbery that puts the story into play is, even these days, shockingly casual in its brutality. And the last twenty minutes are embarassingly preposterous. But Russell, an underappreciated actor, gives a thoughtful, heartfelt performance that beautifully illuminates the movie’s themse of decay and redemption.

Parents should know that this movie includes extreme peril and brutal violence. Innocent people are casually murdered. Characters abuse liquor, smoke, and use drugs. There is extremely strong language, including racist epithets. There are sexual references and situations, including adultery and a sexual relationship between people who intentionally know nothing about one another. A theme of the movie is the parallel between the corruption of the police force and the corruption of the surrounding society, and that is reflected in behavior that is greedy, disloyal, bigoted, and cruel.

Families who see this movie should talk about how even people who abandon core values have their own value systems. Where do we see TK’s limits? What makes him hit bottom and decide to change? Family members too young to remember the Rodney King trial should look at this site for further information. And everyone should remember King’s famous question, “Can’t we all get along?”

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Training Day and Internal Affairs.

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