The Straight Story

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Do not let the G-rating and the Disney label mislead you – this is an adult movie in the old-fashioned sense of the word, meaning that its story and themes will most appeal to adults and some teens. It gets a G rating because it does not have any of the usual triggers for a PG or PG- 13 rating. There are no four-letter words or nudity, and there is nothing in the movie that is likely to cause offense or trauma. Still, it is not for most younger kids, who will be bored and restless. Thoughtful middle- and high schoolers and adults, however, will find a lot to appreciate and talk about in this seemingly simple story of 73 year old Alvin Straight, who sets off to visit his estranged brother, after hearing that he has had a stroke.

Alvin uses two canes and cannot see well enough to drive. So he hitches a trailer to his riding mower and sets off on a 300-mile journey from Iowa to Wisconsin, encountering along the six-week drive a range of people, landscapes, and adventures.

Children who watch a lot of television and movies often develop what psychologists call the “mean world” syndrome. Based on what they learn about the adult world from the media, their estimates of the incidence of murder and corruption are distorted way out of proportion to reality. And our cautions about not talking to strangers contribute further to their sense that the world is a dangerous place. This movie is a nice antidote to that. Alvin meets an engaging assortment of people, including a teen- age runaway, a team of bicyclists, twin repairmen, and a man who spent his career working for John Deere, and is unfailingly treated with kindness and dignity. It is good to let kids know that they can meet strangers like that, and even better to let them know that they can be strangers like that.

The essential decency of all of the movie’s characters is a good subject for family discussion. So are his comments on family. Hoping to get to his brother in time, he speaks feelingly to people he meets about the importance of the bond between siblings. This is a point that is always worth raising to kids who think that there may never be a day when they will have more to talk to their brothers and sisters about than whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher.

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Action/Adventure Based on a true story For the Whole Family Inspired by a true story

Madeline

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

One of the most beloved heroines of children’s literature is brought to life in this movie based on the classic series of books by Ludwig Bemelmans about the “twelve little girls in two straight lines” who live in “a small house in Paris that was covered with vines,” and especially “the smallest one,” Madeline. Bemelmans’ gorgeous water colors turn into gorgeously photographed Paris, set vaguely in the 1950s, setting the stage for Madeline’s night-time race to the hospital for an appendectomy, her fall into the Seine and rescue by the brave dog Genevive, and her adventures with Pepito, the son of the Spanish ambassador. Frances McDormand (whose performance in “Fargo” won an Oscar) plays Miss Clavel, the nun who cares for her charges with imagination, wisdom, and love, and courage. Nigel Hawthorne (of “The Madness of King George”) plays stern Lord Covington, who wants to sell the small house covered with vines and close down the school.

Young children, especially fans of the books, will enjoy the film. Newcomer Hetty Jones is a spunky Madeline, brave enough to say “Pooh Pooh” to a tiger, smart enough to know that if she asks Pepito to be extra quiet he will find some way to do something noisy, and determined enough to find a way to stop Lord Covington from selling the school his late wife loved so dearly.

Parental concerns: Miss Clavel’s tolerance of the girls’ misbehavior (a riotous debate over whether the girls should eat a chicken Madeline had seen before it was killed, a late night kitchen raid), a kidnapping that younger children might find scary, and the overall absence of parents (Pepito’s parents are loving but rather neglectful, Madeline is an orphan).

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Action/Adventure Based on a book For the Whole Family

The Thief and the Cobbler

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This neglected but absolutely delightful animated musical (released in theaters as “Arabian Knight”) is a must for family viewing.

A shy cobbler and a plucky princess save ancient Baghdad in this fairy tale, put together by the Oscar-winning animator from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” It is one of the most visually inventive animated movies ever made, with dazzling optical illusions and shifts in perspective. Jennifer (Flashdance) Beals and Matthew (Ferris Bueller) Broderick provide the voices for the leads, with the late Vincent Price’s voice providing silky menace as the evil sorcerer. Jonathan Winters as the hilarious thief steals every scene he is in.

The musical numbers are pleasant, with one sensational show-stopper when the desert brigands explain that if you don’t go to school you’ll turn out like them. Unlike the recent Disney movies, this was not designed to sell merchandise, just to tell a story and entertain, which it does very, very well. It is suitable for everyone except maybe the smallest children, who might be frightened by the hulking bad guys.

