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Big Trouble

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B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Strong language for a PG-13
Nudity/ Sex: Sexual references and humor, brief nudity, toe-licking scene
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters drink and smoke
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril, shooting, some injuries
Diversity Issues: Diverse good and bad guys, women all intelligent and capable
Date Released to Theaters: 2002

If not quite as sharp as it could be, “Big Trouble” is still a sharp, funny movie. Based on the book by Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist Dave Berry, it has a terrific cast getting caught up in delicious comic chaos seasoned with a couple of howlingly funny wisecracks.

Tim Allen plays Eliot Arnold, a once-successful columnist reduced to writing ad copy after an altercation wiith his boss. He is held in contempt by his teen-age son Matt (Ben Foster), who is on a quest to “kill” a pretty classmate named Jenny (Zooey Deschanel) by squirting her with a water gun, part of a tag-like contest.

Meanwhile, Arthur (Stanley Tucci), Jenny’s stepfather, is the target of a less benign hitman. It seems that Arthur, a bag man for some bad guys, diverted some of what was in the bag into his own bank account. A couple of cops (Jeaneanne Garofolo and Patrick Warburton), a Frito-loving, tree-sitting, strong but sweet guy with a Jesus hairdo (Jason Lee), some Russians who deal weapons from the back room of a dingy bar, a nuclear device that looks like a garbage disposal, a remarkable number of televisions with their screens shot out, and a flock of goats all manage to play a part before things get resolved.

The translation of book to screen is uneven, primarily because the story is all situation and no character. Even with exceptionally strong personalities in the roles and a director with a refreshing combination of a laid-back tone and a brisk pace, the film still asks too much of the audience by wanting us to care about characters we hardly know.

Parents should know that the movie has comic violence (no one badly hurt), including shooting and scuffles. Characters lie, cheat, steal, smoke, drink, and use bad language. There are comic sexual situations (including a foot fetishist) and brief non-sexual nudity. The scenes involving airport security and a bomb on a plane, the reason the movie’s release was delayed after the terrorist attacks, may cause more twinges than laughter. The movie is at the upper end of the PG-13 rating, closer to an R.

Families who see this movie should talk about the relationship between Matt and Eliot and between Jenny and her mother and step-father. They should also talk about the decision faced by the film-makers following September 11. Should they have changed the story, in addition to delaying the release?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Rat Race.

Billy Elliot

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A
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: All characters use very strong language, even children
Nudity/ Sex: References to transvestism and homosexuality, some child sex talk, children discuss adult infidelity
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking, references to alcoholism, adult characters tipsy
Violence/ Scariness: Some family violence, police fight strikers
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, homophobic comments
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

As two 11-year-olds walk home from school, the girl casually bounces a stick along the side of a building. The building ends and, still chatting, she keeps bouncing it along the shields held up by a line of policemen. They pay as little attention to her as she does to them. It is Thatcher-era England, 1984, and the police have come to this small mining town of Durham to keep order during the miners’ strike.

The 11-year-olds are Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) and the daughter of the local ballet teacher, Mrs. Wilkenson (Julie Walters). Billy watches the ballet class from his boxing lesson. When Mrs. Wilkenson impulsively pulls him into the class, he discovers that ballet both answers and creates a need in him that he can no more name than he can resist.

Billy lives with his father (Gary Lewis), brother, and grandmother. His mother died the year before, his grandmother is forgetful, and his father and brother are on strike. The adults are busy with their own problems, and no one has time to notice Billy other than to shout at him or swat him out of the way. So for a while he manages to switch from boxing to ballet without anyone finding out. When his father discovers what Billy has been doing, he is furious. He is sure that this means that Billy is going to be gay and sure that this would be the ultimate failure on his part. He forbids Billy to go back.

But Billy has to dance, and he reminds Mrs. Wilkenson of a passion she once had for ballet. She gives him private lessons without charge, to prepare him for an audition with the London Ballet. Billy hides his ballet shoes under the mattress and hopes that no one will pay enough attention to him to figure out what he is doing. But his father does find out about the lessons and the audition.

This movie is well above average, tender, funny, and touching. Bell is extraordinary as Billy, the best child actor performance since Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense.” Lewis is also first-rate as the father who makes an unbearably painful sacrifice in order to give his son the chance he never had. Director Stephen Daldry has a real gift for visual story-telling. A chase through hanging laundry, dance lessons in a boxing ring, and the opening shot of Billy on a trampoline are images that are fresh and memorable.

