In America

Posted on November 15, 2003 at 4:23 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Sad and scary situations, character deaths (off camera)
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Screenwriter/director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot) tells the story of his family’s move to America as something of a fairy tale set in a sweltering and grimy apartment building where even the kind-hearted drug addicts help look out for the children.

Johnny (Paddy Considine) and Sarah (Samantha Morton) move to New York with their daughters Ariel and Christy (real-life sisters Emma and Sarah Bolger) from Canada, still shell-shocked from the loss of their son, Frankie.

Sarah is a teacher and Johnny is an actor, but the only jobs they can get are waitress and cab driver. They are struggling, sometimes even desperate and their surroundings are often sordid. But we see the story through the eyes of 11-year-old Christy and she makes it all magical. The girls insist on trick-or-treating in their apartment building, even at the door with a “keep away” sign, the home of an angry neighbor named Mateo (Djimon Hounsou). And he turns out to be not mean, just angry, bitter, and lonely — except that with the girls he is exquisitely tender.

Indeed, the whole movie is exquisitely tender. The girls’ sense of wonder brings a softness and a glow to whatever they see, whether it is a street fair or a broken-down air conditioner. Lovely, touching performances by all, especially the Bolger sisters and Hounsou, add delicacy and lyricism. The story may be predictable and it teeters on the edge of twee with its references to angels and aliens. But thankfully it is messy and episodic enough to capture the attention and even the heart.

Parents should know that the movie includes strong language, drinking, smoking, and drug use, violence, and very sad deaths. There is a sexual situation (and resulting childbirth). Tense moments include a violent confrontation and a serious health problem.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Christy thinks that Frankie can grant her three wishes and about the different ways that each character response to the loss of someone important to them. The movie may give families a chance to talk about their views on what happens after people die and how we talk to very ill people about what they are facing.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Hope and Glory and The Commitments (mature material).

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Big Fish

Posted on November 13, 2003 at 6:23 pm

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy peril
Diversity Issues: Strong African-American and female characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

“Big Fish” is the enchanting story of a father and son, but it is really the story of stories themselves. It’s about all kinds of stories, from the first stories whispered by a father to a sleepy child to the stories a son tells his father to comfort him as he nears death. Facts are fine, but some truths can only be told by fiction, and this movie tells a captivating tale that is a delight for the eye, the heart, and the spirit.

Will (Billy Crudup) believes that his father Edward (Albert Finney) has used his gorgeously embellished tales to hide his true self. Edward loves to tell stories about grand adventures, always with himself as the hero. After he occupies the center of attention at Will’s wedding with one of his favorite stories about — what else — the day he tried to capture a legendary big fish, Will cannot even speak to him, maintaining contact only through his mother. Will and his new wife move far away, and Will gets a job writing stories that are all facts when he becomes a journalist. Then he learns that his father is dying, and Will comes home to try one more time to know what is true, to feel that he really knows his father.

But most of the movie is not about this (relatively) “true” story of a hoped-for deathbed reconciliation. Director Tim Burton, like Edward, believes that it is the fantastic that deserves our attention more than the mundane. So most of what we see are the stories Edward loves to tell.

The young Edward (Ewan McGregor), like the hero of a fairy tale, leaves home in search of adventure and finds a giant, a witch, a werewolf, a town where no one wears shoes, a highly unusual singing sister act, and the love of his life (Alison Lohman as the young Sandra, Jessica Lange as the older version), who happens to be engaged to someone else. There is a breathtaking moment when Edward first sees her at the circus and the world stops. He walks toward her, gently brushing away popcorn — or maybe it is the stars — suspended in the air between them.

The ravishing images are marvels, but it is the heart of the stories that will capture you, especially when it (literally) all comes together at the end in a moving conclusion filled with connection, understanding, and forgiveness.

Parents should know that the movie has brief nudity, mild language, and fantasy peril.

Families who see this movie should talk about some of their favorite stories — factual and fictional.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy some of director Tim Burton’s other inimitably imaginative films, including Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. The movie is also reminiscient of another story about stories, The Wonderful World of the Brother Grimm.

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21 Grams

Posted on November 13, 2003 at 5:02 pm

In “21 Grams,” a terrible collision shatters more than the lives of three people. It shatters the very narrative of the story itself.



Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu conveys the fractured disorientation of the three characters with clusters of brief scenes that act as a mosaic, gradually revealing what happened in that devastating moment and how it affected the events and emotions and that followed, even the impact on the very identities of the people involved.

Paul (Sean Penn) is dying. His heart is failing. His wife wants to find a way to have his child. Jack (Benicio Del Toro) is struggling. He has come out of prison with a fierce new religious faith that has his wife and children a little uneasy. Christina (Naomi Watts) is happy. She has overcome a substance abuse problem and is living happily with her husband and daughters.

Then a corner is turned. A driver — maybe in too much of a hurry to get to a birthday party, maybe having had a drink — hits three pedestrians. Lives are lost. Another life is restored. Another is devastated. Is there a way to go on?

Inarritu uses a hand-held camera and directs with a simple, intimate, very pure feeling similar in style to the Dogma 95 movies. Penn gives one of the most sensitive performances of his career. He usually plays characters who are not as smart as he is, but here he is completely convincing as a math professor and he shows us an extraordinary range of subtle and complex emotions. Watts and Del Toro are also outstanding.

