The Human Stain

Posted on October 20, 2003 at 2:25 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters drink and smoke
Violence/ Scariness: Characters in peril, character deaths
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

“The Human Stain” is a flawed but engrossing story of the way that people try to escape their pasts and the way that carefully constructed new personas, no matter how scrubbed and burnished, cannot erase the stain of the original.

A classics professor named Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) lectures his students about the Iliad. He peers into the classroom to call on two who are not present. The professor asks whether they exist at all, since he has never seen them in class. “Are they spooks?”

Instead of the mild “humor the professor” chuckles he expects, he is hit with a formal complaint. The two missing students are African-American and for them “spook” is a racist epithet.

The professor responds to the charge of racism with what traditionally constitutes evidence. As a scholar, he reaches for a reference book. The first dictionary definition of the word “spook” is a ghost. But the second is a racist epithet. The professor points out that since he had never seen the students, he did not know what race they were and thus could not have meant the word to be racist.

This rebuttal might have been persuasive in most circumstances. But this story is set in the year of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, “the summer of sanctimony” after the fall of communism and before the horror of terrorism. This was an era in which quibbles about a term like “spooks” seemed more important than whether the students had actually attended class. No one speaks up in his defense. No one points to his long-time record of support for minorities on campus.

The professor has one more rebuttal, probably the most powerful of all in a world in which the self-appointed victim is allowed to define the crime. The professor is a light-skinned African-American who has been passing as white since he was in school. People are allowed to say things about their own group that they cannot say about others. But Coleman does not claim that right. Maybe he thinks it would get him into even worse trouble. Maybe he thinks that after living for 40 years as white he no longer has that right. Or maybe, as a professor of classics, he knows enough about hubris and irony and tragic flaws (and the way that great conflicts arise over women) to believe that this idiotic charge is what, in the end, he deserves.

Coleman leaves the college. He tries to deal with the injustice of the accusation of racism by writing about it, again responding as a scholar. But it does not work. He tries to interest a reclusive novelist, Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinese) in the story. Although they become good friends, Zuckerman does not want to write that story. And then Coleman meets Faunia (Nicole Kidman), a young, beautiful women who works three menial jobs and wants to have sex with Coleman uncomplicated by any tenderness or communication. He is enchanted and energized by Faunia. He describes her as “not my first love and not my great love, but my last love.” He is as happy as only someone who thought there would never be any happiness for him again can be.

Faunia’s past has a stain, too. She has an abusive ex-husband (Ed Harris) who stalks her. Faunia has no possessions, but she is possessed by tragedy and loss.

The past bleeds through to the present as we see more and more of Coleman’s past through flashbacks. And just as Coleman and Faunia are able to reveal themselves to each other for the first time, the present bleeds through to the future and the volatile forces in the past converge inexorably and terribly.

Philip Roth’s ambitious and literary novel is awkwardly adapted for the screen. The book’s almost allegorical structure is supported by Roth’s use of language. On screen, the characters are more plot devices than people. Zuckerman (a Roth-like figure in eight books), though well-played by Sinese, is a narrative convention who adds nothing to the drama. The menace provided by Faunia’s Vietnam veteran ex-husband borders on melodrama.

The most affecting part of the story is in the flashbacks. Young Coleman (Wentworth Miller), in love for the first time with a beautiful, intelligent, and sympathetic Midwestern girl (the lovely Jacinda Barrett), experiments with the feeling of being not black or white but just free of any color. Then he brings her home to meet his mother (Anna Devere Smith), not letting either one know ahead of time that they were of different races. Nothing that happens in the Hopkins/Kidman segment of the story is anywhere near as compelling.

Parents should know that the movie has some very strong language and some very explicit sexual references and situations, including nudity. Characters drink and smoke, sometimes to excess. Characters are in peril and there are some tragic (offscreen) deaths. The movie’s themes about racism and “sanctimony” are provocatively presented.