Parents should know that everyone in this movie uses terrible language all the time. That is the primary reason for the R-rating, but the movie also includes sexual references, some child sex talk, a brief glimpse of bare buttocks when one character moons another, homophobic comments, and a transvestite character. Some teens may be upset by the way that family members treat each other. They are insulting, neglectful, and cruel. A parent hits a child and threatens another.

Families who see this movie will want to talk about what families should do when one member finds something as vitally important to him as dancing is to Billy. They should also discuss how the stress of painful external circumstances can affect the ability of family members to be kind to each other. Why was the strike so important to Billy’s dad and brother? How was that like and not alike the importance of ballet to Billy? Why did Mrs. Wilkenson want to help Billy? Why did Billy’s interest in ballet make Billy’s dad think he might be gay, and why was that so terrifying to him? What made him change his mind? Why do you think the writer put a gay character who did not have anything to do with ballet into the story? What does it tell us that Billy’s father had never been out of Durham, and that Billy had never been to see Durham’s famous cathedral? What do you think of Billy’s dad’s response when Billy says he is scared?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Educating Rita, in which Julie Walters plays a lower-class university student who studies with a professor played by Michael Caine. Two popular movies with similar themes are Brassed Off (laid-off miners find music and meaning in a brass band competition) and The Full Monty (laid-off workers put on a strip show). The question “Why do you dance?” and Billy’s answer recall a similar scene in that most famous of all ballet movies, the brilliant The Red Shoes.

Birthday Girl

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C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Nudity/ Sex: Sexual situations, including bondage and prostitution
Alcohol/ Drugs: A lot of drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Scary situations including violence
Diversity Issues: Cultural differences
Date Released to Theaters: 2002

A very uneven thriller-romance is brightened by dark comedy and another magnetic performance by Nicole Kidman as the 21st century equivalent to a mail order bride. Shy bank teller John (Ben Chaplin) orders his bride from an internet company called “From Russia With Love.” He orders a brand new double bed and cleans up his little suburban house in anticipation, though he is not able to (foreshadowing alert) rid his house of an infestation of ants, and then goes off to the airport to pick her up.

The good news is, well, she looks like Nicole Kidman. The bad news is that she does not speak English, she smokes, and on the way home from the airport she has to throw up.

John has some second thoughts, but he can’t get anyone from the agency on the phone. Meanwhile, Nadiya efficiently discovers his stash of porn and even more efficiently makes herself sexually indispensible.

Nadiya stays at home and knits, and John goes off to the bank with a spring in his step and the ring she brought him on his finger. He presents her with a Russian/English dictionary and she uses it to tell him that it is her birthday. But the celebration is interrupted by the arrival of her cousin and his friend.

At this point, things start to go wrong. Many betrayals, a bank robbery, a lot of smacking around and threats with guns later, there is a resolution as uneven as the movie’s tone. There are some signs of real talent here in John’s generic performance evaluation and the bank’s “trust” exercises, Nadia’s monologue about her binoculars and her bright red knitting. The movie’s director, screenwriters, and producer (three brothers) clearly intended to make a movie that transcends genre, but it does not really work. It just feels unsettlingly muddled.

Parents should know that the movie has very strong language, a lot of violence and explicit sex, including bondage, references to prostitution, and an out of wedlock pregnancy. Stealing and corruption are positively portrayed.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Kidman’s sensational performance as a woman who entices two teenage boys to kill her husband in To Die For and Francois Truffaut’s mail-order bride thriller Mississippi Mermaid.

Black Knight

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C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Strong language for a PG-13
Nudity/ Sex: Sexual references and situations
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sword and arrow battles (characters injured and killed), beheading, fist fights
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2001

Martin Lawrence is a very funny guy who is usually a lot better than the movies around him, which tend to play as though half the script reads, “Martin enters and does funny things.” This time, the material comes a little closer to his talents, in a story inspired by Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”

Lawrence plays Jamal, an employee of a run-down medieval theme park who is vastly more attentive to brushing his teeth than he is to anything relating to his job. When a rival theme park called Castle World moves to his neighborhood, he tells his boss that it is time for her to sell out and retire. She tries to explain that she has a commitment to creating good jobs in the community, but he does not understand.

