October Sky

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This true story of a boy from a small town who dreams of becoming a rocket scientist is one of the best films ever made about the thrill and hard work of science and a great family movie.

In 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made orbiting satellite. Thanks to Miss Riley (Laura Dern), a gifted teacher, Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his high school friends peer up into the clear October sky over their tiny West Virginia coal mining town to see its tiny spark drift across the stars. Homer dreams of being a rocket scientist. His father, John (Chris Cooper), the mine supervisor, does not understand Homer’s longing for wider horizons. But others do. Miss Riley roots for “the unlucky ones.” Homer’s mother covers the kitchen wall with a mural of the seascape she longs to see. Homer’s friends are glad to be a part of something new and important, and the community is proud to have a hero.

We know from the beginning where this story is going, just as we know with “Rocky.” The triumph of the underdog is one of literature’s most enduring themes. As long as it is done well, audiences are happy to go along and it is never done better than it is here. The script, the production design, and the acting are all superb. Gyllenhaal’s expressive eyes show his longing for the stars a million light years away and for his father’s approval in his own home. Cooper makes a role that could have been a one-dimensional tyrant multi-layered and complex, even sympathetic. Plot twists that might seem heavy-handed or melodramatic work because we know they really happened, and because these characters make us believe. We care so deeply about them that when we see real home movie footage of the real-life Homer’s experiments over the closing credits we feel as though they are a part of our family.

Parents should use this movie to talk to kids about how Homer, not a great student and not especially strong in math, became so inspired by an idea that he begins to think in new ways. Using math and science to solve problems made it real to him, and the work involved was — like the eight- mile walk to his experimental launch site — unquestionably worth it. They should also talk about why it was hard for John to support Homer’s ambitions, why his mother saw it differently, whether Homer made the right choice in going to work in the mine — and in leaving it, how kids at school treat the “nerds” and why, how people are evaluated differently in school than they are once they get out, and how life in 1999 is different from the world of 1957.

Parents should know that a drunken stepfather beats up one of Homer’s friends in one scene (and is stopped by John) and that there are some very mild sexual references.

Kids who enjoy this movie might also enjoy “The Corn is Green,” another true story about a boy from the coal mines who is transformed by education. Two different versions are available, one with Katharine Hepburn and one with Bette Davis.

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Based on a true story Drama Family Issues For the Whole Family

One True Thing

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Based on Anna Quindlen’s novel, this is the story of a young writer who learns the value of her mother when she goes to care for her during her treatment for cancer. Renee Zellweger plays Ellen Gulden, a New York Magazine writer who has always rejected her mother’s homey values to follow the career of her father, a distinguished literary critic, professor, and author. As Ellen cares for her mother, she finds that her father is less than she thought, and her mother is more. In understanding and accepting her parents as fully human, Ellen begins to be more fully human herself. She gains an appreciation for her mother’s strength. The community and domestic projects Ellen had seen as unimportant busywork she learns to see as an essential source of sustenance. Meryl Streep shines as Ellen’s mother Kate, not afraid to show us the irritating side of Kate’s sunny personality and the impatience she reveals as she acknowledges that she has to insist on her opportunity to talk about what is important to her before it is too late. William Hurt plays Ellen’s father George. He show us that his hypocricy comes from weakness, insecurity, and fear, in a way harder for Ellen to take than if it had been based only on selfishness.

Parental concerns include the brief profanity that earns this film an R rating as well as intense and disturbing scenes concerning Kate’s illness and the issue of euthanasia. The movie probably will not have much appeal for teens, who are seldom ready to consider their parents as fully human, but those who want to see it may come away with a better appreciation for the complexity of relationships and the diversity of accomplishments.

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Based on a book Drama Family Issues

Pleasantville

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

In “Dave” and “Big” screenwriter Gary Ross gave us characters whose innocent honesty and goodness revealed and transformed the adult world. Now, as both screenwriter and director of “Pleasantville,” he has created teen-aged twins who are transported into an idyllic black and white 1950’s television sitcom where everything is perpetually sunny and cheerful, married couples sleep in twin beds, the basketball team never loses, and messy complications simply don’t exist. Tobey Maguire (David) and Reese Witherspoon (Jennifer) are well aware of the messy complications of the modern world. David has retreated into reruns of “Pleasantville,” a television show that makes “Andy of Mayberry” and “Father Knows Best” look like hard-hitting docudramas. And Jennifer is something of a self-described “slut.” When a mysterious TV repairman played by “Andy of Mayberry’s” Don Knotts gives them a magic remote control, David and Jennifer find themselves transformed into Pleasantville’s Bud and Mary Sue. As the twins interact with Pleasantville’s black and white world, they cannot help revealing its limits and ultimately transforming it. “Mary Sue” mischeviously introduces the concept of sex to her high school classmates, and then, more sensitively, to her Pleasantville mother (Joan Allen). “Bud” tells them about a world where the roads go on to other places, where the weather is not always sunny and mild, where people can decide to do things differently than they have before. As the characters open themselves up to change, they and their surroundings begin to bloom into color, in one of the most magical visual effects ever put onto film.