Families who see this movie should talk about Coleman’s choices. What were the turning points? Would he have chosen differently if he had known that the world was about to change so dramatically? Did Roth mean the charges against Coleman to be ironic or, on a grander scale, tragic and inevitable?

Families who enjoy this movie may like to view some pre-Civil Rights-era movies dealing with the issue of blacks passing as whites, including Pinkie and the 1959 version of Imitation of Life, originally made in 1939. They should also take a look at an even earlier exploration of this issue in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson. They also might like to read about one inspiration for the character of Coleman Silk, literary critic Anatole Broyard.

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Shattered Glass

Posted on October 18, 2003 at 7:55 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, smoking, reference to drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Tense scenes
Diversity Issues: Strong female characters, no minority characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

That’s what editors tell young reporters. Journalists believe that telling the truth is more than their job; it is almost a sacred obligation. And yet, every so often a reporter just makes up a story and it is published as fact. Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke fabricated a Pulitzer Prize-winning story about a child addicted to drugs. When reporter Jayson Blair fabricated details of his stories, the two top editors of the New York Times lost their jobs.

These scandals always get exhaustively reported, first because journalists do not want to be accused of failing to cover their own industry the way they do everyone else. And it is a very self-involved and competitive industry with journalists naturally fascinated by what their friends and competition are doing. And then there is good old schadenfreude, the pleasure people take in seeing other people suffer.

This is the story of one of the most schadenfreude-inducing scandals in the history of journalism. In 1998, the editor of the tiny but prestigious New Republic, which describes itself as “the inflight magazine of Air Force One,” found that star writer Stephen Glass had fabricated dozens of stories.

The New Republic had 15 writer/editors with a median age of 26. Glass (Hayden Christensen) was the youngest and the office pet. He dazzled everyone with charming compliments and even more charming self-deprecation. He had an intuitive sense of how to impress people without making them jealous or competitive. He brought people coffee, helped them with their stories, and, then he begged for their help, too, letting everyone know that he did not think he was as good as they were. That was an ideal mix for the hothouse environment of the magazine.

He wanted to be everything to everyone. He would do anything for attention and affection. He constantly asked “Are you mad?” “Do you hate me?” And everyone laughed and assured him that everything was okay.

The real-life Glass was perfectly named. From one angle, his shiny surface reflected back to observers whatever they wanted to see. But then the angle shifted slightly and they could see through him as though there was nothing there. At the end, when Glass is still desperately trying to be loved, making himself appear the victim, his editor says, “It’s a hell of a story. Stop pitching, Steve. It’s over.”

We know from the beginning that Glass lied, and the movie has enough respect for the complexity of human motivation not to try to explain why. So, it is a story of how the lie was uncovered, but it is less a detective story or even a rise-and-fall hubris tale than a story about how, in the end, journalism really is about telling the truth. An editor for a small, far-from-prestigious website tosses Glass’s story about a teenage hacker to Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn), one of his reporters, asking why he didn’t get that story himself. Penenberg begins to dig and finds out that only one fact in the Glass story checks out: “There does seem to be a state in the union named Nevada.” Glass and Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), his editor, find out what it is like to be under the microscope instead of peering through it.

Although the movie’s introduction makes it clear that Glass is a liar, screenwriter/director Billy Ray (Hart’s War) manages to keep us unsettled by not always letting us know what is real and what is imagined by Glass. Christensen is fine, though we are never as charmed by Glass as his colleagues at The New Republic. Maybe it is just being forewarned that makes Glass seem less ingratiating than just grating. Ray has a good feel for the culture and atmosphere of the community of Washington journalists — overworked, underpaid, and a little too smart and inbred. There are splendid performances by Sarsgaard, Zahn, and especially Hank Azaria as the late Michael Kelly.

Parents should know that the movie has some strong language and references to drug use and prostitutes. There are tense and upsetting scenes, including a suicide threat.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Glass lied and why people wanted to believe him. They might also want to take a look at The New Republic and see what those folks who fly on Air Force One are reading about.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Quiz Show, another movie about a real-life scandal. There are many great movies about real-life reporters who live up to the highest ideals of journalism, including the Oscar-winning All the President’s Men.

