The Hours

Posted on December 19, 2002 at 2:42 pm

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, and prescription drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Suicides
Diversity Issues: Issue of women's options
Date Released to Theaters: 2002

In this story of three women of different eras whose lives connect and parallel each other, we see each of them struggle between despair and meaning. Small moments repeat themselves as the same themes shimmer through the single day we spend with them. We see them wake. We see them prepare for a special occasion and we see them worry about family members who are worrying about them.

Nicole Kidman transforms not just her nose but her skin tones, posture, and even somehow her presence to play author Virginia Woolf, who has moved to the country in an attempt to cure her deep depression. She is looking forward to a visit from her sister (Miranda Richardson), longing to return to London, and writing a book called Mrs. Dalloway about one day in the life of a woman who is giving a party.

Julianne Moore is Laura Brown, a post-WWII suburban mother, pregnant with her second child. It is her husband’s birthday and she is trying to make a cake for his celebration.

Meryl Streep plays Clarissa Vaughn, a present-day editor who is preparing a party for Richard (Ed Harris). He is a poet and novelist who is receiving a prestigious award. But he is very sick with AIDS and may not make it to the ceremony or the party.

Laura is reading Mrs. Dalloway. Richard’s nickname for Clarissa is “Mrs. Dalloway” because she shares her first name with the title character. Like Mrs. Dalloway, all three women get flowers. And, like her, all three share an emotional kiss with another woman. And all three try to find something to hold on to so that they can feel that their lives are worthwhile.

This is a smart, thoughtful, Oscar-bait movie, beautifully directed by Steven Daldry (“Billy Elliot”) and beautifully performed by Streep, Kidman, Moore, and supporting actors Harris, Claire Danes, and Toni Collette. Some audiences may find it pretentious, disturbing, or boring, but others will appreciate its subtlety and willingness to grapple with existential questions.

Parents should know that the movie has tense and sad situations, including two suicides and one near-suicide. A character speaks of having to have a serious operation. There are sexual references and situations including artificial insemination and same-sex kisses. Characters use strong language. Gay and bi-sexual characters are positively portrayed though sometimes anguished and isolated.

The Pulitzer-prize winning novel by Michael Cunningham is, according to the author, a tribute to Woolf’s view that “there are no ordinary lives, just inadequate ways of looking at them.” He says, too, that Woolf “spent her career writing the extraordinary, epic tales of people who seem to be doing nothing unusual at all. If most great writers scan the heavens like astrophysicists, Woolf looked penetratingly at the very small, like a microbiologist. Through her books, we understand that the workings of atomic particles are every bit as mysterious as the workings of galaxies – it all depends on whether you look out or look in.” Families who see this movie should talk about what this means, and how most of us are defined and define ourselves not by huge heroic adventures but by small connections and kindnesses. What did Virginia, Laura, and Clarissa find to give value and meaning to their lives? They have people to love and people who love them – what are they missing, and why? What is the significance of those three kisses, none of which seems to give the characters the comfort and intimacy they are seeking? Why does Cunningham give us three stories touched by the fictional character created by Woolf? Does he think that any of his characters are successful? How can you tell? What book could inspire you as Cunningham was inspired by Woolf?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Julia,” “Far from Heaven,” and another movie based on a Virginia Woolf book, “Orlando,” the story of a character who lives from Elizabethan times to the 20th century, first as a man and then as a woman. They might also like to see the movie version of “Mrs. Dalloway,” starring Vanessa Redgrave. And they might like to read more about Virginia Woolf and her friends, known as the Bloomsbury writers. This is a good place to start.

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Gangs of New York

Posted on December 19, 2002 at 2:35 pm

A
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Extreme graphic violence, many characters wounded and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2002

Martin Scorsese is a director of astonishing power and “Gangs of New York” is a movie of astonishing imagination, ambition, and scope. The first fifteen minutes are as dazzling as any images ever put on screen. The rest of the movie veers from brilliant to flawed, but it is unfailingly arresting, provocative, and powerful.

Scorsese has shown us his fascination with New York City (“New York, New York,” “New York Stories,” “The Age of Innocence”) and with violence (“Goodfellas”). Both themes come together in this story of the origins of New York, in the Civil War era where it was not yet a city, but “a furnace where a city might be forged.”

