She’s All That

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Get ready. The success of movies like “Scream” has led to an upcoming avalanche of movies transplanting every possible movie plot into high school. This one takes “Pygmalion” with a few touches from “Pretty in Pink,” “Easter Parade,” “Cinderella,” and “Can’t Buy Me Love.” It falls smack dab in the middle of a genre I call “the makeover movie,” in which Our Heroine achieves success through good grooming and accessorizing. The result here is uneven, with some good performances and even some witty commentary on teen culture, but beware — the raunchy references make this inappropriate for younger teens, and even parents of mature high schoolers might want to consider it carefully.

Zach, the most popular and talented boy in high school (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) gets dumped by his beautiful but mean girlfriend the day after spring vacation of their senior year. She has met an MTV-celebrity (Matthew Lillard, hilarious as a self-obsessed gross-out champion based on MTV’s legendary Puck). Zach and his best friend bet that he can take any girl in school and get her elected prom queen before the end of school. The choice is drab Laney Boggs (Rachael Leigh Cook), who is coping with her mother’s death by taking care of her father and brother and by worrying about problems throughout the world instead of working through her own feelings of loss.

Laney is one of the least persuasive ugly ducklings in the history of movies. She shucks her glasses and her overalls, and my goodness! She’s beautiful! And my goodness! Zach finds himself actually caring for her. The plot is almost numbingly predictable, but one of the movie’s strengths it that it makes clear that Zach and Laney have both limited themselves by defining themselves before they have really had a chance to find out who they are.

The movie’s other strengths are Prinze, who has a wonderful screen presence and the magnificent Anna Paquin as his younger sister. Cook’s performance is flat by comparison. Jodi Lyn O’Keefe is a caricature as Zach’s former girlfriend.

Parental concerns include strong language, teen drinking, and casual sex (though not by the main characters). Zach’s friend brags that he is going to get Laney to have sex with him in a hotel room he has arranged for the occasion. For some reason, when Laney’s friend overhears this, instead of making the stunningly obvious move of telling Laney what the guy has in mind, he races around trying to get the message to someone else. Parents should know that the movie includes an ugly and graphic scene in which a school bully torments Laney’s hearing-impaired brother by reaching into his pants to grab some pubic hair and putting it on his pizza. Zach then forces the bully and his friend to eat it. Yuck.

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Comedy Family Issues High School Romance

Anywhere But Here

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Adele (Susan Sarandon), a free-spirited teacher, takes her 14 year old daughter Ann (Natalie Portman) to Los Angeles in a gold-colored Mercedes. Ann resents her mother for taking her away from everything she knows, and she misses her family and friends in Wisconsin.

Adele dreams of a more glamorous life and wider opportunities for Ann. They struggle with each other and take care of each other until Ann leaves for college. Once Ann is ready to be on her own, she can admit to herself and to Adele how much she loves her.

Adolescence begins with it an avalanche of mortifying self-awareness. All of a sudden, everything is embarrassing, especially parents, in whose eyes teens can see their past more easily than their future.

This movie does a good job of portraying that stage of life from both the teen’s and the parent’s perspectives. In the first scene, Ann is embarrassed that Adele is eating so loudly, even though they are driving through the desert with no cars anywhere in sight.

Adele’s relish for more than she can find in Wisconsin is unsettling to Anne. Adele says, “I wish someone had kidnapped me back when I was your age,” and Ann responds, “So do I!” Part of Ann wants Adele to be the magical parent who can provide everything without effort. But when she begins to accept Adele’s mistakes and vulnerability, she can begin to grow up.

Adele seems to have endless optimism, leaving for Los Angeles on the strength of “an interview and a great outfit.” She blusters her way into a mansion by pretending to be a possible buyer. She forgets to pay the electric bill but is always ready to get some ice cream. Heartbreakingly, she thinks that a one-night stand with a dentist means that her true love has arrived.

As teens and parents struggle with independence through those years, it never seems that they are both ready to let go at the same time. Ann says that what keeps her going is knowing that someday she will leave Adele. A kindly policeman tells her that “you leave her when you are ready not to come back,” and that gives Ann an ideal of herself as an independent person to reach. Then, when she and Adele return to Wisconsin for a funeral, she sees how much closer to that ideal she has become than she would have if she had stayed.

Throughout the movie, Ann and Adele do a sort of relationship minuet, stepping toward each other, and then away. Ann imitates Adele in an acting audition, and Adele sees that she appears self-deluding and foolish to her daughter. Adele often acts more like Ann’s sister or even daughter than her mother. But when she needs to be the adult, to make the sacrifices necessary to help her child, she comes through.

Parents should talk about Ann’s decision to have sex with a boy who has a crush on her, which is more a reaction to a cool reception from the father who abandoned her than a reflection of a mature and intimate relationship. When she invites him over and tells him to take off his clothes, her words are tough, even cold, but when he walks over to her she throws her arms around him and holds him as though she is desperate for human contact.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Tumbleweeds.”

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Drama Family Issues

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

Bicentennial Man

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Think of it as Pinocchio played by C3PO from “Star Wars.” Robin Williams plays “Andrew Martin,” a robot who wants to be human, in this adaptation of a story and book by Isaac Asimov.

