Alfie

Posted on October 19, 2004 at 2:57 pm

What’s it all about, Charlie?

Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers used to be married and they used to make movies together (Baby Boom, the remakes of Father of the Bride and The Parent Trap). Now they are divorced, and they make movies separately. Hers: the very successful What Women Want and Something’s Gotta Give; his: the less successful The Affair of the Necklace and now this remake of the 1966 Michael Caine film. The two of them seem to be working through something as both of their recent films were about the exact same thing — the comeuppance of what we used to call a cad.

This film may have had some theraputic value for its director. Its value as entertainment and illumination is uneven at best.

The performances are all top-notch. Each of the women creates a full and complex character, especially Nia Long as the woman Alfie’s best friend loves, Susan Sarandon as an older woman as predatory as he is, Marisa Tomei as a single mom, and Sienna Miller as a beauty whose instability is at first a turn-on and then a turn-off.

The film’s primary and very significant asset is Jude Law, who is brilliant in the title role. He has to make us almost as charmed by Alfie as the women he goes after, even while he is confiding in us what he is really thinking. Very few actors can make an unsympathetic character so appealing or pull off a role that involves speaking directly to the audience, and Law is constantly ingratiating, fascinating, and even touching.

That is less true, however, of the rest of the film. The movie feels as empty as Alfie’s heart.

Parents should know that the movie has very explicit sexual references and situations. Characters use very strong language, drink, smoke, take drugs, and have unprotected sex. There are tense situations and references to abortion. A strength of the movie is its positive portrayal of inter-racial relationships, though a theme of the movie is the way Alfie betrays just about everyone with whom he comes in contact.

Families who see this movie should talk about what Alfie (and the audience) learns from each of his encounters, including the old man in the bolo tie. Which one is the most meaningful to him? Why? What is Alfie looking for? How will that change?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the original Alfie with a star-making performance by Michael Caine. They will also enjoy About a Boy and The Tao of Steve.

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Comedy Remake

Peter Pan

Posted on December 14, 2003 at 7:45 am

Oh, the cleverness of storyteller James M. Barrie, who gave us Peter Pan, Captain Hook, Tinkerbell, a St. Bernard nanny, Tiger Lily, and the crocodile that ticks because it swallowed a clock! And oh, the cleverness of P.J. Hogan, the director and co-screenwriter who has brought us this sumptuously beautiful re-telling of the classic story that maintains its timeless charm.

This is the story of Wendy Darling and her brothers Michael and John, who fly to Neverland with Peter Pan, the boy who would not grow up. Neverland has pirates, mermaids, and no baths, bedtimes, or schoolwork.

But there are no mothers, either, and without mothers, there are no stories. So Peter leaves Neverland at night to come listen to the stories that Wendy tells her brothers. One night, his shadow is caught in the window. When he comes back to get it, Wendy sews it back on, and Peter invites the Darling children to fly with him back to Neverland and tell stories to the Lost Boys. There Wendy and her brothers meet up with the Lost Boys, and battle Captain Hook (Jason Isaacs, “Harry Potter’s” Lucius Malfoy).

The production design is simply gorgeous. A storybook Victorian London is imagined with exquisite period detail. Even state-of-the-art special effects like flying and computer graphics are consistently conceived and gratifyingly believable. The jarring notes are Peter’s (unforgiveably) American accent and some anachronistic-sounding music. Swimming Pool’s Ludivine Sagnier does her best, but Tinkerbell is probably best portrayed as a spot of light. And some Pan lovers will object to a bit of gentle tweaking of the story. But it is not so much to be politically correct or bring it up to date as it is to remove any distractions from what in today’s view would be seen as sexism.

The story is about growing up, after all, and it is not a coincidence that Wendy flies away with Peter on what is supposed to be her last night sleeping in the nursery with her brothers before she must start to become a young lady. But even though, like her mother, Wendy has a kiss hiding in the corner of her mouth, she is not at all sure that she wants to become a young lady.

