The Family Stone

Posted on December 21, 2005 at 2:56 pm

If you believe the previews or have seen the poster of an aggressively extended and bejeweled ring finger, then you might presume that “The Family Stone” is going to be a light-hearted romp of a comedy. Boy brings home uptight girl to meet his kooky and free-spirited family, amusing and embarrassing behavior follows, family and girl all learn important lessons about one another, then the movie ends on a wacky but upbeat note.

No, nope and not even.

There are embarrassments, humorous moments and lessons here as well as some physical gags, but the movie is a much more ambitious work that jumps all over the emotional spectrum before settling on quirky tear-jerker.


Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker), as tightly wrapped as her hair and as annoying as the constant ringing of her cell phone, tries to hide her insecurities behind a brittle facade of confidence but ends up broadcasting every thought and perceived offense. That might be fine when she is in her element but going to the Stone home for Christmas as the girlfriend of beloved-son Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney) makes her the square peg in this close-knit family circle. What Meredith doesn’t know is that Stone matriarch Sybil (Diane Keaton, who chomps through this role like it was cotton candy) is ill and that the interloper will make a handy punching-bag on which the family can take out their frustrations.


Stoner and truth-speaker Ben (Luke Owen), bitter Amy (Rachel McAdams), distracted mom Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser) and sunny, deaf Thad (Tyrone Giordano) round out the Stone siblings collected around the catalogue-perfect living room and mellowed by relaxed dad Kelly (Craig T. Nelson). When Meredith manages to offend nearly everyone in the liberal household, she calls in back-up in the form of lovely little sister Julie (Claire Danes who glows sufficiently to compensate for not having much in the way of a character to inhabit).


The strengths of this movie are top-notch performances, several more-than-a-bundle-of-quirks believable characters and plenty of space for the audience to have their own thoughts. Relative newcomer director Thomas Bezucha does a good job framing Diane Keaton’s scene-devouring energy and using an understated Luke Owen as the emotional anchor onscreen. However, these two cannot compensate for the movie’s lack of self-knowledge and forced sentimentality. Like the character of Meredith, the film’s bravado cannot mask a messy soul but should be given respect for showing up and sticking it out.


Parents should know that this movie has mature themes, including the illness of a family member, the projection of anger from something that causes pain to someone on the outside and the hypocrisy implicit in embracing acceptance but rejecting someone who does not think like you. A tender and committed interracial gay couple adopts, leading to discussions of race and sexual orientation that include some remarks interpreted as bigotry. Brothers tussle and try to hurt each other. An emotional character gets into a fender-bender off-screen. A character’s illness is the elephant in the room, about which nobody will speak. A character gets drunk and loses inhibitions, social drinking and references to pot smoking. There is brief profanity.


Families might wish to discuss the different ways the characters have of showing support and understanding, from Sybil’s discussions with Everett related to her mother’s ring to the scenes where Kelly and Sybil are alone. How is your family like — or not like — to the Stones and how would you react to a newcomer to the family who seemed different?


Families looking for more movies that highlight messy familial tensions around holidays might wish to watch the thoughtful Pieces of April, What’s Cooking or Home for the Holidays. Those who wish to see Diane Keaton demonstrating her comedic chops should watch Something’s Gotta Give or Annie Hall.


Thanks to guest critic AME.

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Comedy Drama Romance

Rumor Has It

Posted on December 20, 2005 at 3:42 pm

F+
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content, crude humor and a drug reference.
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, characters get drunk
Violence/ Scariness: Reference to sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2005
Date Released to DVD: 2006
Amazon.com ASIN: B000EMGICS

In the savage satire The Player, actor/screenwriter Buck Henry makes a hilarious pitch for a sequel to The Graduate, something of a savage satire itself, though cloaked in the garb of a romantic fantasy of rebellion and authenticity. The thing about Henry’s pitch is that no one wants to see a squel to The Graduate; it is such a patently stupid idea that it is funny to see him try to pitch it.


