One True Thing

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Based on Anna Quindlen’s novel, this is the story of a young writer who learns the value of her mother when she goes to care for her during her treatment for cancer. Renee Zellweger plays Ellen Gulden, a New York Magazine writer who has always rejected her mother’s homey values to follow the career of her father, a distinguished literary critic, professor, and author. As Ellen cares for her mother, she finds that her father is less than she thought, and her mother is more. In understanding and accepting her parents as fully human, Ellen begins to be more fully human herself. She gains an appreciation for her mother’s strength. The community and domestic projects Ellen had seen as unimportant busywork she learns to see as an essential source of sustenance. Meryl Streep shines as Ellen’s mother Kate, not afraid to show us the irritating side of Kate’s sunny personality and the impatience she reveals as she acknowledges that she has to insist on her opportunity to talk about what is important to her before it is too late. William Hurt plays Ellen’s father George. He show us that his hypocricy comes from weakness, insecurity, and fear, in a way harder for Ellen to take than if it had been based only on selfishness.

Parental concerns include the brief profanity that earns this film an R rating as well as intense and disturbing scenes concerning Kate’s illness and the issue of euthanasia. The movie probably will not have much appeal for teens, who are seldom ready to consider their parents as fully human, but those who want to see it may come away with a better appreciation for the complexity of relationships and the diversity of accomplishments.

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Based on a book Drama Family Issues

Patch Adams

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

If the real-life Robin Williams were a doctor, he would be the real-life Patch Adams, who believes that doctors should treat the patient, not the disease, and that sick, frightened people need to feel that those who take care of them are paying attention. So it is easy for us to come to this movie prepared for something warm and reassuring. Unfortunately, the movie is so unforgiveably manipulative and shallow that in the concluding climactic scene, set in a courtroom just in case you weren’t sure who the good guys and the bad guys were, you may find yourself rooting for the uptight by-the-rulebook dean of the medical school.

We meet Patch when he is a patient in a mental hospital, where he learns that his mental health is improved more by helping other patients than by treatment from the doctors. From there, it is off to medical school, where he manages to be at the top of his classes while spending most of his time at the hospital making the patients laugh. How could the faculty object to this? Could it be because a first-year medical student might interfere with a patient’s treatment and cause serious harm? No, it can only be because they are fuddy-duddies who just can’t remember how to have fun! And while we’re on the subject of fun, how about stealing supplies from the hospital for a little clinic that Patch and his friends set up in their spare time? And what goes on at that clinic? Medical students who have no idea how serious the problems are “treat” patients with bandages and kindness. When the inability to diagnose the severity of illness has the most profoundly tragic results, Patch only has a brief crisis before putting that darn clown-nose back on and getting back to the serious business of making patients laugh.

There are a lot of important points to be made here about the dignity that all of us deserve when we are scared and vulnerable and about the importance of humor in the direst of circumstances. But this movie undercuts its own arguments by presenting us with a hero who is more narcissistic than humanitarian. The old joke about Hollywood is that the only thing that matters there is sincerity, and once you learn to fake that, you’re all set. This movie, with its adoring bald kids and old lady swimming in noodles and bedpan clown shoes, cannot even manage to fake it.

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Comedy Drama

Pleasantville

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

In “Dave” and “Big” screenwriter Gary Ross gave us characters whose innocent honesty and goodness revealed and transformed the adult world. Now, as both screenwriter and director of “Pleasantville,” he has created teen-aged twins who are transported into an idyllic black and white 1950’s television sitcom where everything is perpetually sunny and cheerful, married couples sleep in twin beds, the basketball team never loses, and messy complications simply don’t exist. Tobey Maguire (David) and Reese Witherspoon (Jennifer) are well aware of the messy complications of the modern world. David has retreated into reruns of “Pleasantville,” a television show that makes “Andy of Mayberry” and “Father Knows Best” look like hard-hitting docudramas. And Jennifer is something of a self-described “slut.” When a mysterious TV repairman played by “Andy of Mayberry’s” Don Knotts gives them a magic remote control, David and Jennifer find themselves transformed into Pleasantville’s Bud and Mary Sue. As the twins interact with Pleasantville’s black and white world, they cannot help revealing its limits and ultimately transforming it. “Mary Sue” mischeviously introduces the concept of sex to her high school classmates, and then, more sensitively, to her Pleasantville mother (Joan Allen). “Bud” tells them about a world where the roads go on to other places, where the weather is not always sunny and mild, where people can decide to do things differently than they have before. As the characters open themselves up to change, they and their surroundings begin to bloom into color, in one of the most magical visual effects ever put onto film.

But some residents of Pleasantville are threatened and terrified by the changes. “No colored” signs appear in store windows. New rules are imposed. When the twins’ Pleasantville father (William H. Macy) finds no one there to hear his “Honey, I’m home!” he does not know what to do. He wants his wife to go back to black and white.

At first, Jennifer thinks that it is sex that turns the black and white characters into color. But when she stays “pasty,” she realizes that the colors reveal something more subtle and meaningful — the willingness to challenge the accepted and opening oneself up to honest reflection about one’s own feelings and longings.

High schoolers may appreciate the way that the twins, at first retreating in different ways from the problems of the modern world, find that the rewards of the examined life make it ultimately worthwhile. Topics for discussion include the movie’s parallels to Nazi Germany (book burning) and American Jim Crow laws (“No colored” signs), and the challenges of independent thinking. NOTE: parents should know that the movie contains fairly explicit references to masturbation (and a non-explicit depiction) and to teen and adulterous sex.

