The Patriot

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Mild
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Very graphic violence, including battle scenes, suicide, children in peril, major characters killed
Diversity Issues: White character learns to respect black character in slavery era South
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

As I watched this movie, I kept thinking of the tagline from “Jaws 4:” “This time it’s personal.” Mel Gibson plays Benjamin Martin, a veteran of the British army who was a hero during the French and Indian war. Twenty years later, he has no love for the monarchy but some skepticism about the alternative. He asks, “Why should I trade one tyrant 3000 miles away for 3000 tyrants one mile away?” and “I haven’t got the luxury of principles.” More than that, his memories of the atrocities of war, his own as well as the enemy’s, and his passion for protecting his seven children won’t allow him to fight again.

But that would not be much of a movie, would it? And we get a portent in the very first scene, when Benjamin fails in his umpteenth effort to make a rocking chair for himself. And there is a long Hollywood tradition of reluctant heroes who are forced into violence, thus giving us the best of both worlds with a hero whose heart is in the right place, but whose muscles and gun are, too. So, Benjamin has to find a reason to fight. It would have been nice if that reason had something to do with liberty and democracy, but instead it is about revenge. Benjamin’s son is killed by a British soldier. So Benjamin throws guns to his younger boys, straps several onto himself, and goes off to fight his own personal war, a sort of Robin Hood crossed with Terminator. The only heartfelt struggle for independence in the movie is teen-age rebellion.

It’s one thing when producing/directing team Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich give us a movie like “Independence Day,” with bad guy aliens who are pure evil. But it is another thing when they take an actual historical event and actual historical characters and play fast and loose with the facts. The bad guy in this movie is Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs), a villain so reprehensible that he not only burns down a church filled with civilians, he enjoys it. He makes Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil look small-time. This level of cartoonish exaggeration makes it harder for us to engage with the characters.

That aside, though, this is a very enjoyable summer popcorn movie, sumptuously and excitingly filmed, and rousingly entertaining. It faced quite a challenge, because there has never been a successful movie about the Revolutionary War. One reason is that it is not very cinematic. The dress and weaponry of that time seems more suited to 4th of July parades than to an action movie. The muskets took forever to reload. And there are other troubling issues. Many of the heroes of that era were slave holders, and thus impossibly unsympathetic by today’s standards. Those issues are handled capably. The action sequences play well, and the black characters are treated with as much dignity as possible. A French soldier says to one of the slaveholders, “Your sense of freedom is as pale as your skin.” And a slave who is given to the militia by his owner demonstrates his courage and honor, becoming a valued colleague.

Gibson delivers, as always. He is utterly compelling whether he is hacking an opponent to death, looking tenderly at a tiny daughter who will not speak to him, or agonizing over his past sins. Fellow Aussie Heath Ledger is superb as oldest son Gabriel, at first impatient to join the fight, later a brave and mature soldier and an ardent suitor. Lisa Brenner, as the object of his affection, is radiantly lovely. Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography perfectly captures the colors and textures of the era.

Families who watch this movie should talk about the real origins of the Revolutionary War. They might want to look up Francis Marion, known as the Swamp Fox, who, like the fictional Benjamin Martin, defeated the British soldiers by using his knowledge of the local topography and by staying away from open-field battles. It is also worth talking about the notions of rules within wartime, as shown in the negotiations between Benjamin and Cornwallis. How do enemies agree on rules? What should those rules be? Why did Benjamin refuse to give his name? Why did Cornwallis care about limiting the damage to civilians?

Parents should know that this is a very violent movie, with many graphic battle scenes, vividly portrayed. A character commits suicide when his family is killed. There are some gentle sexual references in a scene depicting the colonial custom of “bundling bags” for courting couples.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “The Friendly Persuasion” (about a Quaker family during the Civil War) and the most successful Emmerich-Devlin production, “Independence Day.”

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Thirteen Days

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Very tense situations, character killed in combat
Diversity Issues: Accurately depicts all-white and male historical characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

For once the tag line has it just right: “You’ll never know how close we came.”

It may seem like a movie script, but it really happened. American planes took photos of Soviet missiles in Cuba, a “massively destabilizing move.” If they had been armed, they could have wiped out most of the mainland US population in five minutes. President John F. Kennedy had written a book while he was in college about the failure of England to respond to German aggression when it still might have been possible to prevent World War II. But he had also made his own mistake — a bad one — by responding too aggressively at the Bay of Pigs. Advisors like Dean Acheson and the military urged him to bomb the sites. But Adlai Stevenson says, “One of us in the room should be a coward,” and he asks the President to come up with a diplomatic solution. Kennedy knows better than to fight the last war, but he is not sure how to fight the next one.

There is no time spent on introductions or exposition, giving the story a sense of immediacy and urgency. It will leave audiences reminding themselves that we are still here, so it must have turned out all right. The President and his advisors argue about what to do (“Bombing them sure would feel good!”), interrupted by “just as usual” events to avoid letting the press or the Soviets suspect that anything was going on. When President Kennedy tells Chicago Mayor Daley that he “wouldn’t miss this event for the world,” we appreciate the literal meaning of his words.

