Mansfield Park

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Bodices may not be ripped, but they are certainly loosened in this very liberal adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. This is not your mother’s “Mansfield Park.” Fans of the book are warned early on that there will be some significant departures when the credits read that the screenplay, by director Patricia Rozema, is adapted not just from the novel, but also from the letters and journals of its author, Jane Austen. And indeed, Rozema has effectively removed the book’s frail and mousy — if resolutely honorable — heroine, and replaced her with some amalgam of Austen’s feistier characters plus a dash of Austen herself. Then she threw in a little bit of Jo March, Susan B. Anthony, and even Scarlet O’Hara for good measure.

And, for those who are not literary purists, it is good measure indeed. The movie version’s heroine is far more cinematic than the Fanny Price of the book, and the adaptation works remarkably well. Less successful is the attempt to import 20th century sensibility on issues like slavery (Fanny’s wealthy relatives own slaves in the West Indies) and some wild anachronisms (Fanny lies casually on her bed while she talks to her male cousin; neighbor Mary Crawford even more casually smokes a small cigar). And there is even that most unforgivable sin of movies set in the past – a character who says, “After all, it’s 1806!”

In the movie, as in the book, Fanny Price is from a large and very poor family. When she is a young girl, she is invited to stay with rich relatives as something between a servant and a companion. She is befriended by her cousin Edmund, but ignored by his dissolute older brother Tom and his selfish sisters, neglected by their parents, and bullied by her aunt, also a poor relative under their care. She grows up reading everything she can and doing her best to get along with everyone.

Henry Crawford and his sister Mary, both wealthy and attractive, come to stay nearby. Omni-seductive, they are both weak-willed and manipulative. They charm everyone but Fanny, creating many crises of honor and reputation.

The movie is sumptuously produced. Australian actress Frances O’Connor is terrific as Fanny. To use one of Austen’s favorite words, she is “lively,” but she is also able to show us Fanny’s unshakeable honor and dignity. Playwright Harold Pinter is outstanding as Lord Bertram.

Families should talk about some of the issues raised by the movie, including the family’s dependence on slaves in the West Indies to maintain their luxurious lifestyle, and the limited options available to women that led Fanny’s cousin Maria to insist on marrying a foolish – but wealthy – man. They should also discuss the Crawfords, two of Austen’s most intriguing characters. With wealth and charm of their own, why was manipulating others so important to them? One of the great moral crises of the book is whether the young people should put on a play (answer: they should not because it would create too great an intimacy). But Austen never shied away from having characters make ineradicable moral and social mistakes, and most of her books feature at least one couple who run off together without getting married and suffer some serious consequences. Perhaps in frustration over the difficulty of making those actions seem real to today’s audiences, or perhaps just as a way of making a classic work seem unstuffy, this movie has more implicit and explicit sexuality than we have seen in other movies based on Austen’s books (except maybe for “Clueless”). Parents should know that there is one scene with an implied lesbian interest and a brief inexplicit scene of an adulterous couple. Fanny finds drawings depicting abuse of slaves, including rape. Fanny’s aunt takes opium, her cousin is often drunk, and Fanny gets tipsy at a party.

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Based on a book Drama Epic/Historical Family Issues

My Dog Skip

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This is a good, old-fashioned boy and his dog movie, based on the memoir of Willie Morris, who grew up in 1940’s Mississippi, a small, sleepy town of “ten thousand souls and nothing to do.” It is lyrical and very touching, with many important issues for family discussion.

Willie (“Malcolm in the Middle’s” Frankie Muniz) feels like an outsider, bookish and unathletic. He does not have a single friend to invite to his 9th birthday party. But one of his birthday presents is a friend, a puppy he names Skip.

Willie’s “lively and talkative” mother (Diane Lane. luminous as always) gives him Skip over the objections of his “stern and overbearing” father (Kevin Bacon). One of the most interesting scenes in the movie for older kids is the parents’ debate. Willie’s mother says, “He is a responsible boy who needs a friend.” His father says that pets are “just a heartbreak waiting to happen.” Having lost his leg — and much of his sense of hope about life — in a war, he wants to protect Willie from loss as long as he can. But Mrs. Morris knows that loss is the price we pay for caring, and that what we gain from caring — and from loss — is well worth it.

