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Movies: The Family Filmgoer

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Jane Horwitz
Family Filmgoer Columnist
Friday, March 27, 2009; 12:30 PM

Should you take your kids to see "Monsters vs. Aliens" this weekend? Is "Knowing" appropriate fare for teens?

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Jane Horwitz, who writes the syndicated Family Filmgoer column, can answer those questions and any other movie-related inquiries during a live discussion on Friday, March 27 at 12:30 p.m. ET.

Horwitz's Family Filmgoer column appears in newspapers around the country and has been featured in the Washington Post since 1993. She also writes about theater for the Post and regularly appears on WETA's "Around Town."

Submit your questions before or during the discussion.

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Jane Horwitz: Jane Horwitz here.

Welcome to a chat with The Family Filmgoer.

Of course, the big family-oriented film opening this week is the animated 3-D "Monsters vs. Aliens," which I liked rather better than reviews I've seen and heard thus far. Specifically, I detected more "heart" in the film than some other reviews noted. And the film looks pretty terrific. While it's in 3-D, it's not the headache-making sort. And terrifically well voiced by top comic actors such as Seth Rogan, Paul Rudd, Reese Witherspoon, Rainn Wilson and others.

Other films I've seen of late that you might want to discuss include Rudd's comedy "I Love You, Man"; the supernatural thriller "Knowing" with Nicolas Cage (a semi-disaster); "Duplicity" with Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, which I, being in a distinct minority here, found "smug and boring."

A little adult comedy called "Absurdistan" also opens today and will only be, I think, at E Street Cinema. It's in Russian and was filmed in Azerbaijan and is about a parched mountain village whose women refuse to be intimate with their randy spouses and lovers until the men fix the town's crumbling water source. Set against this is a love story between two young people. It's quite bawdy and quaint, if a tad rough around the edges.

I've also seen a new film starring Michael Caine, which doesn't open until mid-April. It's called "Is Anybody There?" He plays a resident in a 1980s old folk's home, and he befriends the young son of the couple managing the place. It's rather dark and whimsical. Caine's character is a retired traveling magician with many regrets.

Let me know what you've seen or hope to see, and what you think of it all!

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This Film Was Not Screened for Review...: It's reaching a point when I can accurately guess which films will be "not screened for review." Basically, any film that looks too stupid to be good is never screened, and almost always because it IS too stupid to be good. But at least in my case, "not screened" equals "I won't even consider going now." My question: Are there really still that many fools out there who go to movie openings solely based on flashy advertisements, so that the studios can continue to prevent timely reviews and yet not lose their audiences?

Jane Horwitz: Uh, tactfulness aside, yes.

At least I think the studios feel that if they have a turkey on their hands, their best bet is NOT to screen it in advance for critics, and to bank on good box office receipts for that first weekend, before the critics see the film and pan it, and before word of mouth from regular filmgoers gets around that the film is no good.

There's another type of film, such as the comedy/dramas of Tyler Perry, that is deemed "critic-proof." These are films the studios know will attract an audience no matter what critics say, and Tyler Perry himself has decided not to screen his films in advance, because he feels he knows what the reviews will be and he doesn't care.

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washingtonpost.com: Movie Trailers: Monsters vs. Aliens, I Love You, Man, Others

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Anonymous: I finally saw "Gran Torino," and while I basically enjoyed the film and Eastwood's acting, I also found it slower than I imagined it would be. Also a bit illogical, since (SEMI-SPOILER ALERT) so much ends up turning on the Hmong community being more willing to cooperate with police after a white person is harmed than after one of their own was assaulted. I also thought the changes in Eastwood's character were quicker and more far-reaching than I would imagine likely. Do you think this was his last film?

Jane Horwitz: I agree that the whole narrative in "Gran Torina" was flawed and illogical, when it wasn't just plain cliched. The film also indulged in tired stereotypes.

I have no reason to think "Gran Torino" was Eastwood's last film, either as an actor or a director. I hope not.

Did you read something authoritative to that effect?

