The Gunfighter

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) is the fastest gun who ever lived, which makes him a target for every young man who wants to prove himself. On his way to Cayenne, Ringo stops in a bar. A “young squirt” taunts him, and Ringo makes every possible effort to placate him, finally asking the young man’s friends to make him stop, but finally he pulls his gun on Ringo, who kills him. Even though everyone saw that it was in self- defense, the witnesses tell him to move on. The dead man had three brothers, and “they won’t care who drew first.”

The three brothers come after Ringo, but he is waiting for them, and he takes their guns and sends their horses back to town, telling them to go back on foot. But he knows that they will probably follow him instead, and that once he gets to Cayenne, he will only have a brief time to do what he has in mind.

He gets to Cayenne, and is surprised and pleased to find his old friend Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell) as the sheriff. Mark tells him he will have to leave; even though Ringo does not want any trouble, and has not committed any crimes, trouble will come looking for him, as there are too many young men who will risk everything to be able to claim the credit for killing Ringo. Ringo wants to see his wife Peggy and their child. Mark knows where they are but won’t say. He does agree to ask Peggy if she will see Ringo, and tells Ringo to stay put, under the care of the sympathetic bartender (Karl Malden).

Ringo stays quietly in the corner. But every one of the boys in town plays hookey to peer in at him through the saloon window. And the local “squirt,” hot-headed Hunt Bromley (Skip Homier), comes after him. Ringo scares him off with a bluff. But Jerry is across the street with a rifle pointed out the window, sure that Ringo must be the one who killed his son. And the three brothers have found horses and guns and are approaching fast.

Peggy at first refuses to see him. She finally agrees, and when he says he wants to settle down in a place where no one knows him, she says if he can do that for a year, she will join him. He spends some time with his son, and prepares to leave, happy at the thought of his new life. But Hunt is waiting for him, and shoots him in the back.

As Ringo dies, he says that he drew first. He doesn’t want Hunt hanged. He wants him to suffer as he has suffered, knowing that wherever he goes, there will be someone who wants to be known as the man who shot the man who shot Ringo.

Discussion: This is really a Western version of the story of King Midas. Ringo’s wish came true, but at a terrible price. There was a time when he could think of nothing finer, nothing manlier, than being known as the fastest gun in the West. We see a glimmer of that again, when he asks what Jimmy (who does not know that Ringo is his father) thinks of him. When he hears that Jimmy admires Wyatt Earp, he can’t help telling the boy that he is far tougher than Earp. Yet now Ringo is tired. He knows that every moment he will have to watch for someone trying to kill him (as happens throughout this movie), and that someday someone will be a little less tired (or, as happens, a little less honorable) than he is.

It provides a good opportunity for a discussion of notions of manhood and courage, along the lines of the moving speech by Charles Bronson in “The Magnificent Seven.” Ringo would trade all of his fame for the chance to live with his family, as shown most poignantly when he shares a drink with a young rancher. Ringo is more successful with his intelligence than his speed — he is able to avoid shoot-outs with the brothers, with Jerry, and in the first encounter with Hunt. He arranges to have money paid to Peggy without giving away their connection, and thinks of a plausible reason to tell Jimmy why he wanted to see him so that he doesn’t have to tell him the truth. His innate decency and sense of justice are shown in his dealings with Jerry, his dreams for a life with Peggy, and especially in the scene in which he talks to the ladies of the town, when they do not know who he is. His pleasure in being able to have a moment’s interaction with people who are not either terrified, angry, or trying to shoot him is very moving.

This is also a good movie about the consequences of our choices. There are so many movies about redemption and triumph that it is automatically branded an “adult western” when a gunfighter doesn’t shoot the bad guy and ride off into the sunset. Unlike Alan in “The Petrified Forest,” who dies to help someone else, or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid , whose death at the end of the movie only brightens their legend, Ringo chooses to tarnish his legend as he dies, to curse Hunt to the same fate that he suffered, and possibly also to give little boys and young squirts less reason to try to be like him.

Questions for Kids:

· Why does every town have a “young squirt” who wants to prove he is faster than Ringo?

· Why doesn’t Mark carry a gun?

· Why does Ringo insist that he drew on Hunt?

· Why was Mark able to get away and start over, when Ringo and Buck were not?

· Why does Peggy call herself Mrs. Ringo at the end?