I would love to see a movie of the pitch that got this sort-of-sequel made, one of the very worst ideas for a movie since they decided to try to make a horror movie about rabbits.


So, here’s the pitch — a young woman named Sarah (Jennifer Anniston) discovers on the eve of her sister’s wedding that the movie The Graduate was inspired by her own family. Before her parents got married, her mother briefly ran away with a young man in her class at school named Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner) who had had an affair with her mother (Sarah’s grandmother, played with bite by Shirley Maclaine). Sarah decides that Beau must be her biological father, so she flies to San Francisco to meet him. When it turns out he was not her father, she becomes the third generation in her family to sleep with him. And when her fiance (Mark Ruffalo) finds out about this, he is not happy.


I want to take a shower just writing those words. I wanted to take two showers watching it on the screen.


In other words: Ew.


Ew. Ew. Ew.


There is actually something very twisted about all of this and perhaps John Waters could make it work, but Rob Reiner directs it as though it was a very traditional light romantic comedy, albeit one with overtones of incest and jokes about testicular injuries.


Plus, it has a lot of annoying logical inconsistencies. For example, Sarah, a journalist, instantly recognizes the very obscure name of the author of the book The Graduate (Charles Webb) but registers nothing about the name of one of the wealthiest dot.com entrepreneurs at the height of the boom era? The movie is also set in the 1990’s (to make the timing work with the publication of the book), but makes no use whatsoever of the era except to put in random details like big cell phones and television clips of President Clinton. A character has an anxiety attack on an airplane for no purpose other than to have her back home again and then, as soon as we no longer need her, she is somehow all better. No one behaves in a way that makes any sense, even within the genre of farce, which means no one is worth caring about. It’s a terrible shame to waste some of the most talented light-comedy performers in Hollywood on a script that is not just not funny, not just not engaging, but downright gross.


Parents should know that this is a movie that presents a man’s sexual encounters with three generations of women in the same family as material, including infidelity to a husband and two fiances as material for a light-hearted comedy. Characters use some strong language. They drink (including getting drunk) and there is a reference to drug use.


Families who see this movie should talk about why Sarah did not feel more connected to her father and sister and what Jeff saw in Sarah that made him want to be with her.

Families who enjoy this movie should watch The Graduate. They might also enjoy 40 Carats.

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Comedy Drama Movies Romance

Fun With Dick and Jane

Posted on December 20, 2005 at 2:59 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for brief language, some sexual humor and occasional humorous drug references.
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, character abuses alcohol, drug reference
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2005
Date Released to DVD: 2006
Amazon.com ASIN: B000E8N8H0

The first “Fun with Dick and Jane” was the popular reader that millions of first graders used to sound out words like “Oh” and “Run!” Dick and Jane were perfect suburban children in an idealized world of smiling parents, sunny lawns, and purring kittens.


The second Fun with Dick and Jane was a satire that introduced us to a married couple who were victims of the economic recession so decided to turn to a life of crime. Its most memorable scene had the couple’s lawn being repossessed — it was rolled up and carted away.


And now we have the third version, updated for the post-dot.com bubble, post-Enron era. This time, Dick (Jim Carrey) works for a huge conglomerate that “consolidates media properties.” Jane (Tea Leoni) is a travel agent. Dick is overjoyed to receive a sudden promotion to Vice President for Communcations until, in his first day on the job, he is appears on a television program to announce the company’s projected earnings, only to be attacked by Ralph Nadar because the CEO (Alec Baldwin) has been secretly selling his stock and the company is under investigation for financial shenanigans. The company tanks. Soon, Dick and Jane are failing at various efforts to earn money, and finally — the lawn repossessed and living off of all-you-can-eat buffets and visits to the soup kitchen, they take up a life of crime. See Dick steal. See Jane drive the getaway car.