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Drama Family Issues Fantasy

Price of Glory

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

In the 1940’s, this movie would have starred John Garfield and been on the lower half of a double feature. In 2000, it stars Jimmy Smits as the father who pushes his three boys to be championship boxers, because his own dreams of being a champion were dashed. Despite the attractive performances, the movie is k-o’d in the first round by a cliche-filled script with dialogue that has a higher specific gravity than a heavyweight contender.

Come on, recite along with me as papa Jimmy Smits argues with mama Maria del Mar: “Do colleges give scholarships for boxing?” “I’m just thinking about their future.” “So am I, damnit!” “I’m their manager!” “No, Arturo, you’re their father!” “It’s not about the money — it’s about being the best!”

Smits plays Arturo Ortega, scion of “The Fighting Ortegas,” each of whom faces his own challenges. Sonny, the oldest, wants to marry his girlfriend and make some of his own decisions. Jimmy struggles to gain his father’s approval, and, when he feels that is impossible, becomes involved with drugs. Johnny, the youngest and most talented, wants to be his father’s “avenging angel” and make up to him not only for the disappointment of his own career, but also for his disappointment in the older two boys.

Arturo lives in a border town. He tells a fight promoter, “Every day, I see people cross that line looking for something better.” Arturo has a clearly established line in his own mind that he wants to cross — his way, in a Cadillac, as the father of champions. And he wants to manage his sons all the way to the title.

But Arturo knows more about teaching boxing than he does about managing a boxing career. And he knows more about both than he does about being a father. Someone has to be killed before he can admit that though he tried to give his sons more, “maybe less would have been better, less of me.”

Parents should know that in addition to very rough boxing matches, there is some gun violence and drug use, and that the language is strong for a PG-13, really on the edge of R. Families who see this movie should talk about how parents find a way to balance their dreams for their kids with the kids dreams for themselves.

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Drama Family Issues Sports

Splendor in the Grass

Posted on June 14, 2002 at 4:14 pm

In this classic of repressed teenage sexuality, set in the 1920s, Bud (Warren Beatty) and Deanie (Natalie Wood) are high school students who are newly in love and breathless with desire, physical and emotional. Deenie’s parents are unable to give her any guidance. They make her feel ashamed of her feelings. Her mother says, “Your father never laid a hand on me until we were married and then I just gave in because a wife has to. A woman doesn’t enjoy these things the way a man does. She just lets her husband come near her in order to have children.” Bud’s father, Ace (Pat Hingle) tells Bud that there are two kinds of girls, “good” and “bad,” and the “bad” ones are fair game. This apparently applies to Bud’s sister, whose reputation has been “ruined” by having sex and has come home from college in disgrace. At a party, she drinks too much and has sex with a group of men.

Deanie will not have sex with Bud, and they break up. Both suffer breakdowns. His is moral; he has sex with another girl, known to be “easy.” Hers is emotional; overcome with despair and self-loathing, Deanie has a breakdown and becomes a patient at a mental hospital. Ace will not permit Bud to go to agricultural college and insists that he go to Yale. But when the stock market crashes, Ace is wiped out and kills himself. Bud leaves college.

When Deanie comes home from the hospital, her mother does not want her to see Bud. Deanie’s father tells her how to find him, and, with some friends, Deanie drives out to the shack where Bud lives with his wife. Deanie and Bud speak, briefly, achieving some resolution, enabling them to go on, if not as they had once hoped, at least grateful for what they have had. Deanie remembers the words of the poem she learned in school: “Though nothing can bring back the hour/of splendor in the grass,/Glory in the flower,/We will grieve not, but rather find/Strength in what remains behind.”

This Oscar -winning screenplay by William Inge was immensely controversial when the film was made. (A brief glimpse of nudity as Deanie ran from the bathtub was cut from the final print.) Most teenagers face a different set of issues today, but they are presented with no less hypocrisy or more reassurance than the messages to kids like Bud and Deanie. Instead of being told that sexual feelings are non-existent or evidence of being “bad,” today’s teenagers often get the message that they are “bad” or lacking if they do not feel ready to engage in sexual activity freely almost as soon as they enter high school. The issues of honesty in communicating about sexuality and the overwhelming confusion of teenage passion remain important and valid, and this movie can provide a good opening for a talk about what has changed and how teenagers feel about the decisions and the consequences Bud and Deanie face in this movie.

Talk about:
• Why does Ace make a distinction between “good” and “bad” girls? Do people make that distinction today? What makes a girl “bad”?
• Is anyone honest with Bud and Deanie?
• What do Bud and Deanie mean when they say that they don’t think about happiness anymore?
• Why did Deanie refuse to have sex with Bud? Why did Bud refuse to have sex with Deanie? What should two people think about before they make the decision to have sex?

In another classic movie of teenage sexual repression, “A Summer Place,” Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue have sex, and she becomes pregnant. Dee’s mother is repressed to the point of hysteria, but her father, who has left his wife to be reunited with his own teenage love, is sympathetic and supportive, all to lush and unforgettable theme music by Max Steiner. William Inge (who appears as the minister) won an Oscar for the screenplay. He also wrote “Picnic,” “Bus Stop,” “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs,” all about vulnerable people who must struggle to find intimacy and happiness, and especially appealing to sensitive teens.

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Classic Drama Romance
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