Tarnation

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to drinking, smoking, drug use, including drug overdose
Violence/ Scariness: Portrayal of tragic circumstances, including rape, abuse, mental illness
Diversity Issues: Strong, loving gay characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Jonathan Caouette, “Tarnation’s” director/writer/producer/cinematographer/ composer/editor and leading man, took home movies and other family memorabilia, added some cultural flotsam and jetsam, ran them through a computer program, and made a searing and unforgettable documentary of love and loss.

It is primarily the story of Caouette’s mother, Renee, a lively and beautiful young girl whose parents authorized a series of shock treatments after she became paralyzed following a fall. From that point on, her life was one of mental illness and abuse. A brief marriage ended so quickly that her husband never knew she became pregnant with Caouette. She abruptly took her young son to Chicago, where she was raped as he watched. She was hospitalized and he was put in foster homes, where he was abused. Later he was adopted by his grandparents, Renee’s parents.

After he smoked two joints, not knowing they were laced with PCP, Caouette was diagnosed with a disassociative disorder, a sense that he was living outside himself. That is probably a significant factor in both his ability and his need for documenting his life. The film includes footage Caouette took of himself when he was still a child. At age 11, with a scarf around his head, he performs a Blanche Dubois-style monologue he wrote himself, compulsively touching his hair as he recounts his story, as though to reaffirm that he is still there.

He is still reaffirming his existance as he examines it. Caouette combines family photos and home movies with stock footage and simple special effects that splinter the images the way the events they depict shattered Caouette’s life. Fragmented story-telling mirrors fragmented lives (though it is jarring to be suddenly presented with a sibling we never heard anything about). Instead of a voice-over, background is provided by affectless, unemotional words that seem to float on-screen, adding to the sense of dislocation, of fractured fairy tale. Cauette does not tell us how he feels, but we see that he loves his mother deeply, even after the drug overdose leaves her brain-damaged. Her final scenes would verge on the grotesque, even exploitive, if not for the ferocity of his devotion to her.

It is already the stuff of legend that Caouette’s budget for this film was just $218. While that figure does not represent the many post-production costs (the licensing fees for the songs alone must have run thousands of dollars), the low-tech, modest quality of the film gives it a found art quality that suits its tone and source material.

Parents should know that this movie has extremely painful and mature material, with explicit and graphic sexual references including rape, mental illness, exceptionally strong language, drinking, smoking, drug use, a drug overdose, and harrowing mental and physical abuse. Strengths of the movie include its theme of commitment and survival despite the direst circumstances and challenges and its sympathetic portrayal of loving and loyal gay characters.

Families who see this film should talk about what kind of movie their own history and memorobilia would create.

Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Crumb and Capturing the Friedmans.

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The Polar Express

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Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Characters in peril, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters are capable and loyal
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

“Are you sure?”

This is a question asked several times during this movie, based on the exquisitely lovely Chris Van Allsburg book. It is a fitting question for a story about a boy struggling with his beliefs about Christmas.

It begins with a man remembering a Christmas Eve of long ago, when a boy whose name we never learn lies very still in his bed. It isn’t because he is too excited to sleep. He isn’t staying awake because he wants to hear Santa. He is afraid that he will not hear anything. He is getting older and better able to question what he has been told based on what he reads in newspapers and the encyclopedia. It is getting harder for him to believe.

The boy hears a sound and runs outside in the snow. An enormous locomotive pulls up in front of his house and the conducter invites him to board. He looks out the window and it appears that his snowman is waving goodbye.

The train is bound for the North Pole and our unnamed hero/narrator will have many adventures and find the answer to his questions before he wakes up in his own bed on Christmas morning.

The boy wants to believe. But he doesn’t want to be bamboozled, or “railroaded.” Seeing is believing. But he also doesn’t want to be a doubter, like Scrooge. Director Robert Zemeckis has done a fairly good job of maintaining the integrity of the brief story as it is expanded to feature length. The complications of the journey are well-paced and consistent with the story’s themes, though the know-it-all character becomes grating very quickly. It is less successful after the arrival at the North Pole, when the expasion starts to feel like filler, particularly when a nice selection of timeless Christmas standards on the soundtrack gives way to a lackluster rock song that brings the story to a standstill for no discernable reason. And the wonder of Christmas seems a bit too centered on the pleasure of getting gifts, particularly for the lonely boy, whose past neglect on Christmas — and present present — is never explained.

