The House of Mirth

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character abuses a narcotic
Violence/ Scariness: Sad, with themes that may be disturbing, possible suicide
Diversity Issues: Unequal treatment of women in early 20th century society
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

Why is it when we meet we always play this elaborate game?” asks Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) of Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz). The answer is that Lily and Lawrence live in a society that gives them no alternative.

Edith Wharton’s tragic story is about a beautiful, spirited woman who is helpless to overcome the manipulations of others and the cruelly rigid society around her. Lily’s assets are her beauty and charm. She understands the rules of the upper class New York society of 1905 very well. As she tells Lawrence, “a girl must and a man if he chooses.” She is almost completely dependent on her aunt for money, and she knows that she must find a wealthy man to marry as soon as possible.

But, as she admits, she always does “the right thing at the wrong time.” She comes close to marrying wealthy men three times, but cannot bring herself to go through with it. She loves Lawrence, but because he is not wealthy and must work for a living, she never lets herself think of marrying him. She understands the vulnerability of her position — without a fortune of her own, her reputation must be impeccable. The people around her have “minds like moral flypaper — they can forgive a woman anything but the loss of her good name. Unfortunately, Lily’s inherent honesty makes it impossible for her to realize the treachery and desperation around her. She makes some foolish choices: “We resist the great temptations, but it is the little ones that eventually pull us down.”

Though her only mistake is trusting the wrong people, her reputation is compromised and she owes a great deal of money to a man who betrayed her trust and tried to ruin her reputation. By the time she is willing to accept the proposal of businessman Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia), he is no longer willing to offer her the position of wife, only mistress. Rosedale has a kind heart, and he likes Lily. But he is a businessman with ambitions of being fully accepted into society, and he can see that Lily is damaged goods. Perhaps her very willingness to accept him makes her less appealing.

Betrayed by almost everyone she knows and shunned by the rest, Lily sees how fragile her position in society is and how unsuited she is for anything else. She must now find a way to support herself, first as secretary/companion to a vulgar social-climber, then as an apprentice in a millinary shop. She makes one last desperate plea for help from her cousin, and considers an even more desperate attempt at blackmail, but that is a “great temptation” she is able to resist.

With first-rate performances and sumptuous period detail, this is a very worthwhile adaptation of Wharton’s novel.

Parents should know that this is much darker than the usual Merchant-Ivory corsets and carriages movie. Lily becomes addicted to a narcotic. A death is a possible suicide, portrayed as the only honorable choice. The issue of a reputation “compromised” by having an affair is an important theme in the movie. A man tricks Lily into allowing him to invest money for her, putting her in his debt so that she will feel obligated to sleep with him.

Martin Scorcese, director of such classics as “Goodfellas,” said that his Wharton adaptation, “The Age of Innocence,” was his most violent film because it was about emotional violence. This, too, is about emotional violence. The betrayals and cruelty and the lack of alternatives may be very upsetting to some viewers.

Families who see this movie should talk about what has and hasn’t changed since the book’s setting, almost a century ago. Why do people tend to develop closed, tightly regulated hierarchies? How does the New York society in the movie compare to, say, high school? Why was it so hard for