Jersey Girl

C

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking, cocaine joke
Violence/ Scariness: Very sad death
Diversity Issues: Inter-racial friends and romance a strength of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Kevin Smith is the writer/director of some of the most cheerfully profane and wildly politically incorrect movies of all time, including Clerks, Dogma, and Chasing Amy. His characters — and his scripts — are often immature and outrageous. But Smith’s brilliantly original dialogue and essential sweetness transcend the vulgarity and give his movies heart and soul. I am always curious to see what he does next.

“Jersey Girl” is a transitional film for Smith, interesting for its sense of where he is going but not successful in its own terms. This least conventional of movie makers has taken on the most conventional of movie plots — a widower bonding with his child, finding a new love, and finding himself — something covered in dozens of Hallmark Hall of Fame Father’s Day specials. And he gives it to us straight, with very little to make it fresh or vivid.

Ollie (Ben Affleck) has it all — a successful career as a publicist for pop stars and a beautiful wife (Jennifer Lopez). When she dies in childbirth, he is shattered. He turns the baby over to his father (George Carlin) and throws himself into his work.

But we all know what happens next. Ollie falters at first but then discovers how much he loves that baby. He loses his big fancy job and ends up driving a street sweeper like his father so he can take care of her. Seven years later, she has grown up into an adorable movie tyke named Gertie (the very talented Raquel Castro), and he is just about ready to begin to notice the very pretty girl (Liv Tyler) at the video store. Then we’re ready for the big crisis — will Ollie go after that big fancy new job or will he be there for Gertie’s school talent show? See if you can guess!

Oh, Kevin, Kevin, Kevin. You once gave us dialogue that was sublime slacker poetry, with knowing riffs on everything from John Hughes movies to God’s sense of humor. The jokes in this movie are so flat, so easy, so boring. Can you really think it’s funny to have Ollie, circa 1997, try to persuade reporters that George Michael is “all about the ladies?” And a “meet cute” over bisexual porn in the video store? Having a young child sing Mrs. Lovett’s role in “Sweeney Todd” at a school production isn’t as charming as you think it is (though it is pretty funny that all of the other children perform numbers from “Cats”). The two barflies who act as Gertie’s “uncles” aren’t as cute as you think they are. Bart’s alcohol problem comes and goes for the convenience of the script; it’s there when Ollie needs to make a wisecrack but never creates a problem for him in taking care of Gertie or doing his job.

The “playing doctor” scene and subsequent twist feels like a “very special” episode of “Full House” to the tune of “The Cat’s in the Cradle.” The best Ollie can do in explaining what attracts him about going back to his old life in Manhattan is to say that he misses eating sushi and hailing cabs. Gertie talks like a movie kid, or worse, a sitcom kid. The movie’s climax features an intervention by a real-life movie star who explains what life is all about, followed by an artificial “will he make it in time even though the street is blocked” that has a complete absence of energy or suspense. Is it possible for a movie to jump the shark?

Affleck has some affecting moments and Tyler’s offbeat warmth makes their scenes together work better than they have a right to. Castro transcends her character’s faux adorability with some real star power. But the formulaic script and uneven tone make this film a real disappointment. This genre — and this message — is so new to Smith, he did not feel he had to make it new for those of us who have seen this kind of thing over and over again. But I still look forward to seeing what he does next.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong language and sexual references for a PG-13. Ollie and Maya talk about pornography and masturbation and she offers him a “pity jump.” Ollie walks in on Gertie and a friend playing doctor and Gertie walks in on Ollie and Maya in the shower (with clothes on). There is brief diaper humor. Characters drink and smoke (references to alcohol abuse) and there is a cocaine joke. A scene from a theatrical production of “Sweeny Todd” includes cutting a man’s throat. One strength of the movie (as in all Smith movies) is the very positive portrayal of inter-racial relationships, including a loving marriage.

Families who see this movie should talk about how they balance their family and work responsibilities. What are some of Ollie’s alternatives? Do you think Ollie is a good father? Do you think Bart is a good father? Sometimes families are made up of people who are related to each other, and sometimes they are made up of people who just care about each other.

Families who enjoy this movie should check out Kevin Smith’s very entertaining and interactive website. They might also like to see some other movies with similar themes, like The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Baby Boom, Kramer vs. Kramer and About a Boy.

