Notes on a Scandal

B+

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some aberrant sexual content.
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Emotional confrontations, some violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2007
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: B000NIVJFY

Long-time teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) doesn’t even pretend to care anymore. The other teachers come back from summer break with thoughtful reports — or apparently thoughtful reports — on their departments and their plans, but she turns in three sentences, concluding that the history department’s results are “below the national average but above the level of catastrophe. Recommendation: no change necessary.”


She feels that the world is deteriorating around her. They used to confiscate cigarettes and dirty magazines from the students. “Now it’s knives and crack cocaine,” she says crisply. “And we call it progress.” At school, she no longer tries to teach or worries about holding the line. She just wants to get through it — and then to go home to feel superior about the students and other faculty members when she writes about it in her diary, a pen dipped in acid and special entries embellished with gold stars.


But her name isn’t Covett for nothing. As soon as she sees “artfully disheveled,” sweet-natured, but weak-willed new art teacher Sheba Hart, Barbara wants something very badly indeed. But what?


Her first reaction is contempt, with just a touch of curiosity. She almost despises Sheba for being ineffectual, but is glad for the chance to rescue her by stopping a fight between two students, showing off her ability to command obedience if not respect. When Sheba invites her for lunch, she is girlishly delighted, having her hair done and dressing up. She allows herself to feel special, noticed, wanted.


But she gets to Sheba’s house and it is not special after all. Sheba is married to a benign but shambling older man and is the mother of a surly teenage daughter and a son with Down syndrome. Sheba, a little tipsy and careless by nature, confides in Barbara, who feels special at last. Her secrets are like treasure locked in Barbara’s safe deposit box.


But then Barbara finds out that Sheba has a secret she has not shared. Sheba is having an affair with a 15-year-old student. Barbara finds this both intoxicating and infuriating. She had briefly thought of Sheba as a kindred spirit — or thought she thought of her that way. But now she has something even better — a reason to feel superior, all the pleasure of feeling contempt for someone who is young, beautiful, loved, and has a house in the Dordogne, and, best of all, the power of a secret. She can look around the school and enjoy knowing something no one else knows, and she can enjoy looking at Sheba and knowing she is in her power.


An incisive script by Patrick Marber (Closer), based on the novel by Zoe Heller and brilliantly ruthless performances by Dench, Blanchett, and Bill Nighy as Sheba’s husband make this an intense psychological drama with the urgency of last night’s news.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong language and explicit sexual references and situations, including adultery and an adult teacher having sex with an underage teenager student. A predatory homosexual interest is a factor in the plot. Characters drink and smoke. There are disturbing emotional confrontations, a sad death of a pet, and there is some brief violence. A strength of the movie is the portrayal of a loving and supportive family of a Down syndrome child.


Families who see this movie should talk about what was important to Barbara and Sheba and about how they thought about (or did not think about) the decisions they made. What is the significance of the characters’ names? Of the final scene? Of Sheba’s being a potter and Barbara’s being a history teacher? Who was the predator in Sheba’s relationship with Steven?


Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The History Boys, and All About Eve.

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Drama Movies

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

F+

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for aberrant behavior involving nudity, violence, sexuality, and disturbing images.
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Serial killer, brutal murders
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: 2007
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: B000QUCNOK

It’s an engaging idea — to make a movie about the one sense least able to be evoked by film, the sense of smell. The great triumph of the cinema is the way it unites sound, words, and images to tell a story. Movies evoke our sense of touch. Lips brush a bare shoulder on screen or a CGI creature’s feathers are rendered with an exactness that is palpably tactile. And anyone who doesn’t think that film can convey an enticing taste has not seen many television commercials. But fragrance is the hardest sense to describe. Its subtlety seems to linger just outside the reach of words or images.


And I am sorry to say it also lies outside the reach of this film, which tries to be rapturous and evocative and heady but ends up just plain silly before it topples over into the mire of preposterous hooey. But there’s a lot to look at on the way there.


A baby is born in the middle of a fish market to a mother so used to stillborns that she kicks him under the table without noticing that he has inconveniently been born alive. She does not know that she has just given birth to a child who has the nasal equivalent of perfect pitch. He is better able to understand, appreciate, and sort all the smells of the world than anyone who has ever been born.


His name is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw). He grows up terribly abused and deprived, apprenticed to a cruel tanner, but all he longs for is the perfect scent. He is feral in his focus. One day, he sees a young woman who smells like his idea of heaven. He follows her, he grabs her — and then, trying to capture her scent, he accidentally kills her. And then we lurch from a sort of Dickensian struggle to a sort of 18th century Silence of the Lambs, as he murders young women to collect their essential fragrances into the ultimate perfume.
Director Tom Tykwer has a great eye, especially when it comes to red-heads, and the movie is filled with imaginative and striking images. Dustin Hoffman as a gifted but out of fashion perfumer with a great nose and Alan Rickman as the father of one of the young women Grenouille fixates on do their best to provide some heft to the story. But the dry narration by John Hurt and the essentially un-adaptable nature of the material disconnect us from the story and its characters so that by the end its developments lose any power.

