Son of the Mask

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MPAA Rating: PG
Profanity: Strong language for a PG
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic, cartoon-style violence and scariness
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2005
Date Released to DVD: 2006
Amazon.com ASIN: B00080ZFZW

The Mask had a clever and inventive director, striking design, wildly imaginative special effects, and Jim Carrey, who is something of a wildly imaginative special effect all by himself. ,P>

“Son of the Mask” is both watered down and jazzed up, like a kid who’s had way too much sugary bug juice. This semi-sequel (all new characters except for a cameo from Ben Stein) is directed at a younger audience, and despite some questionable material, it is more mild than wild. There’s not much by way of imagination and few of the effects qualify as “special.”

Jamie Kennedy (Malibu’s Most Wanted) may be many notches down the star pole from Jim Carrey, but he is a likeable and funny guy. For some reason, though, this film fails to make the best use of the talents he does have, making him the straight man. To a baby and a dog.

In the first film, a shy bank employee finds a Norse mask with magical powers. When he puts it on, it unleashes his hidden desires and removes all inhibitions, turning him into an infinitely malleable cartoon character transformed by every impulse. Whether he was performing in a nightclub or standing up to a gangster, he was always fearless.

At the end of the movie, the mask is once again thrown away.

In this sequel, Kennedy plays Tim Avery, awould-be animator who lives with his wife Tonya (Traylor Howard) in a cartoony-looking little house. She wants a baby, but he does not feel ready. One night, on his way to the office Halloween party, he finds the mask. Everyone at the party is impressed with his “costume” and the outrageous behavior just seems natural at an animator’s office party -– everyone assumes he is just trying out a new cartoon character. When he gets home, his wife is in bed. Perhaps it is because his inhibitions have been removed by the mask, or perhaps he is just feeling proud of himself for being asked to develop a character for a possible cartoon series. But he is willing to have a baby.

Nine months later, the baby is born. And because his father was wearing the mask when he was conceived, he has some of the mask’s powers. This comes to the attention of Loki (Alan Cummings), the Norse god of mischief and the original owner of the mask. His father, one-eyed Odin, king of the gods, orders him to get it back, so Loki begins checking out every baby born on Tim’s baby’s birthday.

Tim is looking for the mask, too, but it has been hidden by his dog, who is experiencing something like sibling rivalry. Tim has no idea of his baby’s unusual abilities; he just wants the mask back so that he can finish creating that cartoon character his boss is asking about.

As Loki gets closer and closer, Tonya leaves town on a business trip, with Tim on full-time daddy duty, just as the baby’s transformational powers really start to take over and Loki finds what he was looking for. The movie then gets turned over to the special effects department for some cartoon-ish fun.

Kids will enjoy the silly humor, but parents may question the appropriateness of some of the material in the movie, especially for younger children, who may be disturbed by the idea that some children may not be wanted. While there is nothing explicit in the film, some families will find it inappropriate that the baby’s powers were the result of his father’s wearing the mask when he was conceived.

The movie is dumb and loud, which some children will confuse with entertaining but others will just find overwhelming. It is a shame not to make better use of Kennedy’s talents; he is mostly limited to reaction shots. It’s a bigger shame to waste this technology and the goodwill left over from the first film on a dull story with forgettable characters.

Parents should know that this movie has strong language for a PG (“Hell, no” “The crappiest piece of crap in crap-town”). There is a lot of comic violence, including hits to the crotch that are supposed to be funny. There is some mild sexual material, including discussion of wanting (or not wanting) to have a baby, and the central plot point is based on Tonya getting pregnant while Tim is wearing the mask. Tonya jokes that she is going to make a baby with the neighbor. There is some vulgar humor, including potty jokes.

Families who see this movie should talk about how parents decide when they are ready to have a baby. Why was it so important to Tim that he be someone his child would be proud of? Why did Tim say that the baby helped him grow up? What is “positive reinforcement” and why is it important? Why are there stories about a god of mischief? What other characters in stories and myths like to cause trouble?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Spy Kids, also featuring Cummings, and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and its sequel Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, which, like this film, also features a game of Twister. Tim’s last name is a tribute to animator great Tex Avery, and families will enjoy some of his classic cartoons as well. And all families should learn about some of the great Norse myths, featuring Loki, Odin, and Thor.

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Meet the Fockers

C+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong and graphic language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Comic violence
Diversity Issues: Comic stereotyping
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

I am not a huge fan of comedies of excruciation, that genre of movies that draw much of their humor from some poor idiot’s painful and humiliating loss of control. But I can appreciate the way that the best of the category, like this film’s predecessor, Meet the Parents, play into our deepest fears and let us release tension by making us laugh at the way that poor shnook has to cope when what we hope never happens to us happens to him.