The animators have done their best to preserve the look of Chris Van Allsburg’s lovely illustrations. The result is attractive, if coarser and less graceful. There are moments of great beauty, especially the vertiginous ride as we watch a golden train ticket carried away by an eagle. And there are wonderfully imaginative images, dancing waiters pouring hot chocolate from silver pots with triple-spouts, Santa’s huge workshops with viewing screens for naughty-nice monitoring and pneumatic tubes for transporting toys, and sometimes people.

But the greatest challenge in animation, whether hand-drawn or computer-generated, is human beings. Humans are complex and unpredictable. And we know human faces so well that the slightest discrepancy in expression feels chilly at best and becomes a major distraction at worst. Here, director Robert Zemeckis, who pioneered new technologies with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Forrest Gump oversaw the development of a new technique based on filming the actors in live action and then “capturing” their performances in computer animation. The result has a slightly chill and dreamy, even ghostly quality. To an extent, that suits the story’s mood and setting. It detracts from the story that the animators have not quite mastered facial expressions or the weight of people and objects. But the voice of Tom Hanks in six different roles, including the conductor, a mysterious hobo, and Santa, adds real warmth.

Parents should know that the movie may be too intense and frightening for the youngest children. There are roller-coaster-y action sequences with some close calls, but no one is injured. Some children who are grappling with their own beliefs about Christmas may find the movie unsettling, but most will find it reassuring.

Families who see this movie should talk about each of the lessons punched into the tickets given to the children. Why was each of those lessons the right one for that child? They should also talk about the difference between that which can be proven and that which must be believed without proof. When the conductor says, “Sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see,” what is is talking about? What is a “crucial year?” Why can’t some people hear the bell? Who is the hobo and why is he there?

Families who enjoy this movie should read the marvelous book, written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg, and his others, especially Jumanji and The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. They will also appreciate other Christmas stories like Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. And they will enjoy learning more about the Northern Lights.

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Being Julia

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: A great deal of drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Julia (Annette Bening) is a star who craves an audience. She thrills the paying customers in the theater night after night, but that is not enough for her anymore.

Her husband, Michael(Jeremy Irons), a former actor turned manager, wasn’t paying enough attention to remember what she said the last night before bed, and he seems more interested in the box office than her performances. She needs an audience so badly she has conjured up the memory of her late acting mentor (Michael Gambon), so real to her that she can still hear his direction as a running commentary on everything she does. She even has a place set for him at every meal. He tells her that theater is the only reality and her son tells her that she is always performing, that even what she says is second-hand. He’s right — Julia tells two different men that each is the only one with whom she can be truly herself. In reality, the closest she comes to being truly herself is with her sympathetic dresser, Evie (a delightfuly dry Julia Stevenson).

Julia is sure she needs something more, something new. She just isn’t sure what that thing might be.

Perhaps it is just a new audience, giving her a new way to see herself — as adored and desirable. A young American named Tom (Shaun Evans) sees her that way, and they have an affair.

She feels re-energized, reborn. At first, her greatest pleasure is in making him happy. She even enjoys being his audience. She loves being seen by him so much that she begins to think she is in love with him, which might be a mistake, and she gives him money, which is certainly a mistake. As a friend advises her, the story of a middle-aged woman in love with a younger man is played as a farce.

But then Tom makes a mistake of his own, and Julia shows everyone that when it comes to audiences, she can still put on a better show than anyone.

Bening has a laugh like a musical instrument and she plays it like a virtuoso. She is positively incandescent, with all of the pure star quality of the character she is playing and then some. Her curls bounce, her eyes sparkle, and her voice is like bells rung by angels. This is a sensational performance. The rest of the movie doesn’t match it, but then there are not many that could.

Parents should know that the movie has very explicit sexual references and situations, including adultery and a discussion of a disappointing first sexual encounter. Characters drink, smoke, and use strong language. A strength of the movie is its sympathetic portrayal of a gay character.

Families who see this movie should talk about what Julia was looking for. What mattered most to her? Did she get it? They might also want to talk about the conversation between Julia and her son about his first sexual encounter.

Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy backstage classics like The Royal Family, inspired by the legendary Barrymores (Drew’s grandfather and his sister and brother), Kiss Me Kate, To Be or Not to Be, and the multi-Oscar-winning All About Eve. They might also like to read some of the short stories by W. Somerset Maugham, whose novella “Theater” inspired this film.