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Radio

Posted on October 16, 2003 at 6:10 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
Profanity: A couple of bad words
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some tense moments, sad death (offscreen)
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

“Radio” may be as predictable as a Hallmark card, but it is as heartwarming, too. This is a nice, old-fashioned family movie about the importance of kindness. The characters learn that some things are more important than being smart. The audience learns that that lesson can apply to movies as well as people.

The movie begins in 1976 South Carolina, where small town high school football is very serious business.

Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays Radio, described by his mother as “just like everyone else, but a little slower.” He pushes a shopping cart around and barely speaks. When members of the local high school football team mistreat him, the coach (Ed Harris) invites Radio to come watch the practice. Soon, Radio is helping out, and with the coach’s encouragement, he is speaking and interacting with people. The coach invites him to attend school as an “honorary” 11th grader.

You can guess what happens next. Second act complications appear in the form of a school board bureaucrat who thinks Radio exposes the school to liability and a star player’s father who thinks Radio is a distraction. And the coach’s daughter wonders why her father never has time for her but always has time for Radio. All is happily resolved in time for the inevitable “We learned more from him than he ever learned from us” speech and the montage showing the real Radio still leading the team onto the field, 25 years later.

It is always a little too easy to have minority or disabled characters in movies serve as saintlike or magical creatures who teach able white people how to be more authentic. The result is itself inauthentic. It pretends to elevate those who have been marginalized but in reality just uses them as plot devices. And it patronizes them by not allowing them to be fully human or to be the central figures in the story.

“Radio” handles this challenge better than most. Harris and Gooding give their characters depth and decency to provide some grounding for the story and keep it from getting too sugary. But they really have to carry the entire movie. Debra Winger appears in the thankless understanding-wife role (though she does carry a copy of Betty Friedan’s revolutionary Feminine Mystique through one scene).

Parents should know that the movie has a couple of bad words and a sad death (offscreen). In a cruel prank, Radio is sent into the girls’ locker room (nothing shown). Characters are cruel but learn their lesson. Even though it is set in the South in the decade after the Civil Rights Act was passed, the movie avoids stereotyping the white residents as racist.

Families who see this movie should talk about disabled people they know and how they are treated. They should also talk about why Radio was so important to Coach Jones, and how sometimes, if we cannot correct a mistake we make at the time, we can find a way to use what we have learned to prevent another mistake in the future. They should talk about how the coach decided what his priorities really were and about how Radio showed that he understood some things better than people who thought they were smarter than he was.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Remember the Titans and Rudy (some mature material), both also based on inspiring true stories about football, friendship, and dreams.

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Veronica Guerin

Posted on October 14, 2003 at 7:14 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Graphic depiction of illegal drug use, drug dealing a theme of the movie, drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Brutal violence, including beating and gunshots, characters killed
Diversity Issues: Very strong female character
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

I’m sure that there were a lot of people scurrying around Hollywood looking for the next Erin Brockovich, and this must have seemed like a good candidate — the true story of a courageous Irish journalist who would not be deterred from her coverage of drug dealers, even after being beaten and shot. When she was murdered by the people her stories were exposing, it inspired changes in law and law enforcement that sharply reduced the crime rate.

Veronica Guerin the person was a genuine heroine. But “Veronica Guerin” the movie is no Erin Brockovich. Cate Blanchett brings her always-vibrant life force to the role, but the character never feels real. Guerin is portrayed as cheerily indomitable to the point of irresponsible recklessness, especially when she puts her entire family at risk. She neglects her husband and child (she does not even know what she gave her son for his birthday), she easily beguiles them into forgiving her, evidently because she is just so darn irresistibly perky that resistance is futile. And that’s about as deep as it goes. We see that she never wants anyone to know that she is scared, but we don’t see why. And she is so flippant that we never really know what is important to her. When a bad guy calls her a “dangerous little b***,” she cheekily replies, “Do my best!” Is she a crusader for justice or just someone who likes to stir things up? We need to know in order to give this story the resonance it deserves.

