Apollo 13

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

This movie should be called “Smart and Smarter.” In addition to the thrilling story, masterful performances, and impeccable technical authenticity, it is a heartening story of the triumph of smart guys with slide rules, a relief in this era of movies about characters who triumph by being dumb. Two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks plays real-life astronaut- hero Jim Lovell in this true story of the mission to the moon that almost left three astronauts stranded in space, when an oxygen tank exploded. Even though we know it turned out all right, even though the technical material is dense and the action is confined to a space smaller than an elevator, the tension is breathtaking, as the astronauts and the mission control team in Houston try to think their way back home. Everything from duct tape to the cover of the flight manual to one of the astronaut’s socks is used in this pre-McGuyver story, where mission control asks simply, “What’s good on that ship?” and builds from there.

Because of the technical material and intensity of the story, it is a good idea to prepare younger kids beforehand by telling them what the movie is about, and you may want to reassure them, since it is a true story, that the astronauts did come home all right.

Talk to older kids about the way that Mission Control solves the problems happening thousands of miles away, by re-creating the conditions inside the spaceship. Point out how the adults handle the strain, sometimes losing their tempers or blaming one another (or trying to escape blame), but mostly working very well together. Lovell and Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinese) were presented with a very tough problem when exposure to the measles led Mission Control to pull Mattingly from the mission. Lovell tries to insist that Mattingly go along, but ultimately realizes that the good of the mission has to override his feelings of loyalty. Kids may have their own ideas about how this should have been handled.

The legendary “Failure is not an option,” said by Gene Kranz, head of Mission Control, when most people were certain the astronauts would never make it back, is worth discussing. So are the changes since you were your children’s age. Note that everyone in Mission Control is a white male (and they all smoke all the time). They are amazed that a computer is small enough to fit into one room. And you may have to explain why adults who watch the movie laugh when the engineers take out their slide rules — for kids today, they are more exotic than an abacus.

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Runaway Bride

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

In the all-time best romantic comedy ever, “The Philadelphia Story,” Jimmy Stewart says, “The prettiest sight in this fine pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” Not really — the prettiest sight in this fine pretty world is movies like that one, and like “The Runaway Bride.” When people say “they don’t make movies like that anymore,” this is the kind of movie they mean. It is a welcome tribute to the kind of 1930’s screwball romantic comedies starring William Powell and Myrna Loy (“Libeled Lady”), Melvyn Douglas and Irene Dunne (“Theodora Goes Wild”), or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (“Carefree”), and the most delightful romantic confection of the summer.

The stars and director of “Pretty Woman” have reunited and the result is far better than the original, which relied heavily on star power to lend gloss to a story with some bitter undertones. This time, Richard Gere plays Ike Graham, a cynical columnist for USA Today who writes a quick angry column about a small-town woman who has left three grooms at the altar. That woman is Maggie Carpenter (Julia Roberts). When she writes the paper to point out 15 inaccuracies, he is fired by his editor and former wife (Rita Wilson). So, he goes to investigate Maggie, thinking that he can sell a story about her that will vindicate him and restore his career.

Maggie is getting ready to try another wedding, this time with a local high school coach named Bob. Ike ingratiates himself with the people in Maggie’s Maryland home town, so picturesque that it could have been painted by Norman Rockwell. Maggie’s father (Paul Dooley) obligingly loans Ike the home videos of Maggie’s three previous attempts at making it all the way up the aisle, with a Greatful Dead fan, a scientist, and a man who, following their break-up, became a priest. At first, Ike hopes for another last-minute bolt from the ceremony to make his story, but as he gets to know Maggie, he begins to hope that she won’t go through with it so that he can be fiance number five.

Roberts and Gere create real screen magic together. They are clearly very comfortable with each other and with Garry Marshall, the director (who appears onscreen briefly in a baseball game). Gere displays a previously unsuspected light comic talent that is utterly disarming. Roberts just gets better and better; like the character she plays, she is learning to rise above her “excessively flirtatious energy.” The indispensable Joan Cusack, this generation’s Eve Arden, plays Maggie’s best friend, utterly supportive despite having to live through four different bridesmaid’s dresses. And three cheers for adding a small but genuine dose of psychological insight to give a little bit of substance to the story. Both Ike and Maggie have to learn something about themselves before they can move forward together.

The best moment in “Pretty Women” was when Gere asked Roberts what the fairy tale princess does when the prince rescues her, and she replies, “She rescues him right back.” That theme is carried over into this movie (along with the “tell off the boutique salespeople” scene and actors Hector Elizondo and Larry Miller). Families can use this film to initiate conversations on the importance of being a full person yourself before you are capable of making a commitment to anyone else.

