Duplex

C+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, reference to alcohol abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive cartoon-style comic violence, some gross moments
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

“Duplex” is a cartoonish black comedy about a young couple driven to financial ruin and finally to plotting murder by their elderly tenant.

Alex (Ben Stiller) and Nancy (Drew Barrymore) think they’ve found their dreamhouse, a spacious duplex in Brooklyn with three fireplaces. At first, their upstairs tenant, Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essel), seems like a sweet old lady with a lilting Irish accent. They also figure that she’s so old, she won’t be around long. But after they move in, she constantly interrupts Alex, who is trying to finish writing a book, to ask for help or complain about a problem with the apartment. Her television blasts all night at full volume. And she seems to be determinedly healthy.

As in director Danny DeVito’s other comedies, Throw Mama From the Train, The War of the Roses, and Death to Smoochy, the humor stems from watching nasty people torture each other. Co-screenwriter Larry Doyle’s background writing for cartoons may be the reason this feels like it was written for Sylvester and Tweetie-Pie. Except with less heart.

There are some funny moments as Alex and Nancy helplessly try to set some boundaries only to find themselves caught up in yet another excruciating errand for Mrs. Connelly, and when their schemes to get her out of the house backfire (once literally). Barrymore is refreshingly without any movie star vanity and seems to relish the chance to look silly. But with no one to root for, it all gets tired quickly, even at less than 90 minutes running time, and the pay-off is not worth the wait.

Parents should know that the movie has a lot of comic violence (as in a cartoon, everyone survives without serious injury), including a gunshot wound. There are some gross-out moments. Characters use strong language and there are non-explicit sexual references and situations.

Families who see this movie should talk about how they have handled difficult people and situations.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy that classic of the hit-on-the-head comedy genre, Weekend at Bernie’s and the wildly funny Ruthless People (for mature audiences), with DeVito as a man who plots to murder his wife (played by Bette Midler). One possible inspiration for this movie is the brilliant British comedy The Ladykillers, about a group of crooks who rent a room from a genuinely sweet old lady. That movie does everything right that this one does wrong. It is scheduled to be remade in 2004 by the Coen brothers (Fargo). Families who’d like to see this situation played for terror may like Pacific Heights with Michael Keaton as the memorably creepy tenant of Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith.

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The Rundown

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
Profanity: Mild
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug references, drinking, hallucinogenic fruit
Violence/ Scariness: A lot of non-graphic action violence, characters in peril, some killed
Diversity Issues: Strong minority woman
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

“The Rundown” is a likeable action movie with an almost-loveable star, World Wrestling Entertainment’s The Rock as Beck, an enforcer for a nasty bad guy named Walker.

We first meet Beck in an entertaining nightclub brawl when he takes on a football team’s entire offensive line to get some collateral on a gambling debt. His next assignment, the action-movie staple last big job that will free him and give him the stake to realize his dream (a restaurant), is to retrieve Walker’s son Travis (American Pie’s Seann William Scott) who is off seeking treasure in Brazil.

Beck and Travis end up on an Indiana Jones-style quest for a golden idol, fighting both sides in a local rebellion and fending off a pack of amorous monkeys. Christopher Walken brings his usual weird vibe to the role of Hatcher, local oppressor.

Director Peter Berg (best known as an actor on “Chicago Hope”) keeps things moving briskly and knows how to show off the Rock’s charm as well as his expertise at throwing people around. Berg does not do much with the talented Scott or the beautiful and talented Rosario Dawson (The 25th Hour) who is saddled with a dreary spunky-girl role and an even drearier accent. Co-produced by the WWE’s Vince McMahon, it has no aspirations for subtlety or wit, but it’s mildly entertaining and, like its heroes, manages to avoid most of the obvious pitfalls.

Parents should know that the movie has a lot of “action violence” (non-graphic). Beck makes it clear that he does not like guns because he believes he does too much damage with them. He does end up using guns and doing a lot of damage. There is a mild sexual reference and a few bad words. Characters drink and smoke and ingest an hallucinogenic fruit.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Beck does not like guns.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Rock’s The Scorpion King.

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Anything Else

C+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, cocaine, and prescription drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Comic violence, tense moments
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Woody Allen has repackaged characters, themes, and even jokes from his best movies in this soggy and lackluster trifle about a young comedy writer stuck in various relationships.

This time, Allen has turned over the lead (essentially, the Woody Allen role) to American Pie’s Jason Biggs as Jerry Falk, with Christina Ricci as the alluring but maddening “can’t live with ’em; can’t figure out how to set some limits” love interest, Amanda.

Jerry cannot untangle himself from his inept agent (Danny DeVito), who takes twice the normal commission and is inexplicably attached to garment district metaphors; his analyst, a traditional Freudian who never interacts with him or offers advice; and Amanda, an unending source of agonizing announcements to torture Jerry, from her mother moving in to just not being able to have sex with him.

From Manhattan we have the Woody character in a solid, nurturing relationship but drawn to the neurotic and complicated woman his friend is dating. From Stardust Memories we have the attraction to a woman whose narcissism and instability will create great misery for him. And from Annie Hall we have the joke that sums up all romantic relationships, the non-linear, story-telling, the poignant attempt to replay the wished-for relationship, the offer of cocaine, and the New York/LA contest. But instead of ringing new changes on these themes, he just repeats them off-kilter. The result is like a fax of an oil painting.