The rest of the characters are one-adjective types, so one-dimensional that they might be played by paper dolls. Guerin’s boss, mother, husband, and son are all perfect, supportive, patient, and adorable. The bad guys are all brutal, ruthless, and sadistic. If it were really that simple, we would not need crusading journalists at all.

We find out right at the beginning that Veronica Guerin is feisty and charming and that she gets killed. The rest of the movie is just filling in the details, and it is curiously uninvolving for a story with so much built-in drama. And the disclaimer at the end that the movie’s most important villain is a composite character leaves us feeling manipulated and unsatisfied.

Parents should know that the movie has brutal and graphic violence and extremely strong language. Young drug addicts are vividly depicted, including one who has become a prostitute. There are scenes in a brothel and in a strip bar and non-explicit sexual situations.

Families who see this movie should talk about what makes someone willing to risk not only her own life but her family’s lives as well. Should she have been more careful? Should she have stopped? Why did it take her death to bring about changes that people knew were necessary while she was alive? How do you fight people who don’t play by your rules? The movie does a good job of showing how much hard work goes into the kind of reporting that Guerin did. Families should talk about the way that her dedication and her background as an accountant were as important in exposing the drug dealers as her courage.

Families who enjoy this movie should also see some of the other true stories about brave journalists who risk a great deal to get the story to the people, including Z and All the President’s Men. And they might also like the true stories about brave women who took on big corporations, Erin Brockovich and Silkwood.

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My Life Without Me

Posted on October 13, 2003 at 7:24 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Reference to alcohol abuse, drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Very sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

A young wife and mother finds out she has two months to live. She makes a list of the things she wants to do before she dies, like recording birthday greetings for her two daughters for each year until they are 18, finding a new wife for her husband, getting fake nails and doing something about her hair, visiting her father in jail, and having someone fall in love with her.

Now, this plot could be a generic Lifetime made-for-tv-movie with a former sitcom star showing off a little range and a lot of mascara while dying beautifully and reminding everyone how sweet life is before the last commercial. Or, it could be what this movie is, a sweetly specific story, tenderly told.

Ann (Sarah Polley) does not get to do everything on her list. Or perhaps it is more that she revises the list as she learns that the life that chose her when she became pregnant at 17 is one has been very precious to her. She takes control of what she can and lets go of what she can’t. She learns that all the things we try to do and buy to keep us away from death don’t work.

And she revises the lives of people around her. Lee, a surveyor who lives in an empty house, waiting for the woman who left him to bring back the furniture, learns that he can love someone new. Ann’s sepulchral-looking doctor learns that he can look death — and life — in the eye. Her neighbor, another Ann, learns that she has more love to give than she thought.

There are lovely moments as Ann and Lee sit on the floor in his empty house, his arm around her, as the doctor brings Ann the candy she likes, and especially when she envisions people dancing through the aisles of the grocery store. And it is impossible not to be touched by Polley’s simple sincerity.

Parents should know that the movie has some strong language and non-explicit sexual situations, including adultery. There is a reference to a drinking problem and Ann puts drinking and smoking as much as she wants on her list (but does not do much of either). The theme of the movie may be very hard on some audience members, but others may find that it helps them to address some sensitive issues.

Families who see this movie should talk about what they would put on their lists, and whether those kinds of lists are good to keep in mind even without an immediate need. Ann says there is no such thing as “normal people.” Do you agree? Why was the mention of Milli Vanilli, the musical group who was famous for lip-synching to recorded voices, so appropriate for this movie? What does the doctor mean when he says that dying is not as easy as it looks?

Families who enjoy this movie should also see My Life with Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman and The Doctor with William Hurt. They will also enjoy the classic weepies No Sad Songs for Me, about a dying woman who wants to find a new wife for her husband and Sentimental Journey, about a dying woman who adopts a child as company for her husband. And they might want to listen to some of the music of Blossom Dearie.

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