Closer

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Extremely strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense emotional confrontations, slap
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

With an anguished wail, Larry (Clive Owen) asks where he can find intimacy. In a private room in a strip club, where the rules say that you can look, but not touch. The stripper’s ex-boyfriend is now romantically involved with Larry’s ex-wife, Anna (Julia Roberts). Does he really want intimacy or does he want revenge? Or does he just want the stripper to bend over and touch the floor?

Probably all of the above. This is a searing story of hurt and betrayal with two men and two women who reach for each other and hurt each other in almost every combination. They may get, as in the movie’s title “Closer,” but do they ever really get close?

Larry is a dermatologist. Anna is a photographer. Alice (Natalie Portman) is a stripper turned waitress turned stripper again. And Dan (Jude Law) is an obituary writer who has written a novel. Larry first talks to Anna as the result of a prank — Dan pretended to be Anna on an online sex chat and set up the meeting. Anna and Larry become a couple and then get married, but she is having an affair with Dan, who is living with Alice, the stripper turned waitress whose life inspired the main character of his novel. One of the portraits in Anna’s art show is the photograph she took of Alice, who had just discovered that Dan was attracted to Anna. And all of this roundelay is delivered in glossy dialogue by glossy people in glossy surroundings.

This film is more clever than wise, and it is not as clever as it thinks it is. Those in the audience who have been angered and betrayed by love might find it validating, but that does not make it insightful. The main characters toss around the L-word a great deal, but there is no evidence that any of them even see each other, much less know or love each other.

Neither Anna nor Alice are really characters; they are somewhere between a fantasy and a narrative convenience. Their only function is to drive the men crazy, mostly by just being gorgeous and arbitrary.

The center of the movie is the relationship between the two men. Larry and Dan send instant messages to each other in an anonymous sex chat room, Dan pretending to be a woman. Their connections with the women in their lives have more to do with the struggle between the men over power and territory than with knowing or caring for Anna and Alice. Larry demands to know Alice’s real name, but neither he nor Dan ask her for any details about her past or preferences or aspirations.

The script has some snappy lines and Nichols keeps guessing by not telling us how much time has passed between the encounters. Portman is dazzling to watch. Owen and Law do well (those who saw Law cry in the very different I Heart Huckabee’s will see his range when Dan cries here). But this is not the best use of Roberts’ considerable talents; it may be that Nichols was relying more on the shock value of hearing America’s sweetheart speak about oral sex in explicit terms than on her ability to convey a superficially conceived character. It’s always fun to watch pretty people say clever things, but for all its knowing banter about truth and lies and love, like its characters, it is a little too much in love with itself, and no wiser or happier when it’s over.

Parents should know that this movie is filled with extremely adult material, with exceptionally explicit sexual references, including adultery and oral sex. There are scenes in a strip club. Characters drink, smoke, and use very strong, explicit, and graphic language. There are tense and upsetting scenes of jealousy, anger, and betrayal.

Families who see this movie should talk about what the characters were really looking for. What did playwright/screenwriter Patrick Marber want to show us with the occupations of the four characters? What do we learn from the name on Alice’s passport? Why do two different people say “Hello, stranger?” Were Dan and Anna using Alice by writing the novel and taking her photo? They may also want to talk about how genuine trust and intimacy are established.

Families who appreciate this movie will also like Carnal Knowledge, also directed by Nichols, and Dangerous Liaisons and Valmont, two different movie versions of the epistolary novel by Choderlos de Laclos.

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House of Flying Daggers

A

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, character gets drunk
Violence/ Scariness: Constant peril and violence, some graphic, many characters killed
Diversity Issues: Strong female characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

An officer about to arrest a beautiful blind dancer who works in a brothel tells her that if she can win the “Echo Game” he will let her go. She is surrounded by 100 drums. And then, in one of the most extraordinary scenes ever put on film, as the officer tosses stones at the drums, she must listen carefully to replicate the patterns of the sounds through her dance by tossing her long satin sleeves to strike the drums in the same precise rhythms. Her arm sweeps across so that the sleeve extends far enough to pull the officer’s sword from its sheath. And then things really start to heat up.

