What a Girl Wants

B+

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Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
Profanity: A couple of strong words
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Brief comic peril
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

This is not just a fairy tale — it is a full-out fantasy straight from the heart of all young girls and former young girls who really really love their daddies. It may feel to other people like a adorableness overdose, but its intended audience will enjoy it very much.

Adorable Amanda Bynes plays Daphne Reynolds, the spirited daughter of a wedding singer and single mom named Libby (Kelly Preston). Daphne has always dreamed of meeting her father, but her parents split up before he even knew she was going to be born, and he doesn’t know anything about her. After she graduates from high school, she hops on a plane and shows up at his house. Except it isn’t exactly a house — it’s one of those hundred-room Masterpiece Theatre-style palaces.

It turns out her father is Lord Henry Dashwood (adorable Colin Firth), who has just given up his hereditary seat in the House of Lords to stand for office (they say “stand” instead of run in England) just like a commoner. He is engaged to a horrible social-climbing monster named Glynnis (Anna Chancellor) with a snooty teen-age daughter. Daphne is a breath of fresh air and both she and Henry learn a lot about themselves as they learn about each other.

Bynes is a gifted comedienne who does not get a chance to show off what she does best in this movie the way she did in “Big Fat Liar” and her television show. But she has a fresh and engaging presence and some able and charismatic support from classically trained stage actors Firth (who looks GREAT dancing in leather pants), Eileen Atkins, and Jonathan Pryce. The love interest, played by Ian Williams, should be high on the Teen Beat hearthrob list.

The movie feels too long because it is more like a string of unconnected sit-com episodes, each one signaling its conclusion the moment it starts. Each incident fails to build on or even be reflected in the one that comes next. It has a pre-packaged feel, leaving absolutely nothing to chance, not even the possibility that there might be some eight-year-old who has never seen a movie before and might not know that the bad guys are really bad unless they engage in the most idiotically outrageous (and self-defeating) behavior. Those parody villains who let the hero plot his escape because they just have to go into long explanations of everything they are doing have nothing on these guys. The climactic, Cinderella-ish conclusion to the big coming-out ball makes Daphne seem inconsistent and immature. And the climactic decision by Henry makes him seem irresponsible and immature.

Parents should know that there is some brief strong language in the movie, including a reference to a dog that bit a man’s testicle and an ugly insult (from a villain) about a character’s mixed race heritage. The family issues, including the “Parent Trap” problem of having a child bring her estranged parents together, may be difficult for some children.

Families who see the movie should talk about the way Daphne tried to “fit in” and whether Henry was doing the same. What were the most important things Daphne and Henry learned from each other? They should also Henry’s decision to change direction and what the impact is likely to be.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “The Princess Diaries” and Disney’s “Pollyanna.” The movie is very loosely based on “The Reluctant Debutante,” which is available on video, and it might be fun to compare them. It is by no means a classic, but it does have a rare film performance by one of the 20th century’s most exquisite comediennes, Kay Kendall, who appears with her husband, Rex Harrison and Sandra Dee as the American debutante who falls for a musician.

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Basic

D

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril, shooting, grenades, characters killed
Diversity Issues: Strong minority and female characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

It’s probably not even worth explaining the premise of this sorry attempt at a thriller because the “basic”premise is to tell you one thing and then turn it upside down and then do that again about six more times in ninety minutes. But here goes: John Travolta plays Tom Hardy, a DEA agent called in to investigate some mysterious deaths at his old Ranger base in Panama. One surviving soldier has returned from an arduous training mission, but three others have not, and he refuses to talk to anyone but a fellow Ranger.

He talks to Hardy, but the story he tells is contradicted by the other survivor, the gay son of one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Giovanni Ribisi), who is in the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound. As each tells the story, we see it re-enacted, in one of the most tiresome of movie conventions, the subjective flashback that exists just for the “gotcha!” when we find out that it was unreliable. By the time we have seen the same story with variations all those times, we really don’t care any more which version is right. It doesn’t help much that the final answer is so nonsensical.

