Roving Mars

Posted on January 26, 2006 at 4:09 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated G
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some tense moments
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: 2006
Amazon.com ASIN: B000FIMG40

Imagine standing in Los Angeles, trying to shoot a basketball all the way to New York, where it must hit the basket without touching the hoop. That’s the magnitude of the challenge faced by NASA scientists and engineers in trying to land probes on Mars. Two-thirds of the time, they fail.

This is the story of the most recent effort to send two identical exploratory vehicles, named Spirit and Opportunity, 306 million miles to Mars in April 2004.


Oh, and that basketball hoop we’re trying to reach? It’s moving. The launch has to be timed exactly to the moment when Mars will be best aligned with Earth. As we see the engineers performing their last-minute tests, shredding the parachute they were planning to send to Mars, we realize that they have days — sometimes less — to figure out what went wrong and fix it.


Spirit and Opportunity have to be able to launch and fly like a rocket ship, survive the landing without burning up or breaking any of their instruments, drive like a remote (VERY remote)-controlled vehicle over rocky (VERY rocky) terrain, keep working through Mars-size “days” and report back, through pictures and geologic analysis, detailed data about what they find. It is so enormously complex that “No one person can understand everything about the vehicle,” says one scientist. “It’s burst the bounds of our brain.”


Unlike most IMAX films, which have a stately, almost static feeling, this movie has moments as immediate and involving as a feature film. Yet it makes great use of the size and resolution of the IMAX technology, using the images the rovers sent back to create an astonishingly vivid Mars landscape.


The visuals are magnificent but what makes the movie work is the story — the dream of Mars and the hard work that goes into getting there. It shows how cool science — and hard work — can be as we look at the range of questions and problems the scientists and engineers must solve.

Best of all, it shows kids something parents and teachers often forget to tell them: you have to make mistakes. Two-thirds of the Mars initiatives failed. “Mars is a spacecraft graveyard,” one scientist says. This is a movie about Mars and about dreams, but most of all it is a movie about how mistakes are not just okay but expected and necessary in order to learn what we need to learn to do what we dream of doing.


Parents should know that this movie has no issues of parental concern but will probably be of most interest to ages 7 or 8 and above.


Families who see this movie should talk about how the smartest scientists and engineers in the world expect to make a lot of mistakes before they finish. What can we do to make sure we make the right number of mistakes. Families should know that the names for the two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, were suggested by an 8-year-old girl named Sofi Collis, whose own journey is almost as remarkable as that of the rovers she named. If you got a chance to name a rover, what would you pick? If you could go to Mars, what would you do first?

Families who enjoy this movie will want to learn more about the Mars rovers and they read my interview with the people who made the movie. Families will also enjoy Tom Hanks’ brilliant miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, especially episode 5 about the design of the lunar module and episode 10 about teaching the astronauts to be what Spirit and Opportunity do in this film — geologists. They will enjoy Voyage to Mars by Laurence Bergreen and Roving Mars by Steven Squyres, who appears in this film.

Families might enjoy some whimsical notions of space exploration, including one of the very first movies with special effects, the silent film A Trip to the Moon (How do the explorers get home again? They jump off!), Wallace and Gromit’s A Grand Day Out, and Forbidden Planet, inspired by Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

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Documentary Movies Shorts

First Descent

Posted on December 4, 2005 at 3:29 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and a momentary drug reference.
Profanity: Very strong language for a PG-13
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, video tape of drunken behavior, references to drug use, discussion of marijuana use while in competition
Violence/ Scariness: Peril, accidents that clearly cause pain, stunt attempts gone awry
Diversity Issues: Strong, competitive female snowboarder
Date Released to Theaters: 2005
Date Released to DVD: 2006
Amazon.com ASIN: B000E0WJKK

When the helicopter takes you to the snowy peaks at the end of the paved road, where “backcountry” describes a style and a philosophy as oppose to a location, you know you are about to see something beautiful. As if snowboarding was not amazing enough in its gravity-defying freestyle and its seemingly-unstoppable downhill speed, this movie takes you to “first descent” snow, untouched and dangerous, to watch the experts glide down avalanches, rock faces and that dauntingly large jump to show the sport off against a vast, wild playground.


