You Got Served

C

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character is a drug dealer
Violence/ Scariness: Character gets beat up, character killed
Diversity Issues: Strong, loyal, capable African-American characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

This would be mindless but enjoyably cheesy cinema fluff if it did not cross the line into the category of the unforgivable by using the murder of a child as a plot contrivance. That is a complete violation of the core premise of a movie like this one, which is that if you will offer 90 minutes of your life, it will provide something reasonably entertaining.

Other than that one jarringly misbegotten detour, the movie is exactly what you would expect from a Hollywood fantasy in which street dancers compete for a $50,000 prize and the chance to appear in a Lil Kim video.

Best friends Elgin (Marques Houston of IMX) and David (Omari Grandberry of B2K) are best friends in the neighborhood’s top street-dancing “crew.” They compete with other crews at a local warehouse presided over by the fatherly Mr. Rad (Steve Harvey). And they say things to each other in Hollywood’s idea of hip and happening street talk, like “You crazy but you know I always got yo back, bro” and “may the dopest crew win.” They have elaborate handshaking rituals which appear to take up much of the time they spend together. But trouble arrives in the form of a crew from another part of town that comes to Mr. Rad’s place and out-dances them.

And soon they are feuding because David likes Elgin’s sister Liyah (Jennifer Nicole Freeman). David was with Liyah when he was supposed to be with Elgin make a delivery for bad guy Emerald (former pro football player Michael “Bear” Taliferro). Because Elgin was alone, he was badly beaten by thugs who stole Emerald’s delivery package. Emerald expects Elgin to replace the money that was stolen. And there is this dance contest with a $50,000 prize, where all of these plot threads will come together.

For a movie like this, all we really need to know is first, whether the dance numbers are any good (yes, with lots of pnuematic shaking and fierce attitude). But the numbers are not always photographed well; the cuts and angles do not become a part of the choreography as they did so successfully in Chicago and Drumline. It is not even always clear who is in which crew. The second thing we need to know is whether the story gets in the way of the dancing (not too much). Fans of hip-hop groups B2K and IMX will enjoy seeing those performers as well as a guest appearance by Lil Kim. The one to watch out for, though, is Meagan Good, as Beautifull (“two l’s”), Liyah’s wisecracking best friend, who is as much fun as the best of the dance numbers.

Parents should know that the movie has some strong language. A brother tells his sister she is acting like a “ho” because she is out on a date. Characters deliver packages for a man who is apparently a drug dealer and there is always a strong sense of the pull of thug life. A child is shot and killed (off camera). The main characters are in general responsible, respectful, and devoted to their families. One female character is committed to education and plans to become a doctor.

Families who see this movie should talk about why the dance crews are so important to the characters and how they determine who is the best.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Saturday Night Fever and Breakin’.

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The Big Bounce

B-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, character abuses alcohol, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Comic violence, characters badly hurt and killed
Diversity Issues: Strong African-American character
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

“Big Bounce” wants to be comic caper movie, but the real crime is inflicted on the Elmore Leonard book credited with inspiring it.

You can tell that somewhere in there there is a book with colorful characters and a couple of lines of dialogue that crackle. There is some evidence that there was an actual plot of some kind. At some point. But not now.

What passes for plot looks something like this. Sticky-fingered surf bum Jack Ryan (Owen Wilson) loses his job for bashing the boss with a baseball bat. He gets a new job as a sort of handyman for some bungalows owned by Judge Crewes (Morgan Freeman, adding a little class). He meets a beautiful woman named Nancy (Sara Foster) who has a weakness for men who have a weakness, and the next thing you know everyone is trying to double cross everyone else over $250,000 in cash. It is is supposed to be used to pay some goons to beat up the people who are protesting a development owned by a mean guy who happens also to have Nancy as a girlfriend. But Nancy wants Jack to steal it. “All you have to do,” she purrs, “is walk in poor and walk out rich.”

Wilson, who always looks like a surf bum in whatever part he is playing, finally gets to play a surf bum and is surprisingly uninteresting in the part. Foster has some spirit and Freeman’s bemused spin makes his lines feel fresh. But the movie feels recut by people who weren’t sure what tone they were trying for, and the result is just bland.

Parents should know that the material in this movie is pretty intense for a PG-13, with strong language, sexual references and situations (including making fun of a gay character), drinking, smoking, violence, and general bad behavior by just about everyone.

Families who see this movie should talk about whether anyone in this movie trusted anyone else, and if so, how. What will happen to Jack, Nancy, and Crewes after the movie ends?

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy better movies based on Elmore Leonard books, Out of Sight and Get Shorty.

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Touching the Void

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extreme peril, exceptionally tense danger
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Repeat after me: “We know they survived because they are up on the screen telling the story.” You’ll need to hold onto that thought tightly to get you through this almost unbearably tense re-enactment of a terrible mountain-climbing accident and the extraordinary determination and courage that got the climbers home.