Producer Kevin Costner plays a real person, Kennedy staffer Kenny O’Donnell, but the character combines the roles and actions of several people and essentially exists to help tell the story as efficiently as possible. Most of the time, he blends in with a large, capable cast of character actors (though he seems to make himself too important in a pep talk scene and at the end there is a sort of “Three Musketeers” shot that seems inappropriate).

Parents should know that the movie features brief strong language. Most of the movie is very tense, and a character is killed.

This is an outstanding movie, with much for families to talk about. Parents and grandparents should tell children any memories they may have of the Cuban missile crisis. They should talk about what we do when we have hard choices to make — President Kennedy and his brother, his closest advisor, listen to advice from experts, but, as the President says, “There is something immoral about abandoning your own judgment.” At the end of the day, he realizes that “there’s no wise old men; there’s just us.” Why does Kenny O’Donnell say that the only word in politics is “loyalty?” Why did the Soviets send a message through a reporter instead of using diplomatic channels? Why was it important for Adlai Stevenson to make a strong statement at the UN? Why did they ignore the second letter from Kruschev? How did that change things? What must someone do in order to direct soldiers to take actions that may get them killed? Who told the truth and who lied? Why?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Air Force One” and some of the books and documentaries about President Kennedy and his brother, Robert Kennedy. DVD note: This first release from Infinifilm demonstrates shows us why the DVD technology was developed. It is packed with extras that are genuinely thrilling, from commentary by the real-life participants to a copy of the shooting script. Families with DVD players should consider this treasure for their permanent collection.

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What Women Want

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language (note: stronger than in the previews)
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character drinks a lot, character smokes pot when stressed
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril, suicidal character
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

Mel Gibson shows us just what women want in his first-ever romantic comedy — we want Mel Gibson.

Mel plays Nick Marshall, a Chicago advertising executive who is successful at work (he thinks up ideas like the Swedish bikini team) and with the ladies, whom he wheedles and charms but never really thinks about. His ex-wife (Lauren Holly) says that he never understood her, but, even on the day of her marriage to someone else, she still softens when she speaks about him. His 15-year-old daughter says that he is more like an “Uncle Dad” than a father.

Nick is pretty sure he has it all figured out, until the day that instead of getting promoted to Creative Director, he gets a new boss, Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt). It turns out that the advertising agency needs to appeal to women consumers, and the Swedish bikini team just does not send the right message. Darcy hands out a pink box filled with products for the staff to explore, and Nick does his best, experimenting with mascara, leg wax, nail polish, and exfoliater. But an accidental near-electrocution leaves him with a new power — the ability to hear women’s thoughts.

At first horrified, Nick realizes that there are some real advantages to being the only straight man in the world who knows how women think. He uses it to manipulate women, including Darcy and a pretty coffee shop waitress (Marisi Tomei). But it turns out that women do not think about Nick the way that he thought they did, and he is forced to think about himself in a new way. Nick has never listened to women before, but now he can’t help it. He sees the damage that he has done, and he begins to correct it. And of course he begins to fall in love with Darcy and to connect to his daughter.

Gibson is sheer heaven in the movie, dancing to Frank Sinatra in his apartment, watching his daughter try on prom dresses, or just reacting to snippits of thoughts he hears from girls, women, and even female dogs as he walks down the street. He has the physical grace of a leading man and the timing and unselfconsciousness of a comic. The script sags in places, but Gibson keeps the movie floating in the clouds.

Parents should know that the movie has stronger language than indicated by the previews. Nick manipulates the waitress into having sex with him by reading her thoughts. He is apalled to hear her thoughts in bed and find out what a poor lover he is. So, he listens to her thoughts and is able to give her an extraordinary experience which leaves her deeply touched. He then forgets all about her, until she confronts him a week later. He take the only out he can think of to explain why he had not called her — he tells her that he is gay.

Nick hears his daughter thinking that she has promised to have sex with her boyfriend on prom night. After an awkward attempt to talk to her about it, he neglects her until crisis strikes. Fortunately, she manages to make the right decision without him, and he is there after the fact to provide some support. Nick drinks a lot, and another character responds to stress by smoking a joint. In an embarassing moment, Darcy says, “A smart person would get very drunk now.” And a character plans to commit suicide.

Families should talk about whether it is hard for men and women to figure each other out, and how they can do better. They may also want to talk about the pressure Nick’s 15-year-old daughter feels to have sex with her 18-year-old boyfriend and how she decides what to do about it. They should also talk about how a small act of kindness can be very important to someone who is coping with depression. (But make sure that children know that clinical depression is a serious illness that cannot be “cured” by a few kind words.)

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “You’ve Got Mail.”