Allen still has a way with a wisecrack and he knows how to wring laughter from agony, but nothing ever goes anywhere; he of all people should know the importance of a punchline.

Ricci has shown herself to be a brilliant comic actress in The Opposite of Sex and Addams Family Values but here she says her lines as though she’s afraid she might miss a word. In Annie Hall we fell in love with Annie as much as Alvy did, but Amanda never seems anything but self-obsessed, and unpleasant. DeVito gropes to find a comic vibe for a one-note character. Allen appears as Jerry’s mentor, a sesquipadalian teacher who smashes up the car of two huge guys who take his parking spot and who insists that Jerry keep a loaded rifle in his apartment. Please, Woody, it’s time for anything else.

Parents should know that the movie has explicit sexual references and situations and very strong language. Characters drink, smoke, and use cocaine and prescription drugs. There is comic violence and a discussion about guns.

Famillies who see this movie should talk about why it was hard for Jerry to say no to the people in his life and whether it will be different in the future. What should he have done differently?

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy Allen’s far better movies, including the ones listed above and Sleeper.

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Cold Creek Manor

D

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril and suspense, some graphic scares
Diversity Issues: Strong woman
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

If it was just that it was dumb, really, I would not be so annoyed with “Cold Creek Manor.” After all, most “don’t go into the house”-style thrillers have their dumb plot contrivances, like “Anyone who says ‘I’ll be right back’ isn’t coming back.” But the one thing it is fair to expect from a thriller is that it should not be boring, and that’s why this movie is so bad.

Director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) shows no understanding whatsoever of the power of film to create suspense. He relies almost entirely on the corniest ominous music cues to signal that something bad is about to happen. When the reaction of the characters is so far in excess of the reaction of the audience, the response is not to gasp, but to laugh.

Cold Creek Manor is the beautiful ruin of a country mansion bought by harried New Yorkers in search of simplicity and serenity. Like the house, the family is not as uncomplicated as it appears on the surface with their breakfast-making dad (Dennis Quaid as Cooper Tilson), briefcase-toting mom (Sharon Stone as wife Leah) and magazine model son and daughter. Both the house and the family have disturbing undertones and in thriller morality tale terms that means that suffering lies ahead.

Dale Massey (Stephen Dorff), who grew up in the house and lost it when the bank foreclosed, shows up one day and asks the Tilsons for a job restoring the house. Despite the fact that he shows up in Cooper’s study looking through things without, say, ringing the doorbell, and despite the fact that he tells them he just got out of jail and lights up a joint after dinner, they agree to hire him.

But then (long pause to indicate other-than-suspenseful meandering toward this point) creepy things start happening. Who could possibly be doing this? What are the roles of the town slut (Juliette Lewis) and town sheriff, who happen to be sisters, and of the mean old guy living in the nursing home? The real suspense is whether we will ever get to the end of this movie.

Once we do, we’re even sorrier. Let me just say that when the good guys run into Cold Creek Manor and lock the door, only they are surprised when that does not leave them as protected as they thought.

It’s a shame that Sharon Stone picked this as her comeback vehicle. Both she and Quaid deserve a lot better. So do we.

Parents should know that the movie includes poisonous snakes, instense peril, and some graphic violence and creepy images. A character (apparently with an alcohol problem) drinks and drives. There are sexual references (including adultery) and sexual situations. Characters use very strong language. Characters describe killing animals and there is a reference to killing children.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Leah and Cooper felt differently about Dale at first, and about the impact on Dale of his father’s behavior.

Families who see this movie and are fans of over-the-top thrillers will also enjoy Jessica Lange and Gwenyth Paltrow in Hush and camp classics like Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte.

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Underworld

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense action violence, graphic injuries, characters killed
Diversity Issues: A metaphorical theme of the movie, strong female character
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Imagine West Side Story with vampires and lycans (wolfmen) instead of Sharks and Jets and guns, blades, and teeth piercing necks instead of musical numbers, then dress them all in Matrix-inspired goth-bondage attire and you’ll have “Underworld,” a pulpy, punk-ish story filled with runes and ruins.

This is the kind of movie where characters with names like Craven say things like “But what about the Covenant?” and the exposition explanation begins in the 5th century, dust is blown from the cover of weighty medieval tomes, and huge heavy chains hang down for no particular reason.

The action begins before we know which side we’re on, with a stylish subway shoot-out. It turns out that there has been a centuries-long war between the vampires and the lycan. Now the lycan are very interested in a human doctor named Michael (Scott Speedman) and the vampires want to know why.

Michael is rescued by Selene (Kate Beckinsale), and he rescues her in return. She is ordered to kill him. But he did save her life. And he is kind of cute. And you can tell they are meant for each other because while everyone else in the movie has slicked-back hair, Michael’s and Selene’s hair falls adorably over their eyes.

If this movie doesn’t quite rise to the category of silly fun, it is a tolerable comic book-style time-waster with some stylistic flair and some energetic action sequences.

Parents should know that the movie has extensive and graphic violence. There is a reference to “misegenation” and adulteration of bloodlines. Characters drink and smoke and use strong language.

Families who see this movie should talk about how centuries-old conflicts can be resolved in a way that feels fair to all sides.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Matrix and Blade.

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