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Chicago, Ill.: Would it be advisable for me to take my ten-year-old daughter to see "The Black Balloon?" It's rated PG-13, but it sounds like an uplifting story for a pre-teen. I'd really value your input. Thanks!

Jane Horwitz: I'm sorry. but I haven't seen that Australian film. Generally, it's worth seeing any movie that features Toni Collette, who's a wonerful actress, but I can't tell you whether I think the film is OK for a 10-year-old.

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Fairfax, Va.: Back when I was a kid, my friends and I wildly ridiculed Tipper Gore and her push for parental advisory stickers on music. Now that I'm a mom, I've "tippered" a bit in her direction when it comes to movies. I despise the movie ratings system, which goes crazy when it comes to sex but seems to tolerate violence and "intense" situations. But my number one gripe is for the movie previews that are "approved for all audiences" (oh really?) though the movie itself would be hugely inappropriate for the PG and G crowds.

So Jane, please tell me someone is badgering those movie ratings people about this.

Jane Horwitz: I couldn't agree with you more, right back to giving Tipper Gore credit and regretting the hard time a lot of us gave her back when she started to call attention to the coarsening of the culture and its wide exposure to kids too young to grasp any of its subtleties, but old enough to be adversely influenced by it.

Also agree that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which does those ratings, has always given stricter ratings to sex and even language than to violence. They always deny it, since the days of Jack Valenti, who started the rating system back in 1968 or so. But I think it's pretty demonstrably true.

Also, the PG-13 rating -- because PG-13 films make more money -- has become virtually meaningless, it has so broadened its scope to accept all kinds of violence and even sexual situations, to a certain degree.

I also maintain that independent films, as opposed to studio films, get harsher treatment from the MPAA.

Regarding trailers shown before feature films, you are far from the first parent to complain that the ones so-called "approved for all audiences" are often very problematic. I would strongly suggest complaining to the theater manager, because if that happens enough, word will get back to the studios producing those trailers. Sometimes they just make an error and run an R-rated trailer before a PG-rated film. That does happen. But it's the other "approved" trailers that you're obviously talking about.

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Dejected Dad: Jane, I am just crushed that Monsters vs. Aliens got such a poor review from Anne Hornaday. I seems I've been waiting forever for a decent kid's movie to take my son to, but if it doesn't tell a good story, there's just no point.

What's coming in the next couple of months that we can look forward to?

Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: The Monster Mishmash (Post, March 27)

Jane Horwitz: Well, I have to say that I liked "Monsters vs. Aliens" pretty well and wouldn't try to dissuade you from taking your son, especially if he's 8 or older. I thought it was pretty funny and ingeniously crafted in terms of 3-D animated visuals.

There's something called "Dragonball Evolution" rated PG, which is based on a Japanese novel and opens April 10, but I know little about it at this point. Also on April 10 "Hannah Montana the Movie" (G) opens. Cringe.

And on May 1, something called "Battle for Terra" (PG) opens. It appears to be sci-fi animation.

Then, on May 22, "Night at the Museum II" (PG) opens. At least it's a live-action comedy geared to kids.

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Sunshine Cleaning: What is your opinion on the film? It seems like a great premise for a Showtime/HBO series, but I'm ambiguous about the movie. Should I save my 8 bucks?

Jane Horwitz: I am one of the critics who very much liked "Sunshine Cleaning."

Apart from one or two scenes that overdid the whimsy or the sentiment, it was just a perfect little gem of an indie comedy.

Not for kids, mind you. I could see a cable TV series on this theme, but it might get old fast.

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Tipper Gore: Ms. Gore wanted to either ban things or establish something similar to the Hays Code.

She was not the only person who saw the coarsening of the culture -- she just wanted to take an extreme approach that approached the censorship line.

Jane Horwitz: I can't be positive that I remember this correctly, but it is not my recollection that she recommended anything so draconian.

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Potomac, Md.: Jane: Were you surprised at the announcement of a Three Stooges movie and the supposed casting?

Jane Horwitz: Yes and yes.