In a brief prologue, the leader of a gang called the Dead Rabbits is killed by the leader of “the natives” (those who have been in the United States for generations) in a huge and brutal skirmish. His young son, Amsterdam Vallon, is taken to an orphanage/reformatory. He returns twenty years later, determined to finish his father’s fight.

By this time, the man who killed his father, Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) runs just about everything in the sprawling area called “the Five Points.” Even the legendary Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), the real-life figure who presided over the most corrupt political machine in American history, has to ask Bill for his cooperation and support. Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives in the Five Points. Bill the Butcher controls just about everything. Amsterdam recognizes some of his father’s former supporters, including Happy Jack (John C. Reilly) and McGloin (“Billy Elliot’s” Gary Lewis). The only one who recognizes him is Johnny (Henry Thomas of “E.T.,” in the year’s worst haircut).

Amsterdam becomes a part of Bill’s inner circle, and finds himself drawn to him in spite of himself. Bill is magnetic and when he begins to treat Amsterdam like a son, the boy who lost his father cannot help but respond. As he says, “It’s a funny feeling being under the wing of a dragon. It’s warmer than you think.” Amsterdam also begins to care for a pickpocket/thief, and sometimes prostitute named Jenny (Cameron Diaz).

The struggle between good and evil is represented throughout the movie at every level, from the internal struggles within Amsterdam to the massive battles between the immigrants and the natives. Scorsese also puts the combat in Five Points within the context of the riots in New York after the Union began conscripting soldiers. His reach is over-ambitious at times, but he has a sure hand with the narrative and fills each frame with splendid images. Who else would have P.T. Barnum’s elephant lumbering through the city as combatants hurl themselves at each other? After the terrible fighting is over, Scorsese shows us how the city was delivered, in both senses of the word.

Superfluous voice-overs and flashbacks are very annoying, Thomas’ character is poorly conceived, and Cameron Diaz, though game, is badly miscast. DiCaprio just manages to stay on top of his role, but Day-Lewis gives a career-topping performance of such ferocity that the character almost bursts out of the screen.

Parents should know that the movie is extremely violent, with savagely brutal battles and oceans of blood. Bill the Butcher uses his expertise to cause the most painful damage possible. Characters are badly wounded and killed, including a hanging. The movie also has very strong language, including the n-word and sexual references and situations, including nudity, prostitution, a character in bed with three naked women, and a reference to abortion. Characters engage in every possible kind of corruption and illegality.

Families who see the movie should talk about how our history creates us. What does the movie tell you about present-day New York? Why does Amsterdam’s father tell him to leave the blood on the blade and never to look away? How does Scorsese show us parallels between the different gangs and between the gangs and other groups, like the Tammany hall politicians and the draft protesters?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Goodfellas.” They also might want to find out more about some of the real-life historical characters in the movie, like P.T. Barnum and “Boss” Tweed.

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Adaptation

Posted on December 19, 2002 at 2:31 pm

There are people who care so passionately about something that it fills them up completely. And then there are the rest of us, who can never lose themselves that way, people who divide their interest and attention and always hold a little bit of themselves back to observe and judge.

“Adaptation,” like the book that inspired it, is about both kinds of people and the way that each sometimes longs to be in the other category. The book is The Orchid Thief by New Yorker author Susan Orlean. By nature, by culture — by definition — a writer is at the furthest end of the scale in the observer/judge category. Orlean begins to write about Lohn Laroche, a man who even by the fevered standards of those utterly captured by “orchidelerium” is utterly obsessed. She realizes that she is not just writing about Laroche or about orchids but about the nature of obsession itself. In a way, she becomes obsessed with obsession.

The main character in the movie becomes obsessed with Susan Orlean’s obsession with John Laroche’s obsession with orchids. He is Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage), the Hollywood screenwriter hired to adapt Orlean’s book for the screen.

The real-life Kaufman wrote the beguilingly twisted “Being John Malcovich” and the all-but-unseen “Human Nature.” The movie opens with Kaufman’s attack of insecurity as he meets with a producer to discuss The Orchid Thief. As he struggles to adapt it, his self-doubt, underscored by the contrast with his confident identical twin brother Donald (also played by Cage) becomes an almost insurmountable obstacle. But the real obstacle is not his weakness, but his strength. While his brother casually dashes off a ludicrous screenplay about a serial killer with multiple personalities, utterly unconcerned about issues like consistency, Charlie agonizes about the imperviousness of Orlean’s book to adaptation. Finally, he decides that he movie should be about that problem, and he proceeds with such girl-on-a-ketchup-bottle-with-a-picture-of-a-girl-on-a-ketchup-bottle thoroughness that in the opening moments, the screenplay is credited to both (the real-life) Charlie and (the fictional) Donald.

