Life is Beautiful

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This Oscar-winner for Best Actor and Best Foreign Film is a “fable” is about a father’s love for his wife and son in the midst of the Holocaust. Writer/director Roberto Begnini stars as a Chaplinesque character who charms a beautiful teacher by creating a world of gentle magic around them. The first half of the movie is their sweet love story, with only faint foreshadowing of the tragedies that lie ahead.

But then Begnini and his wife and child are sent to a concentration camp. To protect his son’s life, he teaches him to hide from the guards during the day. To protect his son’s heart, he constructs an elaborate fantasy that they are participating in a very difficult contest to win the ultimate prize, a real tank. And his son finds that this make sense, and he goes along with it.

This movie inspired a lot of controversy from people who said that it was an inaccurate portrayal of the Holocaust, and that it was wrong to set a comedy, even a gentle bittersweet one, in a concentration camp. But the movie is never less than respectful of the suffering during the Holocaust, and of the impossibility of any kind of real portrayal of that experience. Even “Schindler’s List” is not a portrayal of the Holocaust. That experience is fundamentally incomprehensible. The best we can hope for from art is that it gives us glimpses. This movie gives us such a glimpse, but it is really about love, and the indominability of humanity even in the midst of inhumanity.

We often see in life and in movies that people react to extreme adversity by magnifying whatever sense of control they have left — think of Mrs. Van Dam’s focus on her coat in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” absurd in light of the fact that they never go outside, so she has no real need for a coat, but important because somehow she has chosen the coat as a place to locate her sense of herself as not having lost everything. In “Life is Beautiful,” the father focuses on his special talent for creating a feeling of magic to protect his son from the worst reality of the Holocaust, the sense of utter betrayal. Very importantly, he gives his son a sense of control, by letting him think that he has made the choice to participate in the contest. And knowing that he has kept his child’s faith intact gives him a sense of control, and purpose, that keeps him going.

This is an excellent movie for families to watch together, to discuss not just the historical framework but challenges that parents face when they see their children learn about tragedy and unfairness.

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Classic Comedy Drama Family Issues Romance Tragedy

Wonder Boys

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This movie has a lot in common with its main character. Both are shambling and directionless, with a literary gloss and great deal of charm and intelligence. And both need all of that to be forgiven for their many failings.

Michael Douglas plays Grady Tripp, a college professor whose award- winning book was published seven years ago. He is under pressure from all sides. His third young, beautiful wife has just left him. His mistress Sara (Frances McDormand), who happens to be married to Tripp’s boss, is pregnant with Tripp’s child. His best student seems suicidal. Another student, who is also a tenant, is clearly interested in becoming young and beautiful wife number four. And his editor is pressing him for a new manuscript.

Tripp has a manuscript, now up to page 2612, but does not want to show it to anyone. Crabtree, the editor (Robert Downey, Jr.) arrives accompanied by a transvestite he met on the plane. And everyone ends up at a party at the home of the mistress and her husband, Tripp’s dean, a man who believes that Marilyn Monroe’s marriage to Joe DiMaggio was the defining moment of the 20th Century.

Tripp is irresponsible, but he cares about Sara more than he knew and he cares about James more than he thought he could. Perhaps it is because he wants to save in James what he fears he may have lost in himself — notice the way that Grady begins every sentence to James by using his name, as though to persuade himself that he is speaking to someone else. James is drunk on words and stories. Tripp may have been that way once, but now he has to resort to marijuana and whatever drugs he can scrounge from Crabtree’s suitcase.

In the course of the weekend, the dean’s dead dog, Marilyn Monroe’s wedding sweater, Crabtree’s luggage, and James’ manuscript end up in Tripp’s vintage convertible. That car then ferries the transvestite to his home (deconstructing the drag along the way), Tripp to his ex-wife’s parents’ house and his mistress’ greenhouse, then rescues James from his kindly but clueless parents, and is either stolen or retrieved by a man whose name is not Vernon but who looks like it should be.

