Soul Plane

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language including racial epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and tension, humiliating scenes
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, parodies of stereotypes may seem like stereotypes themselves
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

What happens when you take a relatively big budget for a comedy ($16 million), a tried-and-true comic vehicle in the plane from which no one can escape, and a handful of actors clearly having fun? Apparently, you get 86 minutes of silliness ranging from sweet to raunchy aimed at the “mature” audience who hasn’t outgrown poop jokes. You might hope for a little more originality and a less slap-dash ending, maybe even for some breadth, insight, and bite. It’s not there. But you might be able to dial your hopes down enough to forgive all that and find some enjoyment in the movie’s cheerful vulgarity and the pleasure it takes in stomping on any notion of political correctness.

When Nashawn Wade (Kevin Hart) has a horrific flying experience involving the dual traumas of getting partially sucked into the airplane toilet and watching his dog get sucked into the plane’s jets, he sues the uptight, white airline and sets out to make a difference with his $100 million settlement. His life-long fascination with airplanes drives him to start “NWA” (his initials helpfully echo those of the iconic ‘80’s gangsta rappers), the first airline aimed broadly at African Americans, but more particularly at “playas”.

Nashawn joins a motley crew of characters on NWA’s first flight from LA to New York, aboard the pimped-out, purple plush plane piloted by Captain Mack (Snoop Dogg, as ever the definition of cool). By accident, the Hunkee (pronounced “honkey”) family of passive-aggressive father (Tom Arnold), father’s blond and busty girlfriend, Barbara (Missi Pyle), rebellious daughter and father-imitating young son end up on NWA due to a mix-up after their vacation to “Crackerland”.

Other passengers include Nashawn’s doe-eyed former high school sweetheart (K.D. Aubert), a libidinous couple intent on cementing their membership in the Mile High Club, a blind man (John Witherspoon) who mistakes a baked potato for the willing lap of his female neighbor, and a male model whose most notable physical (ahem) attribute is discussed in great detail. The crew of the plane run the character gambit from A to B, with flight attendants including a Latina hottie (well captured by Sofia Vergara), and two female security guards, who are so funny they could easily have their own sit-com (the comediennes, Mo’Nique Imes-Jackson and Sommore).

Of course, the ride gets bumpy along the way to the East Coast. The Hunkee daughter turns 18, prompting a dance party in the impossibly huge upper deck, much to the distress of her protective father. Captain Mack, afraid of heights, is incapacitated by drugs, co-pilot Gaeman (Godfrey) is the victim of a hot-tub mishap, leaving Nashawn to take responsibility for landing the plane safely and tie-up all the loose ends into a happy conclusion. The biggest and best joke of the movie is the plane itself, with First Class a palatial area worthy of MTV’s Cribs and “Low” Class a close cousin to a run-down city bus complete with Colt 45 ads, overhead handles to grip and lockers which require a quarter to open.

This movie has a heart, even if it has three sizes yet to grow. Nashawn and his ex-girlfriend have a tender scene where he explains why he left her to not stand in her way. Mr. Hunkee and his daughter have an open discussion about why she is mad at him and what she is doing (and, more importantly, not doing) in order to rebel against him.

Novice writers Bo Zenga and Chuck Wilson join second-time director, Jessy Terrero, to create this visually entertaining and often funny spoof which gleefully revisits the same airspace covered in Airplane. The jokes range from packaged to fresh, but the most engaging aspect of the comedy is the fun the cast is clearly having on the set.

Parents should know that this movie has a great deal of vulgar humor and crude material that may be offensive to some audiences. They should be very cautious in determining whether it is appropriate for their families. There is a thin line walked in this movie between breaking down stereotypes with humor and perpetuating them to get a cheap laugh, and this movie crosses over that line several times. The movie includes strong, frequent profanity, with just about all references to women are the b-word and all men are referred to by the n-word. The treatment of the movie’s gay character is a lip-sticked caricature, the target — not the source — of punch lines. There is a high level of very explicit sexual humor throughout the film. Sexual acts are described in great detail, and a frolicking couple attempt to have sex in every area of the plane. Characters partake of drugs, drink heavily to drown sorrows, and refer to “playa” lifestyles in nothing but positive terms.

On the other hand, Nashawn’s decision to do give something back to the community and to take responsibility for his actions is an important theme of the movie.

Families should discuss how some of the other characters respond to his decisions and how the other characters do or do not take responsibility themselves. Families could choose five different characters and discuss the stereotypes that they represent, in particular how these caricature might limit how we see the person as a whole. Also, what value does humor have in this movie for tackling issues that are difficult to discuss?

