National Velvet

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: Mi Taylor (Mickey Rooney) arrives in a small English town and meets Velvet (Elizabeth Taylor) just as she and her sisters have been let out of school for the summer. They like each other immediately, and she is delighted to learn that the reason he has come to her town is that he found her mother’s name in the address book belonging to his late father. He does not know what their relationship was, or what he hopes to find from her, but he has no other place to go.
At the dinner, Mi is tentative, not sure himself whether he is looking for a friend or an easy mark. That night, as Mrs. Brown goes over that day’s books and puts away the cash from their butcher shop, she and Mr. Brown talk about giving Mi a job. Mr. Brown is reluctant, saying they don’t need him, and that he seems to have a “sharpness” about him, but she insists. After Velvet tells him he is going to stay, he sneaks back into the house to return their money, which he had stolen.
The horse Velvet loves most is owned by a man who, angry and frustrated at his inability to control it, decides to sell it by lottery. Velvet wins and renames the horse Pi. He won’t pull the butcher shop cart, but he can jump a fence as high as the most treacherous hazard in England’s biggest horse race, the Grand National. So Velvet decides that he must be in that race, to have a chance to be the very best he can be, the very best there is.
They hire a jockey by mail, but Velvet knows the horse must be ridden by someone who loves him, and would rather not have him race at all than have a jockey who does not believe he can win. Just as Mi is about to volunteer, Velvet decides that she will ride the Pi, even if they could have had the best jockey in the world, even if they will get in trouble because girls are not allowed to race. She rides the Pi, and he wins. But they are both disqualified because she is a girl.
They come back home in triumph, knowing that they won what was important to them. Though they were not allowed to keep the title or the prize money, all charges have been dropped, and they won’t get into trouble for violating the rules. Mr. Brown is excited by all of the offers for appearances and endorsements, but Velvet knows that it would not be best for the Pi and that it is time to move on. So does Mi, who takes his knapsack and says good-bye to Mr. and Mrs. Brown. When Velvet hears that he has left, she asks if she can tell him about his father, who was Mrs. Brown’s coach, and how much he meant to her in achieving her dream. Mrs. Brown consents, and Velvet races after him, just catching up to him as the movie ends.
Discussion: “National Velvet” taps into one of the oldest, deepest dreams, the dream of horses. Every child dreams of controlling these huge, powerful, loyal creatures, of flying over hurdles on their backs, of earning their devotion and of being devoted to them in return. And then there is the dream of racing, as Velvet says in this movie, until you burst your heart, and then until you burst it again, and then until you burst it twice as much as before, until the two of you explode past the finish line ahead of everyone else.
This is the story of dreams themselves, wise and foolish, big and small, realized and impossible, and about the way all of these dreams change those who are lucky enough to dream them. It is about the importance of faith — Velvet’s faith in herself and in the Pi and in her dream, and her family’s faith in her and in Mi — and the importance of that belief and support in making the dream come true. Mi says, “You bit off a big piece of dream for yourself, Velvet.” But in one of the sweetest scenes ever filmed, Mrs. Brown takes out the 100 gold pieces she won for swimming the Channel, and gives them to Velvet. There were a thousand times the family could have used that money, but she was saving it for a dream as big as her own once was. She tells Velvet, “I too believe that everyone should have a chance at a breathtaking piece of folly once in his life.”
“National Velvet” is also a rare movie that deals with what happens after the dream comes true. It sometimes seems that half the movies that are made, and well over half of the movies that are made for children, end with the hero or heroine triumphantly standing in the winner’s circle, holding the trophy overhead as the music swells and the credits roll. One of the things I like best about this movie is that it puts the dream in perspective. After they win the race, Mr. Brown is delighted with all of the offers for appearances and endorsements for Velvet and her horse. Instead of arguing with him, Mrs. Brown asks Velvet how she feels about it. Velvet thinks it might be fun for her, but says that she would never put the Pi through all of the foolishness that would be required. Velvet and her friend Mi and those around them take what they have learned from the dream and go on with their lives, something worth discussing in this era when any achievement, good or bad, becomes a miniseries.
