American Dreamz

Posted on April 18, 2006 at 6:07 pm

The Roman rulers used to distract the populace from the problems of corruption and decadence with “bread and circuses.” Today’s equivalent might be junk food and television, especially “reality” television. It plays to our fascination with both “real people” and celebrities and especially with the magical moment of transformation — the magical possibility of our own transformation — from one category to the other.


This wild and wildly uneven satire imagines a dim and detached President from Texas, a bald, Machiavellian Vice President who calls the shots, and a television show in which contestants compete to be selected for stardom.


Sound familiar?


Writer-director Paul Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy) says he got the idea for this movie when he found that more people vote for “American Idol” than vote for President. He took those two things, combined them, cranked it up a notch, and tweaked it a little.


Dennis Quaid plays the distracted President, just re-elected and not able to grasp exactly what the world situation is and how he should respond to it. He just wants to stay in bed and read newsapers. Willem Dafoe is the Vice President, whose relationship with the President appears to be modeled on the relationship of a ventriloquist to his puppet.


“American Dreamz” (“with a z”) is the “American Idol”-equivalent and Hugh Grant is the Simon Cowell-equivalent, supercilious, arrogant, but looking like Hugh Grant and being on television so people let him get away with it. He hates just about everyone and everything, or he would if he had the energy to work up that much emotion. He’s more like bored and cranky.


But he’s clear on what he wants — a show everyone will watch. And so he has to make sure this year’s contestants are the most watchable ever, including Sally (Mandy Moore), a rapaciously ambitious small-town girl, and Omer (Sam Golzari), a show-tune-loving terrorist from a sleeper cell. Sally will do anything to win. Omer finds he may not be willing to do anything for his cause. And the President thinks he can improve his approval ratings by being a guest judge on the show.


The highlight of the film is Moore, a treat as Sally, clearly enjoying herself but clearly in control of the performance, so sincerely insincere that it’s almost appealing. The set-ups are better than the pay-offs, but the film effectively makes its points about celebrities — political and show business, and about American dreams (with an s), especially the foolish but endearing dream that we are all just a wish and a chance away from being a star.

Parents should know that the movie has some mature material, including some strong language and some sexual references and non-explicit situations. The subject matter, while satiric, includes terrorism and suicide. Characters drink alcohol. The movie includes diverse characters but some audiences may find the satiric exaggeration to be offensive stereotyping, or, with regard to the President, disrespectful.


Families who see this movie should talk about the appeal of “American Idol,” and why more people vote for the best singer than vote for in the presidential election. They should also talk about the role of satire as political commentary.


Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Wag the Dog, Saved! (with Moore), and Primary Colors (all with more mature material). They may also enjoy my interview with writer-director Paul Weitz.

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Comedy Musical Television

Flightplan

Posted on September 19, 2005 at 8:13 pm

It’s always a bad sign in a thriller when the big reveal is greeted by hoots of derisive laughter, and that’s what happened at this movie. It’s an even worse sign when two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster is out-acted by a child who is missing or unconscious for most of the movie, but that happened, too.

Just-widowed Kyle Pratt (Foster) is flying from Berlin to New York with her 6-year-old, Julia (Marlene Lawston), taking her husband’s casket home to be buried. They are exhausted and shaken, so they find some empty rows in the back of the plane and go to sleep. When Kyle wakes up, Julia is gone. As she searches the plane, getting more and more worried, the attitude of the flight attendants shifts from helpful to wary to hostile. It seems there is no evidence that Julia ever boarded the plane. A federal air marshall travelling undercover believes Kyle is delusional, and so does the captain. Kyle starts to wonder if they could be right.

Then it all veers into a level of preposterousness that would be too silly to go into even if it didn’t contain spoilers. There are some tense moments, but unlike the other recent airplane thriller, “Red Eye,” this one never creates a sense of claustrophobic containment. Kyle, an engineer who helped to design this aircraft, the largest ever, understands the blueprints well enough to know where to look, and as she keeps exploring new places, some of which appear positively cavernous, it dissipates the tension. So do the below-par one-note performances from Foster, Sarsgaard, and Sean Bean (as the pilot). This film may be called “Flightplan,” but it never takes flight and there is nothing that rises to the dignity of a plan of any kind. Discuss. But don’t bother with the movie.

Parents should know that this movie has intense peril and violence, including shooting, explosions, and references to murder, suicide, kidnapping, and molestation. There is some strong language, though less than average for a PG-13. A strength of the movie is its portrayal of a strong woman and the way it raises the issue of bigotry when some passengers assume that the Middle Eastern men on the airplane must be untrustworthy.

Families who see this movie should talk about how national security issues have affected the way people feel about air travel. They should also talk about the various arguments Kyle used and which ones were most persuasive.

Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy some of the far-better disappearing person classics, especially The Lady Vanishes (from which this film lifts one of its key clues), Bunny Lake is Missing, and So Long at the Fair, as well as Foster’s last Mother Courage performance in Panic Room all of which have vastly more satisfying conclusions than this one.

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“Gothika Rule” Action/Adventure Drama

Chariots of Fire

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for adult situations and language
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense moments of competition
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 1981
Date Released to DVD: July 9, 2012
Amazon.com ASIN: B00284AVN

In honor of the 2012 Olympics in London, this 1981 classic and winner of the Oscar for Best Picture has been reissued.

This is the true story of two athletes who raced in the 1924 Olympics, one a privileged Jewish student at Cambridge (Ben Cross as Harold Abrahams), the other a missionary from Scotland (Ian Charleson as Eric Liddell). Wonderfully evocative of the time and place, with superb performances, the movie shows us the source of the runners’ determination, for one a need to prove his worth to himself and the society that discriminates against him, for the other, a way of connecting to God.

The movie begins with the memorial service for Harold Abrahams, and then goes back to his first day at Cambridge, just after World War I. A speaker reminds the entering class that they must achieve for themselves and for those who were lost in the war. Abrahams is a bit arrogant, but finds friends and impresses the whole university by being the first to meet a long-term challenge and race all the way around the quad within the twelve strokes of the clock at noon.

Liddell is deeply committed to missionary work. But when his sister asks him to give up running so that he can go with her, he explains that “I believe God made me for a purpose. He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

Abrahams is devastated when he loses to Liddell, saying he won’t race unless he can win. But his girlfriend reminds him that he can’t win unless he races. Both Abrahams and Liddell make the Olympic team. There is a crisis when Liddell’s event is scheduled for a Sunday, because he will not run on the Sabbath. But Lord Lindsay (Nigel Havers) graciously allows Liddell his place in a different event, “just for the pleasure of seeing you run,” and both Liddell and Abrahams win.

Both of the athletes must make difficult choices with a great deal of opposition. One uses a coach (who isn’t even English), in defiance of tradition and expectations. The other resists the urging of his sister, the person he loves most, who wants him to quit racing and defies the Prince of Wales, who wants him to race on the Sabbath.

One of the themes of the movie is the problems that the Jewish athlete has dealing with the prejudice of society. The other athlete has to confront the conflict between the dictates of his religion and the requirements of the sport (including the entreaties of the heir to the throne) when he is asked to compete on the Sabbath.

Families who watch this movie should talk about these questions: Why was running so important to these men? Was it different for different athletes? Why does Harold Abrahams think of quitting when he loses to Liddell? Have you ever felt that way? What did you do? Why doesn’t Eric’s sister want him to race? Why does he race despite her objections? Why don’t the teachers at Harold Abraham’s school think it is appropriate to have a coach? Would anyone think that today?

This movie deservedly won the Oscars for best picture, screenplay, costume design, and music.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy a two-part made for television miniseries called “The First Olympics — Athens 1896,” about the American team entering the first modern Olympics in 1896. It features Louis Jourdan (of “Gigi”), David Caruso (of the original cast of television’s “NYPD Blue”) and David Ogden Stiers (of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”). While it does not have the resonance and meaning (or the production values) of “Chariots of Fire,” it is heartwarming, funny, exciting, and a lovely period piece. Not currently available on video, it usually shows up on television around the time of Olympic competitions. An extremely silly movie about the first modern Olympics is “It Happened in Athens,” with Jayne Mansfield and real-life Olympic athlete Bob Mathias.

“Miracle on Ice,” another made for television movie, is the true story of the 1980 U.S. hockey team, which astonished the world at the Olympics in Lake Placid. Yet another Olympic made for television movie, “The Golden Moment,” is the story of a romance between a Soviet gymnast and an American athlete. Its primary charm is the fact that it takes place at an Olympics in which, in real life, the U.S. never competed — that was the year the U.S. protested the Soviet invasion of Afganistan by boycotting the Moscow Olympics.

See also “Cool Runnings” about the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team, “The Bob Mathias Story,” with the real-life decathalon champion playing himself, “The Jesse Owens Story,” with Dorian Harewood as the legendary athlete, and “Babe” with Susan Clark as Babe Deidrickson Zaharias.

On the silly side, try “Animalympics,” an animated spoof of the Olympics with some comical moments, and the very funny “Million Dollar Legs,” with W.C. Fields as the President of Klopstockia, a country entering the Olympics.

And of course Bud Greenspan’s documentaries about the Olympics are always worth watching, for the stories and the personalities as much as for the athletic achievements.

