Life as a House

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

When a movie is called “Life as a House” you enter on full metaphor alert. When it turns out to be about an estranged father and son who pull down an old shack and construct a dream house overlooking the ocean and it turns out to be a transforming experience for everyone who happens by while it is in progress plus including a tragic death that is still another transforming experience for everyone, you have every right to expect a generic made-for-TV-movie uplifting weepie. But this movie gives us something more, thanks to a script by Mark Andrus (of “As Good as it Gets”) and a first rate cast.

Kevin Kline plays George, an unhappy man who creates meticulously crafted models in an architectural firm. His skills are no longer valuable in an era of computerized design, his ex-wife does not like him, his teenage son hates everyone, including himself, and his house is literally falling down around him. When George is fired, he decides to tear down his house, which was built by his father, and build a new one with his son, Sam (Hayden Christiansen). At first, Sam is hostile and uncooperative. Then he is hostile and a little bit cooperative. Then he, like George, learns the power of tearing down painful parts of their history and starting over again to build something new.

George’s ex-wife Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her children become intrigued with the project. And the pretty teenager next door becomes intrigued with Sam. Soon, everybody is pitching in except for the angry neighbor who vows to stop them.

There is a lot wrong with this movie. The plot is creaky and manipulative. The female characters are all fantasy figures. Some of the plot lines never get resolved — they just stop (or, in one case, just fall off the roof). The solution to the problem with the neighbor is unintentionally unnerving. But there is a lot that is right with the movie, too, including subtle, magnetic performances and moments of real power and feeling. If the movie is not as dazzling as the finished house, at least it is not as decrepit as the shack.

Parents should know that this movie has drug use, very strong language, sexual situations and references, including teen prostitution, nudity, masturbation involving attempted suffocation, and adult-teen sexual encounters. Teenagers take very foolish risks with little consequence beyond their own misery. There is a very sad death.

Families who see this movie should talk about why it was so hard for Sam to feel good about about himself, and why the things he tried to make himself feel better did not work. What did he mean when he said that it felt better to feel things? Why was physical touch so important to many of the characters? Families will also want to talk about the behavior of Colleen and Alyssa and their decisions about their sexual relationships.

Take a good look at Hayden Christiansen, who plays Sam. The next time you see him will probably be as the young Anakin Skywalker (and future Darth Vadar) in the next episode of “Star Wars.” Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Shoot the Moon, about a disintegrating marriage, with brilliant performances by Diane Keaton and Albert Finney.

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U-571

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

U-571, a fictional story inspired by several different WWII incidents, follows a group of sailors who are trying to capture the German’s Engima code machine, so that they can find out where the U-boats are headed in time to prevent them from sinking the Allies’ supply ships.

Minute for minute, it is one of the most tense and exciting war movies ever made, with the crew on the brink of disaster and often several disasters at once, for most of the movie’s running time. Indeed, it is so busy being exciting that it is sometimes impossible to tell what is going on, especially since the sets are so dark, drippy, and claustrophobic and the dialogue so jargon-crammed. Still, it is more than a mindless testosterone explosion-fest. As Lt. Tyler (Matthew McConaughey) learns, it is not enough to be brave, loyal, and honorable.

As the movie begins, he is bitter at not having been recommended for command. The Captain (Bill Paxton) explains that it is not enough that Tyler is willing to give his life for the men. He has to be willing to order them to give their lives, and then he has to be able to live with the consequences. And he as to be able to do it “without pause, without reflection, or you’ve got no business being a submarine captain.” Later, when Tyler and his men have taken over the U-Boat, and his first orders are tentative, Chief Klough (Harvey Keitel), the non-commissioned officer who has seen it all, takes him aside to tell him that “The skipper always knows what to do, whether he does or not.” Tyler is confronted with decision after decision, forced to chose quickly and credibly among nothing but long shots. 1234567890

Submarines immediately grab our attention. They are isolated and vulnerable. Once they leave the dock, they become a world of their own, with no time to wait for orders when they get into trouble. In movies from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” to “Operation Petticoat,” “Crimson Tide” and “The Hunt for Red October” we see men who must make life and death decisions without time or information, and we get to think, as we lean back and eat our popcorn, about how we would fare 100 kilometers below the surface. We get to see some terrific examples of problem- solving and moral choices.

Families who see this movie should discuss how we develop the foundation of values and experience to enable us to make those choices. They should also talk about the difference between fiction and reality. The setting and the references to historical incidents like the capture of the Enigma may lead people who watch this movie to believe that it was based on a true story. It is not. It is based on pieces of several stories, mostly involving British, not American, sailors and soldiers, and it is heavily fictionalized, at times bearing more relation to Star Wars than it does to history.

