All the King’s Men

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Huey Long was man of gigantic proportions, an epic, almost operatic figure who rose to power as the greatest of populists, succumbed to corruption, and was murdered at age 42. His story inspired a Pulitzer Prize-winning book and an Oscar-winning film. That has now been remade with Sean Penn as Willie Stark, the man who tells the poor people of Depression-era Louisiana that they should trust him because he’s a “hick” like them.

As in the original movie, what we most want from this story is what is left out. We want to see that moment when Stark stands on the brink between idealism and expediency. But we don’t. The movie, instead, focuses more on what Stark’s corruption does to those around him, and after decades of political scandals that story is just not as gripping as it once was.

Penn is convincing as a man of complicated fury whose sense of thwarted entitlement on behalf of his community metastasizes through his administration. Sadie (Patricia Clarkson) and Jack (Jude Law) are a political aide and a reporter who begin as cynical but are moved by Willie’s sincerity and his role as David against the political machine’s Goliath but are soon swept into his tumble into personal and professional corruption. Anthony Hopkins plays a judge who stands in Willie’s way and must be persuaded — or destroyed.

But the focus of the story is Adam Stanton (Mark Ruffalo), an idealistic doctor and Jack’s closest friend, and his sister Anne (Kate Winslet), whose faded, crumbling mansion symbolizes the failing grandeur of their ideals. When Anne makes compromises in order to help her brother, it shatters Adam and Jack and leads to Willie’s downfall.

The top quality cast and screenwriter/director Steven Zaillian (Searching for Bobby Fischer) give it their all, if never quite convincingly Louisianan. Patrizia von Brandenstein’s production design and Pawel Edelman’s cinematography have all the appropriate slanted, golden light and hanging Spanish moss. But the story never connects; it seems to be somehow off-register. We need to believe that Willie is on our side and we need to see him leave us; instead we get the same old Southern decay.

Parents should know that the movie has some graphic violence, including an assassination. Characters drink and smoke and use some strong language, including racial epithets of the era. There are sexual references and non-explicit situations, including adultery. The theme of the movie is corruption and there are many examples and variations.

Families who see this movie should talk about the moments in which each character made the choice from which there was no turning back. How can you tell the difference between a compromise and a sell-out? Can you stop on the way from idealism to expediency without becoming corrupt? What figures in today’s world are most like those in the movie?

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Based on a book Based on a true story Biography Drama Remake

Hercules

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

According to Disney, Hercules was the adored son of gods Zeus and Hera, stolen by Hades, ruler of the underworld, and made mortal. He must become a true hero to become a god again, so he can live with his parents on Mount Olympus. To do this, he seeks out a grouchy satyr (voice of Danny DeVito), who trains him in fighting techniques and strategy. When he saves some children (so he thinks) and defeats the hydra (its many heads masterfully provided by computer animation), he becomes an instant celebrity, with action figures and “Air Hercules” sandals. He goes on to his other labors, but finds that is not enough to be a real hero — that comes from the heart, not the muscles.

Kids will need some preparation for this movie. What little exposition there is is provided by Spice Girl-style “muses” as a sort of gospel Greek chorus, fun to watch, but hard to follow. The role of the three fates, who share one eye between them and cut a thread when a human’s life is ended, is particularly confusing.

The love interest in this movie is Meg, who sold her soul to Hades to save the life of her boyfriend, and must now try to find Hercules’ weakness, so that Hades can take over Olympus. She is tougher and braver than the traditional DID (as damsels in distress are referred to in the movie), but still very much on the sidelines in the big moments. Parents may want to talk to both boys and girls about her choices. They may also want to talk about the absence of people of color (other than the muses).

The movie’s other weakness is its lackluster score. As in “Aladdin,” this movie’s white-bread, “aw, shucks” teen-age protagonist is utterly outshone by a star turn of astonishing verve — this time, James Woods as bad guy Hades, who will join Cruella DeVille in the pantheon of unforgetable villains. Sidekicks Pain and Panic (Bobcat Goldthwait and Matt “Max Headroom” Frewer) are wickedly funny as well.

Families who watch this movie should talk about who the real heroes are, and how society treats its heroes. Why do we buy products endorsed by athletes (or movie tie-ins)? It is also worth talking with them about Hercules’ motivation — is wanting to be a god a good reason to want to be a hero? Do we see any evidence that he (or anyone else in the movie) has much concern for the well-being of the community?

NOTE: While the tone of the movie is light-hearted, parts of it may be too scary and intense for smaller children. Some may also be confused or even upset about the underworld and what happens when people die.

