O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some smoking and drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Machine gun shoot-outs and other violence, KKK attempted lynching
Diversity Issues: Klu Klux Klan rally, racist comments
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

The Coen brothers’ latest is based in part on the Odyssey (a prologue credits the story to Homer). But its title comes from that most sublime of Preston Sturges classic comedies, “Sullivan’s Travels,” made in 1941. The title character is a successful director of silly comedies (like “Hey Hey in the Hayloft”), but he wants to make a serious movie about the Depression, and he wants to call it — “O Brother Where Art Thou.” That movie never got made, until now. But in sly Coen brothers fashion (these are the guys behind “Fargo” and “Barton Fink”), this movie has as much to do with “Hey Hey in the Hayloft” as it does with Sullivan’s vision of a penetrating dissection of the lot of the laborer.

Like the Odyssey, this is the story of a man named Ulysses who is trying to get home to his wife (here called Penny instead of Penelope) before she marries one of her suitors. There are other echoes to that classic saga, from a blind seer who predicts that they will not find the treasure they seek to a one-eyed villain and three singing sirens to distract the travelers from their journey.

But this Ulysses is no war hero from ancient Greece. It is America during the Depression, and Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) is a prisoner on a chain gang in Mississippi. He persuades the two men chained to him, Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) to esape with him so they can get a hidden treasure. They have to get to it right away because the area will be flooded in two weeks as part of a project to bring electricity to the community.

They make their way home, meeting up with an assortment of oddball characters, including bank-robbing legend George “Babyface” Nelson. They get some money by singing for a man who records bluegrass. They cross paths with two bitter opponents in an upcoming election for governor. The incumbent is Governor Menelaus “Pass the Biscuits” Pappy O’Daniel (Charles Durning). He and his cronies all have huge bellies, with pants that reach to their chests to be held by suspenders. O’Daniel’s opponent, Homer Stokes, is selling himself as a man of the little people who wants to clean house, and he makes campaign appearances with a midget and a broom to show that he means it.

McGill and his friends do their best to evade the sheriff and make their way home, amidst washed-out landscapes. As always, the Coen brothers present an array of quirky characters with astonishing faces, closer to gargoyles and caricatures than to the usual Hollywood smooth prettiness. Delmar’s lashless, lipless, neckless head makes him look like a fetus or an alien. O’Daniel almost looks like a biscuit, instead of a man who’s just eaten too many of them.

And there is the offbeat dialogue — when Delmar, just baptized, says he has been saved by Jesus and a black guitar player says he just sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads, McGill replies, “Well, I guess I’m the only one who remains unaffiliated.” He also explains that “It’s a fool who looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.” McGill is passionately devoted to a hair pommade called “Dapper Dan’s,” and spends a lot of time making sure his hair is just right, completely ignoring any other aspect of hygiene or appearance.

This is a lighter story than many of the Coens’ previous movies, which makes it easy to forgive the parts that don’t work very well, especially when we have the pleasure of the year’s finest soundtrack, sheer bluegrass joy.

Parents should know that the movie has some mild language and some incidents reflecting the racism of its setting, including a KKK rally and attempted lynching.

Families who see the movie should talk about its origins in the greatest of all epics, and how that story has endured. They might also want to talk about the symbolism of fire and water throughout the movie (notice the way that the sheriff’s dark glasses always reflect fire).

Families who enjoy this movie should see “Sullivan’s Travels” and compare the two, especially the scenes in both where the prisoners watch a movie. Families will also enjoy other Sturges classics like “The Lady Eve” and “The Palm Beach Story.”

