Zodiac

B+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some strong killings, language, drug material and brief sexual images.
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, character abuses alcohol, marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic murders by a serial killer
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2007
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: B001HUHBAE

We still don’t know for sure who was — or is — the California serial killer known as the Zodiac, the name he used in a series of letters he sent to San Francisco newspapers in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. This movie is not about some big payoff. There are no “eureka” WHO moments and we don’t get to see someone solve the puzzle and get a handshake from the mayor and the thanks of a victim’s family. We don’t get an “aha” WHY moment as we find out that it all began when Zodiac was a little boy and suffered some major trauma.


A puzzle is what it is. Zodiac sent not just taunting letters to the press; he sent four cryptograms, only one of which has ever been solved. While San Francisco’s investigation is inactive, the other jurisdictions’ files are still open.


This is not the story of the Zodiac, what he did and why. It is the story of what happened to three men whose lives were taken up with their efforts to answer those questions. A superb cast and an absorbing script make a frustratingly complex story accessible and keep even the nearly three-hour running time moving quickly.


Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) is the chain-smoking hard-drinking newspaper reporter who covered the story. Downey vibrates like a tuning fork, his offbeat rhythms responding to tones only he can hear. It is is heartbreaking to see the sensitivity that makes him a meticulous observer of the world he writes about begin to implode. The movie doesn’t ask or answer whether the stress of being a possible target of Zodiac is what finally causes him to unravel or whether working on the story kept his fragile spirit together with a sense of purpose. It just shows us the toll that the story took on the man who happened to have the crime beat when the first letter came in.


David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong were the cops assigned to the case in San Francisco. They coordinated with Jack Mulanax (Elias Koteas) and Ken Narlow (Donal Logue), the police officers in the other regions where there were killings tied to the Zodiac. With literally thousands of suspects and no certainty about which crimes were committed by the Zodiac and which by copy-cats or unrelated killers, they are looking for one deadly needle in a haystack that could fill what was then called Candlestick Park.


And then there is Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). He’s the newspaper’s political cartoonist. It isn’t his job to write about the case and it isn’t his job to investigate it. And yet, there is something that draws him into it so deeply he will ruin his marriage to devote himself to a story that is twisted and terrible, with an evil genius of a bad guy who is, well, right out of the movies.


Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Panic Room) wisely makes this story not about the monster, but about our fascination with monsters. Like Avery, Toschi, and Graysmith, we are pulled into the puzzle, horrified, but tantalized, stimulated, drawn to the edge of what separates us from a human being who could commit such atrocities and then taunt the people who try to stop him. In his letters, Zodiac may have referred to the classic film The Most Dangerous Game, about a hunter who uses humans as his game — in both senses of the word. He sees them as the only quarry worthy of him because they can truly test his skill. In a deeper sense, it is Avery, Toschi, and Graysmith who devote their lives to their own most dangerous game, tracking the Zodiac, who continues to elude them, searching for clues and patterns and meaning in a world where kids on lovers lane are killed by a man who dares the world to find him.

Parents should know that this is the story of a serial killer and there are graphic portrayals of some of the murders. Characters drink and smoke and one has some marijuana. A chain-smoking character also abuses alcohol. Characters use strong language and there are brief glimpses of pornography and references to child molestation. Some audience members will be disturbed by the themes of the story, which include serial killing and the impact on the lives and families of those who are involved in investigating the murders.


Families who see this movie should talk about why the story was so important to Graysmith and what he sacrificed in order to be able to pursue it.

Viewers who appreciate this movie will also like the classic Call Northside 777 starring Jimmy Stewart, also based on a real-life case of a reporter’s investigation of a murder. And they will enjoy other movies about murders who communicate with journalists or policemen, including Dirty Harry (inspired by the Zodiac case and briefly glimpsed in this film), The Mean Season, and No Way to Treat a Lady. Viewers who would like to find out more about the Zodiac case (and perhaps try to solve some of the still-unsolved coded messages) should read Zodiac and “This Is the Zodiac Speaking”: Into the Mind of a Serial Killer. And they might like to take a look at the classic movie that allegedly influenced or inspired the Zodiac killer, The Most Dangerous Game.

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Crime Drama Epic/Historical Movies Thriller

Wild Hogs

D

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, and some violence.
Profanity: Strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, references to drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, fighting
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, some misogynistic and homophobic humor
Date Released to Theaters: 2007
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: B000QFCD7W

It was almost 40 years ago that Easy Rider made a motorcycle road trip the ultimate baby boomer emblem of freedom and adventure. Now John Travolta, William H. Macy, Martin Lawrence and Tim Allen play the uneasiest of riders in this uninspired and uninspiring formula comedy about four middle-aged friends who take their motorcycles on a road trip to find their sense of adventure.


Each of them is feeling that his life was not what he expected. Travolta is Woody, who has not told the others that he is broke and his supermodel wife has left him. Allen is Doug, a dentist, whose son doesn’t think he’s cool. Macy is Dudley, a shy geek who proudly sports a new tattoo — the Apple logo. And Lawrence is Bobby, a henpecked plumber. You know, born to be mild.