Mind you, Hollywood is always rifling through its past for remakes, but the casting is odd, I think, as it stands. Actors such as Sean Penn and Benicio del Toro are great, but they also bring a kind of gravitas to everything they do that could work against the Three Stooges ethos, you know?

Unless the film is going to deal with their personal lives, tragedies, etc. And I don't know that.

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Nashville, Tenn.: I'm in the movie doldrums right now, feeling blue because I wasted time on 'Knowing.' On the other hand, new rentals have been good: In Bruges, Milk, and Nobel Son. Now I need something light, even silly to look forward to. (Especially after Synecdoche which I deemed a worthy think-piece but depressing and not at all entertaining.) Please, is there any silly fun out there?

Jane Horwitz: Well, I recently saw a very silly indie film called "Alien Trespass," which I thought was a total hoot.

It's a live-action film spoof of 1950s creature features. Everything is there. The clueless local sheriff, the absentminded scientist (played by Eric McCormick, who's terrific), the curious teenagers, and the ridiculous looking robotic monster.

Unlike "Monsters vs. Aliens," which spoofs the same kinds of 1950s movies, "Alien Trespass" is geared to adults who really remember those films. And it's a very spot-on satire. I believe it opens in limited release April 3.

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Hyattsville, Md.: Regarding the rating system, I agree that the system doesn't really work that well. Some PG-13 movies, such as "The Dark Knight" really should have been R simply based on the darkness and a-morality of its themes. And I like dark amoral movies!

It should fall to parents to watch films that may be questionable. Unfortunately, based on the number of small children that were at the recent screening of "Watchmen" that I went to, that might not be the best option.

Jane Horwitz: You've hit on one of my pet peeves!

Parents -- or teen siblings -- who bring little kids to ultra-violent or ultra-explicit films, even if they're not rated R but should be, are in my view irresponsible and selfish.

I'm sure that in some cases, it's because the parents are not believers in censoring anything their kids see. That is indeed a philosophy of parenting that has some validity, as long as the parents and kids talk about what they've seen. But too often, it's just that folks didn't feel like paying a baby sitter, or going to an appropriate film for their little child.

Agree with you about "Dark Knight" needing a stronger rating. It's one of many.

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Madison, Wisc.: Not really a "family" film question, but I'm interested in your thoughts on Happy-Go-Lucky. DH and I saw it last nite and were underwhelmed to say the least. Typically we love independent movies, we know and enjoy Mike Leigh's work. But in this case it seemed obvious that not only didn't the script come together, there wasn't even a plot. What on earth did critics and the Academy see in this film?

Jane Horwitz: Wish I could enlighten you there, but I never got to see the film myself.

I, too, am a big Mike Leigh fan, so I don't know what went wrong with "Happy-Go-Lucky," if anything.

I ran out of time to see it at the holiday season, and I need to focus on more of the mass-audience films for "Family Filmgoer" (though I do try to touch on smaller films when I'm able). Now you're inspiring me to go back and take a look at this one.

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Washington, D.C.: Did you see Two Lovers with Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow? I thought it was pretty good for just a small romance movie. How's it doing at the box office? What do you think of Paltrow? Of Phoenix?

Jane Horwitz: I found "Two Lovers" pretty affecting, actually.

It was a reminder for me of what a fine film actor Joaquin Phoenix is, and what a loss to the industry it would be if he really and truly quit. I'm hoping all that business about becoming a rapper is just some kind of joke or acting exercise for him.

His character, with such a frail emotional life, and conflicting passions, was fascinating to me, and I thought he embodied it beautifully.

I thought Paltrow was fine, too, though her character was more of a "type" than a real person.

From the looks of it, the film hasn't done too well at the box office -- about $2 million only. But it's a small film and I'm sure it's budget was small, too.

I'm not sure moviegoers are in the mood for such an unhappy story.

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Jane Horwitz: I'm really interesting in moviegoers' feelings about "Knowing."

After all, it was last weekend's #1 film at the box office.