Part of the charm of the story is the way it looks at the terror and wonder of that bittersweet moment on the cusp of an adventure that can be scarier and more thrilling than a battle with pirates. Barrie thought that it was really Wendy’s story. Though Peter is the title character, it is Wendy who is the heroine because she makes a journey. When she kisses Peter to bring him back to life, both of them wake up.

When Wendy follows Peter to Neverland, he tells her she will never have to grow up but then he makes her into the mother of the Lost Boys. She assures him (and herself) that they are only playing, but she feels the pull of the adult world. She even tells Peter that Captain Hook is “a man of feeling” while he is just a boy. And feelings are taken very seriously in this story. Fairies like Tinkerbell can have only one feeling at a time. Peter cannot answer when Wendy asks him what his feelings are. And Hook has a deadly poison made up of “a mixture of malice, jealous, and disappointment.”

As Barrie requested in the notes for the play, one actor plays both Hook and Wendy’s father. But it is Hook and Peter who are truly linked. Wendy observes that Peter has no unhappy thoughts and Hook has no happy ones. Hook tells Peter, “You will die alone and unloved, just like me.”

All of this is there to give depth and resonance to an enchanting classic story which is lovingly, even tenderly told in a movie that will become a classic itself. Thrilling adventure, touching drama, and delightful comedy will give audiences of all ages all the happy thoughts and fairy dust it takes to fly.

Parents should know that the movie has a lot of fantasy violence, including swordfights, guns, and hitting below the belt. Pirates are killed. There is a brief graphic image of Captain Hook’s amputated arm as he puts on one of his hooks. We see boys’ bare behinds. There are a couple of sweet kisses and some subtle references to puberty. Characters drink and smoke and a pirate offers liquor and cigars to a child.

Families who see this movie should talk about why someone might not want to grow up. What do grown-ups do to keep the best part of childhood inside themselves? Is that what Barrie was doing in writing this story? There is a lot of talk about feelings in this movie. What does it mean to say that fairies can only feel one thing at a time? Why does Wendy tell Peter that she thinks Captain Hook is “a man of feeling?”

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy comparing it to other versions of the story, including the Disney animated musical (but parents should be aware that it includes material that is insensitive about girls and Indians by today’s standards) and the live-action musical, which is available on video starring Mary Martin and Cathy Rigby. But stay away from Steven Spielberg’s sour Hook, an unfortunate variation starring Robin Williams as a grown-up Peter who returns to confront Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook. For more about Peter Pan, try this site or this one.

Families might also enjoy other movies with similar themes, including Mary Poppins and Gigi.

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Action/Adventure Based on a play Fantasy Remake Stories About Kids

All the King’s Men

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Huey Long was man of gigantic proportions, an epic, almost operatic figure who rose to power as the greatest of populists, succumbed to corruption, and was murdered at age 42. His story inspired a Pulitzer Prize-winning book and an Oscar-winning film. That has now been remade with Sean Penn as Willie Stark, the man who tells the poor people of Depression-era Louisiana that they should trust him because he’s a “hick” like them.

As in the original movie, what we most want from this story is what is left out. We want to see that moment when Stark stands on the brink between idealism and expediency. But we don’t. The movie, instead, focuses more on what Stark’s corruption does to those around him, and after decades of political scandals that story is just not as gripping as it once was.

Penn is convincing as a man of complicated fury whose sense of thwarted entitlement on behalf of his community metastasizes through his administration. Sadie (Patricia Clarkson) and Jack (Jude Law) are a political aide and a reporter who begin as cynical but are moved by Willie’s sincerity and his role as David against the political machine’s Goliath but are soon swept into his tumble into personal and professional corruption. Anthony Hopkins plays a judge who stands in Willie’s way and must be persuaded — or destroyed.

But the focus of the story is Adam Stanton (Mark Ruffalo), an idealistic doctor and Jack’s closest friend, and his sister Anne (Kate Winslet), whose faded, crumbling mansion symbolizes the failing grandeur of their ideals. When Anne makes compromises in order to help her brother, it shatters Adam and Jack and leads to Willie’s downfall.