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Save the Last Dance

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Typical high school-style strong language, very strong language in soundtrack rap songs
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen characters drink and smoke, fake ID
Violence/ Scariness: Inner-city characters involved in violence, car crash, parental death
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2001

There is real logic and there is movie logic. Audiences are usually very forgiving of lapses in movie logic — we recognize that people always get perfect parking spaces and have correct change and live in fabulous apartments that their characters could never afford because we recognize that these elements are there to make the story movie smoothly and because they make it more fun to watch. In the spirit of movies like “Flashdance” and “Grease,” this movie requires suspension of disbelief that is close to complete abandonment of any sense of reality. This is the kind of movie in which characters who live in the poorest circumstances seem to have all the money they need to buy fake IDs or expensive theater tickets. Students who get good grades never seem to do any homework or have any books in their backpacks. A teenager with a baby never has a problem with child care. Still, no one goes to this movie to gain great insights about the human condition. It is nowhere near “Grease” or “Flashdance” in style, soundtrack, or dance (and the use of a dance double in the ballet sequences is obvious), but it may appeal to teens who see it as one big music video.

Sara Johnson (Julia Stiles) is a ballet dancer who is nervous about her big audition for Julliard. Her mother promises to be there, but she is killed in a car crash on the way to the theater. Sara leaves her home in the suburbs to live with her musician father (Terry Kinney) in a tiny apartment in Chicago’s inner city. Memories of her old life are so painful that she wants to leave everything behind.

Her new high school has metal detectors at the entrance, and almost all of the students are black. She stands in the cafeteria, holding her tray, not knowing where to sit. Chenille (Kerry Washington) welcomes Sara to her table. Chenille’s brother Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas) is a smart kid torn between his loyalty to his old friends who are increasingly involved in dangerous activities, and his ambitions to go to college and medical school. Chenille brings Sara to a dance club (after a quick style makeover) and after some verbal sparring, Derek dances with Sara, teaching her a little about hip hop. He gives her a few more lessons. They become friends, then they become romantically involved. He finds out about her passion for ballet, and urges her to apply to Julliard again. Various complications ensue, especially when Chenille becomes angry and tells Sara that white girls should not become involved with “one of the few decent men we got left after jail, drugs, and drive-by.” Sara, Chenille, and Derek have to confront their fears and think carefully about loyalty and trust. Ultimately, what Sara has learned from Derek in dance and in life, helps her to follow her dream.

This is a formulaic coming of age/teen romance with an MTV spin (MTV co-produced the movie). While the script is below average, even by the low standards of this genre, its performers are attractive and sincere (Kerry Washington is particularly appealing) and most teens are still so new to this category of film that it may not seem clichéd to them.

Parents should know that the characters use strong language and the soundtrack lyrics have even stronger language, including the n-word. Chenille has an out of wedlock child (and a difficult relationship with the child’s father). Derek has to decide whether his loyalty to an old friend (and his sense of guilt at the friend’s having taken the rap for them both) means that he must go along with him when he plans to shoot someone. Characters object to the interracial romance, mostly because they are jealous. The characters buy fake IDs so they can go to a club that serves liquor, and they drink and smoke.

Families who see this movie should talk about the choices Sara and Derek must face. Sara blames herself for her mother’s death. How does she overcome that feeling and allow herself to take the risk of auditioning again? How do Derek and Sara get into trouble by not being honest with each other about what is bothering them? How do they sort through their loyalties, Derek to his friend Malakai (Fredro Starr) and Sara to Chenille? Malakai tells Derek, “You act like you don’t know who you are anymore.” How do Sara and Derek decide who they are? Where do they find their support?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Footloose” and “Fame,” both with some mature material.

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Space Cowboys

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some strong and salty language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense and scary scenes, characters in peril, some injured, sad death
Diversity Issues: Tolerence of older people
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

If we needed someone to save the world, wouldn’t Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner, and Donald Sutherland be the guys to do it? Or at least wouldn’t it be fun to watch those guys play “Leisure World astronauts” showing off their right stuff? If your answer is yes, this is your movie.

Four hot-dogging test pilots were thrown out of the space program and replaced by a monkey. Forty years later, they are called back into action when a Russian communications satellite begins to fall down out of the sky. It turns out that the satellite’s guidance system is, mysteriously, none other than the very guidance system set up by former hot dog Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood, who also directed). And it also turns out, mysteriously, that for unrevealed “political” reasons, NASA wants the satellite repaired, not destroyed. Less mysteriously, it also turns out that Corvin won’t fix the thing unless NASA lets him go up and do it himself, accompanied by his old team, despite the fact that “the last time they trained for a space program, people were driving cars with fins on them.”

