Shall We Dance?

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, scenes in bars
Violence/ Scariness: Some tense moments
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, strong women
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Chicago lawyer John Clark (Richard Gere) writes wills. He listens to people sum up their lives — their assets, their liabilities, their legacies. When it’s done, they ask, “Is that it, then?” and he tells them, “That’s it for the paperwork. The rest is up to you.” Finally, it is time for him to get that message.

John likes his job and he loves his wife, son, and daughter. But riding home on the El train, he sees a woman standing in the second-story window of a ballroom dance studio and her expression of sadness and longing as she gazes into the darkness somehow unleashes his own wish for something more. Maybe it is his wish to be something more. So one night, he walks into the dance studio and signs up for the beginners class.

There are two other students, Vern, a huge, shy man (Omar Benson Miller) who says he wants to dance at his upcoming wedding, and Chic (Bobby Cannavale of The Station Agent), who says he is there to learn to dance so he can impress girls. Really, though, they are all there because they want to dance, to be a part of the music, to let go and swirl across the floor.

John begins to see himself differently when he finds a way to move to music. His wife suspects an affair and hires a pair of detectives (Richard Jenkins of “Six Feet Under” and Nick Cannon from Drumline, both wonderful) to follow him. Though John is drawn to the melancholy dance teacher it is more out of curiousity and compassion than romance. Dancing leads him to become friends with Vern, Chic, and with Bobbie (Lisa Ann Walter), a brassy student who hopes to compete for a title. He finds an unexpected connection with a colleague from the office and with his own family. And if he can learn to share this precious new part of himself with his wife, well, as the title song (from The King and I) asks, shall they dance?

The movie not only shows you the longing felt by its characters, it draws you in to sharing those feelings with them. You want John, Vern, Chic, Bobbie, and the others to find their steps and rhythm, to fly on the “bright cloud of music,” the song describes. You may even want to find your own.

Lopez gives a performance of great delicacy and skill, showing us Paulina’s fragility and dignity. Each actor creates a real and vivid and endearing character. And the music and dancing are sublime. You may just do a little dancing of your own on your way home.

Parents should know that the movie has brief strong language and some unnecessary homophobic humor, particularly a gratuitous last-minute twist. There are sexual references and jokes, including references to adultery, but in general the characters’ behavior is loyal and respectful. Characters drink and there are scenes in bars.

Families who see this movie should talk about why it was had for John and Beverly to be honest with each other. What was John missing? Which characters changed the most, and why? What could you do that would change your life the way dancing changed the lives of John, Vern, and Chic?

Families who enjoy this movie will also appreciate the many other delightful movies about the way dance changes people’s lives. Some of the best are Strictly Ballroom, Dirty Dancing, Saturday Night Fever, The Full Monty, and Steppin’ Out with Liza Minnelli along with Fred Astaire classics like The Bandwagon (briefly glimpsed in this movie). They should also watch the movie this was based on, a lovely 1994 Japanese film also called Shall We Dance.

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Whiz Kids!

B+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: Diverse children
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Children 18 months to three years old will enjoy this gentle DVD, filled with happy children learning colors, numbers, letters, and just enjoying each other. Babies and toddlers will be drawn into the fun, calling out the answers and playing along, learning as they watch.

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Shark Tale

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: A bit of crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Character dies, mostly comic peril and threats, non-violent character
Diversity Issues: Diverse species (and voice talent), some ethnic stereotyping
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

This hip-hop/mob action comedy set undersea is fast, fresh, fun, and finny — I mean –punny — I mean funny.

Okay, you watch the movie and see if you don’t come out making silly jokes like that. This isn’t a classic like Finding Nemo or Shrek, but it throws so much at you so fast you will be too busy enjoying yourself to notice.

