The family in "Parental Guidance," as the oldest daughter Harper (Bailee Madison) points out, is "so beyond weird." One son plays in a baseball league where there is no score and no strikeouts. The youngest has an imaginary friend. And one rule in the house is that any putdown must immediately be followed by three compliments. Despite all these quirks, they're a family that's generally not that interesting -- but they're not one that you necessarily have to avoid like the plague.
Billy Crystal plays Artie, a minor league baseball announcer who seems a lot better at his job than his lack of career success would indicate. When his uptight daughter (Marisa Tomei) has to leave town for her husband's (a ghoulishly-aged Tom Everett Scott) job, Artie and his wife Diane (Bette Midler) offer to babysit their aforementioned weirdo grandchildren. In their attempt to not remain the "other grandparents," Artie and Diane try loosening the kids up by introducing them to such exciting things as cake, fighting and cocktail dresses.
The kids (especially the youngest, Barker, who's irredeemably annoying in his adventures with Carl, his imaginary friend) don't offer much to the movie's attempts at humor, though Madison is appropriately cute and sometimes a little heartbreaking as try-hard violinist Harper. The high-tech house provides a few gags, almost all of which were executed better in the Disney Channel original movie "Smart House." With Midler given almost nothing to do, it's up to Crystal to pick up the slack, which he does on occasion, though it's the same shtick that anyone who has seen him once already knows. But the kiddies will enjoy it, and for parents, while it isn't close to the multi-generational genius of the Pixar films, it also isn't a movie that will make you gouge your eyes out and fear for your children's future taste in art.
Unless you're afraid of pee, poop and vomit gags, because yeah, there are one or two of those. GRADE: C
If the uncomfortableness in Christian Petzold's "Barbara" is any indication, East Germany wasn't that fun in 1980, especially for people like the titular character. After being exiled from her cushy job in East Berlin after applying for an exit visa from East Germany, Barbara (played with icy restraint by Nina Hoss) is forced to go to a rinky-dink pediatric hospital in a small town. She's constantly harassed by the Stasi, the East German secret police who almost take joy in the numerous apartment and body cavity searches to which they subject her. Barbara dreams of meeting up with her lover in West Germany, even though a random clearing in the woods is apparently bed enough for them on the off chance they see each other.
While being just 105 minutes long, "Barbara" (which is Germany's entry to the Best Foreign Film category for the Oscars) moves along at an occasionally frustrating glacial pace, choosing to depict the subtle horrors of the Iron Curtain rather than the explicit ones. It takes a while for Barbara's supervisor Dr. Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld) to come around to recognize Barbara's skill and good heart, with the way she treats Stella, a sick girl from a youth work camp, being the impetus for both his respect and the inevitable boyish crush. You never really know where the story's dramatic arc is going until the final 20 minutes, which illuminate the first 80 more than you would have realized. It's then when you can really see Barbara's character, as well as the fact that even in the face of brutal oppression, hope and humanity always remains. GRADE: B
-- PETER MCQUAID