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Based on a true story Classic Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week For Your Netflix Queue Movie Mom’s Top Picks for Families Spiritual films Sports

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for language and mild thematic elements
Profanity: Brief but very strong language for a PG
Alcohol/ Drugs: E.T. gets tipsy
Violence/ Scariness: Characters in peril, apparent death
Diversity Issues: All characters white
Date Released to Theaters: 1982
Date Released to DVD: October 8, 2012
Amazon.com ASIN: B003UESJLK

“E.T’s” 30th anniversary is being celebrated with a gorgeous new re-issue and I have one to give away.  To enter, send me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com with E.T in the subject line and tell me your favorite movie alien.  Don’t forget your address!  (US addresses only.)  I’ll pick one winner at random on October 14.  Good luck!

A young boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas) finds an extraterrestrial who has been left behind when his expedition of alien botanists had to depart quickly to avoid detection. He brings E.T. home, finding through their connection a way to begin to heal his sense of loss at his father’s absence.

E.T. loves Elliott, but begins to weaken in the Earth’s atmosphere and needs to go home. With the help of Elliott and the neighborhood children, he sends a message to his friends. But before they can come for him, he is captured by government scientists. E.T.’s connection with Elliott is so strong Elliott becomes very ill, too. But both recover, and the children return E.T. to the spaceship, after E.T. reminds Elliott that they will always be together in their hearts.

This is an outstanding family movie, with themes of loyalty, friendship, trust, and caring. One of the most purely magical scenes in the history of film is when Elliott’s bicycle lifts off up into the sky.

Parents should know that the movie has scenes of peril that may be too intense for younger children. An apparent death is also upsetting. There is brief very strong language for a PG movie. This film was justifiably criticized for its almost complete absence of non-white characters.

DVD extras: Making of documentary, cast reunion, archives, trailer, behind-the-scenes footage, etc. Families who see this movie should talk about the way that the adults and the kids see things differently, and have a hard time understanding each other’s perspective. One reason is that they don’t try to share their feelings with each other. Could Elliott have talked to his mother about E.T.?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and they should try some Reese’s Pieces! They might also want to check out the classic movie E.T. catches a glimpse of, “The Quiet Man.”

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Action/Adventure Classic Contests and Giveaways Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Science-Fiction Stories About Kids

Holiday

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

After a whirlwind romance at a ski resort, Johnny Case (Cary Grant) is on his way to meet his new fiancée, Julia Seton (Doris Nolan). Overwhelmed by the mansion at the address she gave him, he assumes she must be on the staff, and goes to the back door to ask about her. But she is the daughter of the wealthy and distinguished family that occupies the house. He is surprised and amused, and enjoys meeting Julia’s sister Linda (Katherine Hepburn) and brother Ned (Lew Ayres). They promise to help him win over their father, who is likely to object to the engagement, because Johnny is not from an upper-class wealthy family.

Johnny is a poor boy who has worked hard and done very well. Julia likes him because she sees a similarity to her grandfather, who made a fortune. She wants him to do the same, and tells him, “There’s nothing more exciting than making money.” But Johnny, who has just taken the first vacation of his life, only wants to make enough so that he can take a “holiday,” to “find out why I’ve been working.” As the movie begins, he is about to achieve that goal.

Linda thinks this is a great idea. She is something of an outsider in the family, forsaking the huge formal rooms of the mansion for one cozy place upstairs, which she calls “the only home I’ve got.” She tries to persuade Julia and their father that Johnny is right. Even though he completes the deal that gives him enough for his holiday, Johnny gives in and promises Julia to try it her way, and go to work for her father for a while. As her father presents them with a honeymoon itinerary and explains he is arranging for a house and servants for them, Johnny balks. He knows that if he accepts all of this, he will never be able to walk away from it. Julia breaks the engagement, and Linda joins Johnny on his holiday.

Kids should talk about why it was so important to Linda that she be allowed to give the engagement party. Why did Johnny change his mind about trying it Julia’s way? If you were going to take a holiday, what would you do? Remember, this is more than a vacation, it is more like a journey of discovery. Where would you go? What would you hope to find? How do you think people decide what jobs they want to have? Ask your parents what they thought about in choosing their jobs, and whether they ever took (or wanted to take) a “holiday.” What do you think Johhny will do at the end of his holiday? If Linda thought making money was exciting, why didn’t she want to do it herself?

Many kids will identify with the feeling of wanting to take a holiday, to step back from daily life and study the larger picture. The idea that other things are more important than making money and living according to traditional standards of success may also have some appeal. This is a good opportunity to talk with them about what success really means, and about finding the definition within yourself instead of putting too much weight on the definitions of others. There is nothing inherently wrong with making a fortune, of course, just as there is nothing inherently wrThis movie has two exceptionally appealing characters in Johnny’s friends the Potters, played by Jean Dixon and Edward Everett Horton. Their kindness and wisdom contrasts with the superficial values of the Seton family.

Cary Grant began in show business as an acrobat, and you can see him show off some of that prowess in this movie. The same stars, director, author and scriptwriter worked on another classic, “The Philadelphia Story.”

 

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