The Cider House Rules

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) reads David Copperfield aloud to his fellow orphans, letting us know that like Copperfield, he will let us decide for ourselves whether he is the hero of his own life. Homer, twice returned by adoptive parents, has become the surrogate son of the head of the orphanage, the benevolent Dr. Larch (Michael Caine).

The orphanage is a place where people come “to find a child or to leave one behind.” And women also come there for abortions — “Sometimes it was the woman who needed to be delivered.”

The movie is set during World War II, and abortion is illegal. Homer, who has never been to school, has been trained by Dr. Larch to practice medicine and perform medical procedures. But he will not do abortions, even when Dr. Larch shows him that the alternative is to leave women to take desperate, even fatal, measures to end pregnancy. They are unable to save one woman who comes to them after a botched abortion. As they bury her, Dr. Larch tells Homer that “she died of secrecy — she died of ignorance.” Still, Homer refuses, because it is illegal and also perhaps partly because he is aware that he and the other orphans were the results of unwanted pregnancies.

Dr. Larch is clearly raising Homer to take his place. But Homer hitches a ride with a couple who has come to the orphanage for an abortion and goes out to see the world outside the orphanage for the first time.

Homer gets a job picking apples, living in barracks with migrant workers led by Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo). On the wall is a list of rules, but the migrant workers cannot read, and they believe that since they did not write the rules, the rules cannot apply to them. They feel the same way about other kinds of rules. Mr. Rose says, “Don’t be holy to me about the law — what has the law done for any of us here?”

This is the theme of the movie. Many of the characters break rules, from the rules on the wall (against smoking in bed and climbing on the roof) to the laws of the state (abortion, licensing requirements, prohibitions on drug abuse), to rules that most people would consider fundamental principles of morality (prohibitions against dishonesty, betrayal of a friend’s trust, incest, and, for many people, abortion).

In some cases, viewers will think that breaking the rules was the right thing; in others they will not.

Notice that there are rules that characters take seriously, like the rules that Mr. Rose explains to Homer about how to pick apples. One of those rules, is to be careful not to pick an apple bud, because then “you’re picking two apples, this year’s and next year’s,” a rule which may have a deeper meaning to Homer given his views on abortion.

Families should talk about rules, how they are developed, when, if ever, breaking rules is justified, and, when it is justified, how important it is to be willing to take the consequences. Some characters in the movie seem to let life decide things for them, but others take the situation into their own hands, and it is worth discussing how to know when to act.

Questions to talk about with teens who see the movie include: What does it tell us that Homer was rejected by one set of adoptive parents for not crying and by another for crying too much? Why did Buster say that he’d like to kill his parents if he found them? Why did Dr. Larch tell the board that he did not want Homer to work at the orphanage? What is the importance of Mr. Rose’s question, “What business are you in?” What business was he in, and what business was Homer in? Which lies in the movie do you think were right and which were wrong? Do you agree with the doctor’s statement that adolescence is “when we think we have something terrible to hide from those who love us?” And compare the way that Candy lets life make decisions for her with a “wait and see” approach to Homer, who makes decisions based on his values, including the importance of having a purpose. They have very different reasons for getting together — he loves her, but she “just can’t be alone.”

Parents should know that the movie includes incest, non-explicit scenes of abortions, nudity, drug abuse, and a non-explicit scene of an unmarried couple having sex. There are also some very sad character deaths, including a child.

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Based on a book Drama Epic/Historical Family Issues

The Hurricane

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter triumphed over a brutal childhood to become a contender for the middleweight boxing championship, through pure determination. Then, wrongfully sentenced to three life terms for murders he did not commit, he used the same discipline, integrity, and ineradicable sense of dignity that served him as a fighter to survive in prison.

Denzel Washington’s dazzling portrayal as Carter makes us see the man’s courage and heart. And the astounding story of chance, loyalty, and dedication that led to his release gives us a chance to see true heroism and redemption.

Carter emerged from his first trumped up prison sentence (for running away from an abusive reformatory) determined to make his past work for him by making sure he would never return. He becomes a powerful boxer by channeling his rage into his fights: “I didn’t even speak English; I spoke hate, and those words were fists.” When his worst nightmare is realized, after a racist policeman coerces witnesses and suppresses evidence, and he is sent back to prison, he turns to that same focus to keep his core self free. He refuses to wear a prison uniform. And he refuses to accept privileges so that nothing can be taken away from him. He says, “My own freedom consisted of not wanting or needing anything of which they could provide me,” and “it is very important to transcend the places that hold us.” He makes a new goal: to “do the time,” meaning to do it his own way. If that requires cutting himself off from anything that makes him feel vulnerable, including his family and everyone else in the world outside the prison, he will. He says, “This place is not one in which humanity can survive — only steel can. Do not weaken me with your love.”