In corporate terms, here is the movie’s balance sheet: On the asset side we have two exceptionally talented and attractive performers in Carrey and Leoni. His loopy physical humor in the rendition of “I Believe I Can Fly” in an elevator and the portrayal of a marionette are perfectly matched by her more understated but equally precise comic timing. Further assets are some sly pokes at contemporary life — Dick and Jane have a son who speaks with a Spanish accent (like the nanny) — and some surreal detours (as when Jane signs up as a guinea pig for a new beauty treatment that goes very wrong and when Dick tries to get work as an illegal immigrant and is deported).

On the liability side is a script that relies too much on easy jokes like silly costumes and expects us not to notice that, for example, Dick and Jane are completely incompetent as crooks (hello, fingerprints?). If they had just had to rely in some way on the skills they had learned on the job — if they had just been clever instead of lucky, this would have been a better, funnier movie.


But if it isn’t an Enron-style spectacular failure of a 2005 holiday comedy (that would be Rumor Has It…) it has enough smiles in it to keep the family feeling cheerful. Dick and Jane are still fun to be around.

Parents should know that this is a movie in which some characters feel a sense of entitlement, in part because they feel cheated and stolen from, that they believe justifies stealing from others. There is brief strong language, and the movie includes sexual references and non-explicit sexual references. Characters drink and one abuses alcohol to help numb his feelings.


Families who see this movie should talk about the corporate scandals listed at the end, including WorldCom, Enron, Adelphia, HealthSouth, Global Crossing, and Tyco. What is the difference between a corporate crook and a bank robber? What will Dick and Jane do next?


Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the original, starring Jane Fonda and George Segal and Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run.

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Comedy Crime Movies Remake

The Producers

Posted on December 15, 2005 at 4:05 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexual humor and references.
Profanity: Crude language for a PG-13
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic violence and peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie but sexist and homophobic humor
Date Released to Theaters: 2005
Date Released to DVD: 2006
Amazon.com ASIN: B000BMY2LU

The 1968 version of The Producers was a brilliantly funny commercial flop about an outrageously offensive and atrociously appealing play that became a hit. The screenplay won an Oscar for director/writer Mel Brooks. It was fall-out-of-your-chair-gasping hilarious and a cherished cult classic.


Then, in 2001, the little, low-budget film about crooked producers who think a sure-flop will make them rich became a Broadway musical that did make its producers rich. Very, very rich. The Broadway show became one of the most successful in history, with a record-breaking twelve Tony awards and a scheduled run that seems to extend into 22nd century.


So, of course they made it into a movie with the stars of the Broadway cast and a couple of movie stars added in for marquee value. From the Broadway show, we have Nathan Lane as king-of-the-flops producer Max Bialystock, who raises the money for his shows by wooing lonely widows, Matthew Broderick as timid accountant Leo Bloom, Gary Beach as wildly flamboyant director Roger De Bris, and Roger Bart as his sidekick/significant other Carmen Ghia. From television and movies, Will Ferrell as Franz Liebkind, the playwright of “Springtime for Hitler,” a merry musical romp that Max and Leo think is the answer to their prayers.


Leo tells Max that no one checks the books of a flop too carefully. So if they raise too much money for a play, selling more than 100 percent of the profits, they can keep all of the money — as long as they have a surefire flop. And what is a better recipe for theatrical disaster than a musical about the 20th century’s worst villain? Just to make sure, they bring on the worst director they can find and cast playwright Liebkind himself in the title role.


It’s all pleasantly flashy and fun, but it does not come close to the original. In the first place, the original movie didn’t know how funny it was, which is part of what made it funny. It was brash and audacious and irreverent. The new musical is none of those things. In making a movie of a success, it is too careful. It hits every joke square on the beat instead of striking a contrapuntal sidelong whack.

In the second place, the actors don’t have the same crazy genius. Nathan Lane’s performance is shtick-y. He doesn’t have Zero Mostel’s fearlessness. Matthew Broderick looks puffy and uncomfortable. He doesn’t do shlub very well and he doesn’t have Gene Wilder’s manic little trill. Thurman and Ferrell try hard but don’t add much.


