The Others

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Not explicit, but very tense and creepy
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2001

Way back before computer graphics, movie makers knew how to scare us through what the movie didn’t show us. They knew that no one knows what scares us as well as we do ourselves, and that anything we could imagine would be far more scary than anything they could put on the screen. “The Others” is a return to that kind of old-fashioned-squeaky door hinge-flapping shutter-“Who is that playing Chopin downstairs when I know I locked the piano?”-“She can’t leave now! It’s too foggy!” sort of thriller, the kind that creeps into your bones and makes you shiver.

Grace (Nicole Kidman) and her two children live in a huge old home on an isolated island near England. World War II has ended, but she still has not heard from her husband and is trying not to let herself fear that he may be dead. Her two children have a genetic photo-sensitivity and break out in welts if they are exposed to any light stronger than a candle. The servants all left mysteriously, not even staying to get their wages, and they are there alone when three new servants show up, explaining that they worked at the house once years before and were happy there, so they have returned. Their arrival is unsettling, but not as unsettling as evidence of “intruders,” including sightings by Grace’s daughter Anne. Grace does her best to hold everything together, to protect the children’s souls (she is deeply religious, and is preparing Anne for her first communion) and their bodies (she has an elaborate system of keys to make sure that all doors are locked and all curtains drawn, to keep out light, as she says, the way a ship is designed to keep out water.

This movie is more mood than plot, but the mood is expertly handled by the writer/director and by Kidman, who makes her attempts to maintain control scarier than outright terror. The cast is outstanding and the ultimate resolution properly eerie.

Parents should know that the movie does not have any bad language or gory images, but that it is genuinely creepy and may be upsetting even for older children. Some will be concerned over Anne’s questioning of her mother’s religious principles or disturbed by the implications of the final explanation.

Families who see this movie should talk about their views on life after death and why that has been a powerful theme in fiction as well as theology from the beginning of time.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Haunting (the original, not the dopey remake), The Uninvited (one of Hollywood’s all-time best ghost stories, with a theme song that may also haunt you), and The Innocents.

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The Way of the Gun

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extreme and prolonged violence
Diversity Issues: Interacial affair handled casually
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

Christopher McQuarrie, the screenwriter of the deviously brilliant “The Usual Suspects” wrote and directed this bleak, tough-talking story about a couple of petty criminals named Longbaugh (Benicio del Toro) and Parker (Ryan Phillipe).

Longbaugh says, “Our path had been chosen and we had nothing to offer the world. So we stepped off the path.” The opening scene, a confrontation outside a club, shows us that our heroes are tougher than they are smart. Later in the story Joe Sarno (James Caan), who is both smart and tough, asks which is the brains of the outfit, and Longbaugh responds honestly, “Tell you the truth I don’t think this is a brains kind of operation.” They have no ability to think about the risks they are taking, and even if they did it would not matter because they just do not care.

Their lack of ability and indifference to the outcome turn out to be their greatest assets when they decide to kidnap a pregnant woman named Robin (Juliette Lewis). She is a surrogate mother, carrying the child of a wealthy couple, so they think they can get enough ransom money to take care of themselves. The kidnapping and ensuing chase are so badly organized that the experienced bodyguards who escort Robin to the doctor are not able to figure out what they are going to do, and they get away.

As in “The Usual Suspects,” the dialogue is terrific (“$15 million is not money. It’s a motive with a universal adaptor.” “Karma is only justice without the satisfaction.” “I can promise you a day of reckoning that you will not live long enough to remember to forget.”) The characters are exceptionally interesting, especially as the story unfolds and there are some surprises in their relationships and history. The performances are outstanding, especially Caan, Taye Diggs as one of the bodyguards, Dylan Kussman as Robin’s obstetrician, and Kristen Lehman as the millionaire’s trophy wife. McQuarrie shows a sure hand in his first time as director, with a muted color palatte, strong rhythm, and effective action sequences.

If only it was held together with a brilliant conclusion, as McQuarrie did in “The Usual Suspects.” No thrill in the ending here, just a long, long, shoot-out. Longbaugh and Parker are not coincidentally the real names of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and this movie has some resonances with the classic western about two men who ran out of options. But unlike that classic and like McQuarrie’s own “The Usual Suspects,” he doesn’t let us care about the protagonists, leaving an empty feeling.

Parents should know that this is an exceptionally violent movie with a very gory childbirth scene and lots and lots of gunfire. Many characters die brutal deaths. Characters drink, smoke, commit adultery, use profanity, lie, cheat, and steal.

Families who see this movie may want to talk about the family and non-family relationships, and how loyalties are — and are not — determined. Some family members may have questions about surrogate parenthood and how the biological parents and the mother who carries the child feel about it.

People who enjoy this movie should see “The Usual Suspects” and “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.”

