Bobby Jones, Stroke of Genius

C

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Strong language for a PG
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking, mild sexual references
Violence/ Scariness: Tense scenes, health problems
Diversity Issues: Depictions typical of the era portrayed
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Bobby Jones was a great man and a great golfer. He deserves a better movie than this one, as clumsy as its title.

Jones may be the greatest golfer who ever lived. He’s the only one to win all four of golf’s top titles in the same year. And he was an extraordinary man. He overcame physical problems and family pressures. He graduated from two colleges and received a master’s degree and a law degree. And Jones refused to be paid for playing golf and turned down millions of dollars in endorsements and awards. He liked to point out that the word “amateur” comes from the Latin word for love. He played for love of the game.

And clearly, this movie was made for love of the game and for love of Jones, but it tells us rather than showing us, and then tells us again, and it takes a very long time doing it, too. Like the game it depicts, it moves very, very slowly. There are lots of long, long, loving shots of the sun-dappled greens, slow-mo swings and swelling strings, glimpses of golden light accompanied by hooting panpipes, and quotes from Kipling, Will Rogers, Tennyson, and then Kipling again. I know it’s a long movie, but really, we can remember it from the first time.

We meet Jones as a sickly child, growing up next door to a golf course, imitating the swings of the men who play and attracting the attention of the Scottish golf pro. He enters his first big tournament as a teenager. A skeptical journalist becomes an awestruck fan. Cue the swelling strings again.

Jones has a temper. When a shot goes bad, he swears and throws his club. “There are some emotions that can’t be endured with a golf club in your hands.” His grandfather, Robert Jones Senior, disapproves of his playing golf. His mother wants him to study literature. Later on, his wife wants him to spend more time with the family. He keeps getting sick. But he will not give up until he has won the grand slam of the four top titles.

The movie is nice to look at, and Jeremy Northam as the dissolute but resolute Walter Hagan adds some flavor to the story. But the other performances are as flat as the dialogue.

Parents should know that the movie has strong language for a PG and a child uses four-letter words. Jones’ swearing is an issue in the story and ultimately he learns not to do it any more. There are some brief mild sexual references (a character is teased that she “doesn’t pet,” a man is said to have broken “all eleven” of the ten commandments and refers to debauchery). Characters drink and smoke, sometimes to excess. The portrayal of minorities is consistent with the era, but may be seen as insensitive by today’s standards. (No mention is made of Jones’ Augusta Golf Club’s famous battles to keep women from becoming members.)

Families who see this movie should talk about the comment by one character that “money is going to ruin sports.” Was he right? They should all read Kipling’s classic poem If, still fine advice about growing up for boys or girls. And they should talk about the question asked of Jones at the end of the movie, “What are you going to do for yourself?” What did he do for himself, and why?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Legend of Bagger Vance, with actors playing Jones and Hagan. Other golf movies include Pat and Mike and Caddyshack. Jones himself appeared in some short films demonstrating his stroke and they are available on video.

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Raising Helen

B+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters smoke and drink
Violence/ Scariness: Tense and sad moments
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

They say that it isn’t adults who create children; it’s children who create adults. And they’re right.

This theme resonates deeply with us and has inspired many, many movies, going back before the days of Shirley Temple. There’s nothing wrong with that — it’s a good story, deeply rooted within all of us. So as each version comes along, we don’t need any surprises in the plot. All we ask is that there be something fresh and true about the way that it is told.

This latest take on the story is not a romantic comedy, as suggested by the trailers and commercials. It is more of a light drama with some comic and tragic moments, as a fashionable young woman finds herself the guardian for her late sister’s three children.

It has a solid script and a strong cast led by the deliciously twinkly Kate Hudson as Helen, with Helen Mirrin as her boss, Joan Cusack and Felicity Huffman as her sisters, Sakina Jaffrey as one tough bat-wielding mother of a neighbor, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s John Corbett providing guidance, support, and some romantic interest as the Lutheran pastor who is principal of the school. That puts it way ahead of drek like Cop and a Half and Curly Sue if not up to the level of some of Shirley Temple’s classics.

