Charlotte’s Web

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated G
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril, theme of protecting the main character from slaughter, sad death
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: B000NA6CPE

E.B. White’s book, Charlotte’s Web, is a genuine classic for readers of any age, a beautifully written literary novel about loyalty and loss, friendship and the importance of a perfectly chosen word.

The book began with a little girl named Fern rescuing a runt of a pig her father intended to kill. She names him Wilbur and bottle feeds him until he is too big to live at home and then brings him to her uncle’s farm. At this point, at the end of Chapter One, she pretty much exits the story, and the primary characters for the rest of the book are Wilbur and his best friend, a spider named Charlotte.


The movie follows this story with a couple of changes geared to marketing, not story-telling. First, if a studio is lucky enough to grab the number one box office actress in the country, she cannot disappear from the movie after the first fifteen minutes, so Fern, played by Dakota Fanning, gets an expanded role. Second, the focus-group types at the studio decided that E.B. White somehow overlooked the importance of and boy-girl romance (gently inserted) and potty humor (not-so-gently inserted).


The voice talent seems selected for marquee value rather than the ability to create a character on voice alone. Julia Roberts is fine as Charlotte, Steve Buscemi is just right as Templeton the Rat, but the standout is Thomas Hayden Church as a crow. Most of the others are flat or distracting. But the power of the story retains its genuine magic and, like Fern, audiences will find this barnyard a place they want to stay.


Parents should know that the theme of the movie concerns pigs getting slaughtered. This issue is presented gently, but it may be disturbing for some children. There is also a very sad death of a major character. There is some potty humor and some slapstick peril.


Families who see this movie should talk about why Wilbur was important to Fern and why Charlotte wanted to be his friend. Why was Wilbur friendlier than the other animals? Families should also talk about why Charlotte’s work made people think it was the pig who was special, while no one paid any attention to the spider.


Families who enjoy this movie might also enjoy the earlier animated version, with the voice of Debbie Reynolds as Charlotte. And every family should read the wonderful book. Families will also enjoy Babe.

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Turistas

F+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong graphic violence and disturbing content, sexuality, nudity, drug use and language.
Profanity: Extremely strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Fairly heavy drinking, implied marijuana smoking, contains implication that alcoholic beverages have been “drugged”
Violence/ Scariness: Extremely graphic and grisly violence including torture
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie is the way Americans are seen by those outside the US
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: B000N3AW6G

The growing trend in horror is to be as disgusting as possible — the story need not be involved, as long as it includes some form of stainless-steel torture and preferably five to six young backpackers/tourists/campers/other people away from home. While the formula might have proved innovative with some of the earlier films of the genre, the scares are now unbearably canned.


“Turistas” follows a multinational group of twenty-something backpackers who become stranded on an isolated Brazilian beach, populated by only a handful of locals. Of course, as must always be the case in horror, the locals have plans for the young, attractive, scantily-clad travelers; plans that involve the tourists serving as unwilling organ donors to satisfy the demand for black-market transplants.


There’s a lot of buildup to the torture we all know is coming (for us or them?), infusing the first half of the film with a projected sense of dread that’s more dreadful than it is fun. The result is an overriding sense that the film is more sick than scary, more revolting than revealing, more twisted than tantalizing. Horror flicks are meant to be startling and suspenseful, maybe even at times cringe-inducing, but there’s a fine line between horror that’s enjoyable with entertainment value, and horror that’s simply horrible.


Parents should know that besides being nearly unbearably graphic, this film shamelessly copycats many other recent horror films that offer copious scenes of bare skin along with the scares. More than one of the women in the film appears topless, and there is casual kissing and implied prostitution. With a build up that begins with one of the young women begging for her life in the very first scene and continues when the characters find handfuls of prescription drugs and stainless steel surgery equipment later on, the film reaches its climax with a sequence that rivals the Discovery Health Channel in surgery close-ups and soggy internal organs shots. If the thought of navigating multicolored organs in a soup of bright red blood with stainless steel utensils leaves you squeamish when it’s done to help people, it will have you ill when done to harm.


Families who see this film might talk about the differing personalities in the film. Do the young tourists represent stereotypes? Could any of the personalities, such as the levelheaded brother who discourages recklessness and the Australian woman who travels alone and values her independence, be helpful and representative of often-neglected personality types? What are the motivations of the villains, and in what ways do they attempt to justify their actions? Kiko (played by Agles Steib), a young Brazilian entrusted with luring the backpackers to their final destination, finds himself affected by the tourists in a way he did not anticipate. How is this change of heart reflected in the film? What seemed to motivate his evolution from Pied Piper to cohort?