In the course of this fantastic (in the literary sense) journey, all the characters are coping with problems and yet all are remarkably honorable and helpful. The ex-wife’s parents dress Tripp’s wound. The successful colleague tells Tripp how much he was moved by Tripp’s work. Even the man whose name is not Vernon gives Tripp and Crabtree a lift. In another movie, Tripp might think of stealing James’ manuscript, but in this one, he lets it replace his own, solving both James’ and Crabtree’s problems. Tripp limps through the movie with a bandaged hand, often wearing the ratty pink chenille bathrobe he wears when he writes. He is in something of a stupor, not just from alcohol and drugs, but from success, and failure. He still has James’ passion for writing, but he no longer has the innocence and sense of possibilities to “make the choices” necessary. When asked why he was writing the 2000-page book, all he can say is, “I couldn’t stop.” And when he says, “Sometimes people just need to be rescued,” he is talking about himself as much as James.

This grand mess of a movie has many pleasures, including a terrific soundtrack, marvelous performances, and a beguiling but highly improbable ending. Tripp’s colleague says that everyone has a story. What gets you from there to writing? He mentions faith, and Tripp mentions keeping at it. One reason is that stories like this one, highly imperfect but worthwhile, are what help us get to the ones that really make it all the way there.

Families who see this movie should talk about how the people in it establish their priorities and deal with the consequences.

Parents should know that this movie has drug and alcohol abuse, adultery, homosexual and heterosexual references (including a transvestite character), references to suicide, and very strong language.

People who enjoy this movie will also like Educating Rita and The Accidental Tourist.

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Drama Family Issues

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

Mystery, Alaska

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

The coming attraction makes it clear that “Mystery, Alaska” is your basic “Rocky” movie about a grown-up version of the Mighty Ducks — a team from a small, hockey-worshipping Alaska town gets a chance to play the New York Rangers. So we expect your basic redemption through sports plot, including the death of a loveable character, the healing of old wounds, the learning of important lessons about teamwork and pride, endearingly quirky players, deeper understanding and acceptance between family members, a young player just beginning and an older one approaching time to hang up his skates, and at least one speech about how our guys don’t play for money, they play for the love of the game! And we settle back, waiting for our hearts to be warmed.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The reason that formulas endure is that they usually work, as long as the details are all right and there is nothing too overtly manipulative, and nothing that interferes with our ability to suspend disbelief. And here the details are pretty good, especially the feel of the remote, snowy town, where kids skate the river and make out in snowplows and everyone turns out every week to watch the Saturday hockey game. And there are fine ensemble performances. The hockey game is pretty good, too. And there are a couple of very funny guest cameos to pick things up near the end.

Prodigal son Charles Danner (Hank Azaria), who left to be a big city writer, brings in the Rangers after his article about the weekly game in Mystery, Alaska. Despite the fact that the town judge (Burt Reynolds) cautions against it, urging the town to cling to their illusions and their dignity, the people cannot resist their chance at the big time. Local sheriff John Biebe (Russell Crowe), just dropped from the team to make room for a high school student who skates like a rocket, agrees to coach. Everyone has issues to resolve – the judge is harsh and rigid, the high school kid and his girlfriend are exploring sex, the sheriff’s difficulty in being cut from the team comes just as his wife’s former boyfriend shows up, the town lothario (Ron Eldard) has some unfinished business with a couple of different women and one angry husband, a huge chain store is thinking of coming to town to compete with the local businesses, and those Rangers look awfully big up close.

It is all very predictable, but also very watchable. I predict that they’ll get at least one “the feel-good movie of the year!” blurb for the newspaper ads. And they might even be right.

Parents should know that there is very strong and very vivid language, including locker-room style descriptions of sex, a child’s use of four- letter words played for humor, a wounded man’s use of very strong language played for humor, a character who has casual sex with almost every woman he meets (and who apologizes to the husband of one of them, with no suggestion that this might make the woman seem like property), explicit depictions of sexual encounters, including one between teenagers, and some violence (punched noses, semi-accidental shooting resulting in minor injury). The teen-age girl says that she wants to have sex because she is afraid of losing her boyfriend, which parents may want to discuss. The boy makes it clear that he is perfectly comfortable with waiting, and does not want to do it for that reason. They then go ahead, but are not able to complete the act, which causes great feelings of insecurity for both of them. Her mother, though clearly uncomfortable, responds with sympathy and support.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the original Rocky and Crowe’s performances in The Insider and A Beautiful Mind.

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Comedy Family Issues Sports

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
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