Wicker Park

C

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, character gets tipsy
Violence/ Scariness: Tension and suspense
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

This is one of those dopey thrillers that are frustrating to write about because I can’t tell you why it is dopey without spoiling the surprises. Even dumb surprises are sacrosanct according to the Code of the Critic. I’ll do my best, but if you want to avoid spoilers entirely, stop reading now.

Matt (Josh Hartnett) is an executive who has recently returned to Chicago after two years away. He has a good job and is about to propose to his girlfriend, who conveniently happens to be the sister of his boss. The three of them are at a swanky restaurant, having lunch with important clients to celebrate a deal Matt is about to close in China. Matt’s girlfriend slips him some pills to help him sleep on the plane and he swallows them at the restaurant. Then he hears the voice of a woman on the phone and the last two years seem to evaporate. It sounds like the voice of Lisa (Diane Kruger), the woman who broke his heart.

Flashback time. Matt is a sweet, shy, artistic guy working in a photography store. He glimpses a face on a videotape brought into his store for repair. And then he sees the same woman across the street. He follows her. He meets her at his best friend’s shoe store, pretending to be a salesman. He orders the black shoes with red soles in her size. They fall in love. And then…well, we don’t find out what happened then for a while as the movie shifts back and forth between the past and present and between different characters’ points of view.

It turns out to be one of those movies that sets up an intriguing puzzle and a nicely spooky vibe and then spoils it all by explaining much too much and having that explanation be both achingly obvious and sometimes unintentionally hilarious, retroactively dissipating any creepiness created earlier and dumb-ifying the entire story even further.

This is one of those movies that depends on its characters’ inability to make a phone call or ask a question to straighten things out. Just a few questions from me: why would Matt take the sleeping pills in the restaurant instead of waiting until he got on the plane? Why doesn’t anyone at this crucial meeting in China call back to the US to find out what is going on? Why would Luke fail to deliver the most important message of Matt’s life until it is almost too late? What happened to the stalker millionaire with the wife who died in the car accident? How does Matt go from being a low-level employee in a photo shop to being a big shot in a fancy suit in two years? Why does everyone, even the lady who works for the airline seem unable to resist Matt? Do stalkers become stalk-ees? Why did anyone think this script would work?

Matthew Lillard flounders in an attempt to play Matt’s best friend. Rose Byrne as a mystery woman who shares Matt’s girlfriend’s name and shoes is slightly more interesting than the drippy character she plays, but her efforts to play Viola/Cesario in “Twelfth Night” (a character in disguise who does not tell her love, get it?) are simply dreadful. Harnett and Kruger move through the story like sleepwalkers who hope they won’t wake up until the movie is over. I know how they feel.

Parents should know that the movie has brief strong language, some explicit sexual references, and non-explicit sexual situations. Characters drink and one becomes tipsy. There are tense and suspenseful situations and some jump-out-at-you surprises.

Families who see this movie should talk about the dividing line between love and obsession. Do you believe in love at first sight? What do you need to know about someone to be willing to make a commitment?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy thrillers like Frantic, The Vanishing, and the noir classic The Woman in the Window.

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Criminal

B+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional scenes, some violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

The con man’s greatest asset is not the gullibility of the mark, but the greed. It is much easier to persuade someone that you are dishonest than honest, especially if he is intrigued by the chance to be just a little dishonest for once, too.

And it is our own slightly crooked impulses that makes films about con men so much fun to watch, as long as we can avoid sympathy for the mark.

“Criminal” begins with Richard (John C. Reilly), a professional con man rescuing Rodrigo (Diego Luna), a beginner and offering to take him on as a partner. But first they have to show each other what they can do.

Then they begin the big con — they plan to sell a forgery to a zillionaire who is staying at a luxury hotel where Richard’s estranged sister is a manager. The rich guy has to leave the country soon, but he collects rare currency and if Richard’s bill can be verified, he wants to buy it.

The nicely twisty script was first filmed as the Argentinian film, Nine Queens. This American remake has a strong cast and some nice surprises, but misses the sparkle of the original.

Parents should know that the movie includes strong language, sexual references (including brokering of a family member for financial gain), drinking, smoking, tension, and peril. The characters in the movie are crooks who cheat other people out of money.

Families who see this movie should talk about the decision Richard has to make when his mark adds an extra condition to the deal. Why is it worth it to him to agree? How do people who make a living being untrustworthy decide who to trust?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Confidence, Matchstick Men, Heist, A Big Hand for the Little Lady, and The Sting.

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Vanity Fair

B+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Battle violence, character killed and others die, emotional tension
Diversity Issues: Class and cultural diversity issues a theme of the movie, racist remarks
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Our first peek into the world of this film is a peacock feather, and it sets the stage both visually and metaphorically for a colorful story about a woman who uses her allure to get what she wants. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is provocatively subtitled “A Novel without a Hero.” It is the story of two young women, one rich, one poor, both looking for happiness in an era when people were supposed to take what they were given without trying for more. And true to his word, Thackeray does not give us the usual character arcs — it’s not about redemption or consequences or lessons learned. It is an unsentimental tale of foolish, snobbish, and greedy people and their efforts to get what they think will make them happy: money, social position, love.

Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) has made his story into a gorgeously vibrant film, all jewel-like colors and swirling fabrics. As one might expect in an era where we applaud those who seek happiness but and applaud even harder for those who grab it, the movie even has something resembling a hero.

That would be Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp, a poor girl who schemes to improve her lot in life. Witherspoon is, as ever, utterly delectable and so filled with spirit, fun, and charm that it is impossible not to root for her, especially in contrast with her friend Amelia (Romola Garai), a wilted flower so dim that she falls for a bounder instead of the honorable admirer who is devoted to her.

Becky, the daughter of an artist, could drive a bargain worthy of her name even as a very young girl. Both of her parents die when she is very young and she is sent to a boarding school, because they can get more work out of her in exchange for tuition than they could from a scullery maid they would have to pay. She has only one friend in the school, Amelia, and as they leave together, Amelia to return home and Becky to seek her fortune, Becky takes the dictionary she has been given by the headmistress and tosses it out the window of the carriage. She does not need anyone else to tell her what things mean.

Becky is set to become a governess but she sees one other option. Perhaps she could capture the heart and bank account of a gentleman. She tries first for Amelia’s portly brother, visiting from India. She is successful with him, but not his family, who are quite firm about his marrying someone of his own class and net worth. She becomes governess in the household of the titled but crass and slovenly Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins). There are two sons by the first wife, a dashing gambler (James Purefoy) who is the favorite of the spinster aunt who controls the family fortune (the magnificently acerbic Eileen Atkins) and a prig. Becky takes a chance on getting everything — love, money, and a position in society — by marrying the gambler, but they are disinherited.

Meanwhile, Amelia’s family has lost their fortune and Amelia has married George (Jonathan Rhys Meyers of Bend it Like Beckham). She adores him so wholeheartedly that she cannot see how selfish and dishonest he is. Both women become pregnant and follow their husbands, who are on their way to fight in the battle of Waterloo. And the story is just getting started.

Witherspoon’s success as Becky is in a way the movie’s biggest weakness. Witherspoon takes on the movie the way Becky takes on the world, with oceans of sheer star quality to dazzle and beguile. Resistance is futile. But it throws the balance of the movie out of whack. Amelia, instead of counterpoint, just seems a droop by comparison, tiresome in her inability to see George’s weakness or the way that his best friend loves her. Nair just doesn’t have the heart to let us dislike Becky, even when it would give the story more substance. So, instead of a thoughtful depiction of the strictures of society and the compromises made to adapt to or surmount them, all we get is something of a romp.

There’s a lot to look at, though. Nair has grabbed onto the book’s references to colonial India to provide an excuse for great swaths of sumptuous color and pagentry, even a Bollywood-style musical number. Even when the characters seem inconsistent and the direction of the story seems to falter, there is so much to see that even at two and a half hours, it is a splendid thing to see.

Parents should know that the movie has war violence, including a battlefield covered with dead bodies. Characters make comments reflecting the bigotry of the era. There are sexual references and situations and there is brief non-sexual nudity.

Families who see this movie should talk about the priorities and choices of the characters, especially Becky, Amelia, and Dobbin. What will happen to Becky next? Thackeray ends the book by saying, “which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?” How would you answer those questions with regard to the characters in the story?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the Oscar-winning Tom Jones. Similar adaptations of classic novels about women struggling with the limited options available to them include Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady and Daisy Miller. They might also want to try reading the book and research its author, who was better at achieving social and financial success through his abilities rather than his connections than Becky Sharp was.

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American Graffiti

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MPAA Rating: PG
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Underage drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Peril, including reckless driving
Diversity Issues: Reference to racism
Date Released to Theaters: 1973

The movie takes place on a single night in 1962, immediately before two good friends, Curt (Richard Dreyfus) and Steve (Ron Howard), are about to leave for college. Curt and Steve are facing enormous changes and they are both scared and excited. Although the film is nostalgic in tone (based on the memories of director George Lucas), it is clear the country is on the brink of enormous (and tumultuous) changes, too.

Most of the episodic plot centers on kids driving around and interacting with each other. Curt and Steve stop by the high school dance. Curt’s sister, Laurie, is Steve’s girlfriend, and is very concerned about losing him when he goes away. Steve tells his friend Terry “the Toad” (Charles Martin Smith) that he can use Steve’s car when he goes to college, and Terry spends the night driving around, feeling powerful and exciting. He meets Debbie (Candy Clark), a pretty, if slightly dimwitted, girl, and is thrilled when she agrees to ride with him. But the car gets stolen, and he has a frantic time getting it back.

The boys have another friend, John Milner (Paul Le Mat), who is a hotrod champion. When he tries to get some pretty girls to ride with him, they send a bratty thirteen-year-old (Mackenzie Phillips) to get in his car instead. John gets challenged by a tough guy named Bob (Harrison Ford). Laurie, angry with Steve, agrees to ride with Bob in the race.

