A Night at the Opera

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 1935

The Plot: Harpo, Chico, and Groucho Marx bring their sublime brand of anarchy to perhaps its most fitting setting in this comic masterpiece. Groucho is (as ever) a fast-talking fortune hunter (this time called Otis P. Driftwood), chasing (as ever) dim dowager Margaret Dumont (this time called Mrs. Claypool).

Mrs. Claypool brings two Italian opera stars to the United States (Kitty Carlisle as sweet Rosa and Walter Woolf King as cruel Rodolfo Laspari) on board an ocean liner. Talented tenor Riccardo (Allan Jones), who loves Rosa, his manager Fiorello (Chico Marx), and Tomasso (Harpo Marx), Rodolfo’s abused dresser, stow away in Driftwood’s steamer trunk. They manage to get off the boat disguised as bearded Russian aviators, but are discovered and are chased by a New York detective. When Rosa refuses Rodolfo’s romantic advances, she is fired. But Tomasso and Fiorello wrack havoc on the opera’s performance of “Il Trovatore,” until Rosa and Riccardo come in and save the show.

Discussion: Many of the Marx Brother’s best-loved routines are here, including the wildly funny contract negotiation, as Groucho and Chico try to con each other (“That’s what we call a sanity clause.” “Oh no, you can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause!”) and the famous stateroom scene, as person after person enters Groucho’s closet-sized room on the ship, while Harpo manages to stay asleep (and draped over as many women as possible) and Groucho stays philosophical (when the manicurist asks if he wants his nails long or short, he says, “You’d better make them short; it’s getting pretty crowded in here.”). The movie veers happily from the wildest slapstick (the Marx brothers replace the music for “Il Trovatore” with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”) to the cleverest wordplay (by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind), punctuated by musical numbers that range from pleasant to innocuous. Children studying piano may especially enjoy Chico’s speciality — playing the piano while his fingers do acrobatics. And all children will enjoy learning that the stars were real-life brothers, who performed together for most of their lives.

Questions for Kids:

· Why won’t Rodolfo sing to the people who came to say goodbye to him?

· The Marx brothers play people who are not very nice in this movie — they steal, they cheat, they lie, and they cause havoc. How does the movie make you like them anyway?

Connections: This was the most commercially successful of the Marx Brothers movies, in part because of the very sections that seem most tedious to us now — the serious musical numbers and the romance. Children will enjoy the other Marx Brothers movies as well, especially “A Day at the Races” (NOTE–that movie contains some material that seems racist by today’s standards, particularly a rather minstrel show-ish musical number), “Duck Soup,” “Horse Feathers,” and “Monkey Business.” Fans of the many movie references in “The Freshman,” with Matthew Broderick and Marlon Brando, may notice that Broderick’s fake passport is in the name of Rodolfo Laspari.

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Birthday Girl

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: A lot of drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Scary situations including violence
Diversity Issues: Cultural differences
Date Released to Theaters: 2002

A very uneven thriller-romance is brightened by dark comedy and another magnetic performance by Nicole Kidman as the 21st century equivalent to a mail order bride. Shy bank teller John (Ben Chaplin) orders his bride from an internet company called “From Russia With Love.” He orders a brand new double bed and cleans up his little suburban house in anticipation, though he is not able to (foreshadowing alert) rid his house of an infestation of ants, and then goes off to the airport to pick her up.

The good news is, well, she looks like Nicole Kidman. The bad news is that she does not speak English, she smokes, and on the way home from the airport she has to throw up.

John has some second thoughts, but he can’t get anyone from the agency on the phone. Meanwhile, Nadiya efficiently discovers his stash of porn and even more efficiently makes herself sexually indispensible.

Nadiya stays at home and knits, and John goes off to the bank with a spring in his step and the ring she brought him on his finger. He presents her with a Russian/English dictionary and she uses it to tell him that it is her birthday. But the celebration is interrupted by the arrival of her cousin and his friend.

At this point, things start to go wrong. Many betrayals, a bank robbery, a lot of smacking around and threats with guns later, there is a resolution as uneven as the movie’s tone. There are some signs of real talent here in John’s generic performance evaluation and the bank’s “trust” exercises, Nadia’s monologue about her binoculars and her bright red knitting. The movie’s director, screenwriters, and producer (three brothers) clearly intended to make a movie that transcends genre, but it does not really work. It just feels unsettlingly muddled.