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Action/Adventure Animation Fantasy For all ages For the Whole Family Musical

Mission to Mars

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Director Brian DePalma is known for movies that have two qualities — striking visual flair and frustrating narrative incoherence. If you are the kind of person who talks about the plot on the way home, this is not your kind of movie. But if you would enjoy seeing an old-time “Flash Gordon”-style movie with 21st Century special effects and computer graphics, you just might want to see it twice.

The movie takes place in 2020. Don Cheadle plays an astronaut who leads a team to Mars to investigate the possiblity of colonization. But on an expedition a huge tunnel-like dust storm kills the rest of the team, and communication with the space station is cut off. Four of his colleages, played by Tim Robbins, Jerry O’Connell, Gary Sinese, and Connie Nielson, go on a rescue mission.

Trust me, that’s really all you want to know about the plot, which makes “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” seem like rocket science. It even makes “The Day the Earth Stood Still” look like rocket science. But the pictures are pretty.

Parents should know that characters are in peril and there are a number of tense moments and several deaths, one graphic. Creationists will also be upset by the way the plot develops.

Families who watch the movie will want to talk about the choices made by the characters, including one who commits suicide to save the lives of others, and about the prospects of space exploration and colonization. And it is worth pointing out to kids who watch today that they are the same age as the characters in the movie, who would have been children back in the year 2000. Point out the brief home movie footage showing two of the characters circa 2000, around 11 years old, and already dreaming of going to Mars, and ask kids what their dreams are, and help them think about what they will need in order to get there.

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy “2001,” and might even get a kick out of the first big-budget outer space film, “Forbidden Planet,” with Leslie Nielson long before “Naked Gun.”

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Action/Adventure Fantasy Science-Fiction

Wild Wild West

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

“The Wild Wild West” has the weak, weak script. It is not unusual to see a trailer that is better than the movie, but in this case the music video is brighter, wittier, and more exciting than the movie.

Will Smith may still own the 4th of July, but this year’s entry is much weaker than his 1996-97 one-two punch of “Independence Day” and “Men in Black.” His unquenchable appeal goes a long way toward making up for poor plotting and dialogue, but not far enough, leaving us with a summer popcorn movie — impossible to resist at the time, but leaving you a bit queasy afterward.

The 1960s television show starred Robert Conrad in a bolero jacket and very tight pants as a Civil War era secret agent. Like the newly popular James Bond, West was a spy who was infinitely attractive with the ladies and who always triumphed over the bad guys, who were always maniacs intent on three things — total world domination, killing West in fiendishly complex contraptions, and making sure that they conveniently explained all their plans to West in time for him to escape from the fiendishly complex contraptions and save the world again. West’s sidekick Artemus Gordon was a master of disguise and technology. Their most frequent foe was Dr. Loveless, played in the series by Michael Dunn. And the whole thing was very much tongue in cheek.

The big-screen version has Will Smith as West, all bolero jacket, tight pants, and attitude, with Kevin Kline as Gordon, Kenneth Branagh as Dr. Loveless, and Salma Hayek as the lovely Rita Escobar, who flirts with all three men and spends much of the movie in fetching 19th century lingerie with a brief detour into a union suit with the trap door open. The plot remains the same — Dr. Loveless, vowing revenge for losing his entire lower half in the Civil War, seeks total world domination, and West and Gordon have a week to stop him. There is some attempt to deal with the fact that West is a black man at a time when most black people had only recently been freed from slavery, but the fact is that the entire movie is so completely preposterous that the effort is awkward and inconsistent with the tone of the rest of the film.

Indeed, the overall tone of the film is awkward, not giving Kline or Hayak much to do, though Kline has a nice turn as President Grant and Hayak looks fetching in her undies. Branagh is happily over the top as the bad guy, there are some cool special effects, and Smith’s charm and grace carry it a long way, but not far enough to make it anything more than a pleasant diversion less raunchy than “Austin Powers.” Parents should know that there are some PG-13 sexual references, including prostitutes and Loveless’ impotence and a lot of cartoon-style action- violence.

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Action/Adventure Based on a television show Comedy Remake Spies
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