The movie does give credit to the extraordinary heroism of British and American servicemen who succeeded in getting the Engima, by thanking them at the end of the movie. Some older kids will want to know more about this. They will enjoy Capturing Enigma: How HMS Petard Seized the German Naval Codes by Stephen Harper, Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker’s War, 1941-1945, by Leo Marks, and Station X: Decoding Nazi Secrets, by Michael Smith. Families may also want to talk about the treatment of the movie’s one black character, Eddie (Terrence “T.C.” Carson), clearly overqualified for the only position on the ship for which he is eligible – he serves the crew’s food. At this time, of course, the service was still segregated.

Parent should know that this is an exceptionally intense and scary movie. Many people are brutally killed, including characters that the audience comes to care about.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy other submarine movies, including Crimson Tide, Das Boot, and The Hunt for Red October.

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American Outlaws

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

American Outlaws” is a rock and roll western for the MTV era. It may be a little on the dumb and cheesy side, but it does not take itself or its characters too seriously and it has enough cute cowboys, shoot-outs, and romance to remind us how much we’ve missed seeing westerns.

Once we abandon any pretense of historical accuracy, we can settle back and enjoy the story — more of a fable — about the infamous Jesse James and the James-Younger gang. According to this movie, Jesse James was just misunderstood. All he wanted was to come back from the Civil War and farm his land. But those reliable western meanies, the railroad men, want that land and will do anything to get it. According to this version, James and his brother Frank joined with their cousins, the Younger brothers, were not bad guys at all. They were something of a 19th century Robin Hood, robbing from the railroads to give to the people who have lost their land.

There are some good action scenes and solid production values. The script is unimpressive. What makes the movie work as well as it does is the performance of Irish actor Colin Farrell, whose critically acclaimed but little seen performance in “Tigerland” built up a lot of anticipation for his first starring role in a major American film. He more than lives up to that promise, giving Jesse James a charm and all-American open-heartedness that make it easy for us to accept him as the hero. And this movie really is about the outlaw as rock star. People seem positively honored to be robbed by them, and the man who is charged with capturing him says admiringly, “If I was to design the perfect outlaw band, this is the gang I’d create,” and “I’d just as soon kill you, Jesse, but chasing you takes up too much of my time.”

Parents should know that the movie features a great deal of western-style violence, including a Civil War battle scene with many injuries and deaths. There are several shoot-outs and major characters are killed, including a parent. The main characters are robbers who kill when they must to get away with the money. They seem to believe that since the money belongs to the railroad, it is all right, even righteous, to steal it. They enjoy their fame as outlaws and even write to the newspapers to make sure that their story is properly told. There is some strong cowboy language, including mild references to prostitutes. A young woman makes it clear that she will not have sex with the man she loves until they are married. A scene takes place in a saloon, and a boy takes a drink.

Families who see this movie should talk about how the movie makes us root for the robbers. Would it be possible to tell this story from a different point of view? Families should do some research on the real Jesse James. There is a lot of information on the Internet, and http://www.crimelibrary.com/americana/jesse/ is a good place to start. Why is he such a fascinating and romantic figure, more than a century after his death?

There have been at least a dozen movies about Jesse James, including two starring his son, Jesse James, Jr., two starring WWII hero Audie Murphy, two with “The Lone Ranger’s” Clayton Moore, one with Rob Lowe from television’s “The West Wing,” one with Oscar-winner Robert Duvall, and even one starring Harris Yulin, who plays the mean railroad guy in this version. Kids may also be familiar with the WWF character called “Road Dogg Jesse James.” Families who enjoy this movie might enjoy seeing some other takes on the James-Younger gang. They will also enjoy two other modern westerns with action, romance, and humor, “Silverado” and “Cat Ballou.

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Local Hero

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: McIntyre (Peter Reigert) is an ambitious executive with a Knox Oil & Gas, based in Houston, Texas. He is dispatched by Happer (Burt Lancaster), the company’s eccentric billionaire chief executive, to a remote corner of Scotland to acquire a fishing village named Ferness and the land surrounding it for an oil refinery and storage facility.

McIntyre, all business, arrives in Ferness with Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi), a Knox employee from Scotland. At first, McIntyre finds it hard to adjust to the pace of Ferness. Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson), the local innkeeper and resident accountant, tells him to enjoy the area for a couple of days before they open negotiations. Gordon tells the villagers about the offer from Knox. They are delighted at the prospect of being bought out and begin to debate the relative merits of a Rolls Royce over a Maserati. The only hitch to finalizing the deal is Ben, a reclusive beachcomber who lives in a shack by the shore. He owns several miles of beach and refuses to sell.

Meanwhile, McIntyre sheds his hurried Houston style and comes to enjoy the tranquil rhythms of the village. In a whisky-induced moment, he tells Urquhart that he wants them to swap jobs. Following Happer’s order to “watch the sky,” he is dazzled by the aurora borealis, the Northern Lights, and calls Happer to report.

Happer arrives from Houston. He establishes an instant rapport with Ben, and decides that instead of the refinery, he will create an observatory and marine laboratory — the Happer Institute. McIntyre is sent back to Texas to organize the changes. McIntyre returns to Houston, deeply missing the charm and character of his brief Highland life.

