Paper Clips

Posted on November 18, 2004 at 1:16 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Discussion of Holocaust and some images of concentration camps
Diversity Issues: The theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

This is the touching story of Whitwell, Tennessee,a small coal mining community (population 1600) outside of Chatanooga. The population is almost entirely white and entirely Christian. When the local school set out to teach children about tolerance and diversity, the teachers realized that most of the children had never seen a person from another country or faith. So the school decided to teach students about the Holocaust in Germany during World War II.

As the students tried to come to grips with the Nazi genocide, they had a hard time visualizing the magnitude of the loss of six million people. They wanted to collect six million of something to represent the people who were killed.

The students did some research and learned that the paperclip was invented in Norway and that Norwegians wore paperclips on their collars to demonstrate their sympathy for the Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and other groups being persecuted by the Nazis. The students decided to collect six million paperclips and began writing letters to everyone they could think of to ask for help.

This documentary shows how the project grew from a classroom assignment to an event that transformed the entire community. At first, progress was slow. The teacher feared it would take the students ten years to collect 6 million paper clips. But two White House correspondents from Germany heard about the project and came to Whitwell to visit. They wrote about the school, and then the Washington Post wrote a story, and finally the network news reported on the remarkable events in Whitwell.

Millions of paperclips started to pour in from around the world. Some came with letters from Holocaust survivors, their families, American soldiers who helped to liberate the concentration camps, and celebrities from Tom Hanks to then-President Bill Clinton. Tiny Whitwell became a meeting place for people of hope from around the world. Everybody wanted to pitch in to help. A group of Holocaust survivors came to visit the school to tell their stories and the entire town turned out to welcome them.

But what makes this story — and this movie — work is not the big moments but the small ones. The documentarians don’t do anything fancy. They have the good sense to get out of the way and let the story be told by the people who lived it. The result can be a little sugary at times, but it is always honest and touching.

We see the students opening up and growing as human beings before our very eyes. A teacher admits that the project made him confront his own prejudices. A survivor says that what makes him cry is not his sadness in the camps but remembering the happiness he has had since. A hug, a look, a touch, the expressions on the young faces as they meet with people who survived the Nazi death camps and telling and touching.

An astonishing contribution to the project arrives from Germany — on September 9, 2001, and it will be en route when the terrorist attack occurs in New York and Washington.

This is an illuminating and moving film, not about the Holocaust so much as it is about compassion, learning, respect, and change. It should be essential viewing for middle and high school students and their families.

Parents should know that while the film is rated G because it does not have any bad words or nudity, the film is about the study of the Holocaust and the topic of genocide and discrimination is a theme of the film.

Families who see this movie should talk about what the teachers say they learned from the paperclip projects. One of the students refers to the project as a “life-changing experience.” What have been your life-changing experiences?” What can you do to help make the lessons of history more meaningful to your friends and family? How will the students continue to make the project meaningful now that the collection is complete?

Families who see this movie should look at the Whitwell middle school’s website, with more information about the paperclip project. They should also visit the United States Holocaust Museum and learn about the memorial to the Holocaust martyrs and heroes at Yad Vashem.

The Holocaust History Project is one of many worthwhile internet resources for further study, and Nizkor is an exceptionally useful site that frankly and candidly addresses issues raised by people who deny that the Holocaust took place, whether through ignorance or anti-Semitism. It is an outstanding example of how to deal with any sensitive issue that is the subject of debate, addressing all questions with consideration and dignity. There can be no better evidence of credibility and integrity than this: “Nizkor believes that truth has no need for secrecy. We present the material of the Holocaust-deniers unaltered and completely openly, with links back to their web sites so that the reader may examine exactly what they say. And if and when they have a response to our work, we will of course cross-link to it, so that the reader may examine that response.”

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Hotel Rwanda

Posted on November 17, 2004 at 6:50 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking cigars
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and constant peril, machetes and guns, dead bodies, non-graphic violence, characters beaten and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

“How can they not intervene when they witness such atrocities?” Rwandan hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) asks an American journalist (Joaquin Phoenix). “They’ll see this footage,” he answers. “They’ll say ‘Oh my god, that’s horrible,” and go on eating their dinners.”

Rusesabagina was a manager at a luxury hotel, the man who always knew what it took to smooth things along. A bottle of scotch here, a charming compliment there — this was not just business for him. It was insurance. The political situation was about to explode. Two ethnic groups, the nomadic Tutsis (also known as Watutsis) and the agricultural Hutus had been pitted against each other by the white Belgian settlers, who literally measured skin tone and nose width to elevate the Tutsis to preferred positions. When the conflict exploded into violence in 1994, the Hutus began a full-scale slaughter of over 800,000 Tutsis and any Hutus who supported them. At one point in the movie, two characters are driving at night over what they think is a bumpy road. It turns out that they are driving over piles of bodies.