Oscar (voice of Will Smith) is a little fish who dreams of fame and fortune, which seem very far away while he works as a mouth scrubber in a whale wash. He doesn’t notice that Angie (voice of Renee Zellwegger), the pretty receptionist, is in love with him. And he hasn’t been keeping count of all the money he has borrowed from his blowfish boss, Sykes (voice of Martin Scorsese). When Sykes says he needs the $5000 Oscar owes him the next day, Angie gives him her family heirloom pink pearl. Oscar sells it but then, on the way to give it to Sykes at the racetrack, he bets it on a horse. (That’s a seahorse, by the way.) The horse loses.

So, Oscar is in a lot of trouble. Sykes’ Rasta-jellyfish henchmen (voices of actor Doug E. Doug and regge singer Ziggy Marley) take Oscar out to rough him up.

They come across two sharks, tough guy Frankie (voice of “Soprano’s” star Michael Imperioli and his sweet-natured vegetarian brother Lenny (voice of Jack Black). Frankie is supposed to show Lenny how to be a killer, so they can take over the family business from their father, Don Lino (voice of Robert De Niro in full-on Godfather mode). But when Frankie is hit by an anchor, the jellyfish think that Oscar killed him, and he returns home as “The Shark Slayer.” Fame and fortune at last.

Sykes becomes his manager, a flirty glamorpuss named Lola (voice of Angelina Jolie) shows up to share the wealth (literally). Oscar enjoys the high life until the sharks come searching for the “Shark Slayer.” Lenny runs away from home because he cannot be a predator like his father and the other sharks. He and Oscar come up with a scheme to solve both their problems — they will stage a fight. Oscar will pretend to kill Lenny. Then the sharks will be so scared of Oscar they won’t try to come after him. And Lenny can start a new life.

That’s the plan. But it’s not a very good plan, as Lenny and Oscar soon find out.

The plot is nothing special, but the visuals are, with eye-popping color and wonderfully expressive fish faces, hilariously funny and surprisingly touching. The voice talent is top-notch and the animators have managed to bring the essence of the actors to the characters. Don Lido has De Niro’s birthmark on his cheek and Oscar has Smith’s eyes and mouth. There are dozens of gags and pop-cultural references and some bright musical numbers that keep things moving briskly, with a remake of the Rose Royce “Car Wash” song by Missy Elliott and Christina Aguilerra a highlight.

Parents should know that the plot involves the death of one of the characters, the son and brother of two other characters. This may be upsetting to some viewers. The characters are all so vivid that there may be a Bambi-reaction; some viewers may want to become vegetarians like Lenny. There is also some mild peril and tension. In addition, the movie has some mildly crude humor and a bit of schoolyard language. Characters “tag” — spraypaint graffiti — and parents may want to talk about how that behavior is destructive vandalism and illegal.

Parents may also be concerned about what could be perceived as stereotyping of Italian characters as gangsters, because the character names are Italian and some of the actors who play them are associated with “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas” and “The Sopranos.” Children may not understand that these actors are spoofing their other roles and may get the wrong impression, even concluding that an Italian name or accent is an indication of a connection to the mob. Families should discuss the issue of bigotry and the importance of judging people on their actions, not their heritage.

Families who see this movie should talk about why fame and fortune were so important to Oscar. Why was it so hard for him to realize that Lola was not sincere? They should also talk about why it was so hard for Oscar to see how Angie felt about him — and how he felt about her. All probably came from his having a hard time feeling good about himself — why was that hard for him? Families should also talk about how sometimes people like Lenny can have a hard time feeling accepted and loved for who they are. What can friends and family do to support them?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Finding Nemo and A Bug’s Life. They might also like to visit the local aquarium or travel to some of the nation’s best, like Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

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Shaun of the Dead

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: A lot of drinking, many scenes in bar, characters get drunk
Violence/ Scariness: Very intense, graphic zombie violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2004
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First Daughter

C+

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Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Underage drinking, character gets tipsy
Violence/ Scariness: Brief peril, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, strong inter-racial friendship
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

This one is right off the conveyer belt. It’s numbingly predictable due to a screenplay straight from the “how to write a script” formula book, which may be forgiveable, but it is also thuddingly dull due to performances and direction that lack energy and commitment, which is not.