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We Were Soldiers

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Mild
Violence/ Scariness: Extreme, vivid, graphic, and relentless battle violence
Diversity Issues: Reference to racism, Vietnamese characters portrayed with dignity
Date Released to Theaters: 2002

The Viet Nam battle drama “We Were Soldiers” spends half an hour making us care about each of the characters and the rest of the movie blowing them up.

It is based on the book by Lt. Colonel Harold G. Moore, a devout Catholic who is as devoted a commander as he is a father. Moore was asked to develop the “air cavalry,” a system for using helicopters in combat. He led the Americans into their first major engagement in Viet Nam. They were hopelessly outmanned, with just 400 soldiers to 2000 Vietnamese. They fought bravely and did their best to look out for each other. And most of them were killed or wounded.

There have been thousands of war movies, and dozens of movies about the Viet Nam war, but this is one of the few to truly honor the men who fought and the women they loved. This is not a movie about politicians (though there are some digs at those who sent these men into battle without adequate resources) and it is not a movie about whether the US involvement stemmed from imperialism or a commitment to freedom. This is a movie about those who put their lives on the line not for their country but for each other.

The movie has some weaknesses that, in context, work very well. The battle action is often hard to follow, though perhaps that is a good way to replicate the relentlessness and disorientation of war. The characters and dialogue are clichéd, even corny. But in the context of the movie, they become paradigms. Mel Gibson, as Moore, is the man we would all want to lead us into battle, a true hero who promises his men that he will always be the first on the field and the last to leave, and that men may die, but none will be left behind. He trains his men to learn the tasks of the man above and teach their own tasks to the man below, and directs them, above all, to take care of each other, he gives them a purpose and a dignity that, sadly, the conflict they were sent to fight and the politicians who sent them there never could.

The movie also takes the unusual step of treating the soldiers on the other side with dignity as well, making them human beings with ability, honor – and wives left behind to mourn them.

Parents should know that this is one of the most brutally violent movies ever released, with up-close, graphic, and relentless violence and the deaths of many characters. There is some strong language and a mild sexual situation.

Families who see this movie should talk about how we decide to risk American lives in a war, and how, knowing that lives will be lost, we prepare and motivate our armed forces. They may want to discuss their own views on the war in Viet Nam and the treatment of veterans.

Families who appreciate this movie will also like Saving Private Ryan, Platoon,and The Right Stuff. They should also see the under-appreciated Gardens of Stone.

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A Beautiful Mind

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense scenes, including shoot-out, child in peril, domestic violence
Diversity Issues: Tolerance of individual differences
Date Released to Theaters: 2001

A man sees what no one else can, and we call him a genius. A man sees what no one else does, and we call him crazy.

This Oscar-winner for Best Picture is a movie about a man who was both, the true story of genius John Forbes Nash, Jr., who revolutionized mathematics and then became mentally ill. More than 40 years later, as he edged back into sanity, his contribution was recognized by some people in Sweden. They awarded him the Nobel Prize.

As the movie opens, it is just after World War II, and a group of bright young mathematicians are arriving at Princeton. They are proud because “mathematicians won the war,” and they are eager to make up for lost time. Nash (Russell Crowe) stands out. He is tactless, he does not go to class, and he does not produce anything publishable. A teacher once told him that he had a double helping of brains but half a helping of heart. It is not that he does not seem to care about norms of social behavior and academic performance – he does not even seem to notice them.

Then Nash has an idea, an anti-Darwinian notion that proves that more success for more people is achieved through cooperation than through competition. The elegance of his proof is a stunning achievement, and he is rewarded with an important position and allowed to select the classmates he wants as his colleagues. He even meets a beautiful student (Jennifer Connelly) who enjoys his directness and appreciates his “beautiful mind.” Nash is successful, saving the day when only he can see the pattern in a string of numbers from an intercepted Soviet message.

But then Nash begins to see patterns where there are none, and he is hospitalized. His powers of logic and focus and the love of his wife help him to reconnect to reality, and after decades of effort, he is able to teach at Princeton.

There is a heartbreaking moment near the end when Nash is leaving a classroom and a man he does not know approaches him to ask him something. Before answering, Nash turns to a student to ask whether she sees the man, too, because he is still not sure which people he sees approaching him actually exist. He has simply adapted to his delusions, by requiring proof, in classic mathematical or at least empirical terms.

This is an extraordinary story, and it has been made into an extraordinary movie. Crowe is, as always, simply magnificent in a role that would provide irresistible temptation for showboating for most actors. There are superb performances by everyone in the cast, including Connelly (an Oscar-winner for Best Supporting Actress), Paul Bettney, Ed Harris, Christopher Plummer, Judd Hirsch, and a dozen others. What is really special here is the way that screenwriter Akiva Goldman and director Ron Howard have found a way to present both Nash’s genius and his mental illness in such compelling, cinematic, and accessible terms. Both in essence become characters in the story as we go inside his head and wonder with Nash what to believe. This is what makes the movie more than a disease-of-the-week special with color-by- numbers “heartwarming” moments of triumph over adversity. This is what makes the movie itself a true work of art.

