MUSIC OF THE HEART (PG, 124 minutes)
Sentimental? A tad. Preachy? Perhaps. Still, "Music of the Heart," based on the real life of teacher Roberta Guaspari and her violin program for public school kids in East Harlem, proves quite satisfying and even inspiring. That satisfaction, however, may veer more toward parents than kids, though the film is suitable for youngsters 10 and older. It does deal with divorce, and characters weep over an inner city child who's killed in a drive-by shooting (not shown). There's also rare mild profanity.
Meryl Streep plays Guaspari, the divorced, fiery-tempered mother of two boys, who moves to East Harlem to teach violin and finds that her brand of humor and discipline inspires the kids. When a funding cut threatens the violin program, she gets help from the likes of Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman, who perform with her students at Carnegie Hall. Intended as a call to the nation for more music education in public schools, the movie doesn't get into detail about how studying music helps kids do better in all their classes (though it does). "Music of the Heart" opts for emotion over test scores.
CRAZY IN ALABAMA (PG-13, 113 minutes)
Two intersecting stories unfold in this drama (based on a novel by Mark Childress), but they don't mesh and only one works. Middle school kids can at least see an affecting tale of the civil rights movement in the South around 1965 -- though told more from a white kid's point of view. There are scenes in which police beat protesters, and one boy dies after hitting his head on concrete. The other story deals, somewhat comically, with a murder, a dead body and a severed head, though we see none of those things on-camera. There's discussion of an abusive husband who beats wife and kids. Some characters swear and use racial slurs.
The narrator and hero is Peejoe (Lucas Black), a white country boy whose life changes when his Aunt Lucille (Melanie Griffith) drops her seven kids off at his mother's house, announces she's murdered her evil husband, and that she's off to seek fame in Hollywood. Peejoe and his brother are sent off to an uncle (David Morse) in town, where they join African Americans protesting to integrate the public pool. The film cuts awkwardly back and forth between Lucille's adventure and Peejoe's.
BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (R, 112 minutes)
Weird, witty and inventive, "Being John Malkovich" should appeal to "cinema buff" high-schoolers looking for something completely different. In addition to being intellectually challenging, it's a strongly adult film, not appropriate for kids under 16 or so, with explicit sexuality and a cynical, amoral tone. The script (by Charlie Kaufman) contains much profanity. Characters smoke and in one scene use marijuana.
John Cusack plays Craig Schwartz, a struggling puppeteer and street entertainer boringly married to a pet store employee (Cameron Diaz) who brings animals home at night. Desperate, he takes a filing job on the 7 1/2th floor of an office building where everyone stoops under low ceilings. One day, behind a cabinet, he discovers a little door and behind it a "portal" that leads into actor John Malkovich's brain. Soon he and a seductive office mate (Catherine Keener) are secretly charging the public for 15-minutes of "being John Malkovich." Issues of identity, celebrity, gender and morality all come into play, and never as cliches.
Fine for Tots on Up
"The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland" (G). Cuddly "Sesame Street" monster Elmo chases his blanket down Oscar the Grouch's trash can into Grouchland in adorable variation on "Wizard of Oz," with only brief fidgety parts. Bert and Ernie reassure at scary moments.
Fine for 10 and Up
"The Straight Story" (G). Heartwarming story taken from real life about Alvin Straight, elderly and with no driver's license, who in 1994 traveled almost 300 miles on rider mower to see ailing brother. Characters smoke, drink beer; thunderstorms may scare youngest.
"Three To Tango." Millionaire wrongly assumes architect he's hired is gay, asks him to spy on mistress in too-cutesy comedy. Profanity; gay, homophobic jokes; mild adulterous sexual situations; smoking, drinking, vomiting.
"Bats." Lou Diamond Phillips as sheriff deals with attacks by swarms of murderous bats in laughable horror flick. Bloody dead bodies; phony-looking bat attacks; gunfire; profanity. Only the most timid will tremble.
"Joe the King." Troubled boy deals with alcohol-and-poverty-fueled home life by failing in school, stealing, in well-acted, bleak kitchen-sink drama. Parents swear abusively; parental alcohol abuse; vicious teacher spanks child in front of class; children, adults smoke, swear; verbal sexual innuendo. High-schoolers.
"Bringing Out the Dead." Nicolas Cage as frazzled Manhattan paramedic in sometimes intense but unexceptional Martin Scorsese film. Graphic wounds, intense hospital scenes; profanity; beatings; drinking, drugs; sexual innuendo. High-schoolers.
"The Best Man." Taye Diggs as writer whose thinly fictionalized novel about college infuriates old friends in warm romantic comedy; rare film portrayal of African American upper middle-class. Explicit sexual situations, language; nudity; smoking, drinking; fistfight. Older high-schoolers.
"Boys Don't Cry." Searing, tragic drama based on true story of Nebraska woman who posed as a man, until two ex-cons found out and killed her. Graphic sexual situations; brutal rape, murder; profanity; semi-nudity; marijuana, liquor. Oldest high-schoolers.