Samantha (Katie Holmes) is the daughter of the President (Michael Keaton) and just starting college as her father is running for re-election. She is looking forward getting away from home and to the freedom of being “just like everyone else” for the first time.

But Sam’s not like everyone else, first because she has big men with curly wires coming out of their ears and photographers following her everywhere and second because of those qualities of her own that make her special, though she is not quite sure what those are yet.

The Secret Service detail and publicity are embarrassing and annoying. But it is finding out exactly who she is and what she wants that presents a greater challenge. Sam has to endure jealousy and teasing from her new classmates. She also has to deal with seeing her embarrassing moments spread all over the media.

Sam gets some support from her free-spirited roommate, Mia (Amerie of television’s “The Center”) and her understanding dorm Resident Advisor, James (“Buffy’s” Marc Blucas) and to thank them she whisks them off on Air Force One for a road trip right out of “Cinderella,” a visit to the White House for an elegant state dinner.

But Sam, Mia, and James all have lessons to learn and apologies to make before an ending that even Cinderella would consider happy. As for me, I was just glad it was over.

Holmes has shown herself to be a fine actress in The Ice Storm and Wonder Boys, but she seems a bit lost here, probably because Sam is not a character but a concept, and a wispy one at that. The flickers of detail are not even half-hearted, more like quarter, with some nonsense about whether Sam’s father is devoting enough of his attention to domestic affairs (double meaning, get it?) and one of the least surprising surprises in the history of “you should have told me” boy-temporarily-loses-girl developments and an “I’ll show him; I’ll make him jealous” response that plays like a lost “Brady Bunch” episode, one that was lost intentionally because it did not meet the high intellectual standards of the rest of the show.

It has tiresome fake crises — Sam appears in the tabloids and her father’s ratings drop by three points! So the solution is to pull her out of school and put her on the campaign trail supporting her father. Yeah, that’s just what happened when Jenna and Barbara Bush got caught drinking. Oh, the Secret Service agents mistake a water pistol for a gun! Yeah, who would expect a water pistol at a pool party? Any possible humor or suspense was wrung from that one decades ago. Some car crashes into a barrier as a way of attacking Sam? That one might have been interesting if it was ever referred to again.

It all feels more like product than story, primarily directed at middle school girls, who will enjoy the princess-y romance and won’t mind that they deserve much better. But I do.

Parents should know that the characters treat drinking as a badge of liberation and adulthood. Although they are underage, Samantha talks about hiding beer in a cooler and Mia asks if the Secret Service agents will buy beer for them. Later, they go out drinking and Sam gets tipsy and begins dancing on a table. There are some mild sexual references and situations. Mia brings a boy she has just met into her room and tells Sam she can’t come in for two hours — but apparently they were just kissing. Later she says that she kisses boys indiscriminately, except for the one she really likes. Mia and Sam dress up to look like call girls, with lace-up boots, hot pants, and fake tattoo. Characters use mild language (“kiss my ass,” etc.). A strength of the movie is capable and successful African-American characters and loyal inter-racial friendships.

Families who see this movie should talk about what Sam does and does not have in common with other college freshman. Why does Mia kiss guys she is not serious about but not the guy she really likes? What does it mean to say that someone is “always at home, no matter what anyone else thinks?” They should talk about how liking the way you are when you are with someone is a sign of a good relationship and about how both Sam and her father know that a good way to get people to do what you want is to let them know that you have high expectations, because they will want to live up to them. What does it mean to say that “every father has to learn to let go of his little girl and every little girl has to learn to let go of her father?”

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy 2004’s other Presidential daughter movie, Chasing Liberty with Mandy Moore. They will also enjoy classics about privileged but sheltered young women trying for some freedom Roman Holiday and It Happened One Night. And they might like to read about the exploits of the most famous Presidential daughter, Alice Roosevelt and find out more about Lyndon Johnson’s daughter, Lynda Robb, now a literacy advocate on behalf of Reading is Fundamental. She married one of her father’s Marine Guards, Charles Robb, later Senator and Governor of Virginia.

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