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Animation Based on a book Fantasy

All the President’s Men

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: PG
Profanity: Some very strong language for a PG including the f-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Some tense moments
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 1976
Date Released to DVD: June 11, 2012
Amazon.com ASIN: B000CEXEWA

This week is the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in and a good time to look at the Oscar-winning movie about the two reporters who would not give up on the story of the Watergate break-in, this is as gripping as any detective novel. Bob Woodward (Robert Redford), a junior reporter for the Washington Post, is sent to cover a small-time break-in to the office of the Democratic National Committee (located in the Watergate office building). He works with Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), another reporter, to find, after tediously painstaking research, that it is just part of a complex pattern of corruption in President Nixon’s re-election campaign.

Producer/star Redford was so intent on authenticity he even flew actual garbage from the Washington Post wastepaper baskets out to the set. The movie does a good job of showing how much of the work of the reporters was dull persistence, and it also does a good job of showing us what went in to the decisions of editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards in an Oscar – winning performance) and (off-screen) publisher Katharine Graham about what they needed in terms of proof in order to be able to publish the story.

There is an interesting range of moral choices and calibrations. The famous “Deep Throat” (Hal Holbrook), unidentified until 2006, is someone from the inside who will not allow himself to be identified or even quoted, but is willing to confirm what the reporters are able to find elsewhere.

Others involved in the scandal, both in the corruption itself and in its cover-up, must decide what to do and how much to disclose. “Deep Throat” will not tell them anything new, but will confirm what they find out and give them some overall direction, most memorably, “follow the money.” One key development is the decision made by someone identified only as “the bookkeeper” (Jane Alexander) to talk to Bernstein. The participants must also deal with the consequences of their choices. Donald Segretti (Robert Walden) manages to evoke sympathy when what began as juvenile pranks leave him in disgrace. Woodward and Bernstein also make mistakes and must deal with the consequences.

As the movie ends, in 1972, Nixon is re-elected, and it seems to the reporters that their work has had no impact at all. Kids who view this film may need some context in order to understand it, and will want to know what else happened before Nixon resigned in August of 1974.

Families who see this movie should discuss these questions: Why were Woodward and Bernstein the only reporters interested in the story? Why did they insist on two sources before they would publish anything? What were Donald Segretti’s “dirty tricks?” How was he different from Sloan? From the bookkeeper? From Deep Throat? One of the people portrayed in the movie later testified before the Watergate Committee that he had “lost his moral compass.” What does that mean? How does something like that happen? How has technology changed the way that reporters do research and prepare their stories?

Families who enjoy this movie might like to see “The Final Days,” a made- for-television sequel, based on Woodward and Bernstein’s follow-up book. For more on this era, see Nixon with Anthony Hopkins, and Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech and resignation statement. An odd little movie called Nasty Habits is an allegory of Watergate, set in a convent, with Glenda Jackson as a Nixonian nun. And a very funny satire, Dick (for older audiences) sees these events through the premise that it was all uncovered by a couple of high school girls.

If audiences want to know more, they should know that the book this movie was based on is not much fun to read and has more reporting than analysis. Older kids who want to know more can read Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon by Theodore White, To Set the Record Straight: The Break-In, the Tapes, the Conspirators, the Pardon, by Judge Sirica, or the books by John Dean and H. R. Haldeman. In 2006, the identity of “Deep Throat” was revealed and Woodward told the story in The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat.  President Nixon’s series of television interviews with David Frost inspired the Oscar-nominated film Frost/Nixon,  and the interviews are also available on DVD.

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Based on a book Based on a true story Classic Crime Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week

Lady and the Tramp

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: NR
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Characters in peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 1955
Date Released to DVD: February 6, 2012
Amazon.com ASIN: B0061QD82E

Perfectly timed for Valentine’s Day, Disney’s romantic animated classic “Lady and the Tramp” is out this week for the first time in a Diamond DBD/Blu-Ray combo.

Lady is the pampered cocker spaniel of a couple she knows as “Jim Dear” and “Darling.” Her best friends are Jock (a Scottie) and Trusty (a basset hound who has no sense of smell). They ignore a stray named Tramp. When Darling has a baby, Lady is apprehensive, but Jim Dear and Darling assure her that she is still important to them. The couple has to go away, though, and Aunt Sarah arrives, with her nasty Siamese cats, to care for the baby. The cats make a mess of the living room and Lady gets the blame. Aunt Sarah puts Lady in a muzzle, and Lady, hurt and humiliated, runs away.