So, a bike trip from Cincinnati to California seems like just the thing to put them in touch with their inner burning man. Their droopy, mundane, and cheerless encounters include a flaming marshmallow, a cop who thinks they are a gay foursome and wants to join the fun, a bull who doesn’t appreciate being slapped, a plastic bag filled with excrement, some mean bikers led by Ray Liotta, and the sweet little country town they terrorize. Guess who will have to ride to the rescue?

The film consistently wastes even the modest opportunities it presents. When Dudley is invited to dance with the pretty owner of the town diner (Marisa Tomei, another on the list of “What are THEY doing in this movie?” actors), he has to get a quick lesson from Mr. Saturday Night Fever himself, John Travolta. Not only does a one-minute lesson somehow turn the can’t-even-speak-around-females Dudders into Arthur Murray, but the dance lesson itself is a complete waste of time, nothing more than another manliness joke.


There is no chemistry or even connection between the four co-stars, who look at each other as though they can’t wait to get back to their trailers. A last-minute appearance by a surprise guest star may save the day for the four friends, but it comes nowhere near saving the movie. The reality-show parody over the credits merits a smile, but the chance to leave the movie behind will produce a bigger one.

Parents should know that the movie has crude humor, including strong language and sexual references. An entire section of the movie is intended to find comedy in the main characters being grossed out by being thought to be gay and in the portrayal of an enthusiastic gay character who believes he may have found some action. Characters drink and smoke. There are some crude sexual references and there is a good deal of potty humor. Characters are in comic peril and there is some violence, including characters being tossed on the horns of a bull and being beaten up. There is also a good deal of macho posturing and some misogynistic humor.


Families who see this movie should talk about when it can important not to feel “too safe.” What did each of these character have to prove to himself or to someone else? Why were they friends?


Families who enjoy this movie will appreciate the better City Slickers.

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Action/Adventure Comedy Movies

Reno 911!: Miami

C+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual content, nudity, crude humor, language and drug use.
Profanity: Very strong and crude language, n-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drug use, drug overdose
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, characters and animals injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2007
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: B000PISZ8Q

Silly cops have been a staple of comedy since Shakespeare created the character of Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. They’ve been a staple of movie comedy from the Keystone Kops of the silent era through the Police Academy and The Naked Gun series and Super Troopers. There’s something enticing and reassuring about taking the police — the source of so many of our fears about powerlessness and shame — and making them into subjects for humor by exposing them as foolish, incompetent, and utterly humiliated.


And that brings us to the popular television series Reno 911, now a movie. True to form, it is the story of a group of bumbling, egotistical, petty, foolish, cowardly cops who triumph despite their own best — or worst — efforts.


The Reno sheriff’s department gets invited to a law enforcement convention in Miami, and when everyone there is quarantined due to a biohazard attack, they are assigned to handle 911 calls and other police responsibilities until an antidote is found. They have to deal with an alligator in a swimming pool and a beached whale on a topless beach, with the expected results. Bright spots include cameos from the Rock as a SWAT commander and Paul Rudd as a Scarface-style drug lord.


Fans of the television series will feel right at home, but the movie does not make much of an effort to introduce newcomers to the characters and situations. The movie derives much of its plot, energy, and humor from casual references to outrageous events and behavior (“Reno’s just like Mayberry on TV except for the crystal meth and prostitution”), from unrequited (and occasionally but briefly and awkwardly requited) romantic and sexual feelings between and among the cast, from a combination of preening self-regard, utter cluelessness, and insecure anxiety of its characters, and good old-fashioned slapstick. And it just manages to get by on its unpretentious silliness and, most important, its speedy running time.

Parents should know that this is a very raunchy and intentionally offensive comedy with extremely crude humor. Characters use strong and vulgar language, including the n-word, and there are explicit and graphic sexual references and situations, including nudity. There is drug humor, including an overdose, and comic violence with humans and animals injured and killed. Although the television series was given an award by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, some viewers may find the jokes about homosexuality to be offensive.


Families who see this movie should talk about how the portrayal of comic cops has changed over the centuries and what has stayed the same.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the (uncensored) series, Police Squad! The Complete Series, Police Academy, and The Naked Gun.

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Comedy Crime Movies

The Number 23

C

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, disturbing images, sexuality and language.
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril and graphic violence, suicides, murders
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2007
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: B000OYC7BW

There are 23 things wrong with this movie.


Or maybe there are 24. Or 165. To be honest, I lost count. Despite this film’s best efforts, it never persuaded me that there was anything special about the number 23.

It began a moody but nicely stylish little thriller with some striking visuals, strong performances, and a provocative premise. Animal control officer Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) is late meeting his wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen) on his birthday, February 3 (2/3, get it?). While she waits, she wanders into a small used bookshop and begins reading a novel about a man obsessed with the number 23. She buys it as a birthday gift for Walter, and he gets caught up in the book and its parallels to his own life. He begins to be haunted by the book, envisioning himself as its main character, a detective. He dreams that he is committing crimes.