Skip and Willie find “unconditional love on both our parts.” Skip is a good listener and a loyal companion. Together, the boy and dog explore an ever-widening world. Skip helps Willie develop confidence and make friends with other boys and with the prettiest girl in school. Willie grows up in the segregated South, but Skip makes friends without regard for color, and takes Willie along.

Some of the adventures Willie and Skip share are scary (like an all-night stay in a cemetery that turns into an encounter with moonshiners) or sad (Willie’s hero, a local sports star, returns from combat in WWII very bitter and humiliated). Willie learns about the world with Skip. He learns about himself, too. Angry and embarrassed at his poor performance in a baseball game, he hits Skip, who runs away, devastating Willie. Taking responsibility for his behavior and facing the consequences start him on the road to his adult self.

Families who see this movie will have a lot to talk about. Parents should give kids some background to help them understand WWII-era America, with ration books and scrap drives. Be sure to point out the evidence of segregation, including separate ticket booths and seating areas at the movie theater and an adult black man calling a white boy “sir.”

Talk about what makes bullies behave the way they do and how the skills that make a child successful are very different from the skills that make an adult successful. This is shown by Willie and by his althetic friend Dink, who went to war filled with bravado and returned badly shaken. Discuss the way Willie and his friends respond to Dink’s return, especially in connection with Willie’s comment as an adult that “loyalty and love are the best things of all, and surely the most lasting.” Ask kids what they think of the way Willie’s parents disagree about whether he should have Skip, and how parents want to protect their kids, sometimes maybe too much so.

The movie tells us that even as a grown-up, Willie thought of Skip every day. Ask kids what there is in their lives right now that helps them grow up, and what it is that they will think of when their “memories of the spirit linger on and sweeten long after memories of the brain have faded.”

Warning: spoilers ahead. Parents should know that there are a couple of strong words in the script, a deer is killed by hunters, a child tells a scary story, menacing bad guys threaten Willie and Skip, and Skip is badly injured. When Skip finally dies (of old age) it is still very sad. A four-year-old boy sitting near me was inconsolable and kept repeating, “Skip died?” all the way to the car.

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Based on a true story Drama Epic/Historical Family Issues For all ages For the Whole Family Inspired by a true story

One True Thing

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Based on Anna Quindlen’s novel, this is the story of a young writer who learns the value of her mother when she goes to care for her during her treatment for cancer. Renee Zellweger plays Ellen Gulden, a New York Magazine writer who has always rejected her mother’s homey values to follow the career of her father, a distinguished literary critic, professor, and author. As Ellen cares for her mother, she finds that her father is less than she thought, and her mother is more. In understanding and accepting her parents as fully human, Ellen begins to be more fully human herself. She gains an appreciation for her mother’s strength. The community and domestic projects Ellen had seen as unimportant busywork she learns to see as an essential source of sustenance. Meryl Streep shines as Ellen’s mother Kate, not afraid to show us the irritating side of Kate’s sunny personality and the impatience she reveals as she acknowledges that she has to insist on her opportunity to talk about what is important to her before it is too late. William Hurt plays Ellen’s father George. He show us that his hypocricy comes from weakness, insecurity, and fear, in a way harder for Ellen to take than if it had been based only on selfishness.

Parental concerns include the brief profanity that earns this film an R rating as well as intense and disturbing scenes concerning Kate’s illness and the issue of euthanasia. The movie probably will not have much appeal for teens, who are seldom ready to consider their parents as fully human, but those who want to see it may come away with a better appreciation for the complexity of relationships and the diversity of accomplishments.

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Based on a book Drama Family Issues

Sleepy Hollow

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This is less the Washington Irving story than it is “Scream” set in post- revolutionary times. Its production design by Rick Heinrichs is ravishingly eerie, all gray skies, looming spires, gnarled branches, and rearing horses. The magnificent collection of character actors is almost another element of the production design, with faces right out of Holbein or Daumier. But the spurting blood, rolling heads, and postmodern sense of irony are jarring and uneven. (It’s set in 1799, the end of the century, get it?)

Johnny Depp plays the honorable but easily frightened Ichabod Crane, in this version not a schoolteacher but a sort of 18th century detective, committed to the use of science and logic. He is sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of murders attributed to the Headless Horseman, the ghost of a bloodthirsty Hessian soldier, who steals the heads of his victims because his own was stolen from his grave.

