1776

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Happy Independence Day!

1776.jpg

This rousing musical about the Declaration of Independence makes the Founding Fathers vivid, human, and interesting characters, and is so involving that you almost forget that you already know how it all turned out. William Daniels is the “obnoxious and disliked” John Adams, Ken Howard is Thomas Jefferson, who would rather be with his wife than work on the Declaration, and Howard da Silva is a wry and witty Benjamin Franklin. As they debate independence, we see the courage that went into the birth of the United States, and as they compromise with the South to permit slavery in the brand-new country we see the tragedy. Outstanding family entertainment.

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Based on a true story Epic/Historical For the Whole Family Musical

Anna and the King

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This is the fourth movie version — and the second this year — of the story of Anna Leonowens, brought to Siam in 1864 by King Monghut to teach his children. Anna and the King end up teaching each other a few things, too.

Of course, the best-remembered is the classic with Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr, and the unforgettable songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein. This version has spectacle to spare, but no “Getting to Know You,” no “Whistle a Happy Tune,” no genuine connection between the two leads (though we are supposed to believe that they are in love with one another), and a script that teeters between stolid and awful.

Jody Foster plays Anna, a widowed Englishwoman who lived most of her life in India. The king hires her because he wants his children to learn more about the world outside of Siam. She respects his culture, but she is appalled by the cruel treatment of bonded servants and urges him to make changes. The king is very progressive in some ways. He respects her independent spirit and values her counsel, but he forbids her to talk to her students about that issue.

Siam is independent, but bounded by colonies of France and England, and vulnerable. Anna aids the King in persuading the English that Siam is stable and “civilized.” And when the King and his children are in danger, Anna provides support.

It’s best to watch this movie with your eyes more than your ears. It is a visual treat. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (“The Black Stallion”) creates stunning images of splendor. But the dialogue is dreadful and the plot does not hold together, especially in a bizarre Mulan-style rescue. Worst of all is the all-but-loony way that the two leads, both playing highly principled people deeply aware of their responsibilities linger over a goodbye when the bad guys are charging, dance romantically in the middle of a state dinner, and generally act like Archie and Veronica at the malt shop.

Parents should know that the movie has some very intense violence, including battle scenes, bloody beatings, and non-graphic but very tense beheadings. Dead bodies hang from a tree and soldiers are poisoned. There is a very sad death of a child. There are references to the king’s many wives and concubines and one reluctant concubine is shown being prepared for her first night with him, and being reassured that he is a generous lover. The king smokes cigars and the boys try one.

As with the earlier, better, versions (including another non-musical version with Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison), topics for discussion include cultural diversity and how we distinguish between fundamental truths and cultural differences, the challenges of power (for example, the constant threats from those who want to seize it), and the importance of surrounding ourselves with people who tell us the truth, even when it is hard to hear.

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Drama Epic/Historical Inspired by a true story Remake

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

Snow Falling on Cedars

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

There has never been a movie more literally true to its title — this is indeed a movie with many long, loving scenes of snow falling on cedars. There are also scenes of raindrops plopping in puddles and autumn leaves blowing and children running on the beach.

In between, there is a story, impressionistically told, about a murder trial. Late one night, in 1950 Washington State, a Caucasian fisherman named Carl Heine drowned, and circumstantial evidence indicates that he might have been murdered. The last person to see him was a Japanese fisherman, Kazuo Miyamoto, who had a motive — Heine owned land that would have belonged to Miyamoto’s family if not for the Japanese internment during World War II.

As journalist Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke) sits in the balcony of the courtroom taking notes, the background is revealed in snippets and images: Ishmael and Miyamoto’s wife, Hatsue, devoted to each other as children and teenagers. Ishmael’s father, losing subscribers and advertisers because of his editorials against racism. Heine’s father, promising Miyamoto’s father that he would not foreclose while they were in the internment camp. Heine’s mother, foreclosing after her husband died. Hatsue’s mother, telling her to stay away from white boys. Ishmael, unable to stop thinking about Hatsue.

Parents should know that there are some battle scenes and a graphic amputation, and some inexplicit but intimate scenes of married couples having sex and teenagers making out.

Several characters in the movie hesitate before acting, and it is worth talking about the consequences of the delays and what factors lead them to decide the way they do. Families should also talk about this style of story-telling. Is it supposed to represent the internal thoughts of the characters or is there some sort of narrator putting together the story like a jigsaw puzzle. And families should also talk about the Japanese internment, one of the most shameful episodes in this country’s history, and about the half-century effort it took to get an apology and a small payment for damages.

Familes who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Come See the Paradise” and “A Walk in the Clouds.”

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Based on a book Drama Epic/Historical Family Issues Mystery Romance War
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