Stick It

Posted on April 26, 2006 at 4:27 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some crude remarks
Profanity: Some crude language, including b-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Characters take risks, some injuries, none serious
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: July 29, 2012
Amazon.com ASIN: B00005JOZC

If the Olympics has sparked an interest in gymnastics, take a look at this fresh, fun, funny, and smart story about a teenager “sentenced” to return to the gymnastics training she thought she had left behind.  It has all the sizzling attitude of a great floor routine, and all of the discipline and heart as well.

Missy Peregrym plays Haley, who walked away in the middle of the world championship competition, forfeiting her team’s chance for a gold medal. She got her high school equivalency degree at age 15 and spends her days doing extreme bike stunts and getting into trouble. And she wears everyone’s favorite signifier of punk attitude: a Ramones t-shirt. One of the stunts lands her in front of a judge who gives her a choice: a military academy or a gymnastics academy. She opts for the military, but her father and the judge decide otherwise.

So, she walks into “the middle of an ‘I hate you’ sandwich,” the gymnastics training facility run by Vic (Jeff Bridges). The other gymnasts don’t want her there. Some of them are still angry about her walk-out; some don’t like her attitude; some don’t want the competition. She does not want to be there. She has no respect for a sport that gives judges the power to reward conformity and tradition instead of risk-taking and innovation. And she doesn’t want to cooperate with or trust anyone, especially a grown-up.

But Vic allows her to train her own way and tells her that the prize money from the upcoming competition could help her pay for the property damage she caused. And he shows her that she can’t calcute danger and risk if she does not respect the rules.

Sure, we’ve seen it before, the kid and the mentor learning to trust each other, the first trial, the set-back, the training montage-with-rock-song, the lessons learned, the triumph. That saga is so indestructable it could produce an acceptably entertaining movie on automatic pilot. Indeed, it has, many, many times. Those films are as safe and conventional and sythetic as the color-inside-the-lines athletes Haley refuses to be like when she advises a team-mate: “If you’re going to eat mat, eat mat hard.”

What makes this movie irresistable is that the people making it don’t care how many times it has been done before. They don’t even seem to know. They make us feel that this isn’t just the only sports movie ever made; it’s the only movie ever made, and they came to play.

That means that they abandon, re-think, and transcend the conventions of the genre. It is filmed in a brash, insoucient style but with a sense of humor about itself and its audience and an assured and always -engaging visual style, starting with the graffiti-style credits. The gymnastic routines are kinetically staged (though cut around the limitations of the performers, who are athletic but not competitive gymnasts). A Busby Berkeley-style kalideoscopic version of one set of exercises is delightful but also genuinely breathtaking. And a romp through a department store is a slyly post-modern and slightly gender-bending take on Brady Bunch-style musical numbers.
The movie also deserves a lot of credit for giving us a heroine who defines herself and does not need a makeover to feel pretty or a boyfriend to make her feel complete. Most arresting and unusual, though, is its take on the sport itself and the nature of competition and teamwork, which is exceptionally well handled. Jeff Bridges brings both warmth and edge to the part of the coach and Pergrym knows how to make both attitude and vulnerability believable. The film is far better than it had to be, entertaining and reassuringly meaningful as well. If it were a gymnastics routine, I’d give it a 9.

Parents should know that characters use some strong and crude language (the s-word, the b-word) and there is some disrespectful, rule-breaking, and rude behavior. There is a reference to adultery, to being “hit on” and a gay joke. There are some dangerous stunts with injuries and a reference to serious injury. A strength of the movie is its frank and direct exploration of some of the issues of competition and a sport that gives the judges the power to decide who wins. And another is the way it avoids the usual romantic happily ever after ending.

Families who see this movie should talk about what the movie has to say about competition, cooperation, and teamwork. Hayley learns to respect some rules but not others. How does she determine the difference? Vic tells Hayley, “For someone who hates being judged, you’re one of the most judgmental people I ever met.” Where do we see her being judgmental and where do we see her changing some of her judgments? The girls who do gymnastics have to give up just about everything else in order to succeed. What would you be willing to give up to achieve something that was important to you? What does Haley learn from the judge’s comment that “A lot of great people have jerks for parents?” How do people overcome those kinds of disappointments?

Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy Bring it On (some crude humor) and The Cutting Edge (some mature material) and Flashdance (more mature material).