Families that enjoy this movie should rent its inspiration, Airplane, which has mature comic themes in addition to plenty of easy laughs. For those looking for more intelligent comedy similarly focused on urban humor, Barbershop is an excellent choice. Also, Undercover Brother is recommended for families looking for a good spoof movie.

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The Day After Tomorrow

C+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Brief language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Mild
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril, many characters killed, dead bodies, brief graphic wounds
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

A disaster movie has to be about more than the cool special effects. It does not have to have compelling characters or memorable dialoge. It does not even have to make sense in logical terms, but it has to feel true the same way that a myth or an urban legend does. The best disaster films find a way to satisfy the audience’s innate need for justice and redemption. Then there are those, like this one, that put all of their energy and money into the gee-whiz-iness of the special effects and hope we’ll be so busy enjoying them that we’ll forget to notice what they leave out.

Co-writer and director Roland Emmerich gave us an exceptionally entertaining disaster movie with Independence Day. This has some of the same ingredients, but they don’t mix as well because it does not have the heart or the zing that Will Smith, Robert Loggia, and Jeff Goldblum (and co-writer/producer Dean Devlin) brought to that one.

It has (1) a hero: Dennis Quaid as Jack Hall, a paeloclimatologist who figures out that the global warming problem is much more serious than we thought. And it has (2) hubris, with the arrogant Vice President of the United States dismissing the Jack’s call for action. It has (3) portents — flocks of birds fleeing New York as the music on the soundtrack goes vwamp-vwamp. It has (4) bleary-eyed and highly caffinated but earnest bureaucrats spouting important techno-babble about forecast modules, cyclonic systems, critical desalinization points, and the upper troposphere while they peer into computer screens, type on keyboards and spout clunky 50’s sci-fi movie dialogue (“If we don’t act now, it will be too late!”). It has (5) a dewy young couple (Jake Gyllenhaal and Emmy Rossum as Hall’s son Sam and his academic decathalon teammate Laura) for us to root for and (6) clueless leaders (the President’s response to the bad news is to look at the Cheney-esque Vice President and ask “What should we do?”) for us to hiss. It has hope, courage, and honor amidst tragedy.

Most of all, it does have some striking visuals and cool special effects, from hailstones the size of basketballs in Tokyo and the crushing of the HOLLYWOOD sign to the flooding ad freezing of Manhattan. A huge Russian ship floats ghost-like down what once was 5th Avenue. The Statue of Liberty’s torch barely emerges above the ice. This is all very impressive. But the dialogue falls with a bigger thud than the hailstones. And to the extent there was ever any pleasure possible in seeing New York City destroyed, that has surely been diminished by the real-life sight of the demolition of the Twin Towers.

This movie gives us too much destruction to take in, with at least a third of the planet wiped out, but it also gives us too little, and the effect is numbing rather than moving. We see only a small group of dead bodies, where there would be millions, and the survivors have to deal with problems that are almost quaint and antiseptic compared to the aftermath of real-life lesser disasters in recent years.

The drama seems curiously muted as well; with the exception of the Vice President’s arrogance and some frantic shoppers stocking up on bottled water, just about everyone else is uniformly calm, dedicated, resigned, and heroic, even a homeless man who is so cute and friendly he might as well live on Sesame Street. Don’t disasters provoke some panic? Some selfishness? Some desperation? Some consequences? Someone suggesting that maybe after living on vending machine crackers, that cute homeless guy’s cute pet dog might taste pretty good?

On a large scale, the movie shows that disasters require the sacrifice of some lives, but on a smaller scale a character risks her own life to help someone whose chances of survival are very slim. Combined with preposterous, illogical, and over the top plot turns (walking from Philadelphia to New York in arctic conditions seems to take a couple of hours, survivors camped out in a library burn books when it would make more sense to burn the furniture, and medication on the Russian ship is helpfully labled in English), this further diminishes the emotional impact of the movie’s themes. The movie fails as story and it fails as warning. Its highest and best use is as a promo reel for the computer programmers who did the visuals.

Parents should know that the movie has intense peril and violence with the destruction of much of the world. Millions of people are killed, mostly off-screen, though there are some dead bodies and major characters are killed. There are brief images of grisly injuries. Characters drink, including drinking as a way to dull the sadness. Characters sacrifice themselves, including suicide, to save others. A strength of the movie is the portrayal of men and women of different races with courage and ability and devotion, including a loving inter-racial marriage.