The top quality cast and screenwriter/director Steven Zaillian (Searching for Bobby Fischer) give it their all, if never quite convincingly Louisianan. Patrizia von Brandenstein’s production design and Pawel Edelman’s cinematography have all the appropriate slanted, golden light and hanging Spanish moss. But the story never connects; it seems to be somehow off-register. We need to believe that Willie is on our side and we need to see him leave us; instead we get the same old Southern decay.

Parents should know that the movie has some graphic violence, including an assassination. Characters drink and smoke and use some strong language, including racial epithets of the era. There are sexual references and non-explicit situations, including adultery. The theme of the movie is corruption and there are many examples and variations.

Families who see this movie should talk about the moments in which each character made the choice from which there was no turning back. How can you tell the difference between a compromise and a sell-out? Can you stop on the way from idealism to expediency without becoming corrupt? What figures in today’s world are most like those in the movie?

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Based on a book Based on a true story Biography Drama Remake

The Sum of All Fears

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Part of the magic of movies is the way they make us not just willing – even eager to suspend all kinds of disbelief. It isn’t just that we are willing to believe that Jet Li can knock out a guy with one kick or that Harry Potter can soar through a Quidditch match on his broomstick – we want to. That’s part of what movies are for.

And we have lived through five different actors asking for martinis that are shaken, not stirred, as James Bond – so far. So I don’t think audiences will have any problem accepting the fact that Russia analyst Jack Ryan of the CIA, played by 50-something Harrison Ford in two previous films set in the 1990’s based on Tom Clancy novels (and Alec Baldwin in a third) has now lost some thirty years and turned into Ben Affleck. There may not be much suspense in the love story – we already know who Jack Ryan marries – but that isn’t what the movie is about.

What it is about is a new Russian president. The U.S. is concerned that he is a hard-liner. Ryan believes that he is only trying to sound tough to get the support of hard-liners in the Russian government. U.S. officials get even more concerned when Chechnya is hit with chemical weapons. And then the U.S. is attacked with an atomic bomb and it seems that America’s only choice is to retaliate. It is up to Jack Ryan to save the world.

The movie is ably done, a big time Hollywood production with big time actors (Morgan Freeman as the head of the CIA, James Cromwell as the U.S. President), and big time special effects. Everything is very professional. But as easy as it is to settle back with our popcorn and adjust our notion of a Jack Ryan of the 21st century, there are some parts of the story that are so hard to accept that they seem to violate the covenant between the audience and mainstream movies. There is a level of destruction that might be acceptable in a book but feels excessive to the point of pornography on screen, even more so in an era of suicide bombings and terrorism. The fact that the bad guys in this movie are so much less scary than the ones on the news adds to the sense that the story is more about sensation than about sense. And the ultimate resolution does not feel either ultimate or resolved. Movies like these need interesting villains and satisfying conclusions. Like people who make roller coasters, they need to strike a balance between making us pleasantly dizzy and making us sick. On that scale and at this time, this movie does not work.

Parents should know that the movie has a lot of graphic violence and destruction of unimaginable proportions. There is prolonged, intense peril and characters die. Characters use very strong language, drink and smoke. There is a non-graphic sexual situation.

Families who see this movie should talk about how people at any level, from heads of state to siblings, learn to trust one another.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the other Jack Ryan movies (and the other Jack Ryans), especially “The Hunt for Red October” and “Patriot Games.” Two other movies, both made in 1964, dealt with the prospect of an accidental missile attack by the U.S. on Russia and both are worth watching. One is the thoughtful drama “Failsafe” and the other is the unforgettable classic, “Dr. Strangelove.”

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Remake

Fantasia 2000

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Almost sixty years ago, the original “Fantasia” was released and hard as it may be to believe it now, the response was unenthusiastic. Today, images like Mickey as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the little black Pegasus getting some extra help learning how to fly and the dances of the mushrooms and the ballerina hippos are a part of our culture. Walt Disney hoped that “Fantasia” would be released each year with new episodes, but the lacklustre box office and the distractions of other ventures meant that the idea of adding new material was shelved. Still, the animation studio hoped for another chance, and one of the pleasures of this movie is the chance to see some of the proposals for new episodes submitted by animators over the years.