While I thought the film didn't really work, I was taken with the way its creators tried to blend science-fiction with religious end-of-days imagery.

Also, and I'm sure it's just my own personal insanity, from certain angles, I was struck by how much Nicolas Cage is starting to look like Jimmy Stewart.

And what do you think of the choices Cage has made with his movies of late, as per the recent piece in The Post about just that?

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re: This Film Was Not Screened for Review: That poster echoes my sentiments exactly. Additionally though, I often wonder why the newspaper reviews repeat the "not screened for review" blurb for so long? If the movie isn't prescreened, why can't critics watch it opening night/weekend and pan it the next day?

Jane Horwitz: Actually, I usually catch up with mainstream films "not screened for preview" by the following week, and I think other critics for The Post do the same. Can't speak for other publications.

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Washington, D.C.: AMC had a policy at one time that stated anyone under the age of 6 could not attend an R movie. However, some parents now a days are so irresponsibile it's ridiclous. There were several kids at "The Haunting in Connecticut" screening Wed. night and that was PG-13 (rightfully so, no language is why it wasn't an R). As fast as movies come to DVD now a days, some parents should just wait for the DVD and enjoy it at home.

Jane Horwitz: Yes, and some theater chains used to enforce a rule that no children under 6 were allowed in ANY films after 6pm, period.

Now it's toddlers and babies everywhere at any time, it seems to me.

Between that, and people talking, kicking your chair, and texting their way through movies, with no care that the light from the Blackberry screen reflects BACK toward the people behind them, going to movies with my fellow countrymen has become a real joy.

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Sweden but not really it's too cold: Hey Jane

Was wondering if you got a chance to see "Let The Right One In" it's a Swedish vampire film. I saw it last night and I must say it's amazing. It's very atmospheric and a pretty unique story and utilizes vampire mythology well. I highly recommend it to you and your readers who crave something different....oh and it is rated R because it is a bit gory...it's about vampires after all ;) I actually rooted for the vampire......

Jane Horwitz: Ha!

Thanks for the rec.

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Kids and Movies: My favorite were the couple that brought their two-year-old to a 10 p.m. screening of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall".

Jane Horwitz: And I'll bet they thought, oh, he/she will just sleep through it, right?

Although, I'd be less concerned about a 2-year-old at that movie than a 4, 6, 8, or 10 year old.

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Ratings: I'm always confused as to why there isn't something between PG-13 and R. Something that is considered to [be] violent/harsh/explicit for 13 isn't nessecarily too violent/ harsh/explicit for a 16-year-old. The Dark Knight is a pretty good example for a 13-year-old it might be a little much-- but anybody who's legally able to drive themselves to the theater should be able to handle it. In gerenal, a lot happens between the ages of 13 and 17 (high school) and the numbers seem kinda arbitrary. A more realistic idea might be to change PG 13 to PG-11/12(middle school aged kids) and make R the cut-off 14 or 15(freshman aged) and keep an NC-17 rating for things that are worse then that.

Jane Horwitz: From your computer to the MPAA's ears!!!

Or something like that.

For years I've been suggesting in various columns something like a PG-15 rating, but your idea may be even better.

I agree that there's a gap there that needs to be filled, because teens do change so much between middle school and high school.

I'm forever saying that certain R-rated films are really OK for kids 16 and older, or just high-schoolers in general.

And there are many PG-13s ("Dark Knight" is a good example) that I recommend for high-schoolers but not middle-schoolers.

It's a complicated world out there in movieland, and the ratings system between PG-13 and R isn't helping much.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Tipper's organization was actively looking to censor in addition to labeling. I am always reminded of a letter written into Rolling Stone where the writer said "When I was a kid, my parents told me what would happen if I ate the drain cleaner, they didn't hide it and hope I wouldn't find it." Same sentiment applies to film, I think. Which isn't to say the MPAA couldn't get their act together a little better in how they qualify their ratings.

Jane Horwitz: Well, if your memory of what Tipper Gore was suggesting back then is correct, then I'm on your side. I oppose censorship and believe freedom of speech is an absolute.