Then, grabbing for a mysterious amulet while cleaning the moat, he falls into the water and comes up in a lake. The people he meets are so authentically medieval in dress and speech that he thinks he must have landed at Castle World. But it turns out that he has somehow landed in 1328, in the court of a usurper king who has mistaken him for a Moorish messenger sent by a Duke.

Lawrence gets to show various kinds of astonishment at the odd world of the medieval folks (They behead people! And they have awful bathrooms!), and they get to show various kinds of astonishment at his behavior (of course he has to be asked by the king to show off his riding and dancing skills). He gets interested in a pretty chambermaid who is a part of a conspiracy to bring back the real queen. And the daughter of the usurper king goes after Martin, especially after he teaches her some new kissing techniques. It’s a classic comedy set-up that could easily have starred any movie comedian skilled in pratfalls, from Buster Keaton to Jerry Lewis to Jim Carrey.

There is a lot of slapstick, a little romance, fights with swords, arrows, and a couple with fists, and it all moves along pretty painlessly, helped by some good gags and Lawrence’s facility with physical comedy.

Parents should know that the movie has very strong language for a PG-13, including a slightly obscured four-letter word that normally would get an R-rating. In addition to the violence mentioned above (mostly comic and bloodless, but with real injuries and deaths), there is a beheading. There are a number of sexual references and situations, including a discussion of “French” kissing, characters making sounds so that people nearby will think they are having sex, and a man who has sex with a woman because he thinks she is a different woman. Minority and female characters are smart and brave (though not always seen that way by others).

Families who see this movie might like to see some of the other versions of this story, including one starring Whoopi Goldberg called A Knight in Camelot.

Blade II

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D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Nudity/ Sex: Sexual references and situations
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril and violence
Diversity Issues: Strong black hero
Date Released to Theaters: 2002

An ordinary sequel to the first Wesly Snipes vehicle, based on the Marvel Comics superhero, this bloody punch-fest lacks the charming antagonists that livened the original movie.

Wesley Snipes plays the title character, Blade, a half-vampire whose mother was bitten hours before he was born. This mixed parentage gives him superhuman virtues without the traditional vampire sensitivities to sunlight, silver and garlic, which he uses, along with an arsenal of hi- tech weaponry, to avenge himself on the vampire community for their manifold sins.

When last we left our hero, his mentor and gunsmith Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) has been vampirized and abducted by the undead, and held suspended in a blood-support tank to endure eternal torture. With the help of his new idea-man, Blade breaks Whistler out, and cures him of the vampire virus with an injection and a 24 hour dry-out program.

Meanwhile, a mutant super-vampire sneaks into a corrupt Czech blood bank, and eats the vampire-phlebotomists with his daringly different super- vampire bloodsucking anatomy.

The waxy emperor is forced to offer a truce to Blade, in order to fight their mutual enemy. But it is immediately clear that the truce can only be temporary.

Snipes is occasionally funny, though not as often as he should be. Most of the rest of the cast is not funny, except Ron Perlman, re-doing his lovable thug routine (Cronos, Alien Resurrection) as an evil vampire hitman.

Parents should know that the movie has intense gore, which falls just on this side of a slasher film. All kinds of decapitations, bloodletting, tracheotomies, etc., are inflicted on various human-like beings. Although the vampires combust in a cloud of sparks when killed, it comes too late to avoid seeing brains, hearts and tendons, and oceans of blood. Blade, at one point, gets strapped to an impalement table, which shoots spikes through various limbs and organs. There is also a scene of horrible vampire self-mutilation. Even by action-movie standards, it is very graphic. Characters use strong language and there are sexual situations. Interestingly, in the original Blade, the vampires were a rainbow nation of evil with many different ethnic groups represented, but in Blade II, there are two ethnic vampires on Blade’s hit-squad, but none in the crowd scenes, or as antagonists.

Families who see this movie should talk about its themes of betrayal and loyalty. For what it’s worth, Blade is a black superhero. He calls the shots, is never condescended to, and shows loyalty, courage and integrity. Parents may want to discuss the nature of wish-fulfillment, and the way violence and problem-solving are conflated in the movies versus the way they interact in real life.

Families who enjoyed this movie will also enjoy the original “Blade” and “Darkman.”