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Sideways

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Constant drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic violence, character injured
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, strong women
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Miles (Paul Giamatti), dips his nose deep inside the bowl of a glass of white wine and it is clear that this is where he is happiest and most at home. All of his mind, body, and spirit are focused inside that glass as he passionately, reverently, and yes, a little pretentiously unpacks all of the influences he can identify, everything from “a hint of like asparagus” to stawberry, passion fruit, or “a nutty Edam cheese.”

He may be disappointed by his life. He is certainly a disappointment to himself. But in this one moment, when his ability to appreciate is matched by the fragile complexity of the California wine country’s elixirs, he is confident, masterful, and fully alive.

Miles is in the Santa Ynez Valley with his friend, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a has-been actor, once co-star of a television shows, now making a living doing voice-overs and commercials. In one week, Jack will be getting married to a woman who is young, beautiful, and wealthy. This trip is his last bachelor getaway. The plan is to eat great food, drink great wine, and enjoy great scenery.

For Miles, it is a chance to get away from his life as a failed author (now working as a middle school teacher as he struggles to finish his gargantuan novel) and a failed husband (his wife has left him). For Jack, it is a chance to live it up before he has to be good — for good. For both of them, it is a chance to feel free.

But things are messy and complicated right from the beginning. Miles is late picking up Jack and then takes him on a detour. They stop to wish Miles’ mother a happy birthday but stay just long enough for Miles to steal some money from her bedroom. They leave before his sister arrives for the birthday celebration.

Miles wants Jack to appreciate the delicate beauty of the wine. But Jack, who barely waits for Miles to stop talking about the wine before he gulps it down, not even taking the gum out of his mouth, has a different kind of beauty appreciation in mind. When he finds out that an accommodating wine pourer named Stephanie (Sandra Oh) is a friend of Maya’s (Virginia Madsen), the waitress Miles has admired from afar, he invites them both to dinner. Jack tells the women they are celebrating Miles’ (nonexistent) book contract. Later he tells Stephanie she may be the woman he could spend the rest of his life with. Jack is such a master of the expedient lie and so incapable of thinking even an hour ahead that he begins to believe it himself.

Miles is not sure which is more terrifying – watching Jack mess up his marriage plans by getting involved with Stephanie or letting himself take the risk of trying to start a relationship with the newly-divorced Maya — who thinks she is talking to a man whose book is about to be published. Then things get even more messy and awkward, and complicated.

Or, to put it another way, things get richer, headier, and more complex, just like a fine wine. And in a world of multiplex formulas that are the movie equivalent of generic brand cola, that makes this one of the rare movies designed for grown-ups.

In one of the loveliest moments on screen this year, Miles and Maya tell each other what they like about wine. Miles’ favorite, pinot noir, is, he says “a hard grape to grow…thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early…Only when someone has taken the time to truly understand its potential can Pinot be coaxed into its fullest expression. And when that happens, its flavors are the most hangint and brilliant and subtle and thrilling and ancient on the planet.”

Maya says she loves the way that wine is a living thing, “constantly evolving and gaining complexity” toward its prime until it reaches its peak. They both know – as we do – that they are talking about themselves.

Giamatti and Church are magnificent, fully inhabiting beautifully written roles. They are not afraid to let us see the considerable flaws of both Miles and Jack, but they are also able to show us their humanity, their connection, and their appeal. Oh and Madsen may have the even tougher challenge, as the female characters are more superficially conceived, fantasy figures whose primary function is to desire and be desired by the men. It is even more impressive, then, that they are able to make Stephanie and Maya so touching and so complete.

Parents should know that this movie is filled with very mature material, including extremely explicit sexual references and situations (including full male nudity) and some violence which, while played for comedy, results in significant injuries. Characters drink (there is a distinction made between the appreciation of wine as a work of art and drinking to numb feelings or get drunk) and use very strong language.

Families who see this film should talk about what mattered most to Miles and Jack. Despite their differences, what kept them together as friends? What does Stephanie see in Jack? What does Maya see in Miles?

Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy the other films by director Alexander Payne, including About Schmidt and Election. They should also see some of the other films of Sandra Oh (Payne’s wife), including Double Happiness, and some of the other films of Paul Giamatti, including American Splendor.

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