Discussion: McIntyre’s life in Houston is cluttered but empty. He resorts to phoning colleagues seated ten yards away to see if they are free for lunch. he cares a great deal about material things. In Ferness, his expensive watch falls into the water, and he doesn’t miss it. He learns to enjoy collecting shells and examining the night sky.

In a poignant final shot we see McIntyre calling the village’s pay phone.

It rings and rings, but no one answers. The suggestion is that while the village has invaded McIntyre’s soul, he has not had a similar impact in return. McIntyre represented a fleeting interest in lives that run to slower rhythms.

The film is to be noted less for its messages or themes than its magnificent cast of quirky, delightfully observed characters and gorgeous location photography. There is a touch of magic in the story, with a marine biologist who seems to be part mermaid, and a deus ex machina happy ending for most of the characters.

Note: This movie has the feel of a fairy tale, but there are some odd moments that may bother some kids. Happer hires a “therapist” for a bizarre “abuse therapy.” Danny saves a rabbit that is then cooked and served to Danny and McIntyre by Gordon. And the very un-Hollywood resolution, with McIntyre back in Texas by himself, should prompt some discussion of what kids think may happen to him.

Questions for Kids:

· What does McIntyre list as the requirements for an excellent life in Houston? Do the villagers agree with him, since all but Ben are anxious to sell?

· Why does the girl with the punk outfit say that she likes McIntyre?

· Why didn’t Ben want to sell?

· Why, when McIntyre calls the village pay phone at the end of the film, does no one answer?

Connections: Forsyth is also the director of the wonderful “Gregory’s Girl.”

Activities: Find Scotland on a map. Visit a marine study facility like the one they plan to build in Ferness.

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Unstrung Heroes

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: Steven Lidz is the son of Sid (John Turturro), an inventor. He is a distracted man who “believes in documentation” and empirical data. Steven is closer to his warm-hearted mother, the emotional center of the family. When she becomes ill, he goes to live with his father’s two brothers (Michael Richards and Maury Chaikin), both borderline (and sometimes more than borderline) mentally ill. They are hoarders, with huge piles of newspapers filling every bit of available floor space, paranoid, telling him there are only eight trustworthy people in the world (the other four have been killed), and delusional. But they love Steven very much, and see in him a strength and ability to be great that he finds very comforting. They rename him “Franz” because they think it suits him better than Steven.

Franz picks up some of his uncles’ peculiarities (singing the “Internationale” in school while the other kids recite the Pledge of Allegiance), but also draws strength from what they tell him. They encourage him to connect to his heritage by studying for his bar mitzvah. And his uncle’s fascination with objects inspires him to hold on to a bit of his mother by collecting small items that make him feel close to her. When she dies, he retrieves hours of “documentation” (film of experiments and family home movies) from the garbage. He and his father watch them together, and, with the uncles, begin to document the family again.

Discussion: Based on the autobiographical novel by sportwriter Franz Lidz (he kept the name his uncles bestowed on him), this is a quietly moving story of a boy growing up in the midst of incomprehensible loss. Perhaps it is the very incomprehensibility of it all that makes his uncles seem understandable by comparison. Or perhaps they just have a less frightening way of being impossible to understand. To Steven, they are almost like children, the way they play with the “high-bouncers” from the collection of lost rubber balls that “hold the sounds of the children who played with them.” He makes pancakes for them the way his mother made pancakes for him and his sister. He protects them from the landlord who wants to see them evicted. They have time for him, which his parents don’t. They have answers for him, which no one else does. They see him as “Franz” and “Franz” is who he decides he wants to be.

This is a movie about loss, but more than that it is a movie about families, and the acceptance of family members who are not always easy to understand. This includes Sid as well as the uncles.

The movie raises the question of faith. Sid is relentlessly scientific and is furious that his brothers have encouraged Franz to study Judaism. He tells them that “religion is a crutch, only cripples need crutches.” But Franz’s mother, dying, says maybe Franz is right.

Franz’s attitude toward his uncles is very sympathetic, even protective. But Franz and his friend Ash play a prank on Uncle Danny, slipping him a note that sends his paranoia into overdrive. Danny commits himself, and when Franz admits that he wrote the note, Danny tells him it is all right, that it made it possible for him to get help.

Questions for Kids:

· Why does Steven give up instead of giving his speech?

· Why does Steven decide to go live with his uncles? Why do his parents let him?

· Why do Sid and his brothers have different ideas about religion?

· What does “documentation” mean, and why is it important here?

· What does Sid mean by an “undisciplined mind”?

Connections: This was the first feature film directed by actress Diane Keaton (“Annie Hall” and “Father of the Bride”).

Activities: Older kids, particularly those familiar with Lidz’ sports writing, may want to read the book. Those who are not familiar with the Bar Mitzvah ceremony may enjoy attending one.

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