Families who see this movie should do some research on global warming and on efforts by scientists and policitians to prevent further damage to the ozone layer. They should also talk about why the librarian wanted to save the Gutenberg Bible and about how all of the characters think about (and rearrange) their priorities in the face of disaster. Would your choice for your favorite vacation be like Sam’s? Whose decisions do you approve of and why? The politicians speak of “triage,” making the very tough decisions to let some people die so that more can live. How do people make those choices? What do you think about the way they decide to define “win?” What will happen in the weeks following the end of the movie, and what will the world look like a year later?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Touching the Void, Armageddon and classic disaster movies like The Towering Inferno.

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

A+

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Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
Profanity: A few "bloody hells" and a "damn"
Alcohol/ Drugs: Wine and brandy
Violence/ Scariness: Intense scary images for a PG, characters in peril
Diversity Issues: One theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Harry Potter is 13 in this third movie based on the globally-popular series of books by J.K. Rowling, and the movie itself seems to be entering adolescence, darker themes, darker images, and darker emotions. It also has a bracingly welcome sense of humor.

The first two movies were competently directed by Chris Columbus, with brilliant production design and meticulous attention to detail, making sure that the books’ passionate fans were happy but playing it safe.

For the third, Columbus stayed on as a producer, but there is a new director, Alfonso Cuaron, whose previous work has demonstrated ferocious visual flair (Great Expectations) and great sensitivity in working with and portraying children (A Little Princess) and teenagers (Y tu Mama Tambien). He has kept the best of the first Potter films and enriched it with his own splendid vision, meshing perfectly with the tone of the story and the increasing complexity of the themes and characters. Literally and figuratively, the horizons of the characters are getting wider. Third-year students with parental permission are allowed to leave the Hogwarts campus for a visit to the nearby town for shopping and snacks. Harry does not have permission, but finds a way to do some exploring that corresponds to what is going on inside him as he begins to seek some answers.

For the first two years, Harry has spent most of his time being grateful to be rescued from his awful relatives, the Dursleys, amazed at all the magic around him, and resolute in his commitment to loyalty and integrity. But now he is beginning to get angry. He is growing up and feeling everything more sharply and deeply, especially injustice in general and the loss of his parents in particular.

This year, when life with his aunt and uncle gets to be too much for Harry, even for summer vacation from Hogwarts, he packs up and leaves — after extracting some revenge on a nasty relative. Soon he is back at Hogwarts school, where some scary creatures called Dementors, guards at the wizard prizon of Azkaban are there to seek the first-ever escaped prisoner, Sirius Black. He is the one who betrayed Harry’s parents to Valdemort, and he may be on his way to Hogwarts to kill Harry.

Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers are to the Harry Potter books what drummers are to Spinal Tap — they don’t last long. This year’s teacher is Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), whose kind eyes and melancholy air make him a good friend for Harry. Harry’s first friend, Hagrid, is now teaching the magical creatures class, introducing the students to a hippogriff (a sort of flying bird/horse) and Professor Trelawny (Emma Thompson) is a professor of divination (fortune-telling) who is so focused on the future that she is not very tuned in to what is going on in the present. The Hogwarts chorus sings “Something wicked this way comes” as the camera swoops in, and you don’t need to be Professor Trelawny to tell you that they’re on to something.

When the hippogriff injures Harry’s adversary, Draco Malfoy, it gives ammunition to those who oppose the headmaster, Professor Dumbeldore (now played by Michael Gambon, replacing the late Richard Harris). The hippogriff is sentenced to death. The Azkaban guards, called Dementors, have come to Hogwarts looking for Black, and every time Harry sees them, he faints. They dissolve any happy thoughts of people in their path, and Harry, who has known greater sadness than anyone else in his class, is the most vulnerable. Harry has to find a way to save the hippogriff and protect himself from Black and from the Dementors. His friend Hermione seems to be behaving strangely, especially when it comes to entrances and exits. She is also growing up nicely, ready to stand up for herself with more than her magical powers. Harry is growing up, too, but he still has to cope with his potions teacher, Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) and the rest of his schoolwork.

The next movie is underway with the same cast but yet another director, Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) and should be out next year. And Rowling has promised two more books. I can’t wait.

Parents should know that the movie is close to a PG-13 for intense peril and grotesque, Halloween-ish images. A strength of the movie is its treatment of a theme of the book (increasing in subsequent books), the wizard version of racial prejudice against “mudbloods,” those of mixed witch/muggle backgrounds.

Families who see this movie should talk about Dumbledore’s statement that people can bring light to even the darkest moments. What can you learn from the way Harry and his friends learn to defeat the Boggerts? The Dementors? Older kids and teens should examine all of the Potter movies to see how different directors and cinematographers can take the same characters and settings and convey a different feeling. Notice how the colors and texture of the scenes and the movement of the camera help to creat the mood and tell the story.