Parents should know that this movie centers on a serial killer who murders young women, one a prostitute, and it includes nudity and sexual references and situations. There are disturbing themes and images. Characters drink and use some of the strong language of the era depicted.


Families who see this movie should talk about the impact that scent has on memory and longing. They may want to read the book, which was an international best-seller.


Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the director’s other films, including Run Lola Run, and Silence of the Lambs and The Great Train Robbery.

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Crime Drama Movies Thriller

Children of Men

B+

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence, language, some drug use and brief nudity.
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic peril and violence, many characters killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2007
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: B000N6TX1I

“A baby is God’s opinion life should go on,” Carl Sandburg said. So, in a world where babies have stopped being born and the death of the youngest person on earth is an international tragedy, there seems to be no point in just about anything. It appears that all of humanity is only decades from extinction. With no future, any sense of order and structure is gone. Any sense of hope or purpose has disappeared. All that exists is increasingly more violent and frantic chaos and increasingly more violent and frantic efforts to contain it.

The world is engulfed with anarchy, and only England is left to uphold what passes for civilization, a nihilist bureaucracy supported by a brutal armed force. Its one object is to hold on to what little is left by keeping out the avalanche of people fleeing the chaos of their own countries. The huddled masses yearning to breathe free are shipped off to prison camps and deported. Or just shot, because, why not? Justice, kindness, honor, and loyalty no longer mean anything. The only values left are expediency and any possible shred of a sense of control.

Theo (Clive Owen) is personally and professionally burned out. The one connection he has to peace, affection, and laughter is to his old friend Jasper (Michael Caine), a cynical, pot-smoking aging hippie. He lives away from the rest of the world and cares tenderly for his wife, who is completely unresponsive as a result of severe physical or emotional trauma.


Theo is captured by rebel forces led by his ex-wife (Julianne Moore), who wants him to obtain papers from his influential relative to permit the transport of a young woman who is pregnant. Protecting her from the authorities and the ravenous curiosity of the world gives Theo something to care about.


This is a heart-thumping thriller with two of the most exciting chase scenes since The Matrix Reloaded. But it is also a thoughtful, provocative, and complex film, each shot packed with details, each scene packed with ideas. Theo’s highly placed cousin collects the world’s great masterpieces, protecting them — for what? Theo’s escort of the young pregnant woman recalls the nativity, as he tries to find a safe place for her to give birth to the baby who will carry all of the hope of the world, protecting her from brutal soldiers. Though it takes place in 2027, the setting does not look too far from our own surroundings — this is not one of those futuristic stories where people wear silvery mylar, have flying cars, or zap themselves from one place to another. But there are understated references to other places and events that demonstrate the richness of the film’s underlying conceptual base. The performances, especially Owen and Caine are so deeply grounded and heartfelt that they draw us deeply into the story. Instead of just another chases and explosions movie, this is a film that is adrenaline for the mind and spirit.

Parents should know that this movie is disturbing and extremely violent with graphic images and many characters injured and killed. There is non-sexual nudity, extremely strong language, drinking, smoking, and drug use.


Families who see this movie should discuss why the absence of children led to such violence and anarchy. What will happen next? They may want to read the book, by P.D. James or learn more about the possible causes of declining fertility rates worldwide.


Families who enjoy this film will also appreciate other dystopic visions of the future, including 28 Days Later, Gattaca, Blade Runner, Solyent Green, and a made-for-television movie called The Last Child.

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Action/Adventure Drama Movies Reviews Science-Fiction Thriller

Night at the Museum

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for mild action, language and brief rude humor.
Profanity: Brief crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters learn to get along
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: B000NOKJC2

Larry (Ben Stiller) needs a job fast. He has always dreamed of making it big, but none of his schemes have worked and as his ex-wife points out, their son Nick needs some stability. After an employment counselor (Stiller’s real-life mother, Anne Meara) has only one suggestion for him, he takes it — night security guard at a natural history museum. Attendance is down and they’ve had to cut the budget. The three senior night-time guards are being let go. They toss him a tattered set of instructions and warn him not to “let anything in — or out.”


Larry plays around with the museum’s public address system and falls asleep. The next thing he knows, he’s being chased by a tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, being asked for gum by an enormous Easter Island head statue (voice of “Everyone Loves Raymond’s” Brad Garrett), and being shot at by tiny natives with tiny poison darts. The Union and Confederate soldiers are shooting at each other and the cowboys are fighting with the Roman centurions. President Theodore Roosevelt and Attila the Hun are charging through the halls. Then there is a mastodon and some mischievous monkeys and some lions…


Larry has to find a way to keep peace, earn his son’s trust and respect, and finally stick with something all the way.


