The Eye

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Tension, peril, violence, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

The Eye is a Taiwanese ghost film that will please the American audiences who flocked to The Sixth Sense, The Others, and The Ring, far superior to recent American trash that has been made to cash in on the fascination with ghost stories.

The Eye focuses on Mun (Angelica Lee), a blind girl as she is about to receive some donated retinas in an operation that will give her vision. The operation is successful, and over time she can see as well as anyone and better communicate with her supportive family, her doctor, and a sickly child she has befriended in the hospital. However, one night, she sees the old lady near her in the hospital being escorted out by a stranger after visiting hours, and the next morning she is dead. When Mun is finally out in the real world, she sees people that others can’t see, all of them very strange and some of them particularly frightening. By the time her doctor recommends her to his nephew psychiatrist Dr. Wah (Lawrence Chou), it is clear that she is seeing ghosts, and while trying to get someone to believe she tries to find out more about the donor.

It’s no surprise that this film has already been optioned for an American remake, especially with the success of the Ringu remake The Ring. The US version may have more expensive special effects and a more upbeat resolution, but this version is a very likeable movie. It is beautifully filmed by the Pang brothers and it has some ambitions to be more than a typical mindless scarefest, taking on important topics like intolerance. It’s very easy to make a bad scary movie and hard to make a good one, especially considering how many have been made recently (I hope you all missed The Mothman Prophecies and Dragonfly), The Eye delivers the goods without insulting anyone’s intelligence.

Lee and Chou both have charm and talent and are great finds for the Pang brothers, who have proven themselves worthy of an American audience. Scenes like Lee’s operation are done with warts and all realism, and Mun and Dr. Wah’s relationship is very believable when it could have easily been contrived. These realistic elements convince the biggest naysayers that even the ghosts could be real, and situations, from the horrific climax to full, intriguing stories that link the ghosts with their past lives will send chills down your spine.

Parents should know that the movie is very scary and has pervasive tension, violence, and some disturbing images.

People who enjoy this movie should try the recent popular (and chilling) ghost stories, particularly the aforementioned The Sixth Sense, The Others, and The Ring and the original Ringu. Families might also enjoy two other movies about blind people who gain their sight, Blink and At First Sight.

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The Other Side of the Bed

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

As the credits roll in this first entry in the Sundance series, we meet two couples, the men asleep in their beds, their girlfriends both crooning a silly pop song about honeymoons and sunlight. Then, in a restaurant, Paula (Natalia Verbeke) tells Pedro (Guillermo Toledo) that she is leaving him because she is in love with another man. Pedro goes to tell his best friends, Javier (Ernesto Alterio) and Sonia (Paz Vega) that his heart is broken. The reason for Javier’s discomfort is revealed when we find out that it is Javier for whom Paula has left Pedro. And he becomes even more uncomfortable when she pushes him to tell Sonia about their affair.

That leads to a light-hearted romp of musical beds with real music — every so often one of the characters breaks into song with assorted bystanders as a chorus line.

The result is a lightweight but highly enjoyable romantic farce, as ever-sillier complications mount until things are sorted out and everyone gets to live happily ever after.

Parents should know that the movie has very explicit sexual references and situations, nudity, very strong language, comic violence, and drinking and smoking. Some characters discuss homosexuality in an ignorant manner, but the gay character is dignified and not at all stereotyped.

Families who see this movie should ask whether the characters have learned anything and will be likely to behave differently in the future.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Noises Off.

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Under the Tuscan Sun

B+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some strong language for a PG-13
Alcohol/ Drugs: Frequent social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Difficult emotional complications
Diversity Issues: Strong female and minority characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Like the crumbling Italian villa at the center of this story, there is a lot wrong with the movie, but it is so enticing — especially for its intended audience — that it is hard to resist.

The best-selling book by Frances Mayes about her restoration of a crumbling villa is beautifully written and wonderfully evocative, but it does not have much of a story. So writer/director Audrey Wells has taken the real Mayes, and thrown a lot of plot at her, just the kind of thing that last year’s Adaptation should have warned her against.

Mayes (played by the exquisite Diane Lane) is now a book critic and would-be novelist who is dumped by the husband she has been supporting. This means that he is entitled to alimony in addition to his half of the house, which he wants to keep. She is financially and emotionally devastated and moves into a depressing furnished apartment complex filled with people who are getting divorced.

When her best friend Patti (the marvelous Sandra Oh) becomes pregnant, she gives Frances her ticket for a tour of Tuscany. It’s a “Gay and Away” tour, which is fine with Frances, who is relieved that there will be no possibility of romantic entanglements.

But she ends up with an entanglement is of a different kind, impulsively buying an ancient house called Bramasole, which translates into “yearning for the sun.”

And yes, it is Frances who is yearning for the sun, and yes, the renovation of the house is a metaphor for renovating her spirits. On this emotional journey, she will meet kind souls who will impart life lessons with a profundity somewhere between fortune cookie and Dr. Phil.