Hudson plays Helen, a young woman who thinks she has everything she wants, including a glamorous job in a modeling agency that gives her access to the hottest clubs and the prettiest people. She gets to go to parties and wear chic clothes and be the cool aunt to her sisters’ children, the fun one who thinks that fake IDs are great and shows that you never really have to grow up.

But then Helen’s sister and brother-in-law are killed in an accident and it turns out that they left their three children not to the older, stable, potpourri-loving earth mother sister Jenny (Joan Cusack) but to the never-has-had-to-think-about-anyone-but-herself-for-more-than-a-minute Helen.

Helen is willing, if a bit shell-shocked. But for the first time she has taken on some problems that can’t be solved with a dazzling smile or a fabulous outfit. The three children show her how messy, exhausting, painful, more exhausting, expensive, scary, difficult, and then even more exhausting life can be. She will think of it as an unbearable burden. She will have to leave Manhattan for Brooklyn and take time from her job for an emergency involving shoelace-tying. She will make mistakes and let people down. She will worry that she is not up to the challenge. And she will get a chance to find out whether she is.

Hudson is fine as Helen in the early scenes, enjoying her own deliciousness as she skims along on top of life like a skipping stone on the waves. She is mistress of her universe, flirting a little to cross the velvet rope, scamming a little to promote a new model, showing up late to a family party but being forgiven because she brings such a witty and thoughtful present and because she is just so adorable.

That’s what we expect from the adorable Hudson after all. What’s more fun to watch here is the way Hudson holds up as Helen’s world falls apart around her. When 15-year-old Audrey (Hayden Panettiere) accuses Helen of not remembering what it feels like to be young, listen to Hudson’s layered reading of Helen’s response: “Of course I remember. It was last Wednesday.”

Helen thinks that vespers is a kind of motorcycle and Lutheran pastors must be celibate, but her real problem is that she is just not sure she can give or deserve the kind of affection required by the children and by the pastor. Helen must also be willing not to be completely loved every single second. Hudson shows us as an actress that is a lesson she has already learned.

Parents should know that the movie has some strong language. Characters drink and smoke. Helen’s smoking, imitated by one of the children, is evidence of her carefree lifestyle; we see her wearing a nicotine patch after she has to begin to be more responsible. Similarly, as the fun aunt she approves of a fake ID for an underage girl; as the parent, she does not. And before she has the children, she has casual sex, but afterward she is ready for a more complete relationship. An underage couple plan to have sex but are stopped in time. Some members of the audience will find the movie’s portrayal of public school to be unfair. A strength of the movie is friendship between diverse characters.

Families who see this movie should talk about how they think about plans to care for children in case of tragedy. Why did the children’s parents choose Helen instead of Jenny?

There are many, many movies about the influence of a child on a superficial, self-absorbed — in other words childish — adult. Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Baby Boom, Three Men and a Baby, and a more serious look at a similar theme in the Oscar-winning Kramer vs. Kramer.

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Godsend

C

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters drink and smoke
Violence/ Scariness: Horror-style thriller with scary surprises and grisly images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

I think it is a good bet that some day there will be an Oscar lifetime achievement award for Robert DeNiro. And I think it is a better bet that clips from this movie will be nowhere near that event.

The movie updates two of the most compelling and enduring themes in horror. First is the idea of the beloved child who becomes threatening or evil. This addresses the deep conflicts we feel, loving our children so much that it terrifies us, wanting to protect them from harm, and sometimes feeling guilty about resenting or fearing them. In a sense, all children turn into monsters at some point. Those darling angels who love us more than anything and want us to know everything about them eventually turn into hostile teenagers who want us to know nothing about them. And it is very disturbing to think of small, endearing, beloved children as frightening. Powerful or evil children are frequent characters in scary stories.