Meet the Parents addressed that most terrifying of moments — meeting the loved one’s family for the first time — and ramped it way up. Gay “Greg” Focker (Ben Stiller) and his fiancee, Pam (Teri Polo) visited her parents, the elegantly patrician Dina (Blythe Danner) and Jack (Robert DeNiro), a former CIA operative with a lot of issues involving privacy and trust. The comedy came from one horribly frustrating and embarrassing situation after another as Greg struggles to make a good impression despite his dirty-sounding name, his unmanly-sounding profession (nurse), and especially as he keeps making things worse by lying, knocking things over, and looking idiotic in a series of badly fitting borrowed clothes. And, as they say, hilarity (or some proximation thereof) ensues.

This time, everyone goes to meet Greg’s parents, the kind of people for whom the term “boundary issues” was created. Just as Greg has finally made it into Jack’s “circle of trust,” Jack and Dina take their super-fitted RV and their super-programmed grandchild “Jack-Jack” and drive Greg and Pam to Florida to meet the Fockers.

So, there’s a reprise of the jokes from the first movie, including the dirty-sounding name jokes, the purportedly unmanly-sounding job — Greg’s father Bernie (Dustin Hoffman) gave up the law to be a full-time dad — and the toilet-flushing cat. There are also reprises of the jokes in this movie. There is a slight but viable joke in the very beginning of the movie, when Greg has to leave a voicemail for his parents and ends up waiting through their incompetent answering machine recording, not realizing that they had not turned it off so including some very personal material. But within the next fifteen minutes, the joke is repeated two more times. That still leaves time for plenty of attention to Greg’s mother Roz (Barbra Streisand), a sex therapist.

But most of all, this is about how Greg, instead of being embarrassed about his fears of his own inadequacy, this time is embarrassed about the external representation of those fears — his parents. He makes the mistake of trying to hide their professions, and has to pay in classic farce terms, by having the news come out in the most humiliating way possible.

The other external representation of Greg’s struggle for control of himself and the way he is seen by others relates to his family’s former housekeeper, Isabel (Alanna Ubach). It turns out that fifteen years earlier, Ben’s first sexual encounter was with Isabel, a detail he omitted in telling Pam about his past. When Jack meets Isabel’s 15-year-old son, a mechanical prodigy with supiciously familiar-looking eyebrows, he starts collecting DNA samples. Meanwhile, Pam has a secret of her own.

Everyone tries hard. They all but climb down out of the screen. Dustin Hoffman kisses everyone, sits on the toilet while Robert DeNiro is in the shower, moonwalks, and spreads whipped cream over Barbra Streisand’s breasts. Robert DeNiro wears a prosthetic breast called a “man-ary gland.” It does not have whipped cream, but it does have breast milk pumped through it so his grandchild will feel that his mother is nursing him. Blythe Danner asks Barbra Streisand for sex tips. And Ben Stiller has to stand before a trophy wall that displays his 9th place ribbons, his bar mitzvah tallit, and his high school jock strap. It sounded like the audience at the screening I attended laughed at these items more because they wanted to find it funny than because they actually did.

Parents should know that there is a lot of R-level humor in this movie. Greg’s mother is a sex therapist specializing in the elderly, and the film includes a lot of explicit conversation about sexual matters, almost entirely played as humorous, including references to masturbation, orgasm, premarital pregnancy, and sex games. There is some very brief nudity. Jack wears a prothetic breast so he can “nurse” his grandchild. There is a lot of purportedly humorous stereotyping of both Jews (loud, effusive, insensitive, and inclined to violate everyone’s privacy), Hispanics (warm and sexual), and WASPs (cold and repressed and inclined to too much privacy). Characters use strong language (a baby’s repeated use of a common insult is supposed to be funny). There is frequent social drinking and comic violence, including forced injection with sodium pentathol and use of a stun gun.

Families who see this movie should talk about what code words they use the way the Byrnes use “muskrat.” They may want to tell some of the stories about meeting their own future in-laws. And they may want to talk about how different families have different ideas about privacy.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the original Meet the Parents and other comedies in this genre like the original The In-Laws and The Freshman.

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Fat Albert

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Hey hey hey! Fat Albert is back.

The original Fat Albert was a friend of the young Bill Cosby, who turned his childhood adventures into a popular stand-up routine during his days as a comic. In the 1970’s, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids became a popular animated television show. Fat Albert and his friends Rudy, Mushmouth, Dumb Donald, Weird Harold, and Bill and his pesky little brother Russell would help people solve problems and learn lessons and then head out to the junkyard for a song.

In this live-action movie, a lonely teenaged girl named Doris (Kyla Pratt) watches the Fat Albert cartoon show after school. When her tear falls onto the remote control, Fat Albert knows he must help her. So he climbs right out of the television set and into her living room, and the whole gang comes along.