Parents should know that the PG rating comes from brief sexual references (please, someone, no more grandmothers making lusty comments as a source of humor — that was tired back on the TV show “Phyllis”). Also, Maggie’s father has a severe drinking problem which appears to be solved when she develops the courage to confront him about it. Families who enjoy this film should try renting some of the classic romantic comedies listed above, along with “My Man Godfrey,” “Bringing Up Baby,” and “Holiday.”

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Awakenings

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Malcolm Sayer, a shy neurologist (Robin Williams), is assigned to work with patients for the first time after his research funding is cut off. His patients, all but catatonic, are in a ward called “the garden,” because their only treatment consists of “watering and feeding.” Ever since an epidemic of encephalitis (“sleeping sickness”) decades before, they have not spoken or appeared to understand anything that was going on around them. Everyone else has given up hope, but Sayer, approaching them as a researcher, notices that they are capable of reflex reactions, and believes that new medication used for patients with Parkinson’s disease may help these patients, too. Over the objections of the doctors in charge, he gets permission to try it on one patient, Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro).

At first, there is no reaction, but soon Leonard “awakens.” His transformation is so thrilling that Malcolm is easily able to get permission and funding to treat the other patients. They, too, awaken, some more fully than others. A one-time musician does not speak, but plays the piano. Some of them are horrified at the time they have lost. But most are giddy with the pleasures of being alive. Malcolm takes Leonard outside, and Leonard’s embrace of everything around him contrasts sharply with the inhibitions of Malcolm, who hesitates to try anything but his work, and cannot even bring himself to have a cup of coffee with a friendly nurse (Julie Kavner).

Leonard becomes impatient to experience more. He develops a warm friendship with the daughter of another patient in the hospital (Penelope Ann Miller). He asks for permission to leave the hospital on his own. But he becomes hyperactive, angry, and ridden with tics. The medication’s side effects begin to overwhelm him. Malcolm sees that he is losing Leonard, and the other patients know that it must soon happen to them, too.

Soon, all of them are returned to their previous state of catatonia, the only evidence of their brief awakening the greater respect and affection they receive from the staff, and their impact on Malcolm, who heeds Leonard’s call to life by reaching out to the nurse.

Discussion: This movie is based on the book of the same name by neurologist Oliver Sacks, who was the basis for the character Malcolm Sayer. It is a powerful and moving story, brilliantly acted and directed. Like Malcolm, we can all use a reminder to appreciate the pleasures of being alive, including the pleasures that require us to take risks.

Families who see this movie should talk about what the neurologist means when he says, “because the implications of that would be unthinkable?” Why would he prefer to believe that the patients are not aware of what is going on? Were you surprised by the way any of the patients reacted to being “awakened?” Which reaction was most like the way you think you might feel? Why is it hard for Malcolm to interact with other people? How does Leonard change the way Malcolm behaves? Why does the staff treat the patients differently after the awakening, even when they go back the way they were?

Compare this movie to Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town,” especially Emily’s speech after her death, about what she misses and what she wants the living to be aware of.

Scriptwriter Steven Zaillian also wrote the screenplay for Schindler’s List and wrote and directed Searching for Bobby Fischer. Teens will enjoy reading the Sacks book, and some of his others, especially The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars, with astonishing and compassionate descriptions of some of his neurology patients.

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Waking Ned Devine

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Jackie O’Shea (Ian Bannen) lives in a tiny Irish village called Tulaigh Mhor (pronounced Tully More). Like many of the other residents, he is an enthusiastic buyer of lottery tickets, and when he reads in the paper that one of the other residents has a winning ticket, he and his wife Annie (Fionnula Flanagan) and lifetime best friend Michael O’Sullivan (David Kelly) do their best to discover the winner. All of their efforts fail until they realize that only one resident of the town failed to attend their dinner party — Ned Devine. When Jackie and Michael go to his house, they discover that indeed he was the winner, and that the shock of winning caused a fatal heart attack.

Reasoning that Ned, who had no relatives, would have wanted them to have his winnings, Jackie and Michael decide to pretend that one of them is Ned Devine, to collect the prize. Ultimately, every resident of Tulaigh Mhor participates in the plot, with one notable exception, the fierce and nasty Lizzy Quinn (Eileen Dromey).

Parents should know that there is an unmarried mother who refuses to disclose the father of her child. And, there is a good deal of very black humor, including some shenanigans with a dead body, which some children will find upsetting. But others who enjoy wicked jokes will find this movie delightful, and it can lead to a good discussion of the morality of the decisions made by the characters and what they are likely to do after the movie ends.

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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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