Curt spends the night in search of a mysterious blonde (Suzanne Somers), who whispered “I love you” to him from her car. He finally goes to see Wolfman Jack, the DJ all the kids listen to, to ask for help. John wins the race, but Bob’s car crashes. Steve realizes he cannot leave Laurie, and promises to stay and attend the community college. Curt finally leaves, his radio on his lap as the plane takes off. He listens until the sound disappears in static.

This brilliant and highly influential film (almost everyone connected with it became a star) provides a good opportunity for talking about some of the feelings teenagers have as they move into adulthood.

Curt is deeply conflicted between his big dreams and his fear of leaving home. But it is Steve who discovers he is not ready to leave. Although he tries to break his ties to home by telling Laurie he plans to date other people and giving his car to Terry, when Laurie is almost killed in the drag race he sees how much he cares for her. Thoughtful older teens may like to speculate about the symbolism of the mysterious blonde in the white Thunderbird, and the guidance from Wolfman Jack.

Families should talk about why Curt is so ambivalent about leaving. What does Curt’s ex-girlfriend’s teasing tell you about him? Why is Laurie afraid to let Steve go? Why does Laurie ride with Bob? Who is she hurting? Why does the movie end by telling you what happens to those characters in the future?

Don’t waste time on the sequel, More American Graffiti, with a different director, which is not nearly as good. This movie is a good place to find many future stars in small roles, including Harrison Ford, who went on to star in the director’s next movie, Star Wars. The sound track includes some of the greatest hits of the era. Listen to some other music by some of the artists, and see if teens can trace the influence of those artists on some of their favorite performers.

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Benji: Off the Leash!

B-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: Very mild
Alcohol/ Drugs: Reference to beer
Violence/ Scariness: Tranquilizer gun, references to abuse of animals and humans, dog thrown across a room
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

The dogs are cute, the intentions are good, and there’s a refreshing absence of potty humor, but that’s about the best that can be said about the fifth movie about loveable mutt Benji from writer/director Joe Camp.

In past films, Benji rescued children (Benji), triumphed over international dog-nappers (For the Love of Benji), survived in the wilderness (Benji the Hunted) and was even the reincarnation of Chevy Chase (Oh Heavenly Dog). None qualifies as a classic, but a remake of any of those films would have more merit than the script Camp wrote and directed, an uneasy combination of wholesome slapstick with Dickensian bleakness.

Colby (Nick Whitaker) is the stepson of Hatchett (Chris Kendrick), an abusive man who runs a puppy mill in the back yard, forcing his dogs to have puppies he can sell, even when it ruins their health. He mistreats the dogs and he mistreats his wife and son. When his best breeder gives birth to puppies that are not purebred, Hatchett tosses the one that looks different across the room and leaves him to die. Colby rescues him, bringing the puppy’s mother to see him, so that he can nurse.

But when the puppy gets older, Hatchett finds out, and soon the puppy has to fend for himself. He finds a friend, known as “Lizard Tongue,” an expert at escaping from a couple of clumsy dogcatchers. Lizard Tongue also finds a friend, the acerbic but kind-hearted Mr. Finch, who leaves dog food and water out on his porch and who knows how to offer gentle friendship to a dog unused to kindness from humans.

Kids will love the clever and loyal little dogs, especially when they outsmart Hatchett and the dogcatchers. But the movie seems caught in a 1970’s time warp, including a slow motion sequence that harks back to Lee Majors as “The Six Million Dollar Man.” The behind-the-scenes credit sequence footage is more fun than the movie story, which even children may find slow going and amateurish. Some viewers may be upset by Hatchett’s very harsh behavior toward Colby and the dogs, and by Colby’s mother’s failure to protect him, her only explanation: “Two parents are better than one, and we have to eat.” And there is something unsettling about the fact that the movie seems more concerned about the abuse of the animals than about the abuse of Colby and his mother.

Furthermore, the “happy” ending may not feel too happy to some children. Camp’s website has a message about the importance of making movies with genuine family values, but the final message of this film seems to be that fame is better than love and home. The only person likely to find that the happiest of endings is Camp himself, glad to be back at the helm of another Benji movie. Families in search of a happy ending will have to hope that the next Benji movie is “Benji Finds a Better Script.”

Parents should know that the movie has some mild epithets and insults (“jeez,” “why the devil,” “idiot,” “pansy”) and mild peril. There are tense emotional confrontations, and some viewers may be upset by Hatchett’s harshness and insults. Hatchett throws a puppy across the room and leaves him to die. The dogcatchers use a tranquilizer gun. There is discreet reference to putting dogs to sleep (referred to as “you know”) and some discussion of puppy mills and over-breeding. A strength of the movie is the portrayal of African-American characters of integrity and dedication.

Families who see this movie should talk about how both Hatchett and Colby’s mother use the same excuse — that they need to eat. What alternatives do they have? Why did Colby tell the puppy they were both different? They should talk about Mr. Finch’s gentle approach to making friends with Lizard Tongue. What does it mean to say that “it takes a special kind of person to admit he was wrong?” Families might also want to talk about how their community deals with stray dogs and how people, even children, can help prevent abuse of people and animals.

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the other Benji movies, Cats and Dogs, and My Dog Skip.

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