She meets Tramp, who finds a way to get the muzzle off with the help of an obliging beaver (Stan Freberg). Then Tramp takes Lady out on the town, ending with a romantic spaghetti dinner at Tony’s restaurant. The next morning, on her way home, she is captured by the dogcatcher. At the pound, she hears from Peg (Peggy Lee) that Tramp is a rogue with many lady friends, and she is disillusioned.

Aunt Sarah gets Lady and takes her home, banishing her to the doghouse. But with Tramp’s help Lady gets inside to save the baby from a rat. The crib is knocked over, and Aunt Sarah blames Tramp. She calls the dogcatcher to take him away. Just in time, Jim Dear and Darling return, and understand what has happened. With the help of Jock and Trusty, they get Tramp back. Trusty is hurt, but not badly, and he and Jock go to visit on Christmas to see Lady and Tramp and meet their new puppies.

This is one of Disney’s best animated films, with an appealing story and memorable music by Peggy Lee and Sonny Burke. Kids with new (or expected) siblings may like to talk about Lady’s concerns about the new baby. The way the story is told from the dogs’ perspective may be of interest to younger kids, who are just learning that not everyone sees the same things exactly the same way. And many kids will identify with Lady’s sense of frustration when the adored Siamese cats frame her for destroying the living room.

Parents should know that there are some tense moments and mild peril.

Family Discussion:  Why does Lady think her owners’ names are “Jim Dear” and “Darling?”  Why was Lady worried about what would happen when the baby came?  How did Lady feel when Aunt Sarah blamed her for what the cats did? Why didn’t Lady like Tramp at first? What made her change her mind?

Activities: Make up a story about what might happen with the puppies after the movie ends. And have a spaghetti dinner!

If you like this, try: other Disney animated classics like “Pinocchio” and “101 Dalmatians”

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Animation Based on a book Classic DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week For the Whole Family For Your Netflix Queue Movie Mom’s Top Picks for Families Musical Romance Talking animals

Along Came a Spider

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Morgan Freeman returns as Dr. Alex Cross in this prequel to “Kiss the Girls.” Like the original, this movie has a nursery rhyme title and centers on a kidnapped girl. This time it is not a serial killer, just a madman inspired by the Lindburgh kidnap case, trying to make a name for himself with the crime of the new century. And this time the kidnap victim is not a woman but a little girl, the daughter of a United States Senator.

Freeman, as always, is a pleasure to watch, bringing a complexity and weight to every scene that almost makes up for a dumb plot. But even he cannot make up for Monica Potter, who replaces Ashley Judd as Freeman’s co-star, and who is as bland as a Barbie doll, and with an even blanker facial expression.

Potter plays Jazzie, a Secret Service agent assigned to a fancy school for the children of big shots and rich people. It’s the kind of place where every desk has an internet hookup and there are more Secret Service agents around than hall monitors. Let me just point out here that the Secret Service does not protect the children of Senators or even Senators themselves, who are in a different branch of government. We’ll give them some leeway for movie logic on that one. But there are some lapses, like having the President of Russia living in Washington, DC, that are inexcusably preposterous.

Jazzie blames herself when Megan (Mikka Boorem) is taken, and she is grateful when Alex Cross, himself recovering from a disastrous sting operation, wants her to work with him. They track down the kidnapper and prevent a second child from being taken. And there are shoot-outs, chases, and near-misses, some well staged. But the final twist is just plain dumb, and neither the performers nor the script’s explanation of the characters’ motivation have the panache to carry it off. No one could, especially when they resort to that hoariest of clichés, the good guy figuring it all out and then going out to the deserted location where it is all happening all by himself! At least they spare us the long explanation by the villain about the master plan.

Parents should know that the movie is very violent, with many deaths and some of the brightest-colored blood I have ever seen spurting in a movie. Characters use strong language. Many people may be upset by seeing children in peril, though Megan and her friend are strong, brave, loyal, and very smart. Other characters betray the trust of people who have been good to them, which may be disturbing to some viewers.

Families who see the movie should talk about what people do when they have to pick themselves up and go on following a disaster. They may also want to talk about how we decide whom we will trust and how we find reserves of strength when we are in scary situations. They should discuss Cross’ statement that everyone is born with a gift or gets good at something and “you don’t betray that.” They might also want to talk about whether criminals really are motivated by the prospect of fame, and whether there is or ever will be again a hero as universally adored as Lindburgh was.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Kiss the Girls” and an enjoyably dumb movie with a similar theme, Masterminds, a kind of “Die Hard” in a fancy prep school, with Patrick Stewart as the bad guy. Next to this one, “Masterminds” looks like “Citizen Kane.”

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