But most of all, “National Velvet” is the story of a loving family. It is very different in many ways from the families that the American children of today know — for example, the mother and father are so reserved that they call each other “Mr. and Mrs. Brown” until the very last scene. But it is a wonderful starting point for a discussion of the ways that families of all kinds can teach and support each other.
One of the key themes of the movie is the faith that the characters have (and don’t have) in themselves and in each other. Mr. Brown is reluctant to accept Mi at first, with good reason. As Mrs. Brown says, it would be surprising for someone who had lived on the streets not to have a “sharpness about him.” But, she persuades Mr. Brown to give him a chance: “What’s the meaning of goodness if there isn’t a little badness to overcome?” Mi does steal their money, but when he learns of their faith in him, their offer of a job and a place to stay and Velvet’s acceptance of him as a friend, he puts it back. Later, when he has a chance to steal much more money from the family, he thinks about it, but decides that he can’t, because “she trusts me.”
Velvet’s faith in both Mi and the Pi is at the center of the movie. She accepts them both immediately and irrevocably, though both are mistrusted by others. She does not believe Mi when he says he doesn’t like horses, and when he says he is only interested in the race for the money. She knows that he feels as passionately for the Pi as she does, though he cannot say it.
Velvet also has faith in the future. She is certain that she will win the lottery for the horse she loves. When she tells everyone she will win, a suspicious neighbor suggests that she may have cheated by arranging for her father to pick her number in the drawing. She explains that she didn’t bother with that, she just worked it out with God. Mr. Brown responds to the neighbor’s accusation by having him do the drawing, and of course Velvet does win (after there is no holder of the first number picked). When the jockey they have hired by mail to ride the Pi in the race shows them that he not only does not believe that the Pi can win, he does not even care, Velvet knows that it would be wrong to let him ride her horse. Just like Mi and Velvet herself, the Pi deserves someone who believes in him.
Mr. and Mrs. Brown show their trust by risking letting Mi and their children make mistakes. “She has it in her to do the right thing,” Mrs. Brown says of Velvet, and lets her decide how to respond to the offers that come in after she wins the race. Mrs. Brown also lets Velvet run to school after being up all night caring for the horse. When Mr. Brown objects, she reassures him that Velvet will be back — it’s Saturday, and there is no school. But she let her go because “I like that part of her that wants to go to school after a night caring for the horse.”
Mrs. Brown not only lets Mi stay with the family, but she entrusts him to take her 100 gold pieces to London. Mr. Brown is certain he will steal it instead. But as the train pulls away, you can see Velvet reflected in the window of the train car. This symbolizes the way the image of Velvet, and her faith in him, stays with Mi, and prevents him from taking the advice of his friends who get him drunk and encourage him to steal the money. As they leave for the race, Velvet says to Mrs. Brown, “You’ll be proud of The Pi, mother.” Mrs. Brown says, “I want to be proud of you.” And she is.
Throughout the movie, Mr. and Mrs. Brown balance a spacious acceptance of their children’s passions with a firm set of values and a fairly strict set of rules. Velvet is permitted to pretend to ride in bed only one night a week, and only for fifteen minutes. At his first dinner with the family, Mi is reprimanded sharply by Mr. Brown (Donald Crisp) for feeding the dog at the table (“It will turn him into a beggar,” is a pointed comment made to the young man who has arrived at their door and may have some hope of being helped). But as we see during the course of the scene, each member of the family, including Mr. Brown, sneaks food to the dog when the others aren’t looking.
Similarly, Velvet is constantly reminded by everyone to wear her braces. When Mi does this, on the way to the race, it shows how much he has accepted the family’s set of priorities and the responsibility of caring for its members. In this case, though, he lets her take the braces out until the race is over. Like Mr. and Mrs. Brown, he knows when to suspend the rules. Mrs. Brown won’t tell Mi how much his father meant to her until he leaves them. As long as he had no faith in himself, that information would be no more than a way to get something from the Brown family. But once he no longer felt “soft and yellow inside,” he could accept it as a heritage to build on.

