October Sky

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This true story of a boy from a small town who dreams of becoming a rocket scientist is one of the best films ever made about the thrill and hard work of science and a great family movie.

In 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made orbiting satellite. Thanks to Miss Riley (Laura Dern), a gifted teacher, Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his high school friends peer up into the clear October sky over their tiny West Virginia coal mining town to see its tiny spark drift across the stars. Homer dreams of being a rocket scientist. His father, John (Chris Cooper), the mine supervisor, does not understand Homer’s longing for wider horizons. But others do. Miss Riley roots for “the unlucky ones.” Homer’s mother covers the kitchen wall with a mural of the seascape she longs to see. Homer’s friends are glad to be a part of something new and important, and the community is proud to have a hero.

We know from the beginning where this story is going, just as we know with “Rocky.” The triumph of the underdog is one of literature’s most enduring themes. As long as it is done well, audiences are happy to go along and it is never done better than it is here. The script, the production design, and the acting are all superb. Gyllenhaal’s expressive eyes show his longing for the stars a million light years away and for his father’s approval in his own home. Cooper makes a role that could have been a one-dimensional tyrant multi-layered and complex, even sympathetic. Plot twists that might seem heavy-handed or melodramatic work because we know they really happened, and because these characters make us believe. We care so deeply about them that when we see real home movie footage of the real-life Homer’s experiments over the closing credits we feel as though they are a part of our family.

Parents should use this movie to talk to kids about how Homer, not a great student and not especially strong in math, became so inspired by an idea that he begins to think in new ways. Using math and science to solve problems made it real to him, and the work involved was — like the eight- mile walk to his experimental launch site — unquestionably worth it. They should also talk about why it was hard for John to support Homer’s ambitions, why his mother saw it differently, whether Homer made the right choice in going to work in the mine — and in leaving it, how kids at school treat the “nerds” and why, how people are evaluated differently in school than they are once they get out, and how life in 1999 is different from the world of 1957.

Parents should know that a drunken stepfather beats up one of Homer’s friends in one scene (and is stopped by John) and that there are some very mild sexual references.

Kids who enjoy this movie might also enjoy “The Corn is Green,” another true story about a boy from the coal mines who is transformed by education. Two different versions are available, one with Katharine Hepburn and one with Bette Davis.

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Based on a true story Drama Family Issues For the Whole Family

Playing from the Heart

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This theatrical production of the real-life story of deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie is a real treasure for family viewing. As with the other productions from Globalstage, it may take some kids a while to get used to the more impressionistic style of story-telling of a filmed stage production, but it it well worthwhile, both for the exposure to a subtler, more challenging style of storytelling and for the considerable merits of this extraordinary story. One of the best of this first-class series, this video is well worth watching.

The play begins with Evelyn as a child in a small town in Scotland, much beloved by her family. No one understands why the little girl’s hearing is diminishing. As Evelyn grows, she becomes profoundly deaf, but insists that she wants to be a percussionist, and that she can “hear” through the vibrations in her nose. She learns to play barefoot, so that she can hear with her “ears on the inside” and through determination and hard work she is able to defy the expectations of all around her and gain acceptance to the Royal Academy of Music.

The tape includes footage of the real Evelyn Glennie, now a world-famous musician.

Topics worth discussing with kids include how we form our dreams, confronting obstacles including the obstacle of other people’s expectations, the importance of supporting the dreams of those we love, and the importance of music. Families should also talk about the ways in which this kind of story-telling can be more effective than a more literal and linear depiction.

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Based on a true story Biography Documentary For all ages For the Whole Family

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 Insider

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a research scientist for a tobacco company, tells “60 Minutes” to reveal that the company is more aware of the addictive properties of nicotine than its executives claimed and in fact manipulated the delivery of nicotine. Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a producer of the show, promises to protect him. But CBS executives cut Wigand’s portion from the broadcast because they are worried about a potential lawsuit by the tobacco company.

Although the movie is based on a real-life incident, some of the names and details have been changed.

Wigand and Bergman are caught in parallel moral dilemmas. Both are loyal to their organizations until they witness what they perceive as acts of corruption. Both respond by making their stories public, resulting in struggle and sacrifice. The question is not one of disloyalty, but of conflicting loyalties. Wigand knows that telling the truth will hurt him and his family more than it hurts the tobacco company.

Families should be sure to discuss the point of view of the movie. Director/co-screenwriter Michael Mann very skillfully makes every shot and every note of the soundtrack help shape the story so that the viewer sees Bergman’s perspective. (One hint: the Bergman character is unerringly fair and honest.)

Families should discuss how the would movie be different if it was told from Wigand’s, Wallace’s, or the tobacco company’s point of view. And they should take a look at the tobacco company’s rebuttals to the movie, in full-page ads and on its website http://www.brownandwilliamson.com/1_hottopics/insider_frame.html.

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Based on a true story Documentary Drama Inspired by a true story

The Straight Story

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Do not let the G-rating and the Disney label mislead you – this is an adult movie in the old-fashioned sense of the word, meaning that its story and themes will most appeal to adults and some teens. It gets a G rating because it does not have any of the usual triggers for a PG or PG- 13 rating. There are no four-letter words or nudity, and there is nothing in the movie that is likely to cause offense or trauma. Still, it is not for most younger kids, who will be bored and restless. Thoughtful middle- and high schoolers and adults, however, will find a lot to appreciate and talk about in this seemingly simple story of 73 year old Alvin Straight, who sets off to visit his estranged brother, after hearing that he has had a stroke.

Alvin uses two canes and cannot see well enough to drive. So he hitches a trailer to his riding mower and sets off on a 300-mile journey from Iowa to Wisconsin, encountering along the six-week drive a range of people, landscapes, and adventures.

Children who watch a lot of television and movies often develop what psychologists call the “mean world” syndrome. Based on what they learn about the adult world from the media, their estimates of the incidence of murder and corruption are distorted way out of proportion to reality. And our cautions about not talking to strangers contribute further to their sense that the world is a dangerous place. This movie is a nice antidote to that. Alvin meets an engaging assortment of people, including a teen- age runaway, a team of bicyclists, twin repairmen, and a man who spent his career working for John Deere, and is unfailingly treated with kindness and dignity. It is good to let kids know that they can meet strangers like that, and even better to let them know that they can be strangers like that.

The essential decency of all of the movie’s characters is a good subject for family discussion. So are his comments on family. Hoping to get to his brother in time, he speaks feelingly to people he meets about the importance of the bond between siblings. This is a point that is always worth raising to kids who think that there may never be a day when they will have more to talk to their brothers and sisters about than whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher.

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Action/Adventure Based on a true story For the Whole Family Inspired by a true story
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