Like “Malcovich,” this movie has moments of bizarre humor in the context of profound and genuine questions about identity, inversion, inspiration, obsession, and meaning and meta-meaning and meta-meta-meaning. Kaufman loves writing for the same reason Laroche loves the orchids — for their difficulty and fragility. It has some sharp Hollywood satire and some wildy funny plot twists. This is the kind of movie that makes fun of emotional turning points inspired by platitudes but then, when it throws one in (in the middle of a jungle environment that is real and symbolic), it’s a very nice one: “You are what you love, not what loves you.”

The performances are marvelous, particularly Meryl Streep as Orlean and Chris Cooper as Laroche. Ron Livingston’s performance as Charlie’s agent is a small comic gem, Brian Cox is masterful as a screenwriting expert, and Judy Greer is radiant as an orchid-loving, pie-serving waitress.

Parents should know that the movie has very mature material, including very strong language, brief nudity, sexual references and situations (including masturbation and a porn website), drinking, smoking, and drug use. There is a brief but very explicit scene of a baby being born. The movie has quasi-comic violence, but characters are injured and killed. Characters break the law, including stealing from nature preserves and making psychotropic drugs.

Families who see this movie should talk about how we chose our passions – or whether they choose us. Do Laroche and Orlean envy each other? Does Charlie envy Donald? Why did Charlie the real-life screenwriter divide himself in two in the movie portrayal? Why did he take real-life characters like Susan Orlean and John Laroche and have their movie characters do things that they never did? What do you learn from Laroche’s reason for not fixing his teeth? If you were going to re-create yourself as a movie character, what would you write? This movie both uses and makes fun of many movie conventions – which ones did you spot?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy seeing “Being John Malcovich” (very mature material) and other dark movies about Hollywood like “Day of the Locust” and “The Player.” They might also enjoy Cage in the face-switching movie “Face Off” and some other twin movies like “A Stolen Life” and “The Parent Trap.”

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Chicago

Posted on December 17, 2002 at 9:57 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Murders
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2002

Like the case put on by the defense in the leading lady’s murder trial, “Chicago” is all razzle-dazzle – and it is only about razzle-dazzle, too.

The story is based on a real-life jazz age murder trial that inspired a non-musical play and two movies (one starring Ginger Rogers) before “Cabaret’s” Kander & Ebb turned it into a musical. Bob Fosse’s original Broadway version of “Chicago” was not a smash success in 1975. But when it was remounted with choreography by Fosse’s companion, Ann Reinking, nineteen years later, it became a worldwide hit. In the era of OJ, the idea of the celebrity defendant putting on a show for the jury had more resonance. But times change, and “Chicago’s” particular brand of cynicism may not be as much a fit in 2003.

In the movie version of the musical, director/choreographer Rob Marshall channels Bob Fosse to produce slinky dance numbers and sinuous camera work. As in Fosse’s brilliant Cabaret, the musical numbers are staged as nightclub performances and separate from the action to serve as counterpoint and commentary, illuminating the story and underscoring the theme of show over substance. Perhaps it is show instead of substance, or even show to make us forget that there is no substance.

One reason it feels so empty at the core is that the story does not have a single likeable character, honest statement, unselfish motive, or generous gesture.

Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) is a former chorus girl turned unhappy wife who has gone from sleeping around (“they buy you dinner”) to fooling around (“they don’t”). She has an affair with a furniture salesman who promises to introduce her to a guy who works in a nightclub. She wants to be a star. But when the guy dumps her and tells her he never knew anyone at the nightclub, she shoots him.

In jail, she meets a cadre of women who killed the men in their lives. They explain how it all happened in “He Had It Coming.” Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta Jones) is a headliner who shot her sister and boyfriend when she found them together. She is the jail’s biggest star until lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) takes Roxie’s case and sells her to the media as an innocent bride corrupted by jazz. The ultimate showbiz razzle-dazzle is the trial, complete with costumes, props, script, and 12 very important audience members – the jury.

