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

The Cider House Rules

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) reads David Copperfield aloud to his fellow orphans, letting us know that like Copperfield, he will let us decide for ourselves whether he is the hero of his own life. Homer, twice returned by adoptive parents, has become the surrogate son of the head of the orphanage, the benevolent Dr. Larch (Michael Caine).

The orphanage is a place where people come “to find a child or to leave one behind.” And women also come there for abortions — “Sometimes it was the woman who needed to be delivered.”

The movie is set during World War II, and abortion is illegal. Homer, who has never been to school, has been trained by Dr. Larch to practice medicine and perform medical procedures. But he will not do abortions, even when Dr. Larch shows him that the alternative is to leave women to take desperate, even fatal, measures to end pregnancy. They are unable to save one woman who comes to them after a botched abortion. As they bury her, Dr. Larch tells Homer that “she died of secrecy — she died of ignorance.” Still, Homer refuses, because it is illegal and also perhaps partly because he is aware that he and the other orphans were the results of unwanted pregnancies.

Dr. Larch is clearly raising Homer to take his place. But Homer hitches a ride with a couple who has come to the orphanage for an abortion and goes out to see the world outside the orphanage for the first time.

Homer gets a job picking apples, living in barracks with migrant workers led by Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo). On the wall is a list of rules, but the migrant workers cannot read, and they believe that since they did not write the rules, the rules cannot apply to them. They feel the same way about other kinds of rules. Mr. Rose says, “Don’t be holy to me about the law — what has the law done for any of us here?”

This is the theme of the movie. Many of the characters break rules, from the rules on the wall (against smoking in bed and climbing on the roof) to the laws of the state (abortion, licensing requirements, prohibitions on drug abuse), to rules that most people would consider fundamental principles of morality (prohibitions against dishonesty, betrayal of a friend’s trust, incest, and, for many people, abortion).

In some cases, viewers will think that breaking the rules was the right thing; in others they will not.

Notice that there are rules that characters take seriously, like the rules that Mr. Rose explains to Homer about how to pick apples. One of those rules, is to be careful not to pick an apple bud, because then “you’re picking two apples, this year’s and next year’s,” a rule which may have a deeper meaning to Homer given his views on abortion.

Families should talk about rules, how they are developed, when, if ever, breaking rules is justified, and, when it is justified, how important it is to be willing to take the consequences. Some characters in the movie seem to let life decide things for them, but others take the situation into their own hands, and it is worth discussing how to know when to act.

Questions to talk about with teens who see the movie include: What does it tell us that Homer was rejected by one set of adoptive parents for not crying and by another for crying too much? Why did Buster say that he’d like to kill his parents if he found them? Why did Dr. Larch tell the board that he did not want Homer to work at the orphanage? What is the importance of Mr. Rose’s question, “What business are you in?” What business was he in, and what business was Homer in? Which lies in the movie do you think were right and which were wrong? Do you agree with the doctor’s statement that adolescence is “when we think we have something terrible to hide from those who love us?” And compare the way that Candy lets life make decisions for her with a “wait and see” approach to Homer, who makes decisions based on his values, including the importance of having a purpose. They have very different reasons for getting together — he loves her, but she “just can’t be alone.”

Parents should know that the movie includes incest, non-explicit scenes of abortions, nudity, drug abuse, and a non-explicit scene of an unmarried couple having sex. There are also some very sad character deaths, including a child.

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Based on a book Drama Epic/Historical Family Issues

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 Man in the Iron Mask

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

It’s more than 20 years since the “all for one and one for all” days and the Three Musketeers and their friend D’Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne) have gone their separate ways. Athos (John Malkovich) is a loving father to his son, Raoul, himself a Musketeer, Artemis (Jeremy Irons) is a priest, and Porthos (Gerard Depardieu) is something of a libertine. Only D’Artagnan is still in service to the cruel and selfish young king, forever loyal to the crown, if not the man who wears it, and to his own true love, the king’s mother.

A mysterious prisoner in an iron mask turns out to be the king’s identical twin brother, and the original Musketeers free him so they can substitute him for the king, whose subjects are rioting in the streets to protest his neglect and abuse. The result is a respectable — if slow-moving — swashbuckler with teen idol Leonardo DiCaprio appearing as the twins. With double the roles he plays in “Titanic” and some good swordfighting scenes, this will have strong appeal for boys and girls in the 8-16 range. Parents should know, however, that there is coarse language, overheard sex, suggested group sex, and a young woman who kills herself when she finds out that the king deliberately caused the death of her beloved (Athos’ son Raoul) so that he could seduce her. Families who do see the movie should take the opportunity to talk about some of the issues of conflicts and loyalty it raises. Families may also want to share the delightful 1974 Richard Lester version of “The Three Musketeers.”

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Action/Adventure Drama Epic/Historical
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