Eastwood takes his time, giving us a prolonged black and white intro, with the stars’ voices coming from younger actors portraying them circa 1958. Then we have to get acquainted with the problem, NASA has to come to Corvin for help, he has to turn them down, then get his old nemesis to agree to let him get his over-the-hill-gang back together, then they have to go through training and show those young upstart astronauts a thing or two, and then comes ten, nine, eight, seven, and all the rest of it and we’re out in space.

The script is weak and saggy and the plot is predictable. The last scene is weirdly maudlin, even macabre. But the effortless star quality of these guys, so clearly still in their prime, is undimmed. You can’t help loving every wrinkle of those handsome craggy faces, especially if you’re old enough to have a crag or two yourself.

Parents should know that the movie has some strong language and some sexual references. Sutherland’s character is portrayed as a perpetual womanizer and this is supposed to be charming and virile, even when he makes a very vulgar comment on Jay Leno’s show. Characters drink and smoke, punch each other, and engage in other kinds of risky behavior. There is a sad death.

Families who see this movie should discuss our society’s prejudices against older people. It is important for kids to know that many old people are capable, curious, and vigorous, with experiences that are worth learning about and that it is always important to treat them with respect. Ask kids what they think they will feel like when they get to be as old as Corvin and his team. Get them to ask older relatives about some of their experiences. Families will also want to talk about the decision of one crew member to make a great sacrifice to save many others.

Families who like this movie will also like “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff.” They may also enjoy some of the earlier movies of this all-star cast, including Eastwood’s “Every Which Way But Loose,” Sutherland’s “M*A*S*H” (for older teens), Jones’ “The Fugitive,” and Garner’s “Support Your Local Sheriff.”

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The Caveman’s Valentine

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: A lot of violence, including sadistic torturing, scary scenes of madness
Diversity Issues: Strong, talented, loving and honorable black characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2001

Once a brilliant, Julliard-trained musician and composer, Romulus Ledbetter (Samuel L. Jackson) now lives in a cave in the park. He is severely mentally ill. Images of giant moths and fears of an imaginary villain haunt him. But he still loves his wife Sheila (Tamara Tunie), who appears to him in his hallucinations to give him advice, and his daughter Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis), a policewoman.

On Valentine’s Day, Romulus finds the dead body of a young man propped up in a tree near his cave. The police think it was an accident. But Romulus believes the young man was murdered. He wants to find the murderer, even though it means that he will have to brave the real and imagined terrors of society’s daily interactions. He begins to think that the murderer is David Leppenraub (Colm Feore) a well-known artist, a photographer who specializes in homoerotic images of savaged and maimed angels. He knows that no one will listen to him. If he accuses the artist, it will be lost among his paranoid ravings. Romulus has to gather evidence. With some new clothes from a lawyer, bemused by his knowledge of music and a call to an old friend from Julliard, Romulus gets invited to Leppenraub’s home.

Romulus, like Leppenraub, is haunted by nightmare images and obsessions. For Romulus, though, they are madness. For Leppenraub, they are art. Romulus’ fears make people feel discomfort and pity. Leppenraub’s make people feel titillated and clever. Romulus must use his madness to understand the killer, but he must use the part of him that is not mad to put the pieces together and make sure that the killer gets caught. Jackson and director Kasi Lemmons deftly blend Romulus’ internal and external worlds. His rational self is represented by imaginary conversations with his estranged wife (a beautiful performance by Tamara Tunie). Feore as Leppenraub and Anne Magnuson as his sister give multi- layered performances that lend weight and complexity to the story.

Parents should know that the movie has very violent images, including dead and mutilated bodies. Characters use very strong language, and there are heterosexual and homosexual references and situations, including a passionate sexual encounter between two people who hardly know each other.