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Broken Lizard’s Club Dread

D

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Grisly murders, graphic injuries, scary surprises
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, many stereotypes
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Does the world really need a comic slasher movie? Or, to be more precise, does it need another failed attempt at one?

The would-be wild and crazy guys from would-be comedy troupe Broken Lizard have now produced a second film, taking all of the sex and drug jokes not funny enough for Super Troopers and adding in grisly violence courtesy of a masked serial killer with a machete. What they forgot to add in was imagination, wit, acting ability, or distinctive characters. What it does have is a lot of joke-oids — dialogue that has the rhythm of a joke but is no actual comic content. When a sweet young thing tells a character that she goes to Oral Roberts University, you know what the joke-oid is going to be. And imagine the non-riotous non-humor they can find in an Asian character whose name, Yu, sounds just like the word “you!” Twice! And then there’s that little statue with the huge genitals. And the sex in a graveyard: “Isn’t this like sacred or something?” “No, they’re dead!” And the beastiality humor. They even throw in that gone-and-should-have-been-forgotten chestnut, sarcastic clapping.

The only evidence of intelligence on the part of Broken Lizard was the decision to set the story in an island resort. That way, at least they had fun filming it. If only we had fun watching it.

The resort is owned by Coconut Pete (Bill Paxton), a slightly burnt-out Jimmy Buffett-type who had four gold records with songs about kicking back in paradise (he insists his “Pina Colada Burg” pre-dated “Margaritaville”).

The resort is like a grown-up version of the place Pinocchio turned into a donkey — all sex, drugs, drinking, and more sex. And lots of girls in and out of bikinis.

The movie opens with a threesome drinking ecstacy-spiked margaritas as they get ready to have sex with each other. They are all slashed to death by a masked killer, and the rest of the movie is just dumb joke-oids as we wait around for a bunch of almost-interchangeable characters to be killed off. I was sort of glad when each one died because it meant we were that much closer to the end.

Parents should know that the movie has extremely strong language and explicit sexual references and situations, including a threesome, beastiality, sex toys, and oral sex. Characters are in peril and there are several grisly murders with graphic wounds and a severed head. A character pees in his pants. Drinking, drug use, and promiscuous sex are portrayed as carefree and empowering. Drinking games include a super-soaker filled with tequila.

Families who see this movie should talk about how the characters decided whom to trust.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the Scary Movie series.

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Twisted

D

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language, ugly epithet
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character abuses alcohol, smoking, social drinking, character is drugged
Violence/ Scariness: Grisly corpses, intense peril, characters killed
Diversity Issues: Strong, loyal, capable diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Fifteen minutes into this movie, before the very first murder victim turned up, I figured out who the murderer was. That left me the rest of the movie to ponder much more fascinating mysteries, like why any of these people agreed to be in it. I remember when Samuel L. Jackson, Andy Garcia, and David Strathairn, and especially director Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff) had some class and credibility. I even remember when Ashley Judd made movies that were not about spunky but sensitive women in peril who do not know whom they can trust. But that all feels very long ago.

Judd plays Jessica Shephard. We first see her with a knife at her throat. She overpowers her attacker and then, when he is cuffed and on his knees, she kicks him in the nose. She is promoted for the capture by police chief John Mills (Samuel L. Jackson), but sent to the police psychiatrist (David Strathairn) for counseling. The first murder she and her new partner (Andy Garcia) are assigned to turns out to be the first in a series of connected murders. Each of the victims has been marked on the back of the hand with a cigarette burn. And each had a one-night stand with Jessica. She is too good a detective to deny that “I’m my best suspect.” Her father was a murderer who killed her mother and then committed suicide. And she is having blackouts, and has no alibi for the nights of the murders.

Everything after that is numbingly predictable. Jessica is supposed to be a great detective, but she keeps missing clues the size of the Chrysler Building. Could that be the murderer? Nope, he’s the next victim. Well, we’ve never seen that before! Not since the last made-for-TNT movie starring some one-time fifth-billed sitcom star working off a contract provision left over from better days. Jessica pricks her finger to get a blood sample. Can she be like Sleeping Beauty? Can symbolism be more heavy-handed? There is a good idea in there somewhere about resolving guilt and insecurity, but it is all lost because this movie is inept and it is boring.

Parents should know that this movie has grisly dead bodies and characters in intense peril. There is fighting and shooting and characters are killed. The movie also has some very strong language, including a very ugly epithet. Characters smoke and drink, one to excess. Some are drugged. There’s an attempted suicide.