Parents should know that the movie has very strong language, a lot of violence and explicit sex, including bondage, references to prostitution, and an out of wedlock pregnancy. Stealing and corruption are positively portrayed.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Kidman’s sensational performance as a woman who entices two teenage boys to kill her husband in To Die For and Francois Truffaut’s mail-order bride thriller Mississippi Mermaid.

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Chocolat

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Scary fire (no one injured), reference to domestic abuse, sad death
Diversity Issues: Tolerance of individual differences is a theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

This choice little fairy tale even begins with “once upon a time.”

It takes place in rural France, in a “quaint little village whose villagers believed in tranquility.” They have “learned not to ask for more.” The village is all but untouched by the outside world, and they seem to like it that way. A young priest sings an Elvis Presley song and it as though he is a visitor from a time machine.

The town is overseen by the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), the mayor. He acts as a sort of moral policeman, making sure that everyone is keeping to the straight and (very) narrow. Into this paragon of rectitude and abstemiousness the wind blow a mysterious red-cloaked mother and daughter.

Vianne (Juliette Binoche, Oscar-winner for “The English Patient”) and Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) open up a chocolate shop. The Comte takes it as an affront to his authority. How dare they! In the middle of Lent! He does his best to keep customers away. But the chocolate is luscious and Vianne always seems to know just what people need. She knows how to add a touch of chili pepper to hot chocolate for spice and she has an uncanny way of giving everyone the kind of chocolate they cannot resist. She gives her chocolate to her grumpy landlord Amande (Judi Dench, Oscar-winner for “Shakespeare in Love”). She gives some to Josephine (Lena Olin), a woman who is considered a little crazy by the town, but who behaves that way to protect herself from her abusive husband. The chocolate — and Vianne’s warm heart — help both women to bloom. Vianne takes Josephine in and helps Amande get together with her estranged family.

Then the Compte is affronted further when a group of itinerants dock their houseboats in the town. Vianne becomes friendly with Roux (Johnny Depp) and this is too much for the Compte and his sidekick, Josephine’s husband Serge. Both the Compte and Vianne have to confront near disaster and their own fears. The young priest has to find a way to speak from his own heart and his own faith, to become a true spiritual leader for the community.

This whimsical little story is as delicious as its chocolates, with a terrific score and lots of great issues for family discussion.

Parents should know that Vianne never married her daughter’s father, and that in a flashback we see that she and her own mother left her father to wander. Vianne gives some chocolates to one woman to use as an aphrodisiac, and we see the gleam in her husband’s eye as he watches her, after he eats them. Later, a dog who eats some of the chocolates is similarly inspired (brief shot of dogs having sex). There are mild sexual situations with brief and inexplicit nudity. There is some social drinking and a scary fire (no one hurt). A character dies peacefully.

Families should talk about why the Compte is so threatened by Vianne and her chocolates. He seems to feel that his efforts to keep himself and others from feeling joy and passion will help him avoid sadness (and dishonor) from the desertion of his wife. Why do Vianne and Roux wander? Why is there one person whose favorite she can not guess? What is the significance of Anouk’s imaginary friend? Why is Armande’s daughter so angry with her? What do you think about the priest’s conclusion that we are judged by what we do and those we embrace rather than by what we stay away from and those we exclude? Families might also want to talk about what some of the names mean in English. For example, reynaud means fox and roux is the base that holds a soufflé together.

Families who enjoy this movie should enjoy some of their own favorite chocolates together. Some family members will also enjoy Like Water for Chocolate, another movie about a woman whose food has some magical properties (mature material).

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Dinosaur

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Intense scenes of peril, characters killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

Instead of the annual G-rated musical cartoon released just as school lets out, this year Disney’s big summer release is “Dinosaur,” a stunning integration of computer graphics over live backgrounds.

Aladar is an orphan Iguanodon raised by monkey-like lemurs. When flaming meteors destroy their home they join a group of dinosaurs trying to find food and water. The leader of the group, Kron, insists that stopping to help the older or slower dinosaurs is too dangerous. But Aladar shows the others that cooperation, teamwork, and kindness make more sense because then everyone gets a chance to contribute. That resolution brings to mind another dinosaur — a big, purple one on PBS. Aladar just is not that interesting a character. Disney worked very hard to make sure that the faces of the dinosaurs were expressive, but should have worked a little harder on giving them some more complex and subtle emotions to express. Even in a movie for kids, it is not enough for the characters to overcome some external challenge. What makes a story get into your heart is seeing the characters learn and grow and overcome internal challenges. It is a marvel of skill, but does not have half of the heart or wit of either of the “Toy Storys” or “A Bug’s Life.”