In 1985, Joe Simpson (age 25) and Simon Yates (age 21) decided they would be the first climbers ever to climb the west face of the 21,000-foot Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. They made it to the top, but on the way down Simpson fell and shattered his leg. Yates risked his own life to help Simpson descend, lowering him 150 feet at a time with a rope holding them together. But when Simpson fell again and Yates could not see or hear him, the rope that connected them was pulling Yates to certain death. Yates, believing Simpson had to be dead, cut the rope. He searched for Simpson but could not find him. He managed to make it down to the base camp, frozen, dehydrated, and utterly devastated. His story is one of the great feats in the history of mountaineering.

But Simpson’s story is one of the great feats in the history of human endeavor. A dozen different times over the next four days he faced certain death, but even when he thought it was hopeless, he simply refused to give up.

When Yates believed that Simpson had fallen off the mountain, he had instead fallen into a 150-foot crevass. By going down further into the crevass instead of trying to climb out of it, he managed to escape. But that still left him alone, badly injured, frostbitten, with no food or water, no hope of rescue and no way to get down. Facing a series of obstacles that would challenge a mythological hero, Simpson persevered. Even when he accepted that death was inevitable, he still kept going because “I didn’t want to die alone.” At times angry, terrified, and delirious, he kept trying anything and everything he could think of to get back home.

Director Kevin Macdonald lets Simpson, Yates, and Richard Hawking, who was waiting for them at base camp, tell the story in understated British style, as two actor/climbers re-enact the story on the actual site. Incredibly, Yates and Simpson returned to the Andes for the filming and put on their gear and performed some of the re-enactments themselves.

Their story is gripping and, in their perseverance and dedication, deeply moving. Simpson’s first comment when he sees Yates is as heart-wrenching as any of his struggles. Their candid but matter-of-fact delivery is far more effective than any actor could muster. Even now, they seem so young and open-hearted, Yates with bright button eyes and ears like the guy in “Wallace and Gromit.” It was in part their youthful audacity that made it possible for them to survive. If they had been more experienced, they would have known that what they were trying to do was impossible.

Macdonald reaches his own summit with an electrifyingly thrilling movie that makes the mountain more than a setting, almost another character in the story. The sheerness of the slope, the friable “meringues” and “cornices” of snow, the sweep and sparkle of the ice — the mountain’s terrible beauty is alternately austere, majestic, implacable, ominous, and menacing.

Parents should know that the movie is extremely tense, with characters in the direst peril imaginable. They use some very strong language, completely understandable in the circumstances.

Families who see this movie should talk about Simpson’s statement that the important thing was to act, even if the decision was the wrong one. What made Simpson refuse to give up? Families should discuss Simpson’s comment in an interview with the Washington Post, that he owed his survival to having gone to a British boarding school: “When you’re used to being rejected, like being sent away when you’re a youngster, you become very good at hugging yourself. And I think if I hadn’t been like that, I wouldn’t have survived.” This is reminiscent of Wellington’s famous comment that the battle of Waterloo was “won on the playing fields of Eton,” though not quite the same point.

Families should also talk about the way Simpson broke the insurmountable challenge into possibly surmountable segments in order to keep himself going. How can we apply that to our own challenges? Do you agree with Simpson that Yates did the right thing in cutting the rope? Was there something they could or should have done differently? Were you surprised that Simpson returned to climbing? Note, too, how they responded to each successive potential disaster with not just determination but with a very expert assessment of all of the options. And consider these options — at one time, Simpson’s book was considered as the basis for a feature film with an actor like Tom Cruise. How would that have made it different? What do you think about the combination of documentary and re-enactment?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Cliffhanger, Vertical Limit and K2. They will also enjoy Eric Newby’s classic mountain climbing story, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush.

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Perfect Harmony

B+

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Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
Profanity: Racial epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Cigarettes
Violence/ Scariness: Black boy drowns (off camera); Klan-style thug-like behavior
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 1993

The story takes place in Georgia, at an all-white private boys’ boarding school called Blanton, in 1959. Blanton is famous for its boys’ choir. The candidates for the prestigious “lead boy” position in the choir include Paul, an angry, bigoted boy, and Taylor, who remonstrates mildly when Paul plays mean pranks on a Northern boy in an attempt to get him to leave.

Derek Saunders (Peter Scolari), a new choirmaster, arrives from Boston. And Landy, a black boy whose parents have died, arrives to live with his grandfather Zeke (Moses Gunn), a janitor at the school.

Landy is entranced by the choir music, as Taylor is by the blues and gospel he hears Landy play on his harmonica. They become friends, though Taylor betrays Landy by publicly belittling the death of another black boy. Derek appoints Taylor lead boy in the choir, even though he knows it will cost him his job at Blanton and the possible affections of the headmaster’s daughter. When Taylor is injured in a hate crime, he and Derek arrange for Landy to take his place as soloist for the performance.

The strength of this movie is that it does not begin to pretend the issues it raises can be (or were) resolved simply. Throughout the movie, the local black community tries, with increasing assertiveness, to be allowed to swim in the municipal pool. There is no resolution.

Landy may have been permitted to sing with the choir for one performance, but there is no suggestion he will ever be admitted as a student (or indeed ever be allowed on campus again). And Derek, faced with a choice between his conscience and his wish to remain at Blanton, makes Taylor lead boy and has to face the consequences.