In the third place, having the director of the Broadway show as director of the movie means that the movie is essentially a filmed version of the Broadway show with some scenes shot outdoors.

Most important, partly because of the cult status of the original and partly because of a general coarsening of society, it just isn’t that shocking any more. The flouncy, over the top gay characters aren’t very outrageous in a world where you can turn on the television and watch “Will and Grace” or “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” The original came out less than twenty-five years after World War II. Partly because of the success of that movie and partly because we’ve had a lot of other murderous tyrants, making fun of Hitler seems almost conventional. There was an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” featuring Mel Brooks and his late wife, Anne Bancroft that included a twist on “The Producers” that was truly twisted and demented and shriekingly hilarious.


But this movie is not directed at the audience that wants something truly twisted and demented or shocking and outrageous. This is directed at people who are looking for something safe that makes them feel a little bit twisted and outrageous — sort of like the little old ladies who want to play “hold me, touch me” with Max. More like “Springtime for the Redhead on Desperate Housewives.”


Parents should know that this movie has some very crude humor and that it both makes fun of and revels in outrageous bad taste. There are sexual references and some stereotyping of gay characters that some people might consider homophobic. In the context of this intentionally offensive comedy, however, it is not intended to reflect bias. There are some strong (and vivid) sexual references for a PG-13, characters drink alcohol, and there is some comic violence. Oh, and the main characters are crooks who are stealing money from (wealthy) old ladies.


Families who see this movie should talk about why the original was not successful at the box office while the musical play is one of Broadway’s all-time champs. Is it because times have changed? If you were going to put on a sure-fire flop, what would it be? What were Max’s motives for doing the show? What were Leo’s? What will happen to them next?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the original version as well as other Brooks movies like Young Frankenstein (co-written by Gene Wilder) and Blazing Saddles (all co-starring Wilder).

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Comedy Movies Musical Remake

Brokeback Mountain

Posted on December 15, 2005 at 3:54 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexuality, nudity, language and some violence.
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking, character drinks too much, marijuana, chewing tobacco
Violence/ Scariness: Brief graphic violence, character killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2005
Date Released to DVD: 2006
Amazon.com ASIN: B00005JOFQ

Director Ang Lee is a master of repressed love whether between young Taiwanese men in The Wedding Banquet, Jane Austen’s class-conscious Brits in Sense & Sensibility, duty-bound warriors in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or even monsters and scientists in The Hulk. Lee’s delicate touch and poetic cinematography take Annie Proulx’s 30-page story about cowboys who fall into a crevasse of tragic forbidden love, and expands it into a hauntingly bittersweet two-hour-plus visual feast of lingering melancholy and fragile snapshots of happiness against the lonely backdrop of despair.


As in the short story, the main character, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger in a pitch perfect spot-on performance) scrounges up work one summer by herding sheep for a dismissive rancher (Randy Quaid) up at the spectacular vistas of Brokeback Mountain. He is sent out to this task with another poor cowboy, the aspiring rodeo competitor Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose easy companionship is a salve for orphaned Ennis’ isolation. When they unexpectedly become much more than friends, they build the foundations of a life-long love that will haunt and change them both forever.


The film lingers over that first summer in 1963 and their passionate reunion four years later, then it speeds by 20 years of their respective life signposts including marriages, children, divorce, jobs, in-laws, relationships; ordinary lives punctuated by their semi-annual weeklong “fishing” trips into the mountains.

Ennis is dragged down by duty as he attempts to make ends meet and to keep together the pretense of a marriage and then of a bachelorhood. In near total emotional isolation, he keeps a white-knuckled lock on his feelings, which bubble up in tenderness towards his daughters and threaten to erupt in violence against anyone else.