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United 93

Posted on April 23, 2006 at 5:20 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, and some intense sequences of terror and violence
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Terrorism violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: September 10, 2012
Amazon.com ASIN: B000GH3CR0

Someday the events of 9/11/01 will be distant enough that we will see some meaningful and illuminating works of art inspired by it.  That seems a long way off, but some filmmakers have taken the first steps in that direction.  I cannot tell you whether you are ready to see a movie about the only hijacked flight that did not hit its target on September 11, 2001 because a brave group of passengers subdued the hijackers, crashing the plane into the ground. I can only tell you that when you are ready, this respectful, heart-wrenching, quietly devastating movie will be the one you want to see.

When it happened, when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center, knocking it down, and smashing a section of the Pentagon, dazed Americans everywhere said, “It’s like a movie.” It was so stunning, so unthinkable, so audacious, it seemed that those images on television just had to be CGI. This was America. We like to think of ourselves as unconquerable. Couldn’t Bruce Willis show up at the last minute to save the day?

But it wasn’t a movie. As we watch this one, knowing what will happen, though, we can’t help hoping for a Hollywood ending.
It really raises the essential core question of the meaning of stories. Since the cave days, humans have told stories to help us make sense of the world, as a dress rehearsal for our emotions, as a way to communicate our values. We are still making movies about cowboys, about WWII, about moments throughout history and moments we imagine in the future that pose the deepest questions about honor, courage, loyalty, dedication, and dreams. This movie is a preliminary step as we begin to take September 11 from shock to story.

Much like the award-winning “Elephant” (about a school shooting), this movie begins with the smallest and most mundane details of the day as people go to work and get ready for trips. They chat about their plans and their families and complain good-naturedly about inconveniences. We don’t get the usual movie-style introductions to the main characters. We meet them just as we would if we were passing by them on the way to the office or to catch a plane, quick glimpses and snatches of overheard conversations. But our own knowledge of what lies ahead of them makes the very ordinariness of it heart-breaking, terrifying.
And then come the first indications that something is wrong. But what? Why doesn’t the pilot respond? The obvious likely answer was an equipment problem. Even when it seemed that there had been a hijacking, all the people in charge could imagine was that they would want what previous hijackers had wanted — passage to some safe harbor.

What the terrorists had in mind was literally inconceivable for the flight crews, passengers, air traffic controllers, law enforcement, and military who were trying to understand and control the situation. It had been 20 years since the hijack of a commercial airliner in the United States. There was no way to try to stop them because there was no way to imagine what they were planning. Nothing so suicidal and destructive had ever been attempted before.

And that meant that there were no systems set up for communication and coordination in responding. And that makes what the passengers on United flight 93 did so moving. They called home and told their families they loved them. And then, with a quiet, “Let’s roll,” they took back the plane, crashing it into the ground but keeping it from its target, possibly the White House.

Filmed in an intimate, even claustrophobic documentary style, it keeps us, like the characters in the film and the real-life characters they portray, given little access to information about what is going on. A cast that is mostly unknown helps sustain the sense that this is footage of what really happened. Occasionally we are startled by a familiar face. But the best performance is by the FAA’s Ben Sliney, the man whose first day on the job was September 11, 2001 and the man who ordered all plans grounded, as himself.

Will the generations who watch this film a century from now think of it the way we think of the Alamo? Perhaps if they live in a time when these kinds of suprise attacks are again unimaginable, this movie will be a good reminder of the beginning of a journey toward peace and freedom.

Parents should know that the movie has intense and very sad terrorist violence. While it is not as explicit as many R-rated movies, its re-enactment of real-life events makes it much more powerful than the usual “action violence” on screen. There is brief strong language. A strength of the film is the way it shows that many of the characters — different in so many ways — respond to the direst of circumstances the same way, by praying, in their varied faith traditions.

Families who see this movie should talk about the mistakes made by the officials who were trying to understand what was going on. What should they have done differently? They should also talk about whether we are safer now, and what every American can do to help protect our country from terrorism.

Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate some of the documentaries about the events of September 11, 2001.

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Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Epic/Historical

Mary Poppins

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:18 am

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: The cause of votes for women is presented as unimportant, even daffy; subtext that parents should spend time with their children in
Date Released to Theaters: 1964
Date Released to DVD: December 09, 2013
Amazon.com ASIN: B00E9ZAT4Y

marypoppins5In honor of the upcoming “Saving Mr. Banks” and the 50th anniversary of the original film, Disney is releasing a superclifragilisticexplialidocious new edition of Mary Poppins.