Director Yimou Zhang (Hero, Raise the Red Lantern) is a master of ravishing, rapturous images drenched with glowing, jewel-like colors, unfurling like a rich tapestry. The fight scenes are dramatic, as much a part of telling the story and revealing the characters as the dialogue and the plot. And they are beautiful, like exquisite blood-soaked ballets.

In the brothel, all the girls have taken fancy flower names except the beautiful blind dancer, who is simply named Mei (Ziyi Zhang). A drunken playboy captivated by her tries to rip her clothes off and an officer arrives to arrest them both. That is when Mei shows her prowess in the Echo Game. But she is arrested anyway when she attacks the officer. It seems she is an operative for the rebel House of Flying Daggers. She is about to be tortured when she is rescued by the drunken playboy, who tells her he is on her side. They escape together, followed by the soldiers.

And like all movie journeys, the characters are on a spiritual quest as they travel. Love and loyalty will be tested and lessons will be learned. The confrontations and battle scenes reveal the characters and move the story forward as they dazzle us with breathtaking images and stunning stuntwork. A shower of daggers, a bamboo-forest skirmish that looks like it was choreographed by Cirque du Soleil, and a final encounter in a snow-covered field are striking, moving, and dramatic all at the same time. But the most exquisite image of all is the face of Ziyi Zhang, a brilliant actress, a classically trained dancer, and a fearless combatant. The story may seem unfinished (there is one shot of an advancing army that leaves us wondering what happened next), but ultimately it is as spare and graceful as a calligraphic symbol.

Parents should know that the movie is extremely violent. The fight scenes are beautiful but deadly, with graphic injuries and many deaths. There are sexual references and situations including a scene in a brothel and attempted sexual assault. A strength of the movie is its portrayal of women and of Chinese men and women as strong, brave, and loyal.

Families who see this movie should talk about the difficult choices presented to Mei, Jin, and Leo. How did they decide on what was most important to them?

Families who see this movie will also appreciate Hero by the same director and the award-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, both starring Ziyi Zhyang.

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The Chorus

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some very crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fighting, boys are punished by being beaten
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

A shy teacher comes to a school for wayward boys and decides to organize a choir.

This plot could be a cheesy after-school special or Sister Act 3. Or, it could be this lovely, tender, unpretentious French film, a small delight.

A distinguished orchestra conductor returns to his home for his mother’s funeral. A visitor arrives with a book under his arm. They have not seen each other for more than half a century. But once they were students together at a school for boys with behavior problems. The visitor has brought the diary of their teacher, Clement Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot). As they open the book, we are taken back to the teacher’s arrival at the school.

Rachin (François Berléand), the principal, is a petty tyrant who believes the only way to run the school is by controling the boys with brutal punishment. He has no hesitation in punishing the innocent if he cannot identify the guilty.

The shy Mathieu, who feels like a failure, shows a talent for getting the boys to trust and listen to him. Though past failures made him vow to give up music, the boys’ discovery of his sheet music leads him to invite them to sing for him. Several have enthusiasm, and one, Morhange (Jacques Perrin) has talent.

There is a gentle authenticity in the portrayal of the Mathieu and the boys, the music is glorious, and the ending is perfection.

Parents should know that the movie has some very crude schoolboy language and some violence. Children are punished by being beaten and a prank results in a serious injury.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Rachin and Mathieu have such different ideas about how to handle the boys. Why couldn’t Mathieu tell Morhage’s mother how he felt about her?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy two Disney films about boys’ choirs, Perfect Harmony and Almost Angels (a fictional story set in the Vienna Boys’ Choir). They might also want to go to a concert featuring a choir like this one, or they might even like to try singing with one.

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Alexander

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MPAA Rating: R
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: A lot of drinking, characters get drunk
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic battle violence, many deaths, lots of blood
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Alexander the person was great. “Alexander” the movie is not.