Jack, meanwhile, is the more needy heart, stumbling into a marriage to a cowboy princess with a wealthy father. It takes him from the adrenaline highs of rodeo-riding to the confining job of a combine salesman. It is he who cannot comprehend Ennis’ inability to see a world where they could be together. Where Ennis gives all he can, Jack wants so much more. The results tear them up inside and the bitterness ripples through both their lives to a final, moving conclusion.


While groundbreaking and beautiful, this movie falters a step when its slow and deliberate pace nevertheless fails to take the audience into an admittedly very private love beyond their time together on the mountain. Jack is a complicated character and, with the exception of the scene where he confronts his father-in-law, his character development later in the film seems uneven and his hold on Ennis less tenable, perhaps because Lee leaves so much to be said in the silences. We see him going to Mexico to cruise for sex, but we do not see him unguarded with his parents, Ennis or even with wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway) to give us the understanding that we get from Ennis’ scenes with his wife (Michelle Williams) and their daughters.


The depth of all the characters, it should be said, is one of the movie’s many strengths: there is not a person here who does not easily deserve his or her story to be told, especially Lureen (Anne Hathaway), Alma (Michelle Williams), Mrs. Twist (Roberta Maxwell) and Alma Junior (Kate Mara).


And another strength is the simplicity and strong symbolism of the way the story is told. Up on Brokeback Mountain, Jack and Ennis make the rules. At first they do what the rancher told them, camping out near the sheep in violation of the law. But then they understand that they may not own the place or the sheep, but they are in charge and can decide what is right for them — until they have to come down from the mountain and abide by the rules of society. The story-telling is so plain and straightforward that, like the characters’ feelings for one another, at first you do not realize how powerful it is. But by the conclusion, with its definitive, heart-wrenching portrayal of what will always be divided and what can never be, audiences will realize that the story has entered its souls.
This movie benefits from world-class talent as Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Larry McMurtry, keeps the cowboy feel authentic while adapting the screenplay from fellow Pulitzer-winner Proulx’s short story, all under the direction of Oscar winner Lee. With fine performances by all and an Oscar-worthy scope, “Brokeback Mountain” is a solid addition to the canon of tragic loves and it is an immensely moving portrait of joy begetting sadness, pain and fleetingly a small and fragile ray of hope.


Parents should know that the movie deals with mature issues, including bigotry, homosexuality, and adultery. There is nudity, sex between committed couples, adultery, references to prostitution. Characters use frequent profanity, they drink and smoke, in one scene they use drugs. Characters drink to excess, they get violent, and they brawl. There is the frequent threat of brutality and a brief scene of a bloody murder. A character gives an explicit account of torture and murder. There are angry and violent fight scenes between couples.


Families who see this movie should talk about the hope and despair that follow in the wake of a life-changing encounter. When Ennis describes how this one relationship had made him who he was, how might he imagine that he would have been different if he had never gone up on to Brokeback Mountain? In the scene in the trailer with “Junior”, how is Ennis different and what might this foretell about his future? Why is the question Ennis asks her so important? Do you think Ennis and Jack’s story would change today versus when the story is taking place?


Visual cues in this movie are very important and families might talk about these subtle touches, such as the way Ennis’ life shrinks as seen by ever smaller interior spaces, about the smiles -few and far between–and who they are between, and about eye contact, which Ennis in his isolation uses sparingly and Jack in his recklessness uses often.


Families looking for more of Lee’s elegant storytelling and atmospheric beauty will enjoy his early Taiwanese movies, especially Eat Drink Man Woman and the aforementioned Wedding Banquet. For those looking for more big sky, cowboy stories, McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is a splendid read and the miniseries is very well done.


A partial list of other films on the theme of socially unacceptable loves and the emotional wreckage that can ensue would include: the moving Boys Don’t Cry, the multi-tissue infidelity study Breaking the Waves, the lifelong affair of Same Time Next Year, or the inter-racial/homosexual loves in Far from Heaven. All of these movies have mature themes and are not for the very young or more sensitive viewers.


Thanks to guest critic AME.

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Drama Movies Romance
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