Based on books by P.L. Travers (whose reluctance to allow a film to be made is the subject of “Saving Mr. Banks,” the film switches the 1930’s-era setting to the more picturesque London of 1910, where the Banks family has a loving, if rather chaotic, household. A nanny has just stormed out, fed up with the “incorrigible” children, Jane and Michael. Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson) writes an ad for a new nanny and the children compose their own, which he tears up and throws into the fireplace. The pieces fly up the chimney, where they reassemble for Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews), who is sitting on a cloud. The next day, a great wind blows away all of the nannies waiting to be interviewed, as Mary floats down.

Somehow, she has a mended copy of the qualifications written by the children that Mr. Banks tore up and threw into the fireplace.  To the children’s astonishment, she slides up the banister.Out of her magically capacious carpetbag she takes out a tape measure to determine the measure of the children (“stubborn and suspicious” and “prone to giggling and not tidying up”) and her own (“practically perfect in every way”).  She directs them to clean up the nursery, and shows them how to make it into a game (“A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down”). Once it is clean, they go out for a walk, and they meet Mary Poppins’ friend Bert (Dick Van Dyke) drawing chalk pictures on the sidewalk. They hop into the picture and have a lovely time, or, rather, a “Jolly Holiday” in a mixture of live-action and animation that has Bert dancing with carousel horses and penguins.

Mary-Poppins-RooftopMary takes the children ato see her Uncle Arthur (Ed Wynn), who floats up to the ceiling when he laughs, and they find this delightfully buoyant condition is catching. Later, Mr. Banks takes the children to the bank where he works, and Michael embarasses him by refusing to deposit his tuppence because he wants to use it to buy crumbs to feed the birds. There is a misunderstanding, and this starts a run on the bank, with everyone taking out their money. Mr. Banks is fired.

Mr. Banks realizes that he has been too rigid and demanding. He invites the children to fly a kite with him. Mrs. Banks realizes that in working for the vote for women, she had neglected the children. Her work done, Mary Poppins says goodbye, and floats away.

This sumptuous production deserved its many awards (including Oscars for Andrews and for “Chim Chimeree” as best song) and its enormous box office. It is fresh and imaginative, and the performances are outstanding. (Watch the credits carefully to see that Van Dyke also plays the rubber-limbed Mr. Dawes.) The “jolly holiday” sequence, featuring the live-action characters interacting with animated ones, is superb, especially Van Dyke’s dance with the penguin waiters.

The resolution may grate a bit for today’s families with two working parents, but the real lesson is that parents should take time to enjoy their children, not that they should forego all other interests and responsibilities to spend all of their time with them.

Family discussion:  If you were writing a job notice for a nanny, what would it include?  Which of the children’s adventures did you most enjoy and why?

If you like this, try: books by P.L. Travers and the documentary about this film’s Oscar-winning song-writers, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story. And go fly a kite!

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Chariots of Fire

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for adult situations and language
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense moments of competition
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 1981
Date Released to DVD: July 9, 2012
Amazon.com ASIN: B00284AVN

In honor of the 2012 Olympics in London, this 1981 classic and winner of the Oscar for Best Picture has been reissued.

This is the true story of two athletes who raced in the 1924 Olympics, one a privileged Jewish student at Cambridge (Ben Cross as Harold Abrahams), the other a missionary from Scotland (Ian Charleson as Eric Liddell). Wonderfully evocative of the time and place, with superb performances, the movie shows us the source of the runners’ determination, for one a need to prove his worth to himself and the society that discriminates against him, for the other, a way of connecting to God.

The movie begins with the memorial service for Harold Abrahams, and then goes back to his first day at Cambridge, just after World War I. A speaker reminds the entering class that they must achieve for themselves and for those who were lost in the war. Abrahams is a bit arrogant, but finds friends and impresses the whole university by being the first to meet a long-term challenge and race all the way around the quad within the twelve strokes of the clock at noon.

Liddell is deeply committed to missionary work. But when his sister asks him to give up running so that he can go with her, he explains that “I believe God made me for a purpose. He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

Abrahams is devastated when he loses to Liddell, saying he won’t race unless he can win. But his girlfriend reminds him that he can’t win unless he races. Both Abrahams and Liddell make the Olympic team. There is a crisis when Liddell’s event is scheduled for a Sunday, because he will not run on the Sabbath. But Lord Lindsay (Nigel Havers) graciously allows Liddell his place in a different event, “just for the pleasure of seeing you run,” and both Liddell and Abrahams win.

Both of the athletes must make difficult choices with a great deal of opposition. One uses a coach (who isn’t even English), in defiance of tradition and expectations. The other resists the urging of his sister, the person he loves most, who wants him to quit racing and defies the Prince of Wales, who wants him to race on the Sabbath.