The second theme is the one that goes all the way back to the earliest recorded stories, hubris. Inevitably, men try to play God and inevitably, tragedy results. This is the latest of the many stories about the longing to bring back a loved one who has died, usurping God’s greatest of all powers, the control of life and death. As with hundreds of myths and fairy tales, this is a story whose moral is “be careful what you wish for.”

Paul (Greg Kinnear) and Jessie (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) are the loving parents of Adam (Cameron Bright). He is killed just after his 8th birthday and a former professor of Jessie’s named Richard (Robert DeNiro) makes them a stunning offer. If they give him access to some of Adam’s cells within 72 hours, he will use them to create a new child for Paul and Jessie, one who will be an exact replica of Adam. If they agree, they will have to leave their jobs and home and cut off all ties with friends and family, because no one must know. Is it wrong? Well, Jessie says that “sometimes ethics have to take a back seat.” In other words, Jessie should get ready for a big fat karma payback.

But at first, it seems like a dream come true. They have a beautiful new home and they have their son back. They even give him the same name, the meaningfully selected “Adam.”

Then Adam turns 8, and something is not right. He begins seeing things and his behavior is increasingly aggressive, even disturbed. They take him to see “Uncle Richard,” who says that it is not significant, but that “things could change once he crosses the age when he died.” They knew exactly what to expect up for the first 7 years, but “we don’t have a map past age 8.”

So far, so not too bad. But then the whole movie falls apart, just a mishmash of jumpy surprises and creepy portents, with a dash of exposition drivel, some scenery-chewing, and a lot of stuff that even in the horror movie-watching suspension-of-belief mode makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. A better final third of the movie would really be a godsend.

Parents should know that this is a horror-style thriller with many scary surprises and grisly images. Characters are in peril and some are killed. Characters drink alcohol and use some strong language.

Families who see this movie should talk about other stories inspired by the wish to bring back a loved one who has died, including The Vampire Lestat, The Monkey’s Paw, and Frankenstein.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Omen, The Shining, The Boys from Brazil, The Others, and The Bad Seed.

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Envy

C+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters drink; one goes to a bar to get drunk after being fired
Violence/ Scariness: Comic violence, some macabre
Diversity Issues: Apparently only white males have jobs
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

I wonder how many critics are going to analogize their reviews to the wildly successful product that leads to the title emotion of this movie: “VaPOOrize,” an aerosol spray that eliminates dog poop.

Then there will be those who will focus on the title, perhaps directing their own envy toward those who did not have to watch the movie.

I am going to do my best to resist those temptations, because the movie is not that bad, though it sometimes feels as though it is.

Tim (Ben Stiller) and Nick (Jack Black) are best friends who work together. Nick is a dreamer, always coming up with wild ideas. His performance evaluation is strong in every area except for “focus.” Tim is as focused as a laser beam. Nick’s most recent idea is “Vapoorize.” Nick offers Tim a chance to invest, but the idea seems so absurdly speculative that Tim turns him down. But this time Nick’s dream comes true, and soon he is doing infomercials and raking in the loot.

Nick does not want to move, so he builds a monstrous Richie Rich-style house across the street from Tim. He has a full-size carousel, a yellow Lamborghini with a license plate that says “CACA KING,” a butler who compliments him all the time, a beautiful white horse named Corky, and a doorbell that barks “Where Has My Little Dog Gone?” And all of that does to Tim’s feelings of friendship what the spray does to the dog poop. Tim is consumed with envy and that leads to some outlandish activities involving revenge and cover-up and Christopher Walken that are supposed to be comic but mostly aren’t.

It isn’t bad; it just isn’t good enough. It’s a long, long time between chuckles. Nick is a sweet guy, which is lovely for him, but it does not make the best use of Black’s energy and it is not very funny. Stiller is always fine with repressed fury, but the script does not give him enough fury to do much repressing. He is also a pretty sweet guy, and that is also not very funny. Both men have stay-at-home wives (“Saturday Night Live’s” Amy Poehler and Rachel Weiscz) and interchangeable children. This movie has the sit, but not the com.