Disney called the original “a grand mixture of comedy, fantasy, ballet, drama, impressionism, color, sound, and epic fury,” and that well describes the very worthy successor. As the first theatrical release designed exclusively for IMAX screens, it fills the eyes of the audience with splendor. Now on video and DVD, it is still a delight, even better in one respect because you can see the entire screen and catch some of the details that are lost in the vast expanse of the IMAX experience.

The audience is reassured from the beginning that this is not going to be some strange or boring culture lesson. Glimpses and sound clips from the original float into view, and then suddenly we are in the midst of the most famous opening notes of classical music, the da da da DUM of Beethoven’s Fifth, accompanied by an abstract battle between groups of triangles. Then Steve Martin comes on to make a joke, and we’re off to the next episode, whales in moonlight, to Respighi’s “Pines of Rome.” The light on the water, the stillness, the dignity and grace of the whales in the water and then as they float up into the sky are magnificent.

Other segments include a rollicking Al Hirschfeld-inspired look at 1930s New York, to the music of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” a very romantic “Steadfast Tin Soldier” set to Dimitri Shostakovich’s second piano concerto, and a mystical tale about death and rebirth in the forest, to Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite.” From the original, we get Mickey as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice with glowing colors and dazzling detail. And Donald finally gets his chance, as Sir Edward Elgar’s famous “Pomp and Circumstance” accompanies not a procession of graduates to their diplomas but a procession of animals to Noah’s ark. Celebrities like Angela Lansbury, Quincy Jones, and James Earl Jones provide smooth transitions.

The movie is rated G, but the experience may be overwhelming for some children. A three year old sitting near me in the theater was in tears throughout the first segment, though she enjoyed some of the others. Parents should also know that magicians Penn and Teller do a trick that may scare some kids, though they immediately show that everything is all right.

Families should talk about the way that music makes pictures in our heads, and experiment by asking children to draw pictures as they listen to music. Ask children why the people in “Rhapsody in Blue” are sad, and how they find what they were dreaming of. They may be especially interested in the rich little girl who is dragged around to all kinds of lessons by her nanny, but who dreams of spending time with her busy parents. Talk to them about the spirit of spring in “The Firebird Suite,” who learns that she cannot prevent death, but can help the forest to renew itself. Ask them about “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” (which has a Disney-ized happy ending). Why did the solider first like the ballerina? Why did he think she would not like him? Why was the Jack in the Box so jealous? Show children some of the drawings of legendary artist Al Hirschfeld, who hid the name of his daughter “Nina” in his pictures. Kids who are interested in the adaptation of his work for “Rhapsody in Blue” will enjoy the award-winning documentary about him, “The Line King.”

Families should watch the original, and compare them — one has a segment on the coming of fall and one on the coming of spring, both have music by Stravinsky, both have a non-representational segment, both have a processional number, and both have a funny animal segment — this one “answers the age-old question, ‘What would happen if you gave a flamingo a yo-yo?'” And see if kids can figure out the closest approximation in the new version of the original’s little black Pegasus. All of this may require a repeat viewing, but hardly anyone will object — and it will give you time to search for the Ninas in “Rhapsody in Blue!”

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy three new Disney releases on video — originally produced as “Fantasia” follow-ups with modern music. “Melody Time,” “Make Mine Music,” and “Fun and Fancy Free” feature some of Disney’s classic animation, with outstanding segments like “Peter and the Wolf,” “Casey at the Bat,” and “Mickey and the Beanstalk.”

DVD note: The DVD version has some exceptionally entertaining extras, including commentary by Hirschfeld on his segment and a hilarious commentary by Mickey about his experiences making “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” — he is reassuring that no brooms were harmed in the making of the movie!

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Animation Fantasy For all ages For the Whole Family Musical Remake Talking animals
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