It also shows nicely the power of music in the lives of Landy and Taylor. They share something transcending their differences. Love for music makes Landy risk not being “invisible” so he can hear the choir rehearsal. Love for music makes Taylor take the risk of breaking the rules by leaving school to go to hear it played, even though he will be the only white person there. Derek criticizes the choir for concentrating too much on technical perfection, and not enough on feeling the composer’s exaltation and passion. And he tells Taylor boys should risk breaking the rules and get away from school once in a while.

The movie makes it clear that Paul’s bigotry and hostility are in part displaced emotions stemming from his parents’ neglect. One of his roommates says, after another in a series of visiting days when Paul’s parents are the only ones who don’t attend, “I wish he’d get mad at them instead of us.”

Parents should know that the movie includes an offscreen death and racial intimidation and violence, including strong racist language. A boy smokes a cigarette.

Families who see this movie should talk Landy’s grandfather saying that he has lasted as long as he has at the school by “being invisible.” What does that mean? What do you learn from the way the boys talk to Derek about the Civil War? Why do they have different views? If they were taught to believe one thing and he was taught another, how do you know which is right? Why does Taylor call the boy who died “some stupid kid”? Listen carefully to the music in this movie. Do the songs they sing relate to the story at all?

Families who enjoy this movie should note musician Richie Havens as “Scrapper Johnson,” a blues musician who appears at a fund-raiser to rebuild the church after it is bombed by racists. Another movie about a boys’ choir is Almost Angels.

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Nothing But a Man

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some racial epithets (including some from the black characters).
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character is an alcoholic, characters drink and smoke
Violence/ Scariness: Tense scenes
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 1964

Duff (Ivan Dixon) is a black man who is a member of a railroad crew, laying track in a small Southern town. He meets Josie (Abbey Lincoln), a local black woman who is a teacher, at a church social. Neither Duff’s nor Josie’s parents think he is a suitable match for her (when he asks her why she is going out with him, she says, “You don’t think much of yourself, do you?”). But she tells him he isn’t “sad” like the men she knows, and that she thought they’d have something to say to each other.

They get married, and he goes to work in the mill. But he cannot accept the hazing by the whites who work at the mill and is fired when a casual remark about “sticking together” is interpreted as an indication of labor organizing. Word gets around, and he is unable to get a job at the other mill or keep jobs picking cotton or working in a gas station. Josie gets pregnant, and Duffs sense of despair at not being able to care for her begins to eat at him. He leaves her, saying, “I ain’t fit to live with no more. It’s just like a lynching. They don’t use a knife, but they got other ways.”

He goes to see his estranged father, who dies from alcohol abuse brought on by his own despair. Duff realizes he has to do better than that. He picks up his young son, who had been boarding in another city, and takes him home to Josie. He says, “It ain’t going to be easy, but it’s going to be all right. Baby, I feel so free inside.”

This thoughtful, quiet movie was not widely distributed when it was made in 1964, but it has had an enduring and well-deserved reputation as a sensitive portrayal not just of a particular moment in the tortured history of race relations in this country, but also as an intimate story of human dignity and the need for connection.

In a way, Duff struggles with the same problem that Mary Kate Danaher struggles with in The Quiet Man — to achieve the sense of completeness and equality necessary to be able to enter a relationship fully. Josie may be right when she tells Duff he doesn’t think much of himself, but he thinks enough of himself to say to Josie’s father, “You’ve been stooping so long, Reverend, you don’t know how to stand straight. You’re just half a man.” When the Reverend tells him to “make ’em think you’re going along and get what you want,” Duff says, “It ain’t in me.” This is part of what Josie loves about him, part of what distinguishes him from the “sad” men she knows, like her father, who knew who was responsible for a lynching but did not say anything.

Duff sees his father die, broken and alone, and he knows he will do better than that. Duff finds in his son (though he says that he doubts he is the boy’s natural father) what he cannot find in his environment, a way to be more than “half a man.”

The portrayal of the life of the people in this movie is harsh. None of the black characters have warm, loving, intact families. Duff’s failure to be involved in the life of his son may strike some viewers as callous and others as a racist (or sexist) stereotype.

Parents should know that the movie has some strong language, including racial epithets. There are sexual references and situations. Duff’s friend patronizes a prostitute. Duff says he is not the father of the child he is supporting. On a date, Duff says to Josie, “Next time we’ll have to hit the hay or get married, and you don’t want to hit the hay and I don’t want to get married.” When Duff tells his friends he is going to marry Josie, one says he must have “knocked her up.” White men make sexual references about Josie as a way of humiliating Duff. Characters drink and smoke, and a character is an alcoholic.

Families who see this movie should talk about the way that Josie, Duff, and the Reverend all express views of how to interact with white people. How are they different? Duff calls the Reverend a “white man’s n—–.” Is that fair? When Duff asks Josie why she does not hate whites, she says, “I don’t know. I guess I’m not afraid of them.” What difference does that make?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Defiant Ones.

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