Jessica says, “I was raised to be a good girl but I was born to bad people.” Families who see this movie should talk about the nature vs. nurture question. What can we change about ourselves? How do we know?

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the far superior Sea of Love and The Big Easy. They might also like to see Andy Garcia in another sultry cop drama Internal Affairs.

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The Passion of The Christ

B+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extremely graphic and intense violence, including whipping and crucifixion
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie; some may be sensitive about the portrayal of Jewish elders
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

This is both more and less than a movie. In one sense, it is less a movie than the heartfelt prayer of a gifted film-maker. In another it is a narrow and harrowing perspective on a story that, no matter what your faith, is bigger than any attempt to portray on film.

Mel Gibson has made this movie to convey his view of the last hours of the life of Jesus. It is not history and not drama, though it has elements of both. It is not a full retelling of the Gospels or of the life of Jesus. It is a personal and spiritual statement about the view that the suffering Jesus endured in the last hours of his life demonstrated his divinity and his sacrifice in taking on the sins of the world.

According to the film’s website, the use of the word “passion” is taken from the Latin for suffering, but is also used to mean a profound and transcendent love. The theme of the movie is Jesus’ statement, “You are my friends, and the greatest love a person can have for his friends is to give his life for them.”

I give this movie a “B” because I have to assign a grade. But truly, there is no way to rate this movie as one would the usual multiplex fodder or quirky indie. Without being a theologian or an historian, all I can do is respond as a movie critic, and urge those who want to see it to use it as an opportunity to consider their own faith and the way that reactions to the film highlight our global struggle for peace and understanding.

As a movie, it has great strengths. It is a respectful and reverent treatment of a story that has probably been more influential than any other in the history of the world. It has moments of great power. It has extraordinary cinematography by the brilliant Caleb Deschenal (The Black Stallion) and some stunning images. The shot from above just after Jesus dies on the cross is breathtaking.

But as a movie, it has some weaknesses. Any attempt to reduce even a part of the story of the New Testament to a feature film will not be able to convey all of its power, complexity, and meaning, but even within that context, this version is limited. It does not give those unfamiliar with the details or the import of the story enough of an understanding of Jesus and the other characters to convey all that it hopes to.

This movie tells only a part of the story of Jesus, taking place almost entirely in the last 12 hours of his life. The characters speak in the languages of the time: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin (with subtitles in English). There is little effort to explain what happened before Jesus is captured in the Garden of Gethsemane, why his followers were so loyal and why his accusers were so threatened, or who all of the characters are and how they relate to each other. For that reason, the movie will be most appreciated by those who are already familiar with the Gospels or as a starting point for those who want to learn more.

Some of the scenes are particularly awkward, especially a scene showing Jesus and Mary speaking playfully to each other and one with grotesque children taunting Judas. Other scenes can seem overwrought without the missing context. The violence is intended to be upsetting, and it is extensive, detailed, and disturbing to watch. For those who do not share Gibson’s view about the significance of each physical assault on Jesus, it may appear overdone, even shocking or fetishistic.

Experts will have to evaluate the movie as history and as a representation of religious belief. Ultimately, each member of the audience will have to evaluate it as an affirmation of faith or as an invitation to those who are still searching.

Parents should know that this movie is extremely violent in an intense, graphic, personal, even intimate manner, much more powerful than other R-rated movies with cartoon-style explosions and shoot-outs. We see Jesus brutally beaten for much of the movie. We hear his flesh tear as he is whipped. We see his blood splatter and drip. The nails are driven through his hands and feet. His side is pierced with a spear. Two other men are crucified and one’s eyes are pecked out. There are other disturbing images, including the character of Satan and some grotesque children who taunt Judas. We also see Judas commit suicide by hanging. Gibson has said that the agonizing, unbearable torture is a key part of the story, and parents who are considering whether this movie is appropriate despite the R-rating should see it first themselves to judge how their children might respond to it.