Families who enjoy this movie should read all of the Harry Potter books and listen to the wonderful audio tapes read by Jim Dale. They should see the first two movies as well. And they will also enjoy Back to the Future.

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Stateside

B-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Mental illness, car crash, war injury
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Good intentions and passionate feelings are sometimes the enemy of vivid and coherent storytelling, as this movie, based on the real-life experiences of its writer/director, demonstrates. Sometimes the person who lived through it is just too close to realize what makes a life a story.

The story here is about the redemptive romance between a rich kid sent to the Marines after a drunken teenage prank ends in tragedy and a young movie star struggling with mental illness. But the script is cluttered with too many details that don’t add anything and missing too many details that would. In describing the movie to someone, I mistakenly called it “Sidetracked,” which, come to think of it, might be an apter title.

Jonathan Tucker plays Mark Deloach, a prep schooler with a harsh father (Joe Mantegna) and a little sister who won’t take off her late mother’s mink stole. After a drunk driving accident that causes serious injury, he is sent off to join the Marines to straighten him out.

He meets a beautiful movie star who is struggling with schizophrenia (Rachel Leigh Cook). Caring for her gives him a reason to become responsible. Caring for him gives her a reason to become healthy.

All of this sounds like a movie. In fact, it sounds like many movies we’ve already seen and will see again. But this one, for all its good intentions, loses the trees of its own story in a forest of distracting details.

Parents should know that the movie has extremely strong language, explicit sexual references and situations, tense and upsetting confrontations, and serious injuries from a car accident and (offscreen) battle violence. A strength of the movie is the sympathetic (though unrealistic) portrayal of mental illness.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Mark and Dori meant so much to each other. They may also want to talk about family members or friends who have struggled with mental illness.

Families who enjoy this movie will also appreciate An Officer and a Gentleman and David and Lisa.

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Breakin’ All the Rules

C+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters drink and smoke
Violence/ Scariness: Comic scuffle
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Bright stars can’t save this over-plotted and under-directed romantic comedy. Jamie Foxx plays Quincy, a magazine editor who is about to propose to his girlfriend when she dumps him. So he writes a book about how to break up with a girlfriend, based on research he had to do for his boss about employee termination, and it becomes a best-seller.

The movie then lurches into a leaden daisy-chain of mistaken identity mix-ups that hold the interest of the characters on screen much longer than they do the audience’s in watching it or mine in explaining it.

Quincy’s cousin Evan (Morris Chestnut) thinks his girlfriend Nicky (Gabrielle Union) is about to break up with him, so he sends Quincy to break up with her first. Not knowing who she is, Quincy begins to fall for her. Meanwhile, Rita, the gold-digging girlfriend of the big boss at the magazine (Jennifer Esposito), mistakes Evan for Quincy, and jumps into bed with him to prevent him from helping the boss break up with her.

You know the expression, “as funny as a heart attack?” Well, this is the movie that actually tries to make a heart attack funny. It doesn’t work, but then, not much in this movie does. There are a couple of good ideas and a couple of funny moments, but they are outweighed by too many “none of this would have happened if people had been logical and honest” complications and too much unnecessarily ugly attempted humor, including ostensibly charming references to bizarre tumors with hair and teeth and whether humans can bite through their own skin.

Fox, Chestnut, Union, and Esposito are all exceptionally talented, attractive, and fun to watch. They give the material far more than it deserves. But director Daniel Taplitz is too attached to his own screenplay and gives more time to each of the increasingly tedious developments than they require, breaking some important rules himself — the ones about how to make a movie worth watching.

Parents should know that the movie has sexual references and situations that are close to the R-line for a PG-13. There is also crude bathroom and sexual humor. It is supposed to be funny that an elderly man repeatedly asks someone to hold his private parts, and there are jokes about crabs and groupies and a discussion of sexual fantasies. Characters use some strong language. Characters drink a lot, especially when upset, and there are repeated jokes about giving liquor to a dog. And the movie seems to approve of manipulation, lies, and using jealousy to get someone to make a commitment. One strength of the movie is its portrayal of attractive and capable minority characters.

Families who see this movie should talk about Quincy’s comment that “Falling in love is blissful insantity, but breaking up is a rational act,” and “love doesn’t care about honesty; it cares about itself,” and his cousin’s comment that “on a date, it’s all dishonest.” What is the best way to break up with someone?

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy Deliver Us From Eva. And they might enjoy some of the classic romantic comedy mix-up movies, like Move Over Darling and If a Man Answers.

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