In the middle of the madness, Rusesabagina hid more than 1000 Tutsis in his hotel. Using the same skills that made him successful as a hotel manager, he cajoles, barters, and bluffs his way into keeping them safe. He keeps hoping for help from the UN or the US, but, as the journalist said, they went on eating their dinners.

Cheadle is infinitely moving as Rusesabagina and Sophie Okonedo is quietly magnificent as his wife. The sensitivity of their performances is matched by the script and direction, which make their points, both personal and political, with grace, not bitterness. Like Schindler’s List, this film takes us deeply into the horror of one of the 20th century’s greatest tragedies by allowing us to focus on the illumination cast by one small story of grace, courage, and humanity.

Parents should know that the movie includes realistic, though mostly non-graphic depiction of genocide and compellingly portrays the sense of horror and insanity. Characters drink, smoke, and use some mild language.

Families who see this movie should learn more about the slaughter in Rwanda and how the role of the UN and other nations is determined. The CIA Factbook and Rwanda Information Exchange, and PBS site about the Hutu/Tutsi conflict provide some basic facts and this site has information about the international criminal trials. What countries are behaving inhumanely now? What can we do about it? Families should talk about the way that an ordinary man became capable of extraordinary courage. How do we know what we would do? How do we make sure we do the right thing?

Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Schindler’s List and Z. They should also read this interview with the director and the real-life Paul Rusesabagina.

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National Treasure

Posted on November 16, 2004 at 1:31 pm

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Action-style violence, a lot of peril and explosions, a few images of corpses/skeletons
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

This is a big, dumb, stunts and explosions movie that doesn’t quite make it even by action movie standards because it has a big, dumb script. Two Oscar-winning actors, location filming, tricked-up quick cuts, a thundering and blaring score, enormous and elaborate sets, and big explosions to blow up the enormous and elaborate sets can’t make up for a hole-filled story-line and generic characters who spout painfully leaden attempts at banter.

Nicolas Cage is Benjamin Franklin Gates, the heir to a long line of patriots and historians who have been chasing a legendary treasure for generations. According to his grandfather, one of their ancestors was told by a signer of the Declaration of Independence that there was a secret treasure. The only clue to finding it refers to “Charlotte.” A couple of centuries later, Ben finds the Charlotte (a shipwreck), accompanied by wise-cracking sidekick Riley (Justin Bartha), and Ian Howe (Sean Bean), who financed the expedition. They find another clue that suggests the answer may be hidden on the Declaration of Independence.

It turns out that Ian wants to steal the treasure, and the only way for Ben to stop him is (this is the movie talking, not me) to steal the Declaration of Independence from the National Archives in Washington and then use lemon juice and a blow-dryer to get it to reveal the map that shows where the treasure is hidden.

Chasing after Ben and Riley are Archives’ honcho Dr. Chase (Troy’s Helen, Diane Kruger), Ian and his henchmen, and the FBI, and the treasure hunt will take them to historic sites in Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, from the highest of high-tech security to the ricketiest of ancient catacombs.

This all might have made a nice little adventure movie if it hadn’t been weighed down by its own grandiosity. It’s easier to suspend disbelief on a lower budget. But with errors of logic and science that a third-grader will laugh at, the extravagance of the movie’s effects just seems like one more distraction. When the effects seem more real than the characters, the quest, and, especially, the jokes, even an overstuffed movie like this one just feels empty.

Parents should know that this is an action film with a lot of chases and explosions and some gunplay. Characters are in frequent peril and some are taken hostage. There are brief glimpses of corpses and skeletons. A minor character is killed (off-screen). When Ben says he is in trouble, his father asks if the woman he has with him is pregnant. Characters use mild (sometimes crude) PG-style language and there is some social drinking at a party. There is a lot of reckless and irresponsible behavior, even within the traditions of this genre.

Families who see this film should talk about their own family legends and heirlooms. They might also want to talk about some of the decisions made by the characters, especially the one made by Benjamin Gates at the end. What would you ask for in those circumstances?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy a nice little caper film called Who’s Minding the Mint that has an oddball gang breaking into the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. They will also enjoy the Indiana Jones films and Stargate. Every family should visit the National Archives to see the Declaration of Independence (which is very well guarded). This website will show you what is really on the back of the Declaration and let you “sign” it yourself. Families might also want to learn about the real-life Masons — not nearly as mysterious as the movie version but an organization with a long and distinguished record of community service.

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Beyond the Sea

Posted on November 15, 2004 at 2:17 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, character abuses alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Tense scenes, reference to Kennedy assassinations, character becomes very ill, dead body in casket
Diversity Issues: Portrayal of civil rights efforts
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Parents should know that the movie has situations and behavior that may be upsetting to some viewers including tense and emotional confrontations. Characters drink (one abuses alcohol in response to emotional distress) and smoke and use strong language. There are references to promescuity and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy — relating to a family secret. Darin’s poor health is a theme of the film.