It’s a better than average CGI-fest, more often silly than funny. But it makes some good points about courage, self-respect, and the importance of learning about history. And Stiller and co-stars Robin Williams (as Roosevelt), Mizuo Peck (as Lewis and Clark guide Sacajawea), Ricky Gervias as the museum director, Paul Rudd as Nick’s soon-to-be stepfather, and especially Steve Coogan as a Roman soldier hold their own against the special effects and a terrific trio of veterans, Dick van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobb, as the outgoing guards show the young folks they still have a couple of things to learn. Be sure to stay through the credits to see them dance.


Parents should know that the movie has a good deal of comic peril, mayhem, and violence. Though much of it is cartoony and intended to be funny, a character is chased by a dinosaur, shot at, and punched. Characters use brief crude language and there is some potty humor. A strength of the movie is its portrayal of diverse characters learning to empathize with and support each other.


Families who see this movie should talk about why it was so important for Larry to feel that Nick was proud of him. They may also want to talk about some of the tensions and conflicts that can arise in families and what it means to have a “fallback position.” And they should go to some museums. Even if the exhibits do not actually come alive, they are a lot of fun and have wonderful activities for families. They should also learn about Sacajawea, Theodore Roosevelt, Easter Island, and Attila the Hun.


Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy the books and movie versions of Jumanji, The Indian in the Cupboard, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (more mature material).

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Action/Adventure Comedy Family Issues Fantasy Movies

Dreamgirls

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language, some sexuality and drug content.
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug references, off-screen overdose, smoking, drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death, emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: B000O1799U

If my movie reviews had headlines, this one’s would be: “A Star is Born.” More like a Supernova. Jennifer Hudson explodes onto screen in this incendiary production of the Broadway musical inspired by Motown and the Supremes. She is mesmerizing. She is dazzling. She is fierce. She shimmers. She melts. She breaks your heart and then she puts it back together so she can melt it. Her voice is sensational, but the real surprise is her acting, which is at the same time commanding and vulnerable. She is a star.


The other star of the movie is screenwriter/director Bill Condon, who blasts through the weaknesses in the underlying material (uneven quality of music that is second-rate Broadway and thus tenth-rate R&B, under-written characters, creaky plot) with unhesitating nerve and electric energy. His direction is a kind of choreography all its own, dynamic and organic. In other words, it has a good beat and you can dance to it.


“Dreamgirls” is the story of three young women who have sung together since they were children. Effie (Hudson) sings lead. She has a strong voice, strong opinions and a very strong personality. Effie, Deena (Beyonce Knowles), and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) dream of making it as professionals.

They are asked to sing back-up for James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy, in a career-restoring performance). At first reluctant, because they want to be a group on their own, they agree — chaperone included — and we launch into a road montage as they learn about show business, from cramped tour buses to predatory men. Lorrell succumbs to the married Early. Ambitious manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) becomes romantically involved with Effie, but then, when there’s a chance for mainstream success, he replaces her as lead singer and love interest with slender, conventionally pretty, pliant Deena and renames them the Dreams. Soon, Effie is out of the group all together, though on her way out she gets to sing one of the greatest show-stopping songs in the history of Broadway: “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” a gospel-infused powerhouse wail of the heartbreak and rage of rejection.


Taylor builds a recording empire and we get another montage of success and superstardom with a dazzling run of costumes and hairstyles and some soapy sturm und drang until we get to the “had I but known” and “I have to do what is right for me” moments and the big finish.


Along the way, the movie takes on some ambitious themes, from the mainstreaming of R&B into pop to the compromises people make in the name of ambition and the consequences for friends and families. And it is impossible to forget the resonance with the real-life back-stories of its cast — Hudson’s comeback from her loss on “American Idol,” the rumors about Knowles’ own Diana Ross-style diva behavior in the replacement of singers in Destiny’s Child and its subsequent break-up, Murphy’s tabloid appearances and professional slide from Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hours to Daddy Day Care and Nutty Professor II: The Klumps.


This substance anchors the glossy material, helping it transcend the “Is that supposed to be Barry Gordy? Is that supposed to be James Brown?” questions and making it archetypal instead of derivative, a movie instead of a music video, powerful as well as entertaining.

Parents should know that this film has some mature themes, including racism, behavior that would be deemed sexual harassment, and drug abuse, including an offscreen drug overdose. Characters use some strong language, drink, and smoke. A character has an out-of-wedlock child. A strength of the movie is its frank portrayal of the racism of the era and the way white performers (or less provocative black performers) appropriated the music of minorities who could not get a chance in mainstream outlets.


Families who see this movie should talk about which of the characters made compromises and what the results were. They should also talk about the early days of pop music, when white artists like Pat Boone had hits covering songs from “race records.” Is there still a racial divide in the music business today? How can you tell? Who changed for the better in this story and who changed for the worse? Why?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Lady Sings the Blues (very mature material), with the Supremes’ Diana Ross as Billie Holliday, Ray, with Jamie Foxx in his Oscar-winning performance as Ray Charles, and other movies about the early days of the rock and R&B music industry Sparkle, American Hot Wax, and Grace of My Heart. They will also enjoy the spectacular documentaries Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Only the Strong Survive, and Lightning in a Bottle.

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Drama Movies Musical
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