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

A
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Johnny has a serious drinking problem.
Violence/ Scariness: Inexplicit scene of Katie in labor may scare younger children, who should be reassured; very sad when Johnny dies.
Diversity Issues: Issues relating to assimilation, poverty.
Date Released to Theaters: 1945

Plot: Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner), an imaginative and sensitive girl, lives with her family in a Brooklyn tenement. She adores her father, Johnny (James Dunn), a dreamer with a drinking problem, and respects but resents her down-to-earth mother, Katie (Dorothy McGuire). The family struggles to rise from poverty. Francie and her brother must each read a page aloud each night from the Bible and Shakespeare, and their parents are intent on their becoming the first family members to graduate from grade school. Francie dreams of going to a better school in a wealthier neighborhood, and her father makes it possible by telling the principal that she is moving in with a fictitious wealthy aunt. A teacher there encourages her to pursue her love of writing. But Katie is pregnant again, and decides that Francie should leave school. When Johnny dies, Francie is devastated. She is angry with her mother, feeling that her mother did not love Johnny enough, and does not love her enough either. But when her mother has the baby, Francie sees that she loves them both, and that Katie hates having to be practical and “hard.” A kind policeman asks permission to court Katie, and Francie knows that their life will be easier, and that her father and what they shared will be with her always.

Discussion: This family has a great deal of love but a lot of difficulty showing it. Although they clearly love each other, Johnny and Katie have too many shattered expectations to accept tenderness from each other, as we see when he comes home with the food from the party and sees her with her hair down, and when she tries to tell him how much she likes hearing him sing “Annie Laurie.”

They have trouble being honest and direct about their circumstances and their feelings. They have to move to a cheaper apartment, but insist — to themselves and to everyone else — that they are doing it to get more sunlight. When Katie decides that she wants her sister back in her life, she sends the message via the insurance collector. When Francie tries raising the subject of the school she wants to attend in a roundabout way, Katie tells her to speak more directly. But Johnny lets her tell him in her own way, and, over Katie’s objections, makes it possible for her dream to come true. Francie has a hard time understanding that Katie loves her and relies on her, until Katie is in labor and almost does not know what she is saying. This is a good opportunity to talk about the ways that families do (and do not) communicate with each other. Older kids may also want to discuss the impact that Johnny’s drinking and unreliability had on Katie and why it was different for Francie.

Questions for Kids:

· What does the title refer to?

· What did Francie’s teacher mean about the difference between imagination and pipe dreams?

· Why did the members of the family have such a hard time talking to each other about what mattered to them?

· Why does the family use the word “sick” to describe Johnny’s alcoholism? Why does Johnny seem so sad when Francie talks with him about being “sick”?

· Why was it so important to Kate that the death certificate be changed?

Connections: James Dunn won an Oscar for his performance. Joan Blondell appeared as a brassy second lead in a number of early musicals, including “Footlight Parade” and “Gold Diggers of 1933.” Peggy Ann Garner is also lovely as the young “Jane Eyre.”

Activities: Kids should read the book, by Betty Smith, who based it on her own childhood.

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Blade II

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril and violence
Diversity Issues: Strong black hero
Date Released to Theaters: 2002

An ordinary sequel to the first Wesly Snipes vehicle, based on the Marvel Comics superhero, this bloody punch-fest lacks the charming antagonists that livened the original movie.

Wesley Snipes plays the title character, Blade, a half-vampire whose mother was bitten hours before he was born. This mixed parentage gives him superhuman virtues without the traditional vampire sensitivities to sunlight, silver and garlic, which he uses, along with an arsenal of hi- tech weaponry, to avenge himself on the vampire community for their manifold sins.

When last we left our hero, his mentor and gunsmith Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) has been vampirized and abducted by the undead, and held suspended in a blood-support tank to endure eternal torture. With the help of his new idea-man, Blade breaks Whistler out, and cures him of the vampire virus with an injection and a 24 hour dry-out program.

Meanwhile, a mutant super-vampire sneaks into a corrupt Czech blood bank, and eats the vampire-phlebotomists with his daringly different super- vampire bloodsucking anatomy.

The waxy emperor is forced to offer a truce to Blade, in order to fight their mutual enemy. But it is immediately clear that the truce can only be temporary.

Snipes is occasionally funny, though not as often as he should be. Most of the rest of the cast is not funny, except Ron Perlman, re-doing his lovable thug routine (Cronos, Alien Resurrection) as an evil vampire hitman.

Parents should know that the movie has intense gore, which falls just on this side of a slasher film. All kinds of decapitations, bloodletting, tracheotomies, etc., are inflicted on various human-like beings. Although the vampires combust in a cloud of sparks when killed, it comes too late to avoid seeing brains, hearts and tendons, and oceans of blood. Blade, at one point, gets strapped to an impalement table, which shoots spikes through various limbs and organs. There is also a scene of horrible vampire self-mutilation. Even by action-movie standards, it is very graphic. Characters use strong language and there are sexual situations. Interestingly, in the original Blade, the vampires were a rainbow nation of evil with many different ethnic groups represented, but in Blade II, there are two ethnic vampires on Blade’s hit-squad, but none in the crowd scenes, or as antagonists.

Families who see this movie should talk about its themes of betrayal and loyalty. For what it’s worth, Blade is a black superhero. He calls the shots, is never condescended to, and shows loyalty, courage and integrity. Parents may want to discuss the nature of wish-fulfillment, and the way violence and problem-solving are conflated in the movies versus the way they interact in real life.

Families who enjoyed this movie will also enjoy the original “Blade” and “Darkman.”

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