Connections: One of the three brothers who come after Ringo was played by Alan Hale, Jr., who went on to play the Captain in the television show “Gilligan’s Island,” and was the son of Alan Hale, Little John in “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”

Compare Ringo’s final decision to the one made by Jimmy Cagney in “Angels with Dirty Faces.” A tough criminal on death row, he is asked by his lifelong friend, a priest, to go to his death a coward, so that the boys who look up to him will not want to follow his example.

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A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Cross “2001” with “ET” and “Blade Runner” and throw in some “Pinocchio,” some “Wizard of Oz,” some “Velveteen Rabbit” and a touch of “Our Town,” and you might have some sense of what to expect from “A.I.” It is an ambitious, complex, provocative movie that is likely to lead to more late night college dorm debates than anything since the ones about “2001’s” monolith and the ape throwing the bone.

The movie is about David, who looks like a 12-year-old boy but is really a “mecha,” a highly developed robot. It is set in the world of the future, when the polar ice caps have melted and cities have been flooded. Population is strictly controlled, and robots that look and act like humans perform almost every service. Dr. Hobby (William Hurt) decides to take robots a step further and develop the first robot that can feel love. One of his employees, Henry (Sam Robards) is chosen to be the beta tester. Henry and his wife, Monica (Frances O’Connor), have a son, Martin, who is critically ill. At first, Monica is horrified by the idea of “adopting” a mechanical boy, but her need for love is so overpowering that she initiates the sequence that will bind David irrevocably to her forever. He immediately changes from a pleasant if emotionless toy into a child whose mother is his whole world. He loves, which means that he is needy, jealous, and He thinks like a three-year-old, calling for his mommy and wanting her all to himself.

Martin gets better and returns home. He and David are jealous of one another, and when Monica believes that David may be a threat to Martin, she sets him lose in the woods. David is determined to find the Blue Fairy who can turn him into a real boy, as she did with Pinocchio, because he thinks that will make it possible for Monica to love him. In the woods, David meets up with other abandoned mechas, including a robot gigolo named Joe (Jude Law). As he searches for the Blue Fairy, he sees disturbing sights: a gladiator-style demolition derby where people pay to see the destruction of mecha, a decadent city reminiscent of the place where Pinocchio turned into a donkey, and a flooded metropolis where David meets someone from his past. Wherever he goes, he tries to become real, so he can return to his mother as someone she can love.

Developed by Stanley Kubrick and completed by Steven Spielberg, this is a two-part invention of a movie that owes both its strengths and its weaknesses to the collaboration between two men of such prodigious talents and such different, even opposing sensibilities. Kubrick is the master of the cool image; Spielberg the master of the warm feeling. The juxtaposition of their influence is particularly apt for this story of the struggle between heart and brain, not just on the part of the mecha, but on the part of the orga (humans) as well.

Parents should know that the movie is rated PG-13 for some sexual references (Joe is a robot created to have sex with women, a crude joke about the equivalent for men) and some violence (mecha are destroyed, critically ill child, characters in peril). Children may also find the theme and some of the situations disturbing and may also be unsettled by the open-ended nature of the story, which leaves many questions unanswered. It will be most suitable for teens, who may enjoy debating some of the issues of love, vulnerability, the nature of humanity, the future of the human race, and even the meaning of life.

Families who see this movie should talk about whether what David feels is love, and Dr. Hobby’s real reason for creating him. Is there any way to make a robot “real?” If the movie is about making a machine that can feel, why is the title “Artificial Intelligence?”

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Blade Runner (for older teens and adults, due to violence and dark themes). They might like to read the Karel Kapek play, “R.U.R.,” which coined the term “robot” and raises some of the same issues. They might like to take a look at this site about the famous Turing Test developed by computer pioneer Alan Turing to determine whether a machine could think. Turing said that a machine could be considered intelligent if it could fool a person into thinking that he or she was communicating with another person.

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The Perfect Storm

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

It’s very hard to make a good book into a good movie, even a good book that seems inherently cinematic, as this one does, with all its swirling winds and crashing waves. But in adapting this book, the screenwriter made a number of choices that make the main character’s decision to ride into the storm seem prudent by comparison, and the movie starts to sink long before the boat does.

The first challenge was finding a substitute for one of the book’s great strengths, its narrative voice. The first mistake was substituting dialogue that was corny back in 1940’s movies about fighter squadrons. At least then it seemed like an understandable response to being in battle. But to have your main character say things like, “So this is the moment of truth. This is where they separate the men from the boys,” with a straight face is to jar us out of any identification with the characters.

