The Sum of All Fears

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Part of the magic of movies is the way they make us not just willing – even eager to suspend all kinds of disbelief. It isn’t just that we are willing to believe that Jet Li can knock out a guy with one kick or that Harry Potter can soar through a Quidditch match on his broomstick – we want to. That’s part of what movies are for.

And we have lived through five different actors asking for martinis that are shaken, not stirred, as James Bond – so far. So I don’t think audiences will have any problem accepting the fact that Russia analyst Jack Ryan of the CIA, played by 50-something Harrison Ford in two previous films set in the 1990’s based on Tom Clancy novels (and Alec Baldwin in a third) has now lost some thirty years and turned into Ben Affleck. There may not be much suspense in the love story – we already know who Jack Ryan marries – but that isn’t what the movie is about.

What it is about is a new Russian president. The U.S. is concerned that he is a hard-liner. Ryan believes that he is only trying to sound tough to get the support of hard-liners in the Russian government. U.S. officials get even more concerned when Chechnya is hit with chemical weapons. And then the U.S. is attacked with an atomic bomb and it seems that America’s only choice is to retaliate. It is up to Jack Ryan to save the world.

The movie is ably done, a big time Hollywood production with big time actors (Morgan Freeman as the head of the CIA, James Cromwell as the U.S. President), and big time special effects. Everything is very professional. But as easy as it is to settle back with our popcorn and adjust our notion of a Jack Ryan of the 21st century, there are some parts of the story that are so hard to accept that they seem to violate the covenant between the audience and mainstream movies. There is a level of destruction that might be acceptable in a book but feels excessive to the point of pornography on screen, even more so in an era of suicide bombings and terrorism. The fact that the bad guys in this movie are so much less scary than the ones on the news adds to the sense that the story is more about sensation than about sense. And the ultimate resolution does not feel either ultimate or resolved. Movies like these need interesting villains and satisfying conclusions. Like people who make roller coasters, they need to strike a balance between making us pleasantly dizzy and making us sick. On that scale and at this time, this movie does not work.

Parents should know that the movie has a lot of graphic violence and destruction of unimaginable proportions. There is prolonged, intense peril and characters die. Characters use very strong language, drink and smoke. There is a non-graphic sexual situation.

Families who see this movie should talk about how people at any level, from heads of state to siblings, learn to trust one another.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the other Jack Ryan movies (and the other Jack Ryans), especially “The Hunt for Red October” and “Patriot Games.” Two other movies, both made in 1964, dealt with the prospect of an accidental missile attack by the U.S. on Russia and both are worth watching. One is the thoughtful drama “Failsafe” and the other is the unforgettable classic, “Dr. Strangelove.”

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Remake

Bicentennial Man

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Think of it as Pinocchio played by C3PO from “Star Wars.” Robin Williams plays “Andrew Martin,” a robot who wants to be human, in this adaptation of a story and book by Isaac Asimov.

In “the not too distant future,” a robot is delivered to the magnificent home of the Martins. He steps out of the box and asks, “Are you one’s family?” When the little girl (Hallie Kate Eisenberg from the Pepsi commercials) mispronounces “android” as “Andrew,” that becomes his name. When the other daughter is cruel to Andrew, her father (Sam Neill) tells the family that “as a matter of principle, he will be treated as if he were a person.” Although the family elects not to activate the “personality chip,” they see that there is something special about Andrew’s wiring, a spark of consciousness, creativity, and yearning. Mr. Martin promises to help Andrew become all that he can.

This is fine when he is teaching Andrew about history, biology, and even humor, and when he wants to be adapted so that he can show more expression in his face, but less fine when Andrew wants freedom. And he is uncomfortable with his growing affection for Andrew: “You can’t invest your feelings in a machine.” Martin’s understanding daughter, “Little Miss,” (Embeth Davditz) does not hesitate to care deeply for Andrew, and remains close to him all her life.

As Andrew lives on past the lives of his original family, he stays close to their descendants, especially “Little Miss’s” look-alike granddaughter, Portia. He uses the latest technology to provide himself with skin, hair, a neural sytem, a digestive system, and finally, to become fully human, mortality. Just like Woody in “Toy Story 2,” Andrew has a choice between pristine immortality and a limited, uncertain, but deeply engaged existence.

This movie gives families a good opportunity to talk about what makes us human. Why did Andrew’s makers want to remove what made him special? Why did Andrew want to find others like himself? What do you think made him different? When do you think he became human? When he created something? When he wanted freedom? When he felt love? When he allowed himself to grow old and die? Why did he stop referring to himself as “one?”

Why didn’t some people in the family like Andrew? Why didn’t Andrew like Portia at first? Why did he want to be with her, when he didn’t like her? Do you think that’s what life will be like in the future? What would it be like to have a robot in our house?

Talk about the origins of the names “Portia” and “Galatea.” Portia was the heroine of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” who makes the famous plea about the quality of mercy to Shylock. Andrew’s plea to be declared a human, though, is more reminiscient of Shylock’s entreaty for equality: “Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?” Galatea is the name of the mythical statue whose sculptor fell in love with her. A kind goddess granted her life, so that they could be together.

Parents should know that there is some mild profanity and sexual references that include a “facts of life” discussion, Andrew’s adaptation so that he can have sex (but not children), a post-sex conversation in bed, and one of the most romantic descriptions of the sex act ever written. There are also ill-behaved and surly children whose behavior is not curtailed by the family.