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America’s Sweethearts

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

It sounds like it can’t miss — a delicious situation created by a guy who knows how to write jokes, with an all-star cast. But it does miss. Billy Crystal, who wrote the script with Peter Tolan, delivers wisecracks, but he gives us television sitcom-like “onesa” characters (i.e., “one’s a spoiled diva, one’s a preening Spanish lover type”) whose behavior seems prompted by whatever suits the scene rather than any kind of emotional truth — and that, after all, is as central to the success of a comedy as it is to a drama.

“America’s Sweethearts” are two beloved screen idols whose films together have thrilled audiences and filled studio bank accounts. But she (Catherine Zeta Jones as Gwen) has fallen for someone else and he (John Cusack as Eddie) has had a nervous breakdown. Now their last film together is about to be released, and the studio is desperate for them to bring all of their star power as a couple to the press junket. Since the studio head has not actually seen the movie, all he has to stir up support from the press is Gwen and Eddie. And the person responsible for making it all work is Lee (Crystal), a publicist so dedicated that he says if her heard that his mother died, he would spin the news by saying how much she would have loved the movie.

A few insider digs at Hollywood and the press, repeated behavior with no apparent motivation, and some extended vulgar humor keep derailing this movie every time Roberts’ 1000-watt smile or one of the other star turns comes close to making it work.

Parents should know that the movie is raunchier than many PG-13s, with intended humor coming from an (inaccurate) accusation of public masturbation and from insults about another man’s genital size. The movie has strong language and sexual references and situations, and some comic violence. Characters drink and use (and possibly abuse) prescription drugs. A mental breakdown is treated as a comic development, mere self-indulgence rather than a legitimate illness.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Notting Hill” and “The Runaway Bride.” They might also like to see some classic earlier comedies about Hollywood, like “Sullivan’s Travels,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” and “Bombshell.”

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Ready to Rumble

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

For all those out there who can’t wait for the next Adam Sandler movie, and especially for those who find those Adam Sandler movies a little too intellectually challenging, we now have “Ready to Rumble,” a sort of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Wrestling Adventure.

David Arquette and Scott Caan play Gordie and Sean, two likeable doofuses who worship “the King” — wrestling champion Jimmy King (Oliver Platt), who seems to have appropriated his accent and substance abuse problem from that other King, Elvis. Horrified when the King is defeated by Diamond Dallas Page, they resolve to help him regain the title.

This process leads them to encounter a van full of nuns singing Van Halen’s “Driving with the Devil,” a sultry Nitro Girl named Sasha (Rose McGowan), a tough old wrestling coach (Martin Landau), the King’s bitter ex-wife (Caroline Rhea) and snaggle-toothed son, and an average of one joke about poop or testicles every 10 minutes.

Arquette and Caan are hard to resist, though. Most actors who play clueless characters can’t resist show-boating to let us know how clever they are. Arquette and Caan just open themselves up to the inner dope. Their simple exhuberence, loyalty, and sweetness keep this movie from feeling too sour or tired. The able support of character actors like Platt, Landau, Joe Pantoliano (as the wrestling promoter), the sadly underused Rhea, an assortment of wrestling superstars like Goldberg and Sting and some good music help to keep it moving. This may also be the only soundtrack in history to feature both Kid Rock and Aaron Copeland.

Parents should know that despite the rating, this movie has a lot of R- type material, including incessent and very raw potty humor, strong language, sexual references, and a bare behind. Part of the adventure is sexual initiation for both of the leading characters. A bad guy tells an employee to have sex with someone to find out what he is up to. A girl “presents” a boy with sex as a gift.

Families who see the movie should talk about how we pick our heroes, how we live up to our dreams, and how we learn which dreams to follow.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the much funnier and less raunchy “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”

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Angel Eyes

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Watch out — they’re trying to sell this movie as a thriller with supernatural overtones, but it turns out that it is a very traditional love story, and a surprisingly touching one, too.

Jennifer Lopez plays Sharon, a cop who is fearless on the streets but not ready to get close to anyone. As she tells one guy when he tries to get to know her over dinner, “I’m not very good at the whole dating thing,” She goes home to her apartment and lies on her bed in her bulletproof vest.

One day, just as an assailant is about to shoot Sharon, a mysterious stranger (Jim Caviezel) arrives to save her life. She is surprised to find herself drawn to him even though he tells her nothing about himself. All he will tell her is that his name is Catch.

Sharon investigates and interrogates people for a lving. She is not sure how much it is fair to expect to learn about someone in a relationship, so she does not push. In fact, it gives her some breathing room because she does not feel crowded by questions about her own past. She finds something freeing about a relationship between people who have only the present.

The connection between the two of them will be a mystery only to those people who have never seen a movie. But there is an appealing lightness and even a little wisdom the way their relationship unfolds. Sharon calls Catch and when he answers she tells him to hang up so that she can call his machine. She is not comfortable enough to talk to him directly, but at least she is able to tell him that.

Sharon and Catch both have to accept their pasts before they can face the future together. Although it is terrifying, they have to be honest with themselves before they can really be close to each other. Both blame themselves for family tragedies, and both have to accept that it is all right to go on from that. The movie has the great good sense to leave things a little messy.