Families who enjoy this film might also enjoy the graphic films by writer/directory Eli Roth, such as Hostel and Hostel: Part II, as well as his semi-comedic 2002 release Cabin Fever.

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The Nativity Story

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some violent content.
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Characters in peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: B000MGBM1I

Jean Kerr once wrote of school Christmas pageant with a moving depiction of the nativity that consisted of two young children crossing a bare stage. They stopped briefly. Joseph said, “Mary, ’tis a cold, cold night.” “‘Tis,” she replied. And they walked on.


Anyone who wants to try to tell the story of the birth of Jesus faces a daunting challenge. The two advantages of the version Kerr described were that it immediately captured the goodwill of the audience by casting not only children, but children of their community, and that its pared-down simplicity let the audience project their own ideas and feelings about the story onto what they saw.

This sincere and respectful version tries to do what it can with a different set of tools, and it admirably attempts to meet the needs of those who will come to it, whether they are looking for worship, for history, or for narrative. It is more successful in the first category than the other two.


Director Catherine Hardwicke’s two great strengths are in having the location help to tell the story (she was originally a production designer) and a sensitivity to the portrayal of teenagers (her two previous films as director are thirteen and The Lords of Dogtown). So here she makes good use of the settings (Italy and Morocco standing in for Biblical locations) and makes its young central figures very appealing. Whale Rider’s Keisha Castle-Hughes has a shy but dignified and resolute air. She glows believably as the very young woman who is selected as the mother of Jesus. And newcomer Oliver Isaac effectively conveys tenderness, doubt, courage, and transcendence as Joseph.


It is a daunting challenge to try to make icons into dramatic characters who feel human enough to be real but heroic enough to fit our notions of greatness. The movie’s commitment to reverence gives it a certain stiffness, as though it is an animatronics display, and the international cast does not always mesh into a consistent ensemble. Those who are already intimately familiar with the story are most likely to be satisfied, but those who are not may be confused at who the characters are and how they come together. An attempt at making the three kings into comic relief falters. But there are moments, as the star guides the characters on the journey to Bethlehem, when audiences may get that same feeling Kerr had in watching the scuffed stage at her children’s school, or when the harmonies of carols play as that star seems to shine brighter in the sky.

Parents should know that in a low-key way this movie raises the question of whether Joseph believes Mary’s story of the virgin birth. There is discussion of persecution and murder, including murder of babies.


Families who see this movie should talk about how it fits with their ideas of the story. Why is the part of the story about the three kings important? What does the star signify? Why was Jesus born in a stable? They may want to talk about their favorite Christmas carols and how those songs and hymns pay tribute to different parts of this story.


Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the Italian film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew and the The Gospel of John. My interview with Oscar Isaac, who plays Joseph, is here. And my interview with director Catherine Hardwicke is here.

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Drama Family Issues Movies

Deck the Halls

F+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some crude and suggestive humor, and for language.
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief meth lab joke, social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic violence and peril, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: Homophobic jokes
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: B000UX798I

Another year, another cheesy, hypocritical movie about how the true meaning of Christmas gets lost in the madness of Christmas. Except that this movie is, in itself, Exhibit A in the Christmas Madness category. And, to boot, it has unforgiveably crude, ugly and homophobic “humor.” Doesn’t that sound like fun for the whole family!


Steve (Matthew Broderick) is an ophthalmologist (Get it? He helps people to see clearly but he isn’t seeing clearly!) who runs Christmas celebrations — his family’s and his town Christmas festival — like a military campaign. He explains to his wife (“Sex in the City’s” Kristin Davis), “I’m not intense; I’m just extremely organized.” She responds, “When you’re talking about Christmas carols, you shouldn’t have to use the term ‘flanking maneuver.'” But Steve was an army brat who always longed for the kind of stability a full-scale Christmas celebration exemplified. And that means that he has his own five-year-at-a-time Christmas tree-growing plot and that every year his family wears matching sweaters for their annual Christmas card photo.


For every id movie character who is “extremely organized” there must be a superego character who is a disruptive free spirit. Cue Danny DeVito as Buddy, a genial salesman who is looking for a way to do something “big, important, monumental.”