The dialogue is terrible. Fortunately, it is frequently drowned out by the incessant rainstorms that howl throughout all the flashbacks. The rain also makes it difficult to tell the characters apart, even in this standard army every-soldier-has-just-one-identifying-characteristic format. Those who are looking forward to seeing Travolta reunited with his “Pulp Fiction” co-start Samuel L. Jackson should know that they appear together only very briefly, and, in any event, their performances are among the most single-dimensioned they have ever given. Jackson just yells and Travolta just grins. Furthermore, Connie Nielson has the worst attempt at a Southern accent in memory.

Parent should know that this is a very violent movie with many character deaths. Characters smoke (one who gave up smoking years earlier takes a cigarette to relieve stress). Characters have alcohol and drug abuse problems and some characters deal in illegal pharmaceuticals and cocaine. Characters use very strong language.

Families who see this movie should talk about the various forms of betrayal and loyalty it illustrates.

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the far better “A Soldier’s Story” and “A Few Good Men.”

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The Core

B-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril, many characters killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters work together well
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

This is a big, dumb, explosion movie. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — often big, dumb, explosion movies are fun to watch and do very well at the box office. But this one suffers from very bad timing. At a time when the world feels a little fragile, watching CGI versions of Rome and San Francisco be all but destroyed and a (successful) crash landing of the space shuttle, no matter how impressive the technology, is not fun at all. And without a, well, core of substance, wit, or energy, this movie cannot recover.

Aaron Eckhart plays rumpled University of Chicago professor Josh Keyes, brought in to figure out what is going on when dozens of people just drop dead all at once. It turns out that for some reason the core of the earth has been slowed down (possibly by something we did), throwing off the electromagnetic charges that govern everything from navigation by birds and aircraft to pacemakers. The first part of the movie is smart people figuring out what is wrong and how to fix it, and then they all climb in a sort of rocket ship that can melt thousands of miles of solid rock and dive down to the center of the planet to essentially reboot it.

So, it’s basically “Journey to the Center of the Earth” without the dinosaurs crossed with “Armageddon” without Bruce Willis. The script isn’t bad. Co-writer John Rogers has a degree in physics and is a former stand-up comic, and both areas of expertise are evident. If it is formulaic, at least it understands the formula reasonably well. There is something of a Ten Little Indians feeling, as members of the crew start getting picked off in various dramatic ways. Stanley Tucci wildly overacts as a fame-seeking scientist with a book deal who serves as this expedition’s Dr. Smith without Will Robinson to push around. Everyone else in the cast does their professional best, but the only standout is D.J. Qualls as a super hacker who lives on Xena tapes and hot pockets.

Parents should know that the movie has sustained and intense peril. There is widespread destruction and many characters are killed. There is some strong language, including the obligatory single f-word permitted in PG-13 movies. There are female and African-American characters who are exceptionally talented but who have had to face obstacles to their professional advancement. Diverse characters work together well.

Families who see this movie should look at look at this site for more information about the core of the earth.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Fantastic Voyage (about an expedition through the human body) and When Worlds Collide.

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Head of State

B+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to drinking and drugs, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic violence, a lot of slapping and punching
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Chris Rock makes an appealing Presidential candidate in “Head of State,” a comedy about Mays Gilliam, a Washington D.C. alderman who is thrown into the race after a plane crash kills the candidates for President and Vice President just weeks before the election. The idea is to use Mays as a placeholder so that one of the party regulars can be the candidate in 2008. At first, Mays does what he is told by the party’s handlers. He wears a suit and tie and speaks in meaningless platitudes. Then he decides to be himself and speak from his heart and the voters begin to respond.

Yes, it’s a little bit “Rocky” and a little bit “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” And it’s more than a little bit Chris Rock’s stand-up routine. But his stand-up is pretty funny, and a lot funnier than his previous movies. This one, directed and co-written by Rock, is a real-life version of the story it tells. Rock is breaking away from what he had been told to do to succeed in Hollywood (Make a movie with Anthony Hopkins? Remake “Heaven Can Wait?” Try to act? I don’t think so.) and just being himself, which makes this a nice way to spend 90 minutes.

The joke success to failure rate is above average, as Rock goes after men, women, whites, blacks, voters, and just about everyone and everything else. Even the opening credits are a goof. Thankfully, the movie avoids the easy “white people with no soul get taught how it’s done by black people” clichés. When Mays appears at a fancy party for upper-class campaign contributors (all white) they not only already know how to do the electric slide; they are pretty good at it, even if they don’t know that “the roof is on fire” is just a metaphor. I loved it when Mays abandoned his generic campaign ads and conservative suits in favor of gangsta-flava’d music-video-style spots (the slogan was MG2K4) and threads.