Parents should know that the material might be very upsetting for kids, or for anyone who has relatives with mental illness or who knows very little about it. There are some strong scenes of family tension and peril, including a child in jeopardy, scuffles, and potential domestic abuse. There are graphic scenes of shock therapy and self-destructive behavior. A character is in peril involving shooting. There is also some crude language with sexual references.

Families who see this movie should talk about mental illness, about how people with mental illness need to be treated, and about what is different now in the way we treat the mentally ill from the days depicted in the movie. Families who want to know more should check the website for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Apollo 13” and “Parenthood,” also directed by Ron Howard. They might also like to read the book, by Sylvia Nasar, or Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, a very engaging book about a brilliant physicist. Families who like board games should try Go, the Chinese board game played by the mathematicians in the movie. The rules are fairly simple, but the strategies are endlessly complex.

NOTE: DVD extras include all kinds of extra goodies, including an entire separate disk featuring footage of the real John Nash and more information about his work.

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Billy Elliot

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

A
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: All characters use very strong language, even children
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking, references to alcoholism, adult characters tipsy
Violence/ Scariness: Some family violence, police fight strikers
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, homophobic comments
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

As two 11-year-olds walk home from school, the girl casually bounces a stick along the side of a building. The building ends and, still chatting, she keeps bouncing it along the shields held up by a line of policemen. They pay as little attention to her as she does to them. It is Thatcher-era England, 1984, and the police have come to this small mining town of Durham to keep order during the miners’ strike.

The 11-year-olds are Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) and the daughter of the local ballet teacher, Mrs. Wilkenson (Julie Walters). Billy watches the ballet class from his boxing lesson. When Mrs. Wilkenson impulsively pulls him into the class, he discovers that ballet both answers and creates a need in him that he can no more name than he can resist.

Billy lives with his father (Gary Lewis), brother, and grandmother. His mother died the year before, his grandmother is forgetful, and his father and brother are on strike. The adults are busy with their own problems, and no one has time to notice Billy other than to shout at him or swat him out of the way. So for a while he manages to switch from boxing to ballet without anyone finding out. When his father discovers what Billy has been doing, he is furious. He is sure that this means that Billy is going to be gay and sure that this would be the ultimate failure on his part. He forbids Billy to go back.

But Billy has to dance, and he reminds Mrs. Wilkenson of a passion she once had for ballet. She gives him private lessons without charge, to prepare him for an audition with the London Ballet. Billy hides his ballet shoes under the mattress and hopes that no one will pay enough attention to him to figure out what he is doing. But his father does find out about the lessons and the audition.

This movie is well above average, tender, funny, and touching. Bell is extraordinary as Billy, the best child actor performance since Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense.” Lewis is also first-rate as the father who makes an unbearably painful sacrifice in order to give his son the chance he never had. Director Stephen Daldry has a real gift for visual story-telling. A chase through hanging laundry, dance lessons in a boxing ring, and the opening shot of Billy on a trampoline are images that are fresh and memorable.

Parents should know that everyone in this movie uses terrible language all the time. That is the primary reason for the R-rating, but the movie also includes sexual references, some child sex talk, a brief glimpse of bare buttocks when one character moons another, homophobic comments, and a transvestite character. Some teens may be upset by the way that family members treat each other. They are insulting, neglectful, and cruel. A parent hits a child and threatens another.

Families who see this movie will want to talk about what families should do when one member finds something as vitally important to him as dancing is to Billy. They should also discuss how the stress of painful external circumstances can affect the ability of family members to be kind to each other. Why was the strike so important to Billy’s dad and brother? How was that like and not alike the importance of ballet to Billy? Why did Mrs. Wilkenson want to help Billy? Why did Billy’s interest in ballet make Billy’s dad think he might be gay, and why was that so terrifying to him? What made him change his mind? Why do you think the writer put a gay character who did not have anything to do with ballet into the story? What does it tell us that Billy’s father had never been out of Durham, and that Billy had never been to see Durham’s famous cathedral? What do you think of Billy’s dad’s response when Billy says he is scared?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Educating Rita, in which Julie Walters plays a lower-class university student who studies with a professor played by Michael Caine. Two popular movies with similar themes are Brassed Off (laid-off miners find music and meaning in a brass band competition) and The Full Monty (laid-off workers put on a strip show). The question “Why do you dance?” and Billy’s answer recall a similar scene in that most famous of all ballet movies, the brilliant The Red Shoes.

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