The movie has also stirred up a great deal of controversy about the portrayal of the Jewish elders who ordered the capture of Jesus and urged Pontius Pilate to sentence him to death. Unlike the recent The Gospel of John, this movie does not include a disclaimer to make it clear that the Jewish elders in the story are not intended to represent all Jews then or now. But I do not believe it is necessary. While some people who are already anti-Semitic may willfully misinterpret the movie to support their views, there is nothing in the movie to suggest that it is in any way intended to explicitly or implicitly connect the Jewish people as a whole to the death of Christ. The Jewish elders in the movie are a small group of powerful people who feel threatened by someone who does not support them. There are Jews in the story who are very positively portrayed, including Mary (who quotes from the Passover haggadah in Hebrew), Jesus and his followers, and the people who help him on the way to the crucifixion, especially Simon (a wonderfully compassionate performance by Jarreth Merz). The worst characters are the Roman soldiers, who laugh and taunt Jesus as they beat him and gamble for his robe while they wait for him to die.

Families who see this film should talk about how it fits into their own faith tradition. They should take this opportunity to explore the ways that groups of all kinds have responded to the story of Jesus and to consider the controversy this film has raised about its portrayal of the Jewish elders. There are many fine resources available on the web, including here, herehere, here, and here.

Families might like to look at some of the paintings of Caravaggio, which inspired director Gibson and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel to create the look and the lighting for this film.

Families who appreciate this film might like to compare this to other movies about Jesus, like The Gospel of John, or King of Kings. They might also like to watch a lovely Italian movie, The Gospel According to Matthew, filmed at some of the same locations as “The Passion of the Christ.” These may be more appropriate for children and others sensitive to violence than this film or for those looking for a fuller depiction of Jesus’ life and teachings. They might also like to watch movies that depict the impact of Jesus on people of the time, like Ben Hur and The Robe. Another very controversial depiction of the crucifixion is The Last Temptation of Christ.

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Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
Profanity: A couple of mild bad words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character abuses alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Car crash
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Lindsay Lohan plays a 15-year-old who has a lot to be dramatic about, or at least she thinks she does. First of all, her parents had the bad judgment to name her “Mary,” when she was born to be a “Lola.” No one seems to understand the importance of her dream of being an actress. In her family, she is “a flamingo in a flock of pigeons,” fighting not just against gross injustice, but also against “ordinariness.” But what is really devastating is that she has to move from New York City, which she thinks is the center of the planet, to New Jersey, which seems like the farthest end of the universe. At least, if you’re a drama queen. And there’s more stress to come. Her favorite rock band is breaking up. And she has to compete with a mean and snobbish alpha-girl for the part of Eliza in an updated version of “Pygmalion” called “Eliza Rocks!”

Lola copes with all of this and more, but sometimes she resorts to more than drama, including some real misbehavior that the movie does not take very seriously. She tells her best friend a terrible lie about her father “to seem more interesting.” She gets another friend to help her steal a costume so she can wear it to a party. She lies to her mother and tries to sneak into a concert and a rock star’s party. She almost lets down the “Eliza Rocks!” cast and audience by refusing to appear. She learns some lessons and faces some consequences, but parents will want to talk to kids who see this movie about how they see her choices.

The best part of the movie is Lohan. She is a delight. Kids will enjoy identifying with her as she tries to both fit in and be different, and as she tries to follow her dreams while coping with New Jersey and other obstacles. Parents may be more willing to put up with the movie’s logical loopholes than its casual treatment of behavior they would not want their children to imitate.

Parents should know that the movie has a couple of PG-level bad words. Of greater concern is that Lola lies, steals, and takes risks with very mild consequences, though she learns some lessons. She wears very skimpy clothes more revealing than even a free-spirited mother who throws pots for a living would permit. A character has an alcohol abuse problem. We see him drunk, and later he says he is getting treatment. In a very odd moment, Lola’s big triumph comes when he returns her necklace to her in front of her friends, seen merely as proof that she told the truth when she said she had been at his party. No one questions why she was taking her necklace off at his apartment or whether she was doing anything risky or improper there.

Families who see this movie should talk about Lola’s comment that she lied to make herself seem more interesting. Why does Carla pretend that she got the part she really wanted? Are there girls like Carla in your school and how do people feel about them? Why was Ella so surprised that her parents would let her go to the concert? How does Lola feel about Stu after she meets him?

Find out about the story of Pygmalion and see if you can figure out what it has in common with Lola’s story. If you were going to pick a new name for yourself, what would it be? Who in your family is a drama queen?

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy Never Been Kissed and a classic movie about teenage girls who have a crush on a musician, The World of Henry Orient. They might want to watch Camp (some mature material) about a summer camp for kids obsessed with theater. Families will also enjoy Lohan’s performances in The Parent Trap and Freaky Friday. And they should see Pygmalion and the musical version My Fair Lady.

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