The second challenge was to give us a movie called “The Perfect Storm,” based on a book called “The Perfect Storm,” based on an actual perfect storm, and then keep our attention for an hour and a half before we actually get to see the storm. The second mistake was in wasting this chance to make us care about the characters. Instead, each member of the crew of the Andrea Gail is trotted onstage Smurf-style, with one identifying characteristic for us to grab onto. Captain Billy Tyne (George Clooney) has to prove to himself and to the owner of the boat that he can bring in a good load of fish. Bobby (Mark Wahlberg) has to choose between his love for the sea and his girlfriend Christina (Diane Lane). Bugsy (John Hawkes) has the prospect of a new love to come home to. Scully (William Fichtner) and Murph (John C. Reilly) don’t get along with each other. It would have made more sense to let us know something more about the characters who pop up later on, the Coast Guard rescue team and the three people they save from the sailboat. Furthermore, in a movie like this, positively the last thing in the world anyone needs is foreshadowing, and yet before the storm comes, we keep being hit over the head with foreboding, with comments like, “I have a bad feeling about this,” and “this is the last time, I promise.” Believe me, “this is the last time, I promise,” is a more certain indicator of disaster than a slasher movie’s “I’ll be right back!”

The third challenge was making use of the kind of all-star cast that this kind of a highly visible and well-financed project can draw. The third mistake was a criminal waste of the talents of people like Cherry Jones and Karen Allen, whose roles primarily consist of yelling “Mayday” and bobbing in the water, and Christopher McDonald, whose role primarily consists of staring meaningfully at a computer monitor. Wahlberg, Fichtner, Lane, and Reilly, four fine actors, are left more adrift by the script than their characters are by the storm.

The fourth challenge was making it all make sense. Someone once said that the difference between real life and movies is that movies have to make sense and real life doesn’t. What that means is that movies, like any other kind of story, have an internal logic that people understand instinctively. Part of that logic governs who in a movie can die without leaving an audience feeling cheated. There was a way to make the logic of the movie fit the facts of what happened, and the fourth failure was missing it.

The fifth challenge was taking a sad story and making it feel sad, not maudlin. The fifth mistake was failing on this one, too. The scenes on land following the storm go on too long. This is where we really need some insight and some good dialogue, and we just don’t get it. And there is one scene, just before one character dies, where he speaks to a loved one and sees her in an apparition that even the producers of “Message in a Bottle” would have been embarrassed to try.

The sixth challenge is the one most people care most about, and that is the special effects on the storm and the filming of the action scenes as people fight to stay alive. That one is met in full, and for that alone the movie gets three stars.

Parents should know that the movie has some strong sailor language and some sexual references that can get crude. Characters drink and smoke a great deal. For most parents, the primary concern will be the scariness and sadness of the movie. It is very intense and many characters are killed. Parents should be willing to give kids deniability (“I really want to see it but my parents won’t let me!”) if they sense that the kids do not want to go.

Families who see this movie should talk about the way the characters evaluate their options and deal with the consequences of their decisions. After the first rescue, the Coast Guard is told that their superiors cannot order them to go to the second, because it is too hazardous. What went into their decision about how to respond? Captain Tyne had to decide whether to try to get home through the storm in time to save their catch or protect his men’s lives while losing all their money. How did he decide?

Families who enjoy this movie might like to see another movie about a Massachusetts captain taking on the sea, “Moby Dick,” with Patrick Stewart as Captain Ahab.

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Ali

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Will Smith delivers a knock-out punch as Muhammed Ali in this outstanding film that follows the champ from his first heavyweight title to the “Rumble in the Jungle” when he won the title again by defeating George Foreman in Zaire.

Smith is a great choice to play Ali. Both have pretty faces and easy charm that mask the ferocity and fury that it takes to make it all the way to the top. Ali never trained harder for a fight than Smith did for this role, spending two years packing on muscle and throwing — and receiving — real punches in the ring. Smith perfectly captures Ali’s Kentucky drawl. Like his fighting style, it can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Director Michael Mann strikes just the right balance between the personal and the political, setting Ali’s struggles in the context of the racial conflicts of his era but never losing sight of the fact that it is one man’s story.