The technological mastery is dazzling to watch, though, especially the textures. Fur, scales, eggshell, water, and goo are all so vivid you can almost feel them. It is a shame that the story and characters are not as strong as the visuals, though that will be more of a problem for the adults in the audience than the children.

Parents should know that the movie is dark and scary at times. Characters are frequently in peril and some are killed. A three year old sitting near me cried for more than half of the movie. But most kids find enormous appeal in the idea of creatures that are amazingly huge and powerful and reassuringly long departed. While they may not connect to these characters the way they do with the animated films, most kids will like watching the dinosaurs and will find the conclusion satisfying.

Families who see the movie may want to talk about the narrator’s comment that “sometimes the smallest thing can make the biggest changes of all.” What is the “smallest thing” and what are the changes? How did being treated with kindness change the way some of the characters behaved? How did making Baylene feel needed change the way she behaved? Why was Aladar’s point of view so different? Could it have been due to the loving way he was raised? How did Aladar help Neera see things differently?

Families — especially blended, foster, and adoptive families — may also want to talk about how the lemurs decide to “adopt” the huge dinosaur, and about how some species were intolerant of others. Older children may want to talk about Kron’s view that the only way to keep some members of the herd alive was to sacrifice those who could not keep up, and the way his behavior showed that he believed the only way to maintain power was to refuse to listen to anyone else.

Kids who like this movie will enjoy “The Land Before Time” and its sequels and “Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend.”

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Field of Dreams

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to drug use, including pot and LSD
Violence/ Scariness: Costner threatens Jones to get him to go to the baseball game, but both know he does not really have a gun.
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 1989

Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), who grew up in New York and went to college at Berkeley, stands in the middle of his first Iowa corn crop and hears a voice say, “If you build it, he will come.” He begins to understand that this means he must plow under the corn crop and build a baseball field so that Shoeless Joe Jackson, barred from baseball since 1919 and dead for years, can play on it. Ray and his wife (Amy Madigan) know this is a crazy thing to do, but they do it. And “Shoeless”Joe Jackson does show up, with his teamates. Jackson had been the hero of Ray’s father, a former minor leaguer, with whom Ray had never been able to connect.

The voice speaks again: “Ease his pain.” Ray comes to understand that this refers to an iconoclastic author of the 1960s named Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones), now a recluse. Ray finds him, and together they hear the voice say “Go the distance.” This leads them back in time to find an elderly doctor (Burt Lancaster), who had a brief career in baseball but never got a chance at bat in a major league game. On their way back to the farm, they find him again, as a young man, and together, they go home, just as the farm is about to be foreclosed. The doctor gets his chance at bat. Mann gets to tell another story. And Ray gets a second chance to do what he regrets not doing as a teenager, to play catch with his father.

Discussion: The themes of this movie are dreams, family, and baseball. There are echoes of Ray’s father throughout the movie. It begins with Ray’s description of growing up, using his refusal to play baseball as his teenage rebellion, and as a way to test his father’s love. Ray tells Mann that his father’s name was used for a character in one of Mann’s books. Ray builds the field to bring back Shoeless Joe, his father’s hero, the hero Ray accused of being corrupt because he knew that would hurt his father. And of course at the end, it turns out that the dream all along was not bringing back the greats of baseball, but of a reconciliation with his father that was not possible before he died. “I only saw him when he was worn down by life,” Ray says. His own understanding and maturity are what enable him to see his father as he really was, even before he reappears on the baseball field. Ray asks his father, “Is there a heaven?” and his father answers, “Oh yeah. It’s the place dreams come true.”

Family discussion: Why doesn’t Annie’s brother Mark see the baseball players at first? Why is he able to see them later? · What did Ray mean when he talked about how he needed to insult his father’s hero when he was a teenager? · How do you know when to follow a dream that seems crazy or foolish?

If you like this, try: Find out more about Shoeless Joe Jackson and the famous “Black Socks” scandal. “Eight Men Out,” with D. B. Sweeney as Jackson, tells this story sympathetically. The Ken Burns PBS documentary about the history of baseball also has a video devoted to the story. See also baseball history movies “Bingo Long” and “Sandlot” (both also starring Jones) and “A League of Their Own.” And listen to James Earl Jones as the voice for Darth Vader in “Star Wars.”

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