Meanwhile, a boy named Lasra Martin, living in Canada with people who took him in to provide him with an opportunity to get a better education, buys his first book for twenty-five cents. It is Carter’s book written in prison, The Sixteenth Round. Lasra writes his first letter. Carter answers.

They develop a close relationship, and Lasra introduces Carter to his Canadian friends, who become so committed to him that they move to New Jersey, vowing not to leave until he goes with them. They uncover new evidence, the lawyers develop a new theory, and finally, 20 years later, Carter is freed.

The devotion of the Canadians and the lawyers is truly heroic and very moving — the movie gently contrasts them with the celebrities who stopped by long enough to get their photographs taken, and then moved on to other causes. But, contrary to many “victims of racism saved by rightous white people” movie portrayals, the real hero of this story is Carter himself. In his first days in prison, locked in “the hole” for refusing to wear a prison uniform, we see him forging the steel that will keep his essence free, no matter how many locks are on the door. Then, in scenes that are almost unbearably moving, we see that he can still allow himself to hope and to need others. He has protected himself from dispair and bitterness in refusing to be a victim.

Families should talk about the struggles for racial equality in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and about what has and has not changed. And they should talk about the way that Carter keeps his spirit alive, in part by identifying himself with prisoners of conscience like Nelson Mandela and Emile Zola, and by writing, “a weapon more powerful than my fists can ever be.” Teens might want to read Carter’s book or the book Lazarus and Hurricane, which was the basis for the movie. They will also appreciate another dazzling performance by Washington in another tribute to an extraordinary historical figure, Malcolm X.

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Based on a book Based on a true story Biography Courtroom Documentary Drama Epic/Historical Family Issues

The Iron Giant

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

It draws a lot from E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial, The Indian in the Cupboard, and, for that matter, from Lassie, but this story of a boy who befriends an enormous robot from outer space is told with so much humor and heart that it becomes utterly winning in its own right, and the best family movie of the summer.

The story is set in rural Maine, during the late 1950’s. Nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes (voice of Eli Marienthal) lives with his waitress mother, Annie(voice of Jennifer Aniston). One night, he discovers a huge robot in the woods, munching on whatever metal he can find, including the town’s electric substation. Hogarth is frightened, but takes pity when the robot is enmeshed in wires, and turns off the power so that the robot can escape.

The next day, Hogarth and the robot begin to get acquainted. The robot turns out to be the world’s best playmate, whether cannonballing into the swimming hole or acting as a sort of amusement park ride. His origins remain mysterious — the robot himself seems to have some memory loss — but his reaction to Hogarth’s toy ray gun suggests that he may have served as a weapon of some kind.

With the help of local beatnick/junk dealer/sculptor Dean McCoppin (voice of Harry Connick, Jr.), Hogarth hides the robot in Dean’s junkyard, where he can eat the scrap metal without attracting attention. But government investigator Kent Mansley (voice of Christopher McDonald) thinks that the giant is part of a communist plot, and presses Hogarth to turn him in. Mansley calls in the army, led by General Rogard (voiced by “Frasier’s” John Mahoney), and suddenly the robot and the surrounding community are in real danger. The resolution is genuinely poignant and satisfying.

The script, based on a book by England’s poet laureate, Ted Hughes, is exceptionally good. The plot has some clever twists, and some sly references to the 1950’s to tickle the memories of boomer parents. Setting the story in the 1950’s puts the government’s reaction to the robot in the context of the red scare and Sputnik (Hogarth and his classmates watch a “duck and cover” instructional movie at school).

It may not have the breathtaking vistas of some of the best Disney animated films, but it is lively and heartwarming and the characters, both human and robot, are so engaging that you might forget they are not real. The robot, created with computer graphics, is seamlessly included with the hand-drawn actors, making the illusion even more complete.

Parents should know that there are some tense moments that may be frightening to young children. There are also some swear words and some potty humor in the film, and parents should caution children that it is not funny to feed someone a laxative disguised as chocolate.

This movie provides a lot of good topics for discussion, including the role of violence and guns (the robot is very upset when a deer is killed by hunters and it automatically shoots back when it sees Hogarth’s toy gun) and how society can find a way to protect itself without creating unnecessary harm. Other good topics include how we make friends with those who are different and Hogarth’s advice to the robot that he can decide what he will be, no matter how he was created.

Video tips: Kids who enjoy this movie will like perennial favorite “E.T” and may also enjoy another movie about an outer-space robot who tries to teach humans about peace, The Day the Earth Stood Still.

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Action/Adventure Animation Based on a book For all ages For the Whole Family

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
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