Pleasantville

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

In “Dave” and “Big” screenwriter Gary Ross gave us characters whose innocent honesty and goodness revealed and transformed the adult world. Now, as both screenwriter and director of “Pleasantville,” he has created teen-aged twins who are transported into an idyllic black and white 1950’s television sitcom where everything is perpetually sunny and cheerful, married couples sleep in twin beds, the basketball team never loses, and messy complications simply don’t exist. Tobey Maguire (David) and Reese Witherspoon (Jennifer) are well aware of the messy complications of the modern world. David has retreated into reruns of “Pleasantville,” a television show that makes “Andy of Mayberry” and “Father Knows Best” look like hard-hitting docudramas. And Jennifer is something of a self-described “slut.” When a mysterious TV repairman played by “Andy of Mayberry’s” Don Knotts gives them a magic remote control, David and Jennifer find themselves transformed into Pleasantville’s Bud and Mary Sue. As the twins interact with Pleasantville’s black and white world, they cannot help revealing its limits and ultimately transforming it. “Mary Sue” mischeviously introduces the concept of sex to her high school classmates, and then, more sensitively, to her Pleasantville mother (Joan Allen). “Bud” tells them about a world where the roads go on to other places, where the weather is not always sunny and mild, where people can decide to do things differently than they have before. As the characters open themselves up to change, they and their surroundings begin to bloom into color, in one of the most magical visual effects ever put onto film.

But some residents of Pleasantville are threatened and terrified by the changes. “No colored” signs appear in store windows. New rules are imposed. When the twins’ Pleasantville father (William H. Macy) finds no one there to hear his “Honey, I’m home!” he does not know what to do. He wants his wife to go back to black and white.

At first, Jennifer thinks that it is sex that turns the black and white characters into color. But when she stays “pasty,” she realizes that the colors reveal something more subtle and meaningful — the willingness to challenge the accepted and opening oneself up to honest reflection about one’s own feelings and longings.

High schoolers may appreciate the way that the twins, at first retreating in different ways from the problems of the modern world, find that the rewards of the examined life make it ultimately worthwhile. Topics for discussion include the movie’s parallels to Nazi Germany (book burning) and American Jim Crow laws (“No colored” signs), and the challenges of independent thinking. NOTE: parents should know that the movie contains fairly explicit references to masturbation (and a non-explicit depiction) and to teen and adulterous sex.

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Drama Family Issues Fantasy

Price of Glory

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

In the 1940’s, this movie would have starred John Garfield and been on the lower half of a double feature. In 2000, it stars Jimmy Smits as the father who pushes his three boys to be championship boxers, because his own dreams of being a champion were dashed. Despite the attractive performances, the movie is k-o’d in the first round by a cliche-filled script with dialogue that has a higher specific gravity than a heavyweight contender.

Come on, recite along with me as papa Jimmy Smits argues with mama Maria del Mar: “Do colleges give scholarships for boxing?” “I’m just thinking about their future.” “So am I, damnit!” “I’m their manager!” “No, Arturo, you’re their father!” “It’s not about the money — it’s about being the best!”

Smits plays Arturo Ortega, scion of “The Fighting Ortegas,” each of whom faces his own challenges. Sonny, the oldest, wants to marry his girlfriend and make some of his own decisions. Jimmy struggles to gain his father’s approval, and, when he feels that is impossible, becomes involved with drugs. Johnny, the youngest and most talented, wants to be his father’s “avenging angel” and make up to him not only for the disappointment of his own career, but also for his disappointment in the older two boys.

Arturo lives in a border town. He tells a fight promoter, “Every day, I see people cross that line looking for something better.” Arturo has a clearly established line in his own mind that he wants to cross — his way, in a Cadillac, as the father of champions. And he wants to manage his sons all the way to the title.

But Arturo knows more about teaching boxing than he does about managing a boxing career. And he knows more about both than he does about being a father. Someone has to be killed before he can admit that though he tried to give his sons more, “maybe less would have been better, less of me.”

Parents should know that in addition to very rough boxing matches, there is some gun violence and drug use, and that the language is strong for a PG-13, really on the edge of R. Families who see this movie should talk about how parents find a way to balance their dreams for their kids with the kids dreams for themselves.