A free-spirited Englishwoman, a kind local realtor, and three Polish construction workers help her get ready to enter back into life again, and a charming Italian man helps her begin by reminding her that she is capable of loving and being loved. Frances makes a wish for a wedding and a family in the house and when at first it seems that the wedding and the family are not the ones she wished for, she begins to understand that they really are just what she wanted. And she learns that she can help others who yearn for the sun, healing herself at the same time.

The problem is that director/screenwriter Wells tells us a lot more than she shows us. She seems to have no understanding of how to translate a story into film. The movie often seems abrupt and unfinished and the characters are superficially drawn. The script tells us how the characters feel about each other but does not make it matter enough for us to believe in or care about the way their relationships are resolved. Lane brings as much to the material as is humanly possible, but is given little to do beyond looking wistful and wounded. But it is all beguilingly pretty to watch and its message of hope and second chances is beguilingly pretty, too.

Parents should know that the movie has some strong language for a PG-13. There are sexual references and situations, including a sexual encounter between two people who barely know each other — portrayed as deeply romantic and healing — and a sexually active young couple. Another character is happily promiscuous. Mayes’ husband leaves her for another woman. The movie does a good job of avoiding stereotypes with a gay Asian character.

Families who see this movie should talk about all of the advice that Mayes gets and what she learns from it, especially the stories about the train tracks, about bad ideas being like playground bullies, and about the ladybugs. How important is “childish enthusiasm?” Why did Frances believe the relationship with Marcello was more than it was? In the book, Mayes says that “the house is a metaphor for the self.” How is that shown throughout the movie?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Enchanted April and A Room With a View, both part of the rich tradition of movies showing how the sun-dappled vistas and luscious food of Italy can restore souls and open hearts. There’s an almost-as rich tradition of harried home renovations movies (the best is Mister Blandings Builds His Dream House) and of house-as-metaphor movies, most recently Life as a House with Kevin Kline. Families might also like to try some Italian cooking, learn more about the tradition of the flags in Siena, and of course visit Tuscany if they can.

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Marci X

D

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Extremely strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Marijuana, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Comic violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Screenwriter Paul Rudnick (Adams Family Values, In and Out) had an idea that could have made a funny seven-minute “Saturday Night Live” sketch — a culture clash between a pampered Jewish socialite and a “ghetto fabulous” rap star. But the shelf life of satire is rarely long enough to sustain a movie production schedule, and much of the material in this movie feels outdated already. Are we still making fun of boy bands? And how long has it been since Bill Gates was an eligible bachelor? The material here is so slight that it is not enough to sustain an entire movie, and the absence of any comic energy whatsoever in Richard Benjamin’s direction makes it seem endless even at a less than 90-minute running time.

Lisa Kudrow plays Marci Feld, the daughter of a mogul (played by director Benjamin) whose conglomerate includes a rap music label called Felony Assault. The explicit language on the latest release from its star performer, Dr. S (Damon Wayans) has offended the powerful Senator Spinkle (Christine Baranski), and she calls for a boycott that puts Feld’s entire corporation at risk. When he is hospitalized with a heart attack, Marci decides that she will go to see Dr. S and work things out.

Rudnick manages a couple of sassy comebacks, but ultimately is reduced to stealing from himself with a poor re-enactment of the best scene from In and Out. Many of the set-ups are painfully flat, especially a weird fund-raiser for a purportedly funny medical condition — lack of feeling in the arms, demonstrated by poking children with forks.

Kudrow’s offbeat line readings provide some punch and Paula Garces parodies J.Lo (in her Puff Daddy phase) with some spirit. But Wayans just sounds whiny and about as threatening as a daffodill.

Parents should know that the movie has exceptionally mature material, with strong language and explicit sexual references. There is some humor that may strike some audience members as insulting to homosexuals (though screenwriter Rudnick is gay). Characters drink and smoke marijuana and there are jokes about Valium and Prozac. The movie includes comic violence, including gun use. One positive note is the handling of the relationships between people from different races and religions.

Families who see this movie should talk about what it means to “keep it real” and about the current debate on the influence of explict sex and violence in lyrics.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the far better Undercover Brother.

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American Splendor

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MPAA Rating: R
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Illness and unhappiness
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Harvey Pekar says, “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.” His own life is a good example. He has the most ordinary of professions – he is a file clerk in a veteran’s hospital. He lives in the most ordinary of apartments — dank, drab and cluttered. He has the most ordinary of frustrations – a woman in front of him at the grocery store’s check-out counter takes too long, a look in the mirror provides “a reliable disappointment.” He faces the most minor and the most severe obstacles and problems with the same grumpy pessimism. Yet Pekar, file clerk, freelance jazz critic, comic book author, sometime Letterman guest, and now the subject of a biographical movie, has an extraordinary ability to recognize the complexity of ordinary life. Like many artists, Pekar may be too overwhelmed by life to deal with it, but not too overwhelmed to document it.