They are all still dressed in their fly 70’s outfits, lots of orange and hot pink with rainbow suspenders.

The gang is completely befuddled by those newfangled inventions like soda can flip-tops and cell phones. Present-day characters are mostly equally befuddled by the gang’s 70’s animation qualities (Fat Albert wins a race with a track star using his cartoon glide/shuffle and Dumb Donald cannot take off that face-covering hat because he is not sure there is anything underneath). But some, including Doris’ sweet and pretty foster sister, are taken with their old-school charm.

The story-telling is so gentle that it barely registers, made up of disconnected moments almost as though it was limited to the brief skit-like segments of the old cartoon show. What little narrative momentum builds up is quickly dissipated without being resolved. Music video star and valet/stylist to rap stars Farnsworth Bentley has a nice cameo as a clothing store salesman, but it is unlikely that his participation will matter to the intended audience for this film.

Cosby appears as himself to talk to Fat Albert and in a poignant epilogue at the grave of the real Fat Albert, again not something that will be very meaningful to the children in the audience. The children might also be concerned about why Doris’ mother and father are not around and what happened to her foster sister’s family.

As Fat Albert and his friends stay in the real world too long, they start to fade away. But by then the movie itself seems faded. The film feels muddled and unsure of its audience, as out of its time as Fat Albert and the gang.

Parents should know that the movie has some mild tension, as when a rival group threatens Bill’s little brother Russell by trying to take control of the junkyard where Fat Albert and the gang hang out. And some viewers will be unhappy with the insulting nicknames (Weird Harold, Fat Albert, Dumb Donald, Mushmouth) and the portrayal of disabilities as humorous. Some parents will also be concerned with the excessive and intrusive product placement for the new DVD set of the television series.

Families who see this movie should talk about the way that Fat Albert and his friends are always willing to help anyone who is feeling sad or lonely. What is the best way to make sure we notice those who need our help, and what is the best way to help them?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the cartoon series, now available on DVD.

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Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

B+

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Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
Profanity: Some crude words
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril, tension, and violence (mostly off-screen), some graphic images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, strong and intelligent children of both genders
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

They may horrify tender-hearted parents, but the Unfortunate Events series by Lemony Snicket (pseudonym of Daniel Handler) are wildly popular with school-age kids.

“These books are among the most unpleasant in the world,” Snicket warns crisply on the dust jacket for the first three volumes, the basis for this film, “and if you do not have the stomach for such unpleasantries as a repulsive villain, a deadly serpent, cold cucumber soup, a terrible fire, and a doll named Pretty Penny, I would advise you to read three happy books instead.”

“Unfortunate events” is an understatement. The Baudelaire children are subjected to a series of guardians who are incompetent, foolish, predatory, and cruel. In fact, all of the adults in this movie are evil, weak, or stupid. And no one ever listens to the children. Adults can get rattled by situations that make Oliver Twist look like the Care Bears, but the children who are fans of the books delighted at the way Violet, Klaus, and Sunny manage to triumph over the direst of circumstances and the most fiendish of villians.

This movie begins as a sugary but slightly off animated tale about the littlest elf, but Mr. Snicket soon interrupts, explaining that this will be quite a different kind of story.

Violet (Emily Browning), an inventor, Klaus (Liam Akin), who reads everything, and 2-year-old Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman), who loves to bite things are on the beach when Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall) from the bank comes to tell them that their house has burned down and their parents have been killed. He drives them to their nearest relative, Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), a man who calls out “Intrude!” instead of “Enter” when they knock on the door and who needs to have the children’s names written on his hands because he does not want to waste any time remembering them.

The Count puts the children to work and tries to kill them, but no one listens when they try to explain what is going on. But they finally get removed from his custody and subsequent guardians include a kindly herpetologist (Billy Connolly) and a multi-phobic grammarian (Meryl Streep). Count Olaf keeps coming back (sometimes in disguise). He wants the Baudelaire fortune and is ready to kill — or marry — anyone he has to in order to get it.

Some adults are genuinely horrified by the unabashedly creepy people in these books. It is disturbing to think of any children, even imaginary ones, being subjected to abuse. But Snicket’s talent is in understanding his audience better than anyone past the age of 12 usually can. Watch how careful he is to create an atmosphere of menace while leaving what is, if you look for it, a very reassuring zone of protection around the children. Other than one slap, the children are never touched and they never appear to be rattled or upset. The very presence of the narrator itself adds a comfortable distance. And it is always clear that if the solution isn’t found in one of Violet’s inventions or Klaus’ extensive knowledge from books, Sunny’s powerful teeth will save the day.