But some residents of Pleasantville are threatened and terrified by the changes. “No colored” signs appear in store windows. New rules are imposed. When the twins’ Pleasantville father (William H. Macy) finds no one there to hear his “Honey, I’m home!” he does not know what to do. He wants his wife to go back to black and white.

At first, Jennifer thinks that it is sex that turns the black and white characters into color. But when she stays “pasty,” she realizes that the colors reveal something more subtle and meaningful — the willingness to challenge the accepted and opening oneself up to honest reflection about one’s own feelings and longings.

High schoolers may appreciate the way that the twins, at first retreating in different ways from the problems of the modern world, find that the rewards of the examined life make it ultimately worthwhile. Topics for discussion include the movie’s parallels to Nazi Germany (book burning) and American Jim Crow laws (“No colored” signs), and the challenges of independent thinking. NOTE: parents should know that the movie contains fairly explicit references to masturbation (and a non-explicit depiction) and to teen and adulterous sex.

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Drama Family Issues Fantasy

Price of Glory

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

In the 1940’s, this movie would have starred John Garfield and been on the lower half of a double feature. In 2000, it stars Jimmy Smits as the father who pushes his three boys to be championship boxers, because his own dreams of being a champion were dashed. Despite the attractive performances, the movie is k-o’d in the first round by a cliche-filled script with dialogue that has a higher specific gravity than a heavyweight contender.

Come on, recite along with me as papa Jimmy Smits argues with mama Maria del Mar: “Do colleges give scholarships for boxing?” “I’m just thinking about their future.” “So am I, damnit!” “I’m their manager!” “No, Arturo, you’re their father!” “It’s not about the money — it’s about being the best!”

Smits plays Arturo Ortega, scion of “The Fighting Ortegas,” each of whom faces his own challenges. Sonny, the oldest, wants to marry his girlfriend and make some of his own decisions. Jimmy struggles to gain his father’s approval, and, when he feels that is impossible, becomes involved with drugs. Johnny, the youngest and most talented, wants to be his father’s “avenging angel” and make up to him not only for the disappointment of his own career, but also for his disappointment in the older two boys.

Arturo lives in a border town. He tells a fight promoter, “Every day, I see people cross that line looking for something better.” Arturo has a clearly established line in his own mind that he wants to cross — his way, in a Cadillac, as the father of champions. And he wants to manage his sons all the way to the title.

But Arturo knows more about teaching boxing than he does about managing a boxing career. And he knows more about both than he does about being a father. Someone has to be killed before he can admit that though he tried to give his sons more, “maybe less would have been better, less of me.”

Parents should know that in addition to very rough boxing matches, there is some gun violence and drug use, and that the language is strong for a PG-13, really on the edge of R. Families who see this movie should talk about how parents find a way to balance their dreams for their kids with the kids dreams for themselves.

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Drama Family Issues Sports

American Beauty

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a 42-year-old man who has lost touch with anything that made him feel alive. His wife Carolyn (Annette Benning) is a realtor, so highly focused that she is clenched. His daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is a sullen teenager. Both barely disguise their contempt for him, which he accepts as his due. All three members of the family are desperately unhappy, but they have no way to connect to each other or make any change.

One night, at a high school basketball game, Lester sees a vision that transforms him. Angela (Mena Suvari) performs in a pom-pom routine with Jane. Lester is overcome by her youth and beauty, and for the first time in his memory, she gives him a goal. He wants to make love to her.

He quits his job, begins to work out, smokes some very expensive marijuana supplied by the teenage boy next door, and buys the red Firebird he dreamed of back when he was passionate about his dreams. The boy next door (Wes Bentley) uses the money he makes from selling drugs to buy video equipment, with which he films everything he sees, especially Jane.

Lester, who narrates the film, informs us at the beginning that he will be dead by the end. As in the classic Hemingway short story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” Lester becomes passionate and vital at last, which is unsettling to everyone around him.

Teens are likely to consider this movie profound in the way that their parents considered “The Graduate” profound. Lester, like Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin Braddock, is trying to get away from “plastics.” Carolyn has buried her feelings with motivational tapes, a $4000 sofa, and mantras like, “I WILL sell this house today!” Lester has escaped from a crushing feeling of inauthenticity by becoming numb. By telling the truth to himself and those around him he is like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” saying that the suburban dream is empty and that they will not allow themselves to be ordinary. And, most important, the teens are the real heroes of the movie, having already realized that the dream is empty. What they may not realize is that the real tragedy of Lester and Carolyn is that they once knew that, too, and it did not prevent them from losing themselves.

Parents should know that the movie’s rating comes from graphic, bloody violence (including child abuse), extremely raw language, nudity, sex (including teen sex), and drug use that is very positively portrayed. Parents of teens who see the movie may want to discuss the sexual behavior of the teenagers it portrays. One who relishes her sexual power and enjoys telling her friends the lurid details is revealed to be a virgin. Another is saving for highly unnecessary breast augmentation surgery. The boy with the camera is a voyeur. The girl he spies on is captivated by his attention. Like many of the characters in the movie, she is only able to feel real when she is perceived by others. She is painfully aware that her parents do not really look at her. This movie is not for most teens, but those who do see it should use it as a way to begin a conversation about the ways that families communicate, the choices we make about sex and drugs, and the ways that we find meaning in a complicated world.

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Drama Family Issues
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