His insights and artistic sensibilities do not translate into a capacity for tolerance or intimacy. Pekar is selfish and insensitive. He does not want to be alone but he is too unpleasant and petty to live with anyone else. His first two marriages tanked, so he lives without human companionship in a dingy apartment surrounded by the clutter of his collections of old records and comic books. He spends his free time at garage sales haggling over minor purchases. He manages to alienate almost everyone around him with the exception of his small coterie of equally damaged human beings. One of the highlights of the movie is his relationship with Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), a fan who impulsively decides to marry him after a disastrous first date, and who indeed turns out to be his ideal life companion. Like Pekar, she is relentlessly honest about her own quirks, shortcomings, and pathologies and those of others.

Pekar does not hide a single blemish. On the contrary, he seems to wear his flaws somewhere between chip on his shoulder and a badge of honor. His combination of self-awareness and self-obsession can be extremely difficult to digest in large doses. And yet, Pekar’s unpretentious candor makes him seem real, honest, and even engaging. He may not like being a file clerk, but he is not slumming and he does not feel superior to anyone there, no matter how aware he is of their deficiencies. Being a file clerk fills some need in him, perhaps for order and predictibility and authenticity.

When we first meet Pekar, he is a child out trick-or-treating on Halloween. The other kids are dressed as superheroes, but he is all he will ever be, himself. When that is insufficiently impressive to elicit candy, he gives up. He would rather be the real Harvey Pekar than a pretend comic book hero.

What is ironic, of course, is that Pekar became a comic book hero.

Okay, maybe an anti-hero, but a highly successful one. Pekar’s stories have been illustrated by the top artists working in comics today. Comic expert Don Markstein wrote, “Pekar’s critics accuse him of having founded the ‘dull autobiography’ genre of comics writing. But as is often the case, his many imitators miss the point. It isn’t Pekar’s normal, work-a-day life that draws so many readers to his work. It’s his ability to find piquant things to say about the ordinary things he sees and does.”

The artists illustrating Pekar’s stories are so many and so varied that their differing renditions of Harvey provide one of the movie’s best moments. Fan and future wife Joyce Brabner arrives at a bus station to meet Pekar (Paul Giamatti) for the first time. She looks around and before she sees the real Pekar (rather, the actor portraying him), she sees the ways he was drawn by different artists, trying to put together the Pekar of the comics with the Pekar who wrote them.

This prismatic approach to Pekar is ideal for conveying his complex ordinariness. At one point, Pekar the real person is watching Giamatti, the actor portraying him, who is watching actor Donal Logue playing Pekar in a play. Or maybe Logue is playing Dan Castellaneta, the actor who actually played the part of Pekar in that production.

The characters in this movie are so weird and their lifestyles are so odd that it is sometimes difficult to tell whether they are real people or cartoon characters. The movie brilliantly plays upon this, switching fluidly from comic book drawings to actors, to actual footage of the real people involved, then back again. The real-life characters appear as a sort of Greek chorus to comment on the story and on the movie itself. The real Pekar is, of course, reliably disappointed. Footage of Pekar’s appearances on the David Letterman show is spliced cleverly with surrounding scenes in which actors depict the events leading up to and following the show.

Pekar shows us that when you look closely enough, there is drama even in the uneventful life of a file clerk. Pekar rails against his loneliness, or talks about the sweetness of life in a way that shows he is not all that different from the rest of us. He raises himself from squalor by teaming up with a friend, the famous artist R. Crumb, to produce a whole new type of comic book. He has life-threatening medical problems which require him to confront his own mortality. And in his own way, he loves, deeply.

The overall effect of the movie is not one of slapstick but of earthy, gritty reality. Davis and Giamatti are brave, funny, heartbreaking, and simply magnificent. So are the real Brabner and Pekar.

The movie gives us a Pekar who is an interesting, angry, intelligent, multi-facted, slightly twisted man in his moth-eaten underwear and scratching himself in rude places. He may be reliably disappointed in himself, but the honesty of his take on himself and his life is, ultimately, quite beautiful. Plus, it has the best soundtrack of the year, filled with meticulously chosen classics.

Parents should know that the movie’s rating is based on language. There are some sexual references and inexplicit sexual situations. Some viewers may find the unhappiness and dysfunction in the movie disturbing.

Families who see this movie should talk about why such an intelligent and perceptive man created this kind of life for himself. What was it that appealed to him about the file clerk job? Why did he confront David Letterman? What makes Pekar happy?

Families who enjoy this film should see Crumb, a documentary mentioned in American Splendor about Pekar’s collaborator. Crumb is surrounded by similarly eclectic characters, many profoundly dysfunctional and deeply disturbing. They should also see Ghost World, based on a comic book from the same genre.

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