Family responses to this movie will depend on their taste for macabre humor. Those who are not intrigued and entertained by the grotesque storyline may find it disturbing. Fans of the book will enjoy seeing the characters and settings brought to life with great imagination and verve, though putting three books into one movie makes it episodic and draggy around the middle. The art direction is superb and the performances by both children and adults are excellent. The weakest parts of the movie are the intrusive product placement of the AFLAC duck (what is an insurance company selling in a movie for children?) and the subtitles that interpret Sunny’s babbling. The cheap humor and crude language is utterly out of tone with the rest of the film.

Parents should know that the movie may be upsetting to some children. The children in the movie are orphans who are continuously mistreated. There are constant scenes of peril and tension; though most of the violence is offscreen, we see the aftermath. An adult strikes a child and there are other assaults and murders and an apparent suicide. There is one scary surprise and several shots of creepy creatures, including rats, bugs, bats, and snakes. Some children will understand that this is intended as macabre humor but others will not, so parents should be particularly cautious about deciding whether the film is appropriate for their children. Other parental concerns include some very crude language “said” by a baby (“shmuck,” “bite me”), and a forced marriage with a 14-year-old (predatory, but only with regard to her money).

Families who see this movie should talk about how we learn to respond to the unexpected, and the importance of having a Plan B (and Plans C through Z). Some children will want to be reassured about who their guardians would be if something happens to their own parents. And families should talk about what messages they would want to read in a letter like the one from the Baudelaire parents and why books with such terrible abuse are so popular with kids.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Addams Family and Addams Family Values and Beetlejuice (all with more mature material than this film), the Addams Family and Munsters television series, and the works of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey. And they might like to try to make pasta puttanesca!

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Flight of the Phoenix

B+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril and violence, including plane crash and gunfire, characters killed
Diversity Issues: Strong relationships between diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

This trim little adventure saga about the survivors of a plane crash in the Mongolian desert doesn’t waste any time assigning heartwarming characteristics or backstories to each member of the group; we barely learn most of their names. This is not a movie about redemption or a tender love story. The characters don’t get to impress us with clever and ingenious solutions to their problems, either — it’s not one of those movies where someone makes a radio out of rocks and sand like the Professor on “Gilligan’s Island.” This is a movie that gets your heart pounding the old-fashioned way — it is just plain exciting.

Frank Towns (Dennis Quaid) and A.J. (Tyrese Gibson) are pilots sent to pick up the staff and equipment from an oil rig that is being shut down. Passengers include deal-maker Ian (Hugh Laurie), boss Kelly (Miranda Otto of Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring), and her crew. And there is Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi), a stiff, odd, mystery man who correctly predicts that the plane will crash because it is carrying too much weight.

Elliott’s calm diagnosis is in sharp contrast to the crash, with swirling sand and wind so strong that it rips the propeller off and slices into the body of the plane like a buzz saw. It is an extraordinary bit of film-making.

Burial of the fatalities is dispatched quickly, as are any chance of finding help through cell phone, radio, or trying to leave the site of the camp. So is the prospect of being important enough for the company to spend much time or money trying to find them. As one crew member points out, “We hitched a ride with the trash, not the other way around.”

All that’s left is Elliott’s idea to use the parts of the plane to build a new aircraft, to be named Phoenix after the mythical bird that is reborn from its own ashes.

Towns thinks it is impossible. The odds are slim that they will be found, but he wants to maximize them by conserving food and water for as long as they can. But one of the crew persuades him that even with faster consumption, they should try to build the Phoenix. “If you can’t give them something to love, give them hope. And if you can’t give them hope, give them something to do.”

Can they work together? Can Elliott’s design fly? Will they get out before the nomads come after them? Well, this movie isn’t called “The Attempted Flight of the Phoenix.”

It holds our attention with appealing and sincere performances. Quaid is especially magnetic (and looks great with his shirt off) and he is well supported by Gibson, Jacob Vargas as Sammi the cook, Tony Curran as Rodney and Kirk Jones (rapper Sticky Fingaz) as Jeremy. The pacing is brisk and energetic and it has enough spirit to follow the unavoidable pep talk about hopes and dreams with Towns saying, “I’d do anything to avoid another hopes and dreams speech.”

Parents should know that the movie has intense peril and violence, including a very vivid plane crash, gunfire, and explosions. There are graphic images of wounded and dead characters. The movie includes some strong language (many uses of the s-word) and smoking. A strength of the movie is the portrayal diverse characters who are strong, brave, loyal, and committed and who work well together.

Families who see this movie should talk about what you can learn from the different ways that people respond to stress. How many different ways do you see in this movie? Who blames other people? Who works to solve the problem? Why does Elliott want people to say “please?” What was the right thing to do with the injured nomad? Do you agree with the statement about the difference between religion and belief?

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the original, starring James Stewart, and other action movies like Apollo 13, Enemy Mine (also featuring Quaid), and Fantastic Voyage. Mature audiences will enjoy the director’s tense, exciting — and underrated — Behind Enemy Lines. They will also enjoy the television series, Lost.

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