Drowning Mona

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

I guess they thought they were going to make another “Fargo.” That’s the only possible explanation for the time this talented cast spent making this awful movie.

There are movies that paint small town America as an idyllic oasis of charming quirkiness and family values. Then there are movies like this one that portray it as teeming viper pits of stupidity, cupidity, and sex in cheap motels.

Mona (Bette Midler) is a harridan universally despised by everyone in her small New York town. Her Yugo drives off a cliff into the water, and no one seems too upset. The town mortician notes, “I’ve seen people more upset over losing change in a candy machine.” When it turns out that the brakes were tampered with, almost everyone in town is a suspect. That includes her husband and son, the waitress who is having affairs with both of them, and her son’s business partner. A kindly police officer with an affection for Broadway musicals (Danny DeVito) drives (and drives and drives) all over town in his Yugo trying to sort it all out, a sort of Agatha Christie on acid as rewritten by Sam Shepard. Any movie that tries to wring humor with Yugos and funny character names (Mona Dearly, Officer Rash, Bobby Calzone) is going down for the third time, and no one should bother to throw it a life preserver.

There are a couple of funny lines, and the cast is game, but it just doesn’t work. In keeping with the 1970’s setting, Casey Affleck has a doe- eyed Shawn Cassidy look. Neve Campbell, as his fiancee, shows a nice asperity and a light touch with comedy. Midler is disappointingly uninteresting as the title character, and the ultimate resolution of the murder mystery is both obvious and unsatisfying.

Parents should know that the movie includes sexual references and situations (including a brief shot of a couple in bondage outfits), an out of wedlock pregancy, a character’s hand being chopped off (and many shots of the stump), a lot of drinking and smoking, a girl/girl kiss, a threatened suicide, and, of course, murders. Families who decide to see this movie should discuss why people may stay in dysfunctional situations.

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Comedy Crime Family Issues Mystery

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
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