Ali repeatedly tells those around him that he will be the champ his own way, and we see him try to figure out what that way will be. He won’t be the white man’s idea of a “good Negro,” like Joe Louis. He will become a Muslim, let Elijah Muhammed’s son be his manager and even shun his friend Malcolm X when told to. But he knows that they need him more than he needs them, and he will be a Muslim his way, too. He will be more faithful to his refusal to fight than he will be to any of the women in his life. And he will use the force of his personality — more powerful than any punch — to go the distance and get the title. No one can stop him.

Even limited to only 10 years in Ali’s life, the story spills out of the screen, with achingly brief glimpses of some of the key characters in Ali’s life. This is a double loss, because these small roles are played by some of the most brilliant – and under-used actors — working today, including Jeffrey Wright as Ali’s photographer, LeVar Burton glimpsed briefly as Martin Luther King, Joe Morton as Ali’s lawyer, and Giancarlo Esposito as Ali’s father. John Voight struggles under far too much rubber make-up but makes a fine impression as Howard Cosell, the sportscaster who was Ali’s favorite straight man and one of his truest friends. Mario van Peebles is quietly magnetic as Malcolm X, and Ron Silver marshals his intensity just right as trainer Angelo Dundee. Mykelti Williamson is jubilantly entertaining as Don King.

Mann, as always, gives us brilliantly revealing moments. Before a fight, Dundee quietly loads his pockets with first aid equipment, knowing that the brilliantly healthy and fit fighter will soon be needing it between rounds. And in one of the most heartbreaking movie moments of the year, Ali hugs the just-defeated Jerry Quarry. That moment even more devastating for those aware of Quarry’s ultimate fate – he became severely impaired from injuries sustained in boxing matches and died at age 53. It is impossible to watch the movie without thinking of Ali’s own injuries and feeling the loss of the resplendently vigorous champ he once was.

Parents should know that in addition to brutal fight scenes, the movie includes a character who is a drug addict, drinking and smoking, a sexual situation and sexual references (including adultery) and some strong language. The issue of racial and religious intolerance is forthrightly presented.

Families who see this movie should talk about the conflict Ali faced when he was drafted. How did he decide what to do? How did he stay true to himself? What was the biggest challenge? When his wife told him not to trust the fight promoters who “talk black, act white, and think green,” who was right?

Families who enjoy this movie should be sure to watch the brilliant Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings to see what really went on in the Rumble in the Jungle. Smith’s performance is brilliant, but it can never match the real-life champ’s inimitable style. Of some additional interest is Ali’s performance as himself in a mediocre film called “The Greatest.”

There are many outstanding boxing films, including Rocky, Raging Bull, (for mature audiences only), Golden Boy, Requiem for a Heavyweight,and Body and Soul (with John Garfield and a rare screen performance by stage actor Canada Lee).

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Entrapment

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

A heist film is one of Hollywood’s most reliable plots. “Entrapment” has caught the look and feel but not the heart of classics like “Topkapi” and “To Catch a Thief.” Sean Connery plays “Mac” MacDougal, a dashing (if somewhat creaky) thief who cannot help responding to a challenge. Catherine Zeta Jones plays insurance investigator Virginia “Gin” Baker, who is out to trap him – or is she? Connery, who also co-produced, delivers the goods in true movie star fashion, making wooden dialogue seem deliciously roguish, and Zeta Jones has appealing grace and spirit as well as breathtaking beauty. Three separate heist scenes are fresh and stylish. There are some cool gadgets. But the plot has holes that leave you walking out of the theater saying, “Hey, wait a minute.” The characters never create any real chemistry with each other, in part because he is decades older than she is. Worse, they never create any chemistry with us. There is something a little chilling about characters who steal without any consideration whatsoever for the impact on others. In some heist films, the characters gain our sympathy by stealing from someone who stole the money in the first place (“The Sting,” “$,”) or in order to protect someone (“How to Steal a Million”). But in “Entrapment,” they seem to be doing it for no particular reason other than a sort of Everest-like “because it’s there.”

Parents should know that there is some relatively discreet nudity, the usual swear words, and brief drug use. Families may enjoy talking about the challenge of making the audience root for a thief. And they may want to watch some of the classics listed above that inspired this one. Heist movies are terrific examples of problem solving, as they lay out exactly what the obstacles are, come up with strategies to address each one, and then, as Mac points out, come up with back-up strategies for the inevitable problems and mistakes.

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