In “the not too distant future,” a robot is delivered to the magnificent home of the Martins. He steps out of the box and asks, “Are you one’s family?” When the little girl (Hallie Kate Eisenberg from the Pepsi commercials) mispronounces “android” as “Andrew,” that becomes his name. When the other daughter is cruel to Andrew, her father (Sam Neill) tells the family that “as a matter of principle, he will be treated as if he were a person.” Although the family elects not to activate the “personality chip,” they see that there is something special about Andrew’s wiring, a spark of consciousness, creativity, and yearning. Mr. Martin promises to help Andrew become all that he can.

This is fine when he is teaching Andrew about history, biology, and even humor, and when he wants to be adapted so that he can show more expression in his face, but less fine when Andrew wants freedom. And he is uncomfortable with his growing affection for Andrew: “You can’t invest your feelings in a machine.” Martin’s understanding daughter, “Little Miss,” (Embeth Davditz) does not hesitate to care deeply for Andrew, and remains close to him all her life.

As Andrew lives on past the lives of his original family, he stays close to their descendants, especially “Little Miss’s” look-alike granddaughter, Portia. He uses the latest technology to provide himself with skin, hair, a neural sytem, a digestive system, and finally, to become fully human, mortality. Just like Woody in “Toy Story 2,” Andrew has a choice between pristine immortality and a limited, uncertain, but deeply engaged existence.

This movie gives families a good opportunity to talk about what makes us human. Why did Andrew’s makers want to remove what made him special? Why did Andrew want to find others like himself? What do you think made him different? When do you think he became human? When he created something? When he wanted freedom? When he felt love? When he allowed himself to grow old and die? Why did he stop referring to himself as “one?”

Why didn’t some people in the family like Andrew? Why didn’t Andrew like Portia at first? Why did he want to be with her, when he didn’t like her? Do you think that’s what life will be like in the future? What would it be like to have a robot in our house?

Talk about the origins of the names “Portia” and “Galatea.” Portia was the heroine of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” who makes the famous plea about the quality of mercy to Shylock. Andrew’s plea to be declared a human, though, is more reminiscient of Shylock’s entreaty for equality: “Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?” Galatea is the name of the mythical statue whose sculptor fell in love with her. A kind goddess granted her life, so that they could be together.

Parents should know that there is some mild profanity and sexual references that include a “facts of life” discussion, Andrew’s adaptation so that he can have sex (but not children), a post-sex conversation in bed, and one of the most romantic descriptions of the sex act ever written. There are also ill-behaved and surly children whose behavior is not curtailed by the family.

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Based on a book Family Issues Fantasy For the Whole Family Science-Fiction

Stuart Little

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

E.B. White’s story of a family whose son happens to be a mouse is lovingly Hollywood-ized. In other words, it bears very little relationship to the book but has a lot of great special effects. Fans of the book will do well to stay at home and re-read it, but families looking for some good action scenes, appealing characters, and a wise-cracking cat will enjoy it very much.

Mr. and Mrs. Little (Hugh Laurie and Geena Davis) drop son George (Jonathan Lipnicki) off at school on their way to the orphanage to adopt a child. They fall in love with Stuart (voice of Michael J. Fox), who is charming, insightful, unselfish — and a mouse. Despite warnings against “inter-species” adoption, they bring him home.

George is disappointed. He does not see how Stuart will ever be able to play with him. And maybe he is a little more jealous than he was expecting. He insists, “He’s not my brother — he’s a mouse!”

But that is nothing compared to the ferocious resentment of another member of the Little family — Snowball the cat. Snowball (hilariously voiced by Nathan Lane) is furious at being told that “we don’t eat family members,” and humiliated at having a mouse as “an owner.” He plots to get rid of Stuart.

Stuart manages to surmount the literally enormous obstacles of a world way out of proportion. He even wins over George, after he demonstrates his courage and loyalty in a boat race in Central Park. But he still feels an emptiness inside, and wonders about his birth parents.

Then two mice show up claiming to be his birth parents. Stuart realizes that the Littles are his real family. “You don’t have to look alike. You don’t even have to like each other.” Your family are the people who stick with you. His home is where they are.

This is a terrific family movie. Stuart, created entirely through computer graphics, is perfectly integrated into the live action. And I do mean action — the boat race and chase sequences are among the most exciting on screen this year. The script by the screenwriter/director of “The Sixth Sense” does not talk down to kids and has some genuine insights about sibling rivalry, the fear of failure, and family.

It is worth noting that this movie had by far the most enthusiastic audience reaction of any I saw this year, with shrieks of joy when Snowball went into the trash can and cheers at the boat race and chase scenes. I have to admit, I felt like cheering myself.

Parents should know that the movie is rated PG for brief mild language and scenes of peril.

Adoptive and foster families may want to think carefully about whether the themes will be upsetting or reassuring to their children. They should prepare adopted or foster children before they see the movie. They can emphasize the way that the Littles selected Stuart because they could tell he was right for them, and they should make it clear (if appropriate) that they would never let anyone take their children away. Like Stuart, they can explain that they recognize that families are people who stick up for each other. In the movie, it was not just Stuart who learned that lesson — the Littles also learned that they were wrong in thinking that Stuart would be happier with mice than with people.

All families who see this movie should talk about what makes people feel that they “fit in,” about jealousy and the way it makes us think that hurting others will help us feel better (but it doesn’t), and the importance of Mr. Little’s advice about trying — and George’s success in reminding him about it at the right moment.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy another movie based on a book by E.B. White, “Charlotte’s Web.”

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Action/Adventure Animation Based on a book Comedy Family Issues For all ages For the Whole Family Talking animals
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