Maybe Jennifer Lopez should stick with playing cops. This is her best performance since she played a marshall in “Out of Sight.” Caviezel, following roles in “Frequency” and “Pay it Forward,” seems to be the current go-to guy for playing “guys weird stuff happens to.” Screenwriter Gerald DePego and director Luis Mandoki show us the warm, easy connection between Sharon and Catch, and they make it clear that love alone is not the cure, just the motive to allow yourself to heal.

Parents should know that the movie is rated R for very strong language, brief non-explicit nudity and sexual references and situations. Characters are in peril and some are shot. There is a fatal automobile accident and a child is killed offscreen. Sharon jokes that she was looking for a man to “clean her pipes.” There are references to domestic abuse, and we see a woman who has been hit in the face.

Families who see this movie should talk about how we can find a way to create a balance between privacy and intimacy, between mourning a loss and moving on, between trying to make things better and accepting something less than perfect. They may also want to talk about Sharon’s conflicts over how to respond to her father’s abuse of her mother. When Sharon and Catch first become close, she asks him to kiss her somewhere she has never been kissed before — it may be worth discussing with teenagers the importance of keeping yourself precious enough so that you can give the person you love something that is just for the two of you.

Audiences who enjoy this movie will also enjoy some of the classic old romances like “I’ll be Seeing You” with Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten, “Love Letters” with Cotten and Jennifer Jones, and “One Way Passage” with William Powell and Kay Francis.

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Return to Me

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

No surprises here, but it is a pleasant date-movie, a romance that tries hard to transcend its gimmick and just about succeeds. Let’s get the gimmick out of the way first – guy has girl (architect Bob — David Duchovney — married to beautiful Elizabeth — zookeeper Joely Richardson). Then guy loses girl in a car accident, guy meets new girl named Grace (Minnie Driver) who doesn’t want to tell him that she had a heart transplant, guy finds out that the heart came from his late wife, and everyone gets over it and gets on with living happily ever after.

I know, I know, it is a very creaky premise. At least it isn’t one of those movies that drags out the telling part and then just as she is about to spill the beans he finds out anyway and it takes another half hour to straighten it all out. And at least there is no maudlin “Chicken Soup for the Soul”-type stuff about how this is the gift his late wife brought to him or anything like that. Grace tells Bob as soon as she finds out and it does not take him too long to figure out that he loves her anyway, and if it just happens that the big clinch happens in Italy, where he was always trying to take Elizabeth, we won’t make too big a thing of it.

We know where it is all going from the first five minutes. So we can sit back and enjoy the ride, in the capable hands of director/co-star/co- scriptwriter Bonnie Hunt. Hunt, a terrific character actress (Renée Zellweger’s sister in “Jerry Maguire” and Tom Hanks’ wife in “The Green Mile”) lets the couple’s friends and family add a lot of life and depth to the story. They give Bob and Grace more personality and interest, sort of character by association.

Grace lives with her grandfather (Carroll O’Connor), owner of an Irish-Italian restaurant that is home to a community so adorable and loving that they could be birds and cherubs perching on the finger of an animated Disney heroine. Her friend Megan (director Hunt) is living in happy domestic chaos with her husband (James Belushi) and four children. Bob’s friend Charlie (David Alan Grier) is there to fix him up with Ms. Wrong, so that he can have a reason to go to Grace’s grandfather’s restaurant and leave behind the 21st century equivalent of a glass slipper – his cell phone.

Everyone has to cope with the risks of letting others see us clearly. It is not just major secrets like heart transplants that people are afraid to share with others. Families who see this movie should talk about how people decide how much of themselves to share, about how people cope with loss that seems devastatingly overwhelming, and about Grace’s grandfather’s comment that “It is the character that’s the strongest that God gives the most challenges to.” Before Grace goes out with Bob for the first time, Megan advises her not to shave her legs, as insurance against “going too far.” This is a rare movie in which the couple does not go to bed together almost immediately, partly because of Grace’s sensitivity about her scar, and possibly also because Bob needs to take things slowly, too. Some families will want to talk about how couples make decisions about the risks of physical intimacy as well as emotional. And families should also talk about the loving way the people in this movie care for each other and enjoy each other.

Parents should know that though the movie is rated PG, there are a few strong words, including some used by children, and some mild sexual references.

Families who enjoy this movie will also like “Sleepless in Seattle.”

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