The movie also includes smoking, drinking, and drug use. The scenes depicting Romulus’ delusions may upset some audience members. His illness causes his family a great deal of loss and pain.

Families who see this movie should talk about mental illness and its causes and treatments. How can family members be supportive without being enablers? They may also want to talk about whether art like Leppenraub’s could be a critical and popular success, as portrayed in the movie. Why would Moira react to Romulus the way she did? Why did Bob react the way he did, and was that right? What are some of the feelings that Lulu has about Romulus?

Families who enjoy this movie will also like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and Jackson’s brief but memorable performance as a drug addict in “Jungle Fever” (both for mature audiences).

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The House of Mirth

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character abuses a narcotic
Violence/ Scariness: Sad, with themes that may be disturbing, possible suicide
Diversity Issues: Unequal treatment of women in early 20th century society
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

Why is it when we meet we always play this elaborate game?” asks Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) of Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz). The answer is that Lily and Lawrence live in a society that gives them no alternative.

Edith Wharton’s tragic story is about a beautiful, spirited woman who is helpless to overcome the manipulations of others and the cruelly rigid society around her. Lily’s assets are her beauty and charm. She understands the rules of the upper class New York society of 1905 very well. As she tells Lawrence, “a girl must and a man if he chooses.” She is almost completely dependent on her aunt for money, and she knows that she must find a wealthy man to marry as soon as possible.

But, as she admits, she always does “the right thing at the wrong time.” She comes close to marrying wealthy men three times, but cannot bring herself to go through with it. She loves Lawrence, but because he is not wealthy and must work for a living, she never lets herself think of marrying him. She understands the vulnerability of her position — without a fortune of her own, her reputation must be impeccable. The people around her have “minds like moral flypaper — they can forgive a woman anything but the loss of her good name. Unfortunately, Lily’s inherent honesty makes it impossible for her to realize the treachery and desperation around her. She makes some foolish choices: “We resist the great temptations, but it is the little ones that eventually pull us down.”

Though her only mistake is trusting the wrong people, her reputation is compromised and she owes a great deal of money to a man who betrayed her trust and tried to ruin her reputation. By the time she is willing to accept the proposal of businessman Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia), he is no longer willing to offer her the position of wife, only mistress. Rosedale has a kind heart, and he likes Lily. But he is a businessman with ambitions of being fully accepted into society, and he can see that Lily is damaged goods. Perhaps her very willingness to accept him makes her less appealing.

Betrayed by almost everyone she knows and shunned by the rest, Lily sees how fragile her position in society is and how unsuited she is for anything else. She must now find a way to support herself, first as secretary/companion to a vulgar social-climber, then as an apprentice in a millinary shop. She makes one last desperate plea for help from her cousin, and considers an even more desperate attempt at blackmail, but that is a “great temptation” she is able to resist.

With first-rate performances and sumptuous period detail, this is a very worthwhile adaptation of Wharton’s novel.

Parents should know that this is much darker than the usual Merchant-Ivory corsets and carriages movie. Lily becomes addicted to a narcotic. A death is a possible suicide, portrayed as the only honorable choice. The issue of a reputation “compromised” by having an affair is an important theme in the movie. A man tricks Lily into allowing him to invest money for her, putting her in his debt so that she will feel obligated to sleep with him.

Martin Scorcese, director of such classics as “Goodfellas,” said that his Wharton adaptation, “The Age of Innocence,” was his most violent film because it was about emotional violence. This, too, is about emotional violence. The betrayals and cruelty and the lack of alternatives may be very upsetting to some viewers.

Families who see this movie should talk about what has and hasn’t changed since the book’s setting, almost a century ago. Why do people tend to develop closed, tightly regulated hierarchies? How does the New York society in the movie compare to, say, high school? Why was it so hard for Lily to do what she knew was necessary to preserve her position in society? Why was it so hard for Lawrence to tell her how he felt?

Families who enjoy this movie should read the book and see “The Age of Innocence.

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