I thought she was more about labelling for content, and I don't oppose that.

And yes, the MPAA would do well to re-examine their approach.

Not sure the 'drain cleaner' approach makes total sense. Kids do stuff that is bad for them because their judgment isn't the same as adult judgment. Their sense of consequences, even after they're told, isn't always there.

Look at driver ed and the horrible accident scenes they're shown. And some of them drive so dangerously anyway.

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Knowing: I took my wife to see Knowing because she loves a good disaster movie, although we always know it's a gamble seeing a Nicolas Cage movie.

It was fine -- suspenceful and entertaining -- until the end. They really should have stuck with either the science fiction solution or the religious solution rather than blending the two. The result was just a confused mess.

What are the chances Nick Cage will ever do a really good movie?

Jane Horwitz: Agree with you about "Knowing."

Regarding Cage, I say that anyone as talented as he will surely do a good movie again. He just needs to be careful of losing credibility with his audience.

He has a bunch coming out in 2009 and 2010, including a medieval Black Plague drama called "Season of the Witch."

We shall see.

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Knowing: Umm, well, for one, I'm not going to see it. I'm sick of watching Nicolas Cage play Nicholas Cage. He's been doing that since Valley Girl, and I'm just not willing to fork good money over to see him.

Jane Horwitz: I'd recommend renting "Raising Arizona," the 1987 PG-13 comedy in which Cage played an ex-con who marries a cop (Holly Hunter).

It's hilarious, offbeat and Cage was great. Surely that's still lurking somewhere in his tool box.

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Arlington, Va.: Just a quick opposing viewpoint on Happy-Go-Lucky. While it may be true that the film didn't have a traditional or intricate plot, it was intended as a slice of life look at an optimist, functioning and improving lives around her in today's world. It was unique and fabulous, as was Sally Hawkins' performance.

Jane Horwitz: Now you've really made me want to see it.

Actually, I think that's a thread that runs through many, though certainly not all, of Mike Leigh's films. His characters tend to triumph over tough situations through sheer good will and cheeriness.

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The good ole days ... : ... when you had G (Disney), R (nudity and/or visible blood), X (porn), and PG (whatever was left). (And if you really believe the old Disney animations didn't have disturbing themes, you weren't paying attention. :)

Jane Horwitz: Oh, that's very true.

That's one of my pet peeves, too. Animated films from major studios such as Disney, often get G ratings for films that are quite scary and upsetting in spots. Think of "The Lion King" and "Hunchback of Notre Dame." Now I thought those were terrific films, but they deserved PG ratings.

An independently made animated film with those same visuals and themes would very likely have received a PG rating.

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Richmond, Va.: How old do you think a child should be to see a movie in the theater? (I'm talking a kiddy movie, not "A Haunting in Connecticut.") I have a 3 1/2-year-old son who will sit through an entire DVD, but I know the theater is a different experience entirely. He's interested in the "Up" movie based on the tiny preview that runs before his Wall-E DVD, so I was wondering if he'd be old enough to see that in the theater. Thanks!

Jane Horwitz: A couple of things to thing about:

If he's able to sit quietly through a DVD, that's a good sign.

Just remember that seeing a fantasy on a HUGE screen might get a different reaction from him. Might scare him more, or cause him to let out a yell of delight, for that matter.

I'd say that if you think your son is well behaved and tends to get caught up in a movie so that he concentrates really hard, give it a try and take him to a weekday matinee and see how he handles it. Then go from there.

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Re Nic Cage's Film Choices: I agreed 100 percent with the recent Post article. Cage was never an Actor (with a capital A) doing moving, dramatic roles, but the roles he chose were quality for what they were and I enjoyed myself watching him. Now I feel like he must have fallen in the eyes of Hollywood because it seems he's doing take-what-you-can-get roles. Very sad.

Jane Horwitz: There's also the possibility that he's lost confidence in himself as an actor.

I find that hard to imagine, but it happens to all kinds of people.

We don't know him personally, but I've always read him described as a pretty intense guy.