Crane insists that the murderer cannot be supernatural, until he sees it himself. Still, he analyzes the evidence to find the secrets that link the victims together and the human force driving the Headless Horseman.

The themes of science vs. supernatural and appearance vs. reality appear throughout the movie, as Crane must understand his own past in order to see the truth. He describes himself as “imprisoned by a chain of reasoning.” He keeps coming back to a toy given to him by his mother, a spinning disk with a bird on one side and a cage on the other. As it spins, the bird appears to be inside the cage, an optical illusion, and, not by coincidence, the very illusion (persistence of vision) that makes us think that the people in the thousands of still pictures that make up a movie are really moving.

Depp plays Crane with the right haunted look and rigid posture. But the ludicrousness of some of the plot turns and the exaggerated fright reactions leave him with the most outrageous eye-rolling since Harvey Korman’s imitation of a silent film star. Indeed, the movie frequently brings to mind those sublime “Carol Burnett Show” movie parodies, especially when the villain ultimately finds time for a detailed confession as the planned final victim is waiting for the Headless Horseman to arrive. The wonderful Christina Ricci is wasted in an ingenue part.

Parents should know that this is a very, very gory movie, with many headless corpses, lots of spurting blood, heads being sliced off and bouncing to the ground, various other murders, a couple of “boo!”-type scares, and of course characters perpetually in peril. The heads all show up eventually, too. There is a brief but non-explicit scene of a couple having sex, several very gross moments, and a scene of torture in an Iron Maiden. This is only for teens who really enjoy slasher movies, and then if they can’t find a video of something better, like “Poltergeist” or director Tim Burton’s own “Nightmare Before Christmas” or “Edward Scissorhands.”

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Fantasy Horror

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Posted on April 14, 1999 at 3:06 pm

In this technical marvel of a movie, human and animated actors interact seamlessly. It begins with a cartoon, loveable Roger Rabbit taking care of adorable Baby Herman, despite every kind of slapstick disaster. Then, as birdies are swimming around Roger’s head after a refrigerator crashes down on him, a live-action director steps in to complain that the script called for stars, and we are in a 1947 Hollywood where “Toons” are real.
A private detective named Eddie (Bob Hoskins) is hired by the head of Roger’s studio to get evidence that Roger’s gorgeous wife Jessica is seeing another man. Eddie does not want the assignment. Once a friend to the Toons, he hates them since one of them killed his brother. But he needs the money badly, so Eddie goes to the Ink and Paint nightclub, where Jessica performs, and he takes photos of her playing “patty-cake” (literally) with Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), maker of novelties and gags. Roger is distraught when he sees the photographs. But it turns out that Jessica is completely faithful to Roger, and that she is caught up in a complex plot to close down Toon Town and Los Angeles’ excellent public transportation system to build freeways. Eddie’s efforts lead him to Toon Town and then to a warehouse where the real villain is revealed.
This was a one-time opportunity for cartoon characters from all the studios to join forces, and it is one of the great pleasures in movie history to see them all together. Donald Duck and Daffy Duck perform a hilarious duet at the Ink and Paint Club. On his way out the door at Maroon studios, Eddie brushes by several members from the “cast” of “Fantasia.” The penguin waiters from Mary Poppins show up in another scene, as do Pinocchio, Mickey Mouse, and Woody Woodpecker. The mix of characters and styles works extremely well, and kids will enjoy seeing some of their favorite characters in a different context. Kathleen Turner provided the sultry speaking voice of Jessica Rabbit, but her singing voice was Amy Irving.
Children will be delighted with the Toon characters, and with the interaction of the cartoons with the human actors and with the physical world. Eddie’s venture into Toon Town is almost as good. The story is fast-paced and exciting, and the slapstick is outstanding. But the human and cartoon characters mix more smoothly than the combination of slapstick and film noir references in this movie. The plot includes murder, corruption, and suspected adultery. The premise that the only possible explanation for the traffic system in Los Angeles is that it was the vision of a sinister madman is funnier for adults than it is for kids. Eddie is not an especially attractive leading character. Still reeling from his brother’s murder, he drinks too much and is surly to his clients, to his girlfriend, and to Roger.

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Animation Based on a book Comedy Fantasy For the Whole Family Satire
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