I have never been a fan of the play, which I found sour in tone and superficial in theme. The movie version does not add any depth. But the razzle does indeed dazzle and the musical numbers are sensational. Zellweger is in fine form in both senses of the word – that Bridget Jones weight gain is long gone. If she is not quite up to the role, perhaps she doesn’t have it in her to portray such a trashy, despicable character. Zeta Jones, with a Lulu haircut and legs made for sparkly tights, is mesmerizingly beautiful and alone has all the razzle-dazzle a movie needs. Gere clearly enjoys his return to his musical theater roots and handles the musical numbers well, especially his big tap dance. Queen Latifah as the prison warden has a lot of snap and verve and a fabulous voice. But none are a match for the real dancers in the chorus.

Parents should know that the movie has some strong language and sexual references and situations, briefly explicit. A possible pregnancy by a lover is an element of the plot. All characters are amoral, even sleazy.

Families who see this movie should talk about some of the current celebrity trials, like Robert Blake and the corporate scandals. How can we ensure fair treatment of all defendants, regardless of fame or fortune?

Families who enjoy this movie might like to see Ginger Rogers in Roxie Hart and Moulin Rouge. They may also want to try Cabaret.

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The Wild Thornberrys Movie

Posted on December 17, 2002 at 9:42 am

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Tense scenes and peril
Diversity Issues: Strong female characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2002

“The Wild Thornberrys” are a family that travels to exotic locales all over the world to film nature documentaries for television. The on-camera talent is the relentlessly cheerful father, Nigel (voice of Tim Curry) with a frightfully posh, “Mumsy, do have a spot of tea”-style British accent. Behind the camera is the efficient but affectionate mother, Marianne (voice of Jodi Carlisle). The heroine of the story, though, is their daughter, Eliza (voice of “Party of Five’s” Lacy Chabert), a kind of Dr. Dolittle in braids and braces. She can understand and communicate in animal language thanks to special powers given to her by a shaman, on condition that she never tell anyone about it. Eliza has an older sister, Debbie, who would much rather be at the mall talking with other teenagers about what is and isn’t cool.

The family also has a pet chimpanzee named Darwin (voice of Tom Kane), who is Eliza’s best friend. And they have adopted a toddler named Donnie (voice of rock star Flea). It is an amusing twist that the chimp is more human than monkey, almost excessively civilized while the human baby (as explained in another movie, raised by orangutans) is more monkey than human and just about feral.

The Thornberrys are filming in Africa. One night, while Eliza is playing with some cheetah cubs, one is snatched via helicopter by a poacher. Eliza risks her life to save the cub, but is knocked to the ground when the poacher cuts the rope ladder. Her parents, worried for her safety, send her to England to boarding school and Darwin goes with her by hiding in her suitcase. But she and Darwin return to Africa when she learns that the poachers are after a herd of elephants. It’s up to Eliza to save the day, and it will require great courage and the willingness to sacrifice anything, even her ability to talk to animals.

Like “Rugrats,” created by the same team, “The Wild Thornberrys” is a popular series on Nickeoldeon. So, like “Rugrats,” it is wholesome enough to appeal to parents and funny enough to appeal to kids. The series is affiliated with the conservation group the National Wildlife Federation and so occasionally there are nuggets of nature facts thrown in to add a little substance. Eliza is in the grand tradition of adventuresome pre-adolescent fictional heroines like Alice, Pippi, Dorothy, and Pollyanna. She is brave, smart, loyal, and empathetic. She has good judgment most of the time, but when she doesn’t, she learns from her mistakes.

The voice talent is first-rate, including Rupert Everett, Lynn Redgrave, Marisa Tomei, and Alfre Woodward. The action sequences are handled well and there are some witty moments, as when Debbie tries to explain to her father that she is trying to be sarcastic. It is nothing more than a supersized version of the television series projected onto a theater screen, but it never pretends to be anything more and is relatively pleasant for children and relatively painless for parents.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Eliza and Debbie feel so differently about the animals. They should also talk to children about why Eliza’s decision to run away from school without telling her parents was wrong, no matter how worthwhile her reasons. They should discuss the way that Eliza keeps a very big secret from her family and how to know when you should not keep a secret from your parents. Some families will also want to discuss the religious figure who bestows “powers” on Eliza and how we can respect and find common ground with other religions but still remain true to our own faith.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Rugrats: The Movie” and “The Crocodile Hunter.”

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