Parents should know that the movie has crude and macabre humor. In addition to the movie’s poop-ish theme, the carcass of a dead horse and an arrow shot into a man’s back are intended to be funny. A husband and wife tussle is mistakenly seen as sexual. Characters drink and one goes to a bar to get drunk as a way to respond to stress. There is brief strong language.

Families who see this movie should talk about envy and greed. Why are they called “deadly” sins? Why was it so hard for Tim to tell Nick the truth? What did Nick’s reaction tell you about him?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Meet the Parents (more mature material than in this film) and School of Rock. They might want to take a look at a quirky, even strange, movie with a similar theme Sour Grapes, written by Larry David, who reportedly came up with the idea for this one, too. And they might want to try making some flan!

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Super Size Me

A

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extremely graphic scenes of an operation
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Mordantly funny and trenchantly sobering, this is a Big Mac attack you can sink your teeth into. And then it will bite you back.

Film-maker Morgan Spurlock takes on American fast food culture in general and McDonald’s in particular in this prize-winning documentary. He takes on McDonald’s literally, eating nothing but McDonald’s food for an entire month, and promising to say “yes” whenever he is asked if he wants to supersize his order.

So, to the horror of his vegan chef girlfriend and the three doctors who monitor his 25-pound weight gain and severe liver damage, Spurlock spends a month in McDonald’s world, eating “meat, meat, sugar and fat.” At first, his body rejects the supersized food and he throws up. But by the end of the month he craves McDonald’s food and feels happier and calmer when he has eaten some.

In between meals, he travels around to talk to experts, including a surprisingly svelte man who eats his 19,00th Big Mac on camera, the lobbyist for the food companies, and a law professor who is suing McDonald’s on behalf of two obese teenagers. Spurlock visits McDonald’s franchises around the country and schools that feed students the same kind of “cheap, fat-laden” meals served by fast food outlets — provided by the U.S. government through USDA’s school lunch program. He also finds one school for kids with behavior problems in Wisconsin that is experimenting with a healthy, additive-free menu. The students are calmer and more attentive — and the meals are no more expensive.

Spurlock asks children whether they could identify the faces of some famous people. A few correctly name George Washington. None recognize the guy with the long hair and beard as Jesus. But all of them know who the guy in with the clown nose was — Ronald McDonald. And a family visiting the White House can’t quite remember the words to the Pledge of Alliegance, but have no problem reciting the ingredients of a Big Mac, down to the sesame seeds on the bun.

Spurlock strikes just the right note, frank about irresponsibility at the personal and corporate level but more bemused than outraged. America has the biggest everything, including the biggest people. We have alternatives, but we choose what is easy. We spend much more on food that is bad for us — and then on diet books — and then on treatment and lawsuits — than we do on exercise and other ways to prevent disease. The “small” size soda in the US has the same volume as the “large” sold in other countries. Yes, companies sell us food that is not good for us — Spurlock’s doctor says that his liver has gone from perfectly healthy to “pate” — but we are the ones who want to supersize everything, even ourselves.

Spurlock’s even-handed and wide-ranging look at the fast food culture covers the roles of individuals, corporations, and government but leaves out one significant factor, the role of poverty. Wealthy people may be turning their livers into pate with pricy delicacies, but they have a wider range of choices and access to better medical care to guide them. I would love to know what the average income of a McDonald’s “heavy user” is. I suspect the low prices are even more addictive than the sugar and fat in the food.

Parents should know that the movie has some sexual references (Spurlock’s sex life is adversely affected by his diet) and some very graphic images of a stomach-stapling operation.

Families who see this movie should talk about what they eat and why people do things that are bad for them. Who is responsible for America’s obesity crisis? What should we do about it? How will seeing this movie change your behavior? If you were Spurlock, what movie would you make next?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Roger and Me.

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