And he begins to see 23’s everywhere. Everything adds up to 23. But nothing adds up.


Perhaps that is in part because it’s never clear whether 23 is a good number or a bad number, a blessing or a curse. And then there’s the fact that it’s something of a stretch to tie everything to the number 23. It seems to count if it just connects to 2 and 3 or 32 or to some other number that — gasp! — has some relationship with the number 23, even if it’s not much more than the fact that they are both numbers. There’s reason number one. It’s hard to make something so vague feel menacing. Reason number two: the obviousness of the fake-outs. Reason number three: the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-ness of the characters’ decisions in trying to track down the mystery. Have these people never heard of Google? Or the public library? And don’t they know that you’re not supposed to investigate creepy places at night by yourself? Reason number four: there are several major logical flaws in the big reveal. Reasons number five through twenty-three: if you take the first two reasons and the last three reasons and put the numbers next to each other, it will say 23. This makes as much sense as anything in the story.


In other words, 23 is an unlucky number for Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, and anyone who goes to this movie.

Parents should know that there are a number of disturbing themes and images in the movie, including graphic, bloody suicides, murders and mental illness. Characters and a dog are in peril and some are injured and killed. There is brief strong language, and there are some sexual references and situations, including some bondage and masochistic fantasies.


Families who see this movie should talk about their own superstitions and the idea of apophenia, the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data, for which human brains are hard-wired. This is what makes it possible for us to read, make maps, and develop strategies, but it is also what sometimes has us projecting patterns on to Rorschach ink blots and other random shapes. For a delightful and very provocative discussion of this issue, see Michael Shermer’s lecture at Ted Talks.


Viewers who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Dead Again and Identity. They may want to read the Wikipedia entry on the superstion surrounding the number 23.

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Drama Movies Thriller

Ghost Rider

C

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for horror violence and disturbing images.
Profanity: Some brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Action-style peril and violence, some graphic, many characters killed, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2007
Date Released to DVD: 2007
Amazon.com ASIN: B000OVLBF8

“Ghost Rider” needs a new ghost writer.


Well, it needs something. You might not think that a movie based on a comic book about a flaming skeleton in a leather outfit who rides a (literally) hot motorcycle and has a (literally) penetrating stare would be dull, but this one is.


Johnny Blaze has a motorcycle carny act with his father, riding through fire. The night before Johnny is to run away with his true love, Roxanne, a stranger (Peter Fonda) appears, telling Johnny that he can cure his father’s lung cancer if Johnny is willing to trade his soul.


Johnny does not believe and does not exactly agree, but he spills his blood on the contract, and that is good enough for the stranger, who turns out to be none other than Mephistopheles. Meph, a master of the loophole, cures the cancer, but Johnny’s father dies anyway. And now he belongs to the devil, who tells him he’ll be back when he needs a rider.


Flash forward a couple of decades and Johnny (now Nicolas Cage) is a sort of Evil Kneivel with a bit of Tony Hawk, and a touch of rock star. He performs daredevil stunts in front of huge arenas, his latest a plan to jump the length of a football field. And who should show up to interview him for television but his old friend Roxanne (now Eva Mendes), last seen as he left her standing in the rain.


He persuades her to meet him for dinner, but before he can get there, another old friend shows up, that mysterious stranger again. It turns out that it is now time for Johnny to become “the devil’s bounty hunter” and chase down Blackheart (American Beauty’s Wes Bentley) before he can beat Meph to a missing list of promised souls.


It just doesn’t work. Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson showed with Elektra and Daredevil that he has no feel for comic book stories. The pacing is sluggish and the action scenes are static and repetitious. There are some nice special effects as GR uses a chain like a flaming lasso and Blackheart’s henchmen exert their power over air and water. But the movie violates its own rules so frequently that it removes any real sense of involvement or meaning. Blackheart and his thugs seem like weak attempts to recreate Kevin Smith’s clever street punk demons in Dogma. And as Blackheart himself, Bentley smolders less persuasively than he did as the drug-dealing, video-taking teenager in American Beauty. When the poor guy is called upon to make sarcastic clapping work in a key confrontation, it teeters on the brink of parody.

A hero with a skull face is a cool idea in a comic, but in a movie the inability to show any kind of expression makes it difficult for it to seem menacing or sympathetic, and it is impossible to take advantage of all Cage (a comic book fan whose very stage name is a tribute to another comic book character) can do. Since he can’t play a skull, he is limited to a few expressions of agonizing isolation, longing, and painful transformation. If Ghost Rider wanted to fetch something of value, he should have been out there looking for a better script.

Parents should know that this film has a number of disturbing images, including a flaming skull and other grotesque characters and graphic violence and injuries. Characters drink and smoke and use brief bad language. The issue of selling a soul to the devil and damnation may be upsetting to some audience members.


Families who see this movie should talk about some of the other stories about characters who sell their souls to the devil and what they think about Johnny’s decision at the end of the movie.

Fans of this movie will enjoy reading the graphic novels, starting with Essential Ghost Rider, Vol. 1.

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Action/Adventure Fantasy Movies Thriller
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