It is a horrendously bad movie, a genuine 40-car pile-up of literally epic proportions, a three-way head-on collision of bad writing, bad acting, and bad direction. It is not just misguided, it is truly terrible in a way that is almost fascinating to watch. But not quite.

It begins with Anthony Hopkins as the aged Ptolemy, intoning the historical background for us. It’s true that Anthony Hopkins has a voice that could make the phone book mesmerizing. But the phone book would be an improvement over the turgid prose he is asked to slog through here. And he keeps coming back to tell us more; invariably throughout the next three hours we are told what we should be shown while we watch what we should have been told. Even with all of the narration and a fairly straightforward historical plotline, the narrative is frustratingly muddled.

Alexander (Colin Farrell) is the son of Philip (Val Kilmer) and Olympias (Angelina Jolie) and at the center of a firestorm of political intrigue and bitter personal feuds. His parents despise each other, and each urges Alexander to be bold and to trust no one. Alexander grows up to be very competitive but also sensitive. He tames the wild horse Bucephalus, gaining his father’s approval. But then Philip, who wants to make Olympias less powerful, takes another wife. He is about to name her infant son his successor when he is assassinated, making Alexander the king.

Alexander takes his armies on a quest to conquer the known world over eight years and 22,000 miles, and we finally get to the one watchable part of the movie. Writer/director Oliver Stone can stage a battle. The fights with the soldiers of Persia and India are striking and the confrontation between horse- and elephant-riders is exceptional.

But the rest of the movie is dreadful, a mish-mash of a clunker script delivered in a mish-mash of accents. It’s bad enough when one of the Greek soldiers speaks with the actor’s own Scottish burr. It is even worse when Roxane (Rosario Dawson), the wife Alexander choses from Bactria, uses the kind of faux all-purpose foreign pronunciation usually reserved for native maidens in 1940’s B-movies set on tropical islands. She sees him with Hephaestion (Jared Leto) and hisses “You love chhHEEEM!!”

The accents may be all over the place, but the Classic Comic-style dialogue is consistently terrible. No accent could make these lines work: “You must never confuse your feelings with your duties!” “Your life hangs in the balance!” “You can run to the ends of the earth, you coward, but you will never run far enough!” “We are most alone when we are with the myths.” “It was here that Alexander made one of his most mysterious decisions.” “They forgive you because you make them proud of themselves!” “What have I done to make you hate me so?” “You’re a king — act like one!” “I wouldn’t miss it for all the gold in the world!” “It’s easier to find the east than to find love.” “The dreamers destroy us. They must die before they can kill us with their blasted dreams.”

The script is way, way, way over the top and the acting is wildly over-heated, with moments that give Showgirls competition for combined insanity and inanity. The wedding night scene alone is enough to land the film a choice spot in the Bad Movie Hall of Fame. Alexander and Roxane roll over and over, hissing at each other like angry cats.

The classroom discussions of higher love between men and the longing glances and meaningful exchanges between Alexander and Hephaestion play like a soap opera written by middle schoolers.

Perhaps most disappointing of all is that there is not one performance with any authenticity or appeal. Even Farrell and Jolie lose all sense of perspective and resort to snorts and eye-rolling histrionics.

All of this is further weighed down by pacing that manages to be both slow and choppy. A flashback of Philip’s death is awkwardly inserted at a point that feels entirely random. There are too-frequent and heavy-handed symbols: caged beasts and a soaring eagle. We get it, we get it.

Ultimately, “Alexander” is the story of hubris. In this case, however, it is not the hubris of the young king who wanted to conquer the world, but the hubris of a writer-director who tried to tell the story and threw everything into it he could think of — including an indefensible rip-off of the opening of Citizen Kane — but completely left out class, dignity, and quality. Perhaps the best explanation for complete failure of this movie in every category is is the revenge of the gods.

Parents should know that the movie has extreme and explicit battle violence with many impalings and other graphic injuries. Alexander is portrayed as bi-sexual. There are very explicit heterosexual sexual situations and references and male and female nudity, plus references and implications of gay sex and some same-sex kissing and a mother-son kiss on the mouth and an attempted rape. Some exotic dancers perform in skimpy attire. Characters drink, sometimes to excess.

