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’s the Worst That Could Happen?

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril
Diversity Issues: Multi-racial cast, stereotyped gay character
Date Released to Theaters: 2001

This movie has a terrific cast and some very funny moments. But there is an overall slackness and an underlying cynicism that takes this outside of the category of mindless fun and makes it uncomfortably distasteful.

Martin Lawrence plays a thief named Kevin who falls in love with a pretty English anthropologist named Amber (Carmen Ejogo). She gives him a lucky ring that once belonged to her father. He and a pal named Berger (John Leguizamo) break into what they think is the deserted vacation home of Max (Danny De Vito), only to find that Max is there, having an assignation with Miss September. Max captures Kevin and calls the police. When they arrest Kevin, Max sees the ring and tells the police that it is his. They believe him, and make Kevin give Max the ring. Kevin spends the rest of the movie trying to get revenge – and trying to get the ring back, too.

The movie’s underlying premise is that everyone is a thief and that the only difference between the businessman, the politician, the lawyer, and the man who steals is that at least the professional thief is honest about what he does. Some people, like Donald Westlake, the author of the book that inspired this movie, can make that premise seem wickedly delicious. But screenwriter and director Sam Weisman, remove the satiric twists to make it into a star vehicle for Lawrence and the result lacks any sense of dramatic build-up. Instead of two wily adversaries, it is so one-sided in favor of Lawrence’s character that any narrative arc evaporates. It’s just a string of skits.

That might be all right – some of the skits are pretty funny and I don’t insist on logic or political correctness or even trivial consistencies in a movie. But there is something unsettling about the underlying assumptions here, especially the smug self-righteousness of the thieves (including Max). Ask us to believe that Kevin is a crook and the hero of the movie, and we can accept it. But it is a little harder to accept that his girlfriend is an educated, loyal, devoted person who is happy to be a “perky” waitress and wait up nights for Kevin to come home from a hard night of packing other people’s things into his bag of loot. The mincing gay detective and the evil businessman who uses Yiddish and his long-suffering lawyer and mistress are tired stereotypes. And too much simply does not make sense. The last scene in particular is nothing more than a chance to put Lawrence in a huge Afro and pretend that everyone is living happily ever after.

Parents should know that the movie includes drinking, smoking, swearing, and sexual references and situations. A woman has sex with a man who does her a favor, and this is shown as charming and even romantic. The stereotypes mentioned above will make many families uncomfortable.

Families who see this movie should talk about the idea that everyone is a thief of one kind or another, and what they think would be a fair resolution.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy some of Lawrence’s other movies, like “Big Momma’s House” and “Bad Boys” (both for more mature audiences).

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A River Runs Through It

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Mild
Alcohol/ Drugs: Paul has a drinking problem
Violence/ Scariness: Mostly off-screen
Diversity Issues: Paul brings a half-Cheyenne date into a bar that does not permit Indians
Date Released to Theaters: 1992

Writer Norman Maclean’s autobiographical story of growing up in Montana with his brother Paul begins, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.”

Their Presbyterian minister father taught Norman and his brother Paul schoolwork, religion, and fishing as though they were all one subject. He was strict and thorough in all of those lessons. Reverand Mclean believed that no one who did not know how to fish properly should be permitted to disgrace a fish by catching it. He used a metronome to time their four-count stroke between the positions of ten o’clock and two o’clock.

Norman, though more sober, loved the wild streak in Paul that made him “tougher than any man alive” but feared that it would destroy him. And it did. While Norman becomes a professor of English literature and falls in love with Jessie Burns (Emily Lloyd), Paul becomes a reporter and gets into trouble drinking and gambling. Norman is called by the police to get Paul out of jail, and ultimately, he is called again when Paul is killed.

One of the tragic realizations of growing up is that you can love someone without being able to understand or save them. Like Norman, Jessie has a brother who is self-destructive, though his part of the story is played more for comedy. In today’s terms, Jessie’s mother would be considered an enabler because she does not impose any limits on her son, and does not insist that he recognize the consequences of his behavior.

Parents should know that the movie has some mature material, including family tragedy, alcohol abuse, a sexual situation (nudity), and prostitutes. A Native American woman is insulted by bigots.

Families who see this movie should discuss what they would do in Norman’s position. What would you have said to Paul? When? Why didn’t Norman say those things? If you were Jessie, what would you say to Neal? Why was it important to have Neal’s story in the movie? What does Norman mean when he says that his father saw no difference between religion and flyfishing?

Director Redford also addresses the theme of loving families who do not communicate pain well, with one member of the family suffering the consequences in two other movies, “Ordinary People” and “Quiz Show.”

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Black Knight

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Strong language for a PG-13
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sword and arrow battles (characters injured and killed), beheading, fist fights
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2001

Martin Lawrence is a very funny guy who is usually a lot better than the movies around him, which tend to play as though half the script reads, “Martin enters and does funny things.” This time, the material comes a little closer to his talents, in a story inspired by Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”

Lawrence plays Jamal, an employee of a run-down medieval theme park who is vastly more attentive to brushing his teeth than he is to anything relating to his job. When a rival theme park called Castle World moves to his neighborhood, he tells his boss that it is time for her to sell out and retire. She tries to explain that she has a commitment to creating good jobs in the community, but he does not understand.

Then, grabbing for a mysterious amulet while cleaning the moat, he falls into the water and comes up in a lake. The people he meets are so authentically medieval in dress and speech that he thinks he must have landed at Castle World. But it turns out that he has somehow landed in 1328, in the court of a usurper king who has mistaken him for a Moorish messenger sent by a Duke.

Lawrence gets to show various kinds of astonishment at the odd world of the medieval folks (They behead people! And they have awful bathrooms!), and they get to show various kinds of astonishment at his behavior (of course he has to be asked by the king to show off his riding and dancing skills). He gets interested in a pretty chambermaid who is a part of a conspiracy to bring back the real queen. And the daughter of the usurper king goes after Martin, especially after he teaches her some new kissing techniques. It’s a classic comedy set-up that could easily have starred any movie comedian skilled in pratfalls, from Buster Keaton to Jerry Lewis to Jim Carrey.

There is a lot of slapstick, a little romance, fights with swords, arrows, and a couple with fists, and it all moves along pretty painlessly, helped by some good gags and Lawrence’s facility with physical comedy.

Parents should know that the movie has very strong language for a PG-13, including a slightly obscured four-letter word that normally would get an R-rating. In addition to the violence mentioned above (mostly comic and bloodless, but with real injuries and deaths), there is a beheading. There are a number of sexual references and situations, including a discussion of “French” kissing, characters making sounds so that people nearby will think they are having sex, and a man who has sex with a woman because he thinks she is a different woman. Minority and female characters are smart and brave (though not always seen that way by others).

Families who see this movie might like to see some of the other versions of this story, including one starring Whoopi Goldberg called A Knight in Camelot.

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