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Based on a book Family Issues Fantasy For the Whole Family Science-Fiction

The Prince of Egypt

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Dreamworks SKG’s first animated feature is a respectful retelling of the story of Moses, from the time he was found in the bullrushes and adopted by the Pharoh to the time he led the Hebrews out of Egypt to freedom. Presided over by former Disney-ite Jeffrey Katzenberg (“The Lion King”) the movie has some astonishing visual effects, particularly a chariot race that rivals “Ben Hur” and the parting of the Red Sea. The movie takes some liberties with the story, with Moses (voice of Val Kilmer) and Ramses (voice of Ralph Feinnes) raised as brothers who love each other deeply. But Moses learns that he was born a slave. More important, he learns that the man he loves and respects as his father, the Pharoh Seti (voice of Patrick Stewart), once ordered the murder of the slave babies. Struggling with his new understanding, he impulsively pushes aside a guard who is beating a slave, and the guard falls to his death. Ramses promises to pardon him, but Moses runs away.

He lives peacefully with nomads, marrying the spirited Tzipporah (voice of Michelle Pfeiffer), until he receives a message from God, telling him that he must return to Egypt and free the slaves. Ramses, by now Pharoh, is at first happy to see him, but refuses to grant his plea to “let my people go.” Felled by plagues that include locusts, boils, frogs, and, finally, the death of the first-born children, he finally agrees. But just as Moses is leading the Hebrews through the parted Red Sea, Ramses arrives with his army. The Red Sea closes over them, and Moses and his people are free.

This story, central to three great world religions, should be familiar to most children. The film-makers have done a good job of making it exciting and vivid while still being careful not to offend anyone. The musical numbers are largely forgettable, but the characters and the story remain compelling. Ramses, loving Moses, but terrified of being responsible for the end of a dynasty, is, if not a sympathetic character, a flawed but understandable one. Miriam and Tzipporah are strong, intelligent female characters. The themes of taking responsibility and the importance of freedom are well worth discussing. Families may wish to take a look at the web site to download one of the study guides developed by representatives of different religions.

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Animation Based on a book For the Whole Family

Contact

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This film, based on the late Carl Sagan’s novel about a young scientist’s efforts to make contact with intelligent life beyond our world provides a sharp contrast in tone to slam-bang shoot-’em-ups like “Independence Day” and “Men in Black.” Sagan, a scientist who consulted on the space program and hosted public television programs about the universe, raises important questions about the connection (and sometimes obstacles) between science, business, politics, and notions of God. If he does a better job of asking them than answering them, that is at least consistent with the scientists creed that the only sin is to be afraid to ask the right questions — and to be open-minded about the answers.

The movies’ heroine is Ellie, played by Jodie Foster. Devastated by the loss of her parents by the time she was eight, she yearns for contact with extraterrestrials, but shies away from contact with anyone on earth. Having been hurt by feeling, she relies entirely on science, on what can be proven. After a one-night-stand with Palmer Joss, a charismatic divinity school drop-out (Matthew McConaghey), she leaves, to continue to listen for whispers from the universe, despite short-sighted bureaucrats who cut her funding. When she finally hears something, the government steps in (including President Clinton, appearing courtesy of the same kinds of computer tricks director Zemeckis used in “Forrest Gump”). The message is to build a machine, apparently to be used to go to the source of the message.

Joss turns up as an advisor to the President who is assigned to the panel that will select the person who will make the trip. He does not believe that Earth should be represented by an atheist. And he does not want to lose Ellie again. Ultimately, she does make the trip, and finds that she is profoundly changed by it. She finds herself asking others to believe what she says without evidence, on the basis of faith. This is a thoughtful movie, and it provides a good opportunity to discuss how we know what we know, whether on the basis of faith or on what we can prove. Kids may want to talk about whether the reactions of the people in the movie to evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence are what they would expect. Why do some people object so strongly to communicating with creatures outside our world? What do scientists think about God and what do theologians think of science? What is the role of government? What do they think of the way the extra-terrestrials shaped their communications to reassure Ellie?

NOTE: Parents should be aware that there is one episode of sabotage that results in violence, in addition to the one-night-stand (Ellie and Palmer shown in bed together), and some strong language.

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Based on a book Drama Romance Science-Fiction

The Tigger Movie

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

What is a family? Is it people who look like us? People who like the same things that we do? People who always have time for us? Tigger learns something about what family really means in this pleasant animated musical that draws much more from Disney than it does from Tigger’s original author, A.A. Milne.

As we know from the well-known Disney song about Tigger, he’s “the only one.” But when he has a hard time finding a friend to bounce with and seems to be getting in everyone’s way, he thinks that maybe he should try to see if there are some other Tiggers after all. He thinks that if he can find others like him, he will feel accepted, understood, and proud.

Many small children will identify with some of Tigger’s concerns. He shows signs of sibling rivalry right at the beginning, when he lets us know that most of the stories are about Pooh, but this one is about him. He has a hard time understanding why he can’t get anyone to play with him and gets upset when others get mad at him for breaking things and making a mess. His dreams of finding a place where everyone will be just like him will appeal to kids, who are always surrounded by that strangest of species, grown-ups.

Make sure kids learn along with Tigger that what makes a family is not looking alike, enjoying the same things, or even getting along all the time, but love, loyalty, and caring for each other. When Tigger runs away, his friends follow him and they all work together to get home safely. Once they are back home, Tigger shows his appreciation by giving each friend the one special gift that most shows how carefully he listened to each of them, even while he was bouncing.

Anyone over age 8 may find the movie slow, but a couple of bright musical numbers (by the same Sherman brothers who wrote the music for “Mary Poppins” and the original Pooh movie) and a running time of 75 minutes make it relatively painless. Parents should know that there characters are in peril, but nothing too intense.

Kids who like this movie should make sure their parents read them the books about Winnie the Pooh and his friends. They’ll also enjoy the other Pooh movies on video, especially the early ones.

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Animation Based on a book Family Issues For the Whole Family Stories About Kids Talking animals
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