Families who see this movie should talk about Alexander’s influences. What did he learn from his father and what did he learn from his mother? Why did he marry Roxane? What was most important to him? What is best remembered about him? Why?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the much better Gladiator and the BBC miniseries I, Claudius. They might also like to take a look at the 1956 Alexander the Great, with Richard Burton in the title role. A guide to the many websites about Alexander can be found here. There are also many books about Alexander. A good place to start is Alexander the Great by Robin Lane Fox. Younger readers will appreciate Alexander the Great – A Novel by Nikos Kazantzakis.

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Christmas with the Kranks

D

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Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, characters drink in response to stress
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic violence, illness
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

This meretricious claptrap is exactly the kind of baloney it purports to be saving us from.

There’s a reliable genre of family holiday movie that is made up of three-fourths slapstick followed by 15 minutes of sentiment. In this case, however, the characters are so unpleasant, the jokes so un-funny, the sentiment so blatantly hypocritical that the result is as heavy and unappetizing as last year’s figgy pudding.

The Kranks always do Christmas in a big way. But with their daughter Blair (Julie Gonzalo) departing for Peru, the prospect of a Christmas at home doesn’t seem too appealing. Luther (Tim Allen) proposes to Nora (Jamie Lee Curtis) that they skip Christmas. For half of the $6100 they spent on Christmas the previous year, they can take a luxury cruise. After Nora persuades Luther that they must still make their annual $600 charitable contributions, she agrees.

At first, they feel liberated from the pressure and hassles of Christmas. But when their friends and neighbors start to put pressure on them to conform. Luther is defiant, but Nora is uncertain. The neighbors are furious.

Instead of getting ready for Christmas, Luther and Nora get ready for their cruise. Just as they are ready to leave, their daughter calls. She will be home for Christmas after all, with her new boyfriend, Enrique, and she wants everything to be just the way it always has been. And she’ll be home in just a few hours.

This means that we are subjected to excruciating set-ups about the outrage of the community when the Kranks refuse to put their enormous Frosty up on the roof (“Free Frosty! Free Frosty!” they chant), turn down the Boy Scouts who come by to sell them a tree, and ice the walk to keep away the carolers. Then there are further sit-not-coms as they go to a tanning parlor (Curtis lets it all hang out in a tiny bikini) and Luther gets Botox in his face and can’t close his mouth to chew his lunch. There are equally un-funny escapades as everyone slips on the icy walk and as everyone scrambles to get everything ready for Blair. There are useless digressions about a robber and about a mystery man who seems to know everyone. The fact that Blair has a boyfriend who is a FOREIGNER is supposed to be funny. A cop spells his name wrong. Hahahaha!

One of the Kranks’ neighbors develop a very serious health problem, a particularly manipulative and awkward plot development that is too-obviously inserted to get our sympathy and give Luther a growth experience.

But what takes this movie from the harmless trifle category into the genuinely toxic is its attempt to leverage all of its audiences’ feelings about the best of Christmas while having no sense at all of what makes those feelings matter. Nora’s only contact with her clergyman is contrived so that he sees her in her skimpy bathing suit. The film’s phony attempt to make fun of the craziness, commercialism, and conformity of the holiday season is in fact just one more example, so fundamentally fake and superficial it makes tinsel look like sterling.

Parents should know that the movie has some mild sexual references (Nora thinks Luther wants to have sex and starts taking off her sweater and gulps down some wine, saying, “But it isn’t Saturday!”). Characters drink wine and beer on social occasions and some reach for alcohol to deal with stress. There is a lot of comic violence and mayhem, with many falls, bashes on the head, and electrocutions that are intended to be funny. A character receives bad news about the recurrance of cancer, which may be disturbing to some audience members.

Families who see this movie should talk about what is important about Christmas or other holidays and which traditions have the most meaning to them. They should also talk about peer pressure and how to know when to listen to the community and when to stick with your own judgment about what is right.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy seeing The Santa Clause (also starring Allen) and Home Alone.

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