One of the themes of the movie is the problems that the Jewish athlete has dealing with the prejudice of society. The other athlete has to confront the conflict between the dictates of his religion and the requirements of the sport (including the entreaties of the heir to the throne) when he is asked to compete on the Sabbath.

Families who watch this movie should talk about these questions: Why was running so important to these men? Was it different for different athletes? Why does Harold Abrahams think of quitting when he loses to Liddell? Have you ever felt that way? What did you do? Why doesn’t Eric’s sister want him to race? Why does he race despite her objections? Why don’t the teachers at Harold Abraham’s school think it is appropriate to have a coach? Would anyone think that today?

This movie deservedly won the Oscars for best picture, screenplay, costume design, and music.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy a two-part made for television miniseries called “The First Olympics — Athens 1896,” about the American team entering the first modern Olympics in 1896. It features Louis Jourdan (of “Gigi”), David Caruso (of the original cast of television’s “NYPD Blue”) and David Ogden Stiers (of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”). While it does not have the resonance and meaning (or the production values) of “Chariots of Fire,” it is heartwarming, funny, exciting, and a lovely period piece. Not currently available on video, it usually shows up on television around the time of Olympic competitions. An extremely silly movie about the first modern Olympics is “It Happened in Athens,” with Jayne Mansfield and real-life Olympic athlete Bob Mathias.

“Miracle on Ice,” another made for television movie, is the true story of the 1980 U.S. hockey team, which astonished the world at the Olympics in Lake Placid. Yet another Olympic made for television movie, “The Golden Moment,” is the story of a romance between a Soviet gymnast and an American athlete. Its primary charm is the fact that it takes place at an Olympics in which, in real life, the U.S. never competed — that was the year the U.S. protested the Soviet invasion of Afganistan by boycotting the Moscow Olympics.

See also “Cool Runnings” about the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team, “The Bob Mathias Story,” with the real-life decathalon champion playing himself, “The Jesse Owens Story,” with Dorian Harewood as the legendary athlete, and “Babe” with Susan Clark as Babe Deidrickson Zaharias.

On the silly side, try “Animalympics,” an animated spoof of the Olympics with some comical moments, and the very funny “Million Dollar Legs,” with W.C. Fields as the President of Klopstockia, a country entering the Olympics.

And of course Bud Greenspan’s documentaries about the Olympics are always worth watching, for the stories and the personalities as much as for the athletic achievements.

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E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for language and mild thematic elements
Profanity: Brief but very strong language for a PG
Alcohol/ Drugs: E.T. gets tipsy
Violence/ Scariness: Characters in peril, apparent death
Diversity Issues: All characters white
Date Released to Theaters: 1982
Date Released to DVD: October 8, 2012
Amazon.com ASIN: B003UESJLK

“E.T’s” 30th anniversary is being celebrated with a gorgeous new re-issue and I have one to give away.  To enter, send me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com with E.T in the subject line and tell me your favorite movie alien.  Don’t forget your address!  (US addresses only.)  I’ll pick one winner at random on October 14.  Good luck!

A young boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas) finds an extraterrestrial who has been left behind when his expedition of alien botanists had to depart quickly to avoid detection. He brings E.T. home, finding through their connection a way to begin to heal his sense of loss at his father’s absence.

E.T. loves Elliott, but begins to weaken in the Earth’s atmosphere and needs to go home. With the help of Elliott and the neighborhood children, he sends a message to his friends. But before they can come for him, he is captured by government scientists. E.T.’s connection with Elliott is so strong Elliott becomes very ill, too. But both recover, and the children return E.T. to the spaceship, after E.T. reminds Elliott that they will always be together in their hearts.

This is an outstanding family movie, with themes of loyalty, friendship, trust, and caring. One of the most purely magical scenes in the history of film is when Elliott’s bicycle lifts off up into the sky.

Parents should know that the movie has scenes of peril that may be too intense for younger children. An apparent death is also upsetting. There is brief very strong language for a PG movie. This film was justifiably criticized for its almost complete absence of non-white characters.

DVD extras: Making of documentary, cast reunion, archives, trailer, behind-the-scenes footage, etc. Families who see this movie should talk about the way that the adults and the kids see things differently, and have a hard time understanding each other’s perspective. One reason is that they don’t try to share their feelings with each other. Could Elliott have talked to his mother about E.T.?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and they should try some Reese’s Pieces! They might also want to check out the classic movie E.T. catches a glimpse of, “The Quiet Man.”

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