Cradle Will Rock

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

How do you stay true to ideals when there is pressure to compromise in order to make a living? How can you sell without selling out? These questions are provocatively posed in “mostly true” intersecting stories surrounding a pro-union play funded — and then closed — by the U.S. government.

Today’s teens live in a world in which politicians squabble about whether an “elephant dung Madonna” should be hung in a government-funded museum exhibit and rap stars famous for being outrageous and outspoken issue bowdlerized versions of their recordings in order to meet the requirements of chain stores. Older teens, who try to grapple with the problem of holding onto integrity in a complicated world, will appreciate the way those issues are raised in this movie, thoughtfully constructed by writer/director Tim Robbins to show characters with a range of dilemmas and priorities.

We see artists who want to make political statements, artists who want to make money, and artists who are thrilled by art for its beauty. The director — 22-year-old Orson Welles, just before going to Hollywood to make “Citizen Kane” — simply says that his goal is ‘to all the right people.”

We see a young businessman (Nelson Rockefeller) who wants to use his fortune for art – as long as its message is one that does not make him too uncomfortable. An older businessman wants to use his fortune to buy Old Masters — and to buy the support of politicians, so he can make more money.

Teens should notice the irony and symbolism, like the rich people dressing as Marie Antoinette’s court for a costume party and the opening newsreel showing art being censored in Nazi Germany. Why does the movie show Welles objecting to a union-required break during rehearsal? Why does the ventriloquist leave his dummy on the stage? Why is the main character of the play a prostitute? Why does Diego Rivera refuse to paint the design he agreed to?

Be sure to ask teens what they think about the movie’s final image, an attempt to tie the story directly to the present day. See if they think that the movie has any heroes, and if so, how they can tell.

Parents should know that the movie has strong language, nudity, including an artist’s nude models, and sexual references, including references to homosexuality.

FAMILY PROJECT: Welles went on to annoy one of the most powerful men in the country, William Randolph Hearst, with his next project, “Citizen Kane,” number one on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest movies. Teens might want to read more about Nelson Rockefeller and check out Digeo Rivera’s surviving murals at http://www.diegorivera.com. For more on the Federal theater project, read Hallie Flanagan: A Life in the American Theatre, by Joanne Bentley or Flanagan’s own book, Arena: The Story of the Federal Theatre.

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Biography Documentary Inspired by a true story

Isn’t She Great

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Hard to imagine myself saying this, but it would have been better if Jacqueline Susann had written this movie. It would have been dumb and unbelievable and even grotesque, but it would not have been boring.

The tag line for the movie is “Talent isn’t everything” and indeed, that is its theme. Bette Midler plays Jacqueline Susann, sensationally untalent-ed but best-selling author of the very sensational “Valley of the Dolls.”

Susann has just one goal in life — to be famous. She wants “mass love.” And that’s the problem with the movie. It has clever dialogue and bright direction, but it wants us to love Jackie as much as her adoring husband does (the title is taken from his favorite comment about her). We can feel sympathy for her. She has an autistic child and becomes very ill with breast cancer. It’s fun to see her triumph over her stuffy editor’s urgings on grammar, consistency, and taste. And it is always nice to see someone’s dream come true.

But this dream is so selfish, so trashy, so empty that we just don’t like or believe her. The movie’s point of view seems to be that a fantasy of fabulousness wrapped up in Gucci pantsuits and manicured poodles is enough to engage us. Jackie herself would never have created a character so shallow — not a female character, anyway.

Parents should know that in addition to a sour moral vaccuousness, this movie includes explicit sexual references.

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Biography Drama Family Issues Inspired by a true story

Jackie Robinson Story

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

For Black History Month, take a look at this neglected gem about the first black baseball player to play in the major leagues. The primary appeal of this movie is that Robinson plays himself (with Ruby Dee as his wife). It is forthright about the racial issues, but inevitably appears somewhat naive by today’s standards.

Connections: Dee appears as Robinson’s mother in a worthwhile made-for-television movie called “The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson.” Older kids might enjoy the episode of the Ken Burns “Baseball” series that covers the integration of the major leagues. And mature teens should see “Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars and Motor Kings,” a lively (and sometimes raunchy and violent) story about the last days of baseball’s Negro League.

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Based on a true story Biography Sports

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
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