When his daughters show him that their community can be seen on the internet via satellite, but their house does not show up, he knows what that big, important, monumental achievement will be. He will decorate their home so brightly that it will be seen by the satellite.


And thus we are subjected to a series of foolish and destructive one-upsmanhip battles to be “the Christmas guy,” as Steve’s and Buddy’s families stand by and shake their heads in disapproval and disbelief. The film even has the nerve to try to rip-off/parody the classic It’s a Wonderful Life.


I no longer find it ironic when movies purport to pay tribute to the true meaning of Christmas as they perpetuate the synthetic, over-the-top commercialism of the season; I just find it tedious. The characters in this movie do take time away from their silly competition to….enjoy quiet moments with their families? Come up with ideas for thoughtful, low-key gifts? Go to church? Help those less fortunate? Nope, to watch movies — better movies that do have messages about the true meaning of Christmas, like Miracle on 34th Street and Meet Me In St. Louis. My recommendation to anyone who is looking for a movie about the true spirit of Christmas and a meaningful way to connect with family is to skip this cynical junk and watch those instead.

Parents should know that the movie includes some crude humor about a cross-dressing man whose lacy underwear is visible under his clothes, peeping toms, men in a sleeping bag who are naked for warmth, fathers who ogle pretty girls (“Who’s your daddy!”) only to find they are their daughters (“Oh no! I’m your daddy!”), racing off to splash holy water in their eyes to purify themselves, some humor about young teenagers dating sailors and faking IDs, a joke about a man exposing himself, and mild sexual situations and references involving married couples, including a reference to a stripper pole in the bedroom. There is a some comic peril and violence, with no one badly hurt. Characters’ behavior is foolish, egotistical, and selfish.


Families who see this movie should talk about how other parts of their lives affected the way that Buddy and Steve felt about Christmas and about the parts of their own celebrations that are most meaningful to them.


Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy A Christmas Story, Home Alone, and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

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Comedy Family Issues Movies

Deja Vu

B+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and terror, disturbing images and some sensuality.
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic violence, many characters killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: B00005JPD0

A heart-pounding thriller with a time-travel twist, “Deja Vu” will not leave you thinking you’ve seen it all before.


Denzel Washington plays Doug Carlin, an ATF agent called in to investigate a bombing. Someone, perhaps a terrorist, has blown up a ferry boat filled with families. Carlin is smart, knowledgeable, dedicated, and persistent. He knows who he is and he knows what he knows and how to find out what he doesn’t know.


And one thing he knows is that someone may have intended the body of a lovely young woman named Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton of Idlewild) to look as though she was one of the ferry passengers, but she was not. As he begins to track down her story, he begins to unravel the events that led to the bombing. He starts to feel he knows her so well, that he is connected to her somehow that he feels her loss sharply. He wants more than to solve the crime. He begins to wish that he could somehow rescue her. With all of his analytic ability, all of his power to make the confusing fit into neat rows of facts and circumstances, there are some odd, even impossible factors that catch at him. Like the message in magnetic letters on her refrigerator: U CAN SAVE HER. And there’s the matter of his fingerprints in her house.


“There are some time constraints,” says another federal investigator (Val Kilmer), inviting Carlin onto a task force. It turns out there is a secret government program (thank you Patriot Act funding) to essentially TIVO the world. And then it turns out that the “tapes” he is watching of Claire Kuchever’s last days are not exactly tapes. Yes, they are the past. But they are a glimpse of a past that is within reach. Carlin may be able to go back in time. He may already have done it; he just needs to remember how and what to do once he gets there.


All of this is the icing — the cake is the good, old-fashioned action, with lots of chases, fights, and explosions, expertly presented by action masters director Tony Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer. What makes it work, though is Washington, Hollywood’s top go-to guy for the whole package — he brings such conviction to the role that we are ready to believe it, too, and such a jolt of pure movie star power that we are with him every pulse-pounding step of the way. You might have to see this one twice — to put all the pieces together and, knowing where it’s all going, just to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Parents should know that this film has a lot of violence for a PG-13, including the bombing of a ship carrying civilians and children. There is some strong language. Characters drink and smoke. A strength of the movie is its portrayal of strong, capable, loyal, and diverse characters.


Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Time After Time, in which Victorian-era author H.G. Wells chases Victorian-era serial killer Jack the Ripper through modern-day San Francisco and Minority Report where technology enables the government to see and prevent crimes before they happen.

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Action/Adventure Drama Movies Romance Science-Fiction Thriller
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