It doesn’t matter a bit that “First Descent” follows a well-established formula for sport movie/documentaries. There are the requisite clips from the sport’s beginnings; the gorgeous scenery of snowy peaks; the focus on a handful of the sport’s defining athletes, past and present; and, of course, the representative soundtrack. What matters here is that it welcomes you into the sport like a friend and introduces you to the joy of finding that great “line”. For those who get sweaty palms and nervous stomachs at watching someone stand atop a cliff face, this extreme snowboarding, ranging from free-style to backcountry, will leave them hugging the floor.


The movie is part documentary — describing snowboarding’s roots and its rapid ascension to the fast-growing, mainstream phenomenon it is today — and part field trip, focusing on six athletes who are taken to Alaska for back-country snowboarding. The six are: Shawn Farmer, who was one of the sport’s wild poster boys; Terje Haakonsen, whose no-nonsense style and fearless approach have made him legendary far beyond his native Norway; Nick Peralta, another who helped define the sport; Travis Rice, whose experience in Japan demonstrates a whole new way of looking at snowboarding; Hannah Teter, a game and gifted young Olympian; and, the 18-year-old surprisingly humble superstar, Shaun White, five-time X Games winner. They range in age from 40 to 17 and one of the movie’s strengths is demonstrating how they all learn from one another as they swoosh down the mountainsides.


The choppy cuts back and forth between Alaska, past clips and footage of competitions are at times a bit clumsy and the back-stories for the six are incomplete snapshots (where’s Peralta’s montage?), however these are small bumps on the slope of an otherwise successful movie. It is doubtful that true fans will learn much that they do not already know or that audience goers will remember anything particular once they leave, but the images of snowboarders weaving down vast snow plains or spinning far above the ground make even the least snow-minded understand the businessman who took up the sport at age 60 and whose eyes sparkle as he admits to being a “complete addict”.


Parents should know that this movie is about a sport that can be quite dangerous. These athletes suffer injuries, wipeouts and other bad falls while the potential for a fatal accident is present in many scenes. Anyone who has a fear of heights should avoid the movie unless they are trying to desensitize themselves. In looking at the history of snowboarding, the movie includes some footage of off-the-slope behavior of the “Jackass” variety, including people breaking bottles over their own heads, jumping from high surfaces onto concrete and other extreme stunts. There are scenes of drinking, drunken behavior, and references to drug use. A recap of the Nagano Olympics, when a snowboarder tested positive for marijuana use, is retold with approval. Youth rebellion through new or dangerous sports is a theme of this movie.


Families might talk about the different subcultures within snowboarding and how they defined themselves as well as how those definitions changed with the sport’s increased popularity. They might also discuss the professionalizing and commercialization of sports in general and the impact those changes have, not just on demographics, but on defining a sport. For example, NASCAR, briefly touched on in “First Descent”, had its roots in prohibition-era liquor smuggling: can you see its links to its past?


Families that enjoy this movie might be interested in other extremely photogenic sport films and documentaries. The prolific Warren Miller has made over 40 movies about downhill skiing filled with scenes of graceful skiers leaping and slaloming down beautiful slopes.


The skateboarding culture touched on in “First Descent” is delved into in Dogtown and Z-Boys. While those who like their adventures at sea level might enjoy the surfing classic The Endless Summer as well as more recent surfing movies such as Step into Liquid and Riding Giants.


The majesty of the Alaskan mountains is also the backdrop for the jaw-dropping film diary about Dick Proenneke who heads to the mountains to test himself in a much less athletic but even more impressive way. The film comprises footage that the self-reliant 50-year-old made as he builds himself a cabin and readies himself for winter over the course of 1967, the first of 30 plus years he ends up staying Alone in the Wilderness.

Thanks to guest critic AME.

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Documentary Movies 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

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
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