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Drama Family Issues Sports

Splendor in the Grass

Posted on June 14, 2002 at 4:14 pm

In this classic of repressed teenage sexuality, set in the 1920s, Bud (Warren Beatty) and Deanie (Natalie Wood) are high school students who are newly in love and breathless with desire, physical and emotional. Deenie’s parents are unable to give her any guidance. They make her feel ashamed of her feelings. Her mother says, “Your father never laid a hand on me until we were married and then I just gave in because a wife has to. A woman doesn’t enjoy these things the way a man does. She just lets her husband come near her in order to have children.” Bud’s father, Ace (Pat Hingle) tells Bud that there are two kinds of girls, “good” and “bad,” and the “bad” ones are fair game. This apparently applies to Bud’s sister, whose reputation has been “ruined” by having sex and has come home from college in disgrace. At a party, she drinks too much and has sex with a group of men.

Deanie will not have sex with Bud, and they break up. Both suffer breakdowns. His is moral; he has sex with another girl, known to be “easy.” Hers is emotional; overcome with despair and self-loathing, Deanie has a breakdown and becomes a patient at a mental hospital. Ace will not permit Bud to go to agricultural college and insists that he go to Yale. But when the stock market crashes, Ace is wiped out and kills himself. Bud leaves college.

When Deanie comes home from the hospital, her mother does not want her to see Bud. Deanie’s father tells her how to find him, and, with some friends, Deanie drives out to the shack where Bud lives with his wife. Deanie and Bud speak, briefly, achieving some resolution, enabling them to go on, if not as they had once hoped, at least grateful for what they have had. Deanie remembers the words of the poem she learned in school: “Though nothing can bring back the hour/of splendor in the grass,/Glory in the flower,/We will grieve not, but rather find/Strength in what remains behind.”

This Oscar -winning screenplay by William Inge was immensely controversial when the film was made. (A brief glimpse of nudity as Deanie ran from the bathtub was cut from the final print.) Most teenagers face a different set of issues today, but they are presented with no less hypocrisy or more reassurance than the messages to kids like Bud and Deanie. Instead of being told that sexual feelings are non-existent or evidence of being “bad,” today’s teenagers often get the message that they are “bad” or lacking if they do not feel ready to engage in sexual activity freely almost as soon as they enter high school. The issues of honesty in communicating about sexuality and the overwhelming confusion of teenage passion remain important and valid, and this movie can provide a good opening for a talk about what has changed and how teenagers feel about the decisions and the consequences Bud and Deanie face in this movie.

Talk about:
• Why does Ace make a distinction between “good” and “bad” girls? Do people make that distinction today? What makes a girl “bad”?
• Is anyone honest with Bud and Deanie?
• What do Bud and Deanie mean when they say that they don’t think about happiness anymore?
• Why did Deanie refuse to have sex with Bud? Why did Bud refuse to have sex with Deanie? What should two people think about before they make the decision to have sex?

In another classic movie of teenage sexual repression, “A Summer Place,” Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue have sex, and she becomes pregnant. Dee’s mother is repressed to the point of hysteria, but her father, who has left his wife to be reunited with his own teenage love, is sympathetic and supportive, all to lush and unforgettable theme music by Max Steiner. William Inge (who appears as the minister) won an Oscar for the screenplay. He also wrote “Picnic,” “Bus Stop,” “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs,” all about vulnerable people who must struggle to find intimacy and happiness, and especially appealing to sensitive teens.

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Classic Drama Romance

The Quiet Man

Posted on March 9, 2002 at 1:09 pm

I grew up in Chicago, a city that really knows how to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. There’s the parade, of course, and every year they dye the Chicago River green. And every year WGN shows The Quiet Man, the unabashed love letter to Ireland made by director John Ford with John Wayne and Irish and Irish-American actors like Maureen O’Hara and Barry Fitzgerald. Some people think the movie is sexist, but they ignore the movie’s key themes about how important it is for both men and women to believe that they bring something important to the relationship. In the words of Michaleen Oge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald), it is about a love story that is impetuous and Homeric. It has passion, humor, glorious Technicolor, and one of the greatest fight scenes ever put on film. It’s a great way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

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Drama Romance
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