Parents should know that the film includes tragic deaths and brutal violence with gory wounds. There are explicit sexual references and situations, including nudity and a brief glimpse of a porno film. Characters drink, smoke, and use drugs. A character attempts suicide. There is very strong language.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Inarritu chose to tell the story this way. How would its impact have been different if told in a more conventional structure? Why is the film called “21 Grams?” What do you think of Jack’s wife’s comment that his duty is to his family? Why do the different characters say, “Life goes on?”

Families who appreciate this film will also appreciate Amores Perros from the same director. They may also like more mainstream films on related subjects, like Return to Me and Bounce.

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Not specified

The Gospel of John

Posted on November 13, 2003 at 5:47 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Wine
Violence/ Scariness: Graphic depiction of crucifixion
Diversity Issues: Traditional western portrayal of characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

“The Gospel of John” is a reverent, moving, and dignified depiction of the life of Christ as described in the New Testament. It is a literal re-telling, actually a recitation of the Gospel, word for word, a “faithful representation,” in its own terms. The entire text, as translated by the Good News Bible, is read aloud as it is enacted.

The production design is superb, reflecting careful research and a dedication to historical authenticity. The movie was filmed in a desert area in Spain that has changed very little since ancient times. The miracles are portrayed simply and without any flashy special effects. The narration is well handled by Canadian actor Christopher Plummer. But the heart of the movie is, as it should be, the character of Jesus, exceptionally well-played by British stage actor Henry Ian Cusick. He has the presence to convey Jesus as portrayed in the Gospel of John, loving but sometimes troubled. Cusick’s eyes convey a warmth, wisdom, and sadness that add a great deal to the story. Steven Russell is also very fine as Pontius Pilate.

Parents should know that the movie has vivid depictions of the crucifixion, including bloody wounds. Jesus is whipped, beaten, and stabbed. The legs of the men crucified with him are broken. The movie opens with a brief statement designed to ward off any concerns about anti-Semitism, but some viewers may believe that the portrayal of the “Jewish authorities” is biased.

Families who see this movie should talk about the lessons Jesus tried to teach his followers and how this Gospel differs from the others.

Families who appreciate this movie will also enjoy the Visual Bible series. They might like to compare this to other movies about Jesus, like King of Kings or Ben Hur. They might also like to compare this to a lovely Italian movie, The Gospel According to Matthew.

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Tupac: Resurrection

Posted on November 11, 2003 at 1:30 pm

A
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Constant bad language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Beating, shooting, murder
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

This mesmerizing documentary about the late rap star Tupac Shakur makes clear what a talented performer and vibrant presence he was, even for audiences who don’t listen to rap music and aren’t quite sure which rap star/convicted felon/murder victim he was.

But it does more than that. It tells a deeply moving story of a gifted, thoughtful, and intelligent young man who has to cope with the challenges of poverty and then has to manage the even more complex challenges of success. And it deals forthrightly with the problems of race and class in America, from racism and police brutality to black on black crime, absent fathers, and the uneasy relationship between showbiz “thug life” and the real thing. At one point, he says, “I really did believe that no black person would ever shoot me.”

The movie was produced by Shakur’s mother and MTV, which provided access to broadcast footage, interviews, and outakes. That allows Shakur, eerily, to tell the story himself, even predicting his own violent death. He warns us that this will be a story of “violence, redemption, and love,” and that proves to be true.

Shakur’s mother was one of the few women leaders of the Black Panthers. She went to prison when she was pregnant with him. He was deeply aware that he served time in prison before he was born. He also respected his mother’s activism but felt that he did not get enough of her attention. “I always felt she cared more about ‘the people’ than her people.” He missed having a strong male role model. “You need a man to teach you to be a man.”

He cared for his community but hated being poor. He briefly dealt drugs, but even the local dealers urged him to follow his dream. He loved performing and was accepted at a school for the arts. By the time he was a teenager, he was working professionally. By the time he was 20, he was a successful recording artist.

He understood the irony when it was only after he became famous that he was picked up by the cops. A citation for jaywalking led to a confrontation that became a beating.

Meanwhile, he is stunned and humbled to find that his visibility has young people looking to him for leadership. He takes it seriously, and gives a lot of thought to what he wants to tell them. He helped develop a code of behavior for “thugs” that covered things like keeping civilians out of the line of fire in gang warfare and taking responsibility for children.

Shakur is clearly and refreshingly as free from any form of prejudice as it is possible to be, at least in his own relationships. His dedication to his friends is genuinely touching. He uses racist and sexist language in the songs he writes, but also writes about respecting women. He has enormous charm but is also a thoughtful young man who wants to understand the world better and wants to make an important contribution. He admits his mistakes freely and he learns from them and moves on. Anyone who watches this movie will feel his loss and want to carry forward his dreams.

Parents should know that this movie includes a great deal of very bad language, including racist terms (with some discussion of when they are and are not racist). Characters use drugs, drink, and smoke, and the ravages of drug addiction are frankly described. Characters engage in violent behavior and sexual abuse, including assault and shooting, and some go to jail. Shakur and other characters are shot and murdered. There are candid discussions of police brutality and racism. All of these issues and the consequences are presented in a realistic way that parents may find more suitable for teenagers than the usual shoot-out and explosion movie.

Families who see this movie should talk about the way that Shakur changed and grew and what he learned. They should talk about his question, “How can you love like an angel when you are surrounded by devils?” and his statement that “I did not create thug life; I diagnosed it.” Did he also promote it? What did he mean that “a studio is cheaper than a therapist?” They should also look at Shakur’s code of ethics for thugs on this site.

Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Hurricane and Malcolm X. They will also appreciate another documentary about tragic musical figures, The Filth and the Fury, about the Sex Pistols.

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