Families who see this film should talk about how Darin’s sense of his own mortality fueled his ambition.

Families who enjoy this movie should see Darin’s Oscar-nominated performance in Captain Newman, M.D. and his films with Sandra Dee, especially the delightful romantic comedy Come September.

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Kinsey

Posted on November 13, 2004 at 12:03 pm

A
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional confrontations, some scuffles
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

It’s tempting to begin as Dr. Kinsey would himself, by putting him in the appropriate category.

Pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey was not a physician or an anthropologist, the disciplines that would seem most likely for the study of human sexuality. He was an entomologist and zoologist who devoted the first 20 years of his career to the study of gall wing wasps. He collected and examined over six million specimens.

Kinsey was, above all, a taxonomist, specializing in the “classification of organisms in an ordered system that indicates natural relationships.” And that turned out to be the ideal background for creating the first institute for the study of sexual behavior.

Writer/director Bill Condon and star Liam Neeson brilliantly show us how Kinsey’s passion for categorization and information transcended the distractions of morality or squeamishness.

We first see Kinsey developing the interview method that would lead thousands of people to confide their deepest secrets to him and his researchers, and then we see him as a child, listening to his father (John Ligthgow) preach hellfire and damnation. This is where Kinsey locates the twin roots of his life’s work — it will not only be a reaction to his father’s obsessive revulsion about sex but also a continuation of his father’s own taxonomic sensibility. Kinsey senior lists all of the occasions and inspirations for sin as painstakingly as years later his son will gently but persistently inquire in thousands of interviews about his subjects experiences with every possible form of sexual connection and exploration.

As usually happens, the greatest strength of Kinsey’s approach, his non-judgmental passion for data, was his greatest weakness as well. He says that love is the answer, while sex poses the questions, but he finds out that, as much as he — ever the taxonomist — would like to make a distinction between fact, morality, and emotion, sex has a messy way of overlapping into all of them. As he explores his own sexuality, as much out of that same impulse for information as out of a search for passion or intimacy, he is unwilling to acknowledge how much emotional damage it causes, even to himself.

Even in the pursuit of pure science, he cannot help creating ethical dilemmas. Kinsey’s researchers engage in experiments in both the technical and more casual sense of the term — literally participating in some of the sexual encounters filmed by the team and also becoming involved with each other’s spouses as a consequence of constant and norm-free study of sexuality. Finally, there is a moment when a subject is so loathsome that one of the researchers excuses himself; he cannot listen to the monster whose very act of describing his predatory encounters seems to be providing him with sexual satisfaction. But Kinsey continues. What matters to him is the data; if others can seek cures or set policy, the data must be there as a foundation.

Kinsey even involves his family. Typical dinnertime conversation includes the frankest discussion of sexual matters. And in a beautifully conceived scene, Kinsey interviews his own father, an incomplete encounter that is nonetheless far more revealing than any other they have ever had.

The cast is superb, especially Linney, Sarsgaard, and Neeson. Neeson brilliantly conveys Kinsey’s scientific curiousity and the single-mindedness that is both admirable and infuriating. In a brief cameo near the end, Lynn Redgrave makes a moving statement that is a perfect capstone to the story.

Parents should know that this movie has very graphic and explicit sexual references and situations, including clinical and informal discussions and depictions of a wide range of sexual experiences and activities, including adultery and homosexuality. Characters use extremely strong language including clinical and slang terms for sexual acts. Characters drink and smoke. The movie includes some tense emotional scenes and some minor scuffling. A strength of the movie is its depiction of early concerns about equal treatment for women and minorities, including gays and lesbians.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Kinsey’s work created such an uproar. How do we know — how do we decide — what “normal” means? Could anyone be as controversial today as Kinsey was in the 1950’s? Why does Mac laugh after meeting Kinsey’s parents? What does that tell you about her? What made it possible for Kinsey to be a different kind of father to his children than his father was to him? What did Kinsey learn from his interview with his father? Why were Kinsey and his staff so wrong about the impact that their sexual experimentation would have on their wives?

Families who appreciate this movie will also enjoy A Beautiful Mind, with Russell Crowe as mathematician John Nash, who struggled with mental illness. They might also like to take a look at an odd artifact inspired by Dr. Kinsey’s work, The Chapman Report, a lurid fictional portrayal of women who are interviewed for a Kinsey-style research project. Some might want to read one of the biographies: Alfred C. Kinsey : A Public/Private Life by James H. Jones or Sex the Measure of All Things: A Life of Alfred C. Kinsey by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, which was used as the basis for the screenplay.

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