It’s a shame to waste Robin Givens by making her character a one-note shrieking harpy, and Rock cannot act at all (I have never seen anyone so uncomfortable in a kissing scene), but he does get some able support from Lynn Whitfield and Dylan Baker as political advisors and Tamala Jones as the sweet girl he’d like as his first lady.

Parents should know that there is some raw humor that may be troubling or offensive to some audience members. A woman breaks up with her fiancé by telling him that he is bad in bed and “I’ve had better sex with guys who have spina bifida.” A beautiful woman on the candidate’s staff is a prostitute hired to be available so that there will not be any sex scandals (though Mays turns her down). There are jokes about drinking and drugs (though Mays refuses to accept campaign contributions from a man who markets malt liquor to minors). There is a lot of hitting and slapping that is supposed to be comic and jokes about assassination attempts.

Families who see this movie should talk about why what Mays says is so appealing to voters. His diagnoses of the problems may be right, but does he offer any solutions? When are we likely to have a black President, and who is it likely to be? What does it mean to “dress for the job you want?” Was it true that the options Mays had were limited because he had to represent the entire black race the way a white candidate would not? Why was Lisa’s advice to “run your race” so important?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Kevin Kline in “Dave” and Robert Redford in “The Candidate.” They might also enjoy James Garner and Jack Lemmon in “My Fellow Americans.” Mature audiences will enjoy Rock’s appearance as a forgotten apostle in “Dogma” and as a hit man in “Nurse Betty.”

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Phone Booth

C

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril, characters shot and killed
Diversity Issues: Strong, wise, capable African-American character
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Even the most paranoid fantasies have to make sense at some level, and this one just doesn’t.

The premise is all right. Colin Farrell plays Stu, whose job is Hollywood’s favorite indicator of utter corruption — he’s a publicist. We meet him walking down the street, his intern trotting beside him, handing him pre-dialed cell phones so he can keep up a continuous loop of shmoozing, badgering, lying, and manipulating his various clients, sources, and outlets — including a pretty would-be actress named Pam (Katie Holmes), a tasty prospect for both business and pleasure.

But Stu doesn’t want to call Pam from the cell phone because his wife sees the bills. So he stops in the last phone booth in Manhattan, which turns out to be a very big mistake.

The phone rings, and Stu answers. The man on the other end (Kiefer Sutherland) tells him that he has a rifle pointed at Stu, and that he will shoot him if he hangs up or tells anyone about it. He seems to know all about Stu, his wife Kelly (Rhada Mitchell), and Pam. When a pimp comes after Stu because his girls want to use the phone, the sniper shoots him, and the police, led by Captain Ramey (Forrest Whitaker), think Stu did it. Stu is surrounded by police with guns pointed at him, both Pam and Kelly are there, and the sniper will not let him get off the phone.

This film is based on a short student film and was shot in just 12 days. It’s a Hollywood film that is trying for the vibe — and the indie cred — of a smaller film. Just as “The Blair Witch Project” made its liability (no money) into an asset (making it look as though the footage was from a student film), this movie tries to have Stu’s confinement in the phone booth shape both the story and its impact. While it does create a lot of tension and Farrell and Whitaker are always great to watch, the movie feels manipulative and padded. The “Who do you think you are?” sign behind Stu and the “I’ll never lie again and will show the proper respect” climax are heavy-handed and pretentious and the attempted twist at the end is heavy-handed and predictable. Farrell, usually impeccable with American accents, completely misses in his attempt to sound like an upwardly mobile guy from the Bronx.

Parents should know that the movie has extreme and intense peril and violence. Characters are killed without provocation and there are references to other murders. Characters smoke and use very strong language and there are references to adultery (or the wish to commit adultery).

Families who see this movie should talk about what the characters are likely to do next. How will Stu change?

Families who enjoy this movie might also enjoy some other phone-centered thrillers like “Sorry Wrong Number” and “Dial M for Murder” and a brilliant movie about the relationship between a corrupt publicist and an even more corrupt columnist, “The Sweet Smell of Success.”

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