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Parental previews: The whole parental preview thing makes sense, but it is expensive and a logistical pain. It makes me not want to take my kids to the theater at all. DVDs are fine and easier to preview. Movies in the theater are going to be an increasingly rare experience for my kids.

Jane Horwitz: That's a big issue, the cost of pre-screening a theatrical release for your kids.

I hate to think they won't be getting that theatrical experience, though, despite my gripes about today's rude audiences.

There's just something about a huge screen and great sound system that makes movies more emotional and intense for me. And no gi-normous flat-screen TV at home can come quite as close. And talk about expensive!

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hope I'm not too late, but please hold off on watching Let the Right One In. The U.S. release has seriously changed subtitles that do not match what was in the theatrical release, and majorly change the tone of the movie, in many places making it nonsensical and dropping out large parts of the dialogue. The U.S. distributor has said that they'll be changing them in a future release, but have not given a date.

You can look it up on the The Consumerist Web site for more information about the problems on the DVD and Blu-Ray release.

Jane Horwitz: Oh thanks. That's fascinating and useful information.

I'm quite sure that poorly translated subtitles can really spoil a film or give audiences a very wrong impression.

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Scared Kid: I've heard this movie is a bit scary at times, more than the average animated film. Do you agree?

(I thought Bolt was also a little scary for youngins at the end when Bolt and Miley were in the fire.)

Jane Horwitz: Sorry, I'm not sure which film you're talking about.

If you mean "Monsters vs. Aliens," I recommended it mostly for kids 8 and older, though many kids under 8 won't be too scared by it.

It has some scary moments, where the monsters (who are really nice, though funny-looking) fight the alien bad guy and his robot. But most of those big battle scenes are done with laughing in mind, so they have lots of comedy to make it less scary.

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Penn del Toro and gravitas: I've often thought that Spiccolo was the embodiment of the untapped genius, trodden by the establishment until finally finding a spiritual release...

Jane Horwitz: Penn as Spiccoli, you mean?

In "Fast Times at Ridgmont High"?

So true, professor.

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His characters tend to triumph over tough situations through sheer good will and cheeriness: I read this as ".... sheer good will and Cheerios." I was thinking "Man, I need to get some Cheerios"!

Jane Horwitz: ha.

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Nicholas Cage: Well, in "Face/Off" he actually played John Travolta. And Travolta played Cage. And they both did it astonishingly well.

Jane Horwitz: Agreed. Loved that film. Hollywood high-concept, yet very smart, no?

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Pinnochio was terrifying: I was taken as a 3 or 4-year-old to see Pinnocchio by my godfather and grandma, I apparently started crying and screaming when Pinnochio was kidnapped (puppet-napped?) and so we left the theater. I'm 41 and I still haven't seen it. I'm thinking about seeing it now that it's being released on DVD. Hope I don't have flashbacks.

Jane Horwitz: I have a friend in her 50s who's still petrified of "The Wizard of Oz."

Some kids have real trouble seeing characters that metamorphose into something else. It spooks them out.

I understand that the whole idea of friends and other adults putting on outlandish costumes at Halloween upsets some kids who don't like to see their everyday world morph into something else. So you never know what sorts of film images will upset different children.

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Bethesda, Md.: Nothing could top the guy who brought a kid of 3 or 4 to "South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut." Yikes. Just for spite, I hope that kid was singing "Uncle -Bleeper" for days.

(By the way, Trey Parker and Matt Stone had some interesting things to say back then about their own battle with the MPAA over language and sexual innuendo, vs. violence.)

Jane Horwitz: You are so right.

It would have served that parent right. But then again, maybe he didn't and doesn't care.

I'm not surprised that film, which I LOVED, had MPAA trouble. Profane irreverence really seems to get the MPAA going.

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Jane Horwitz: Well thank-you to everyone for such great questions today. I truly appreciate the folks who fill me in when my own knowledge falls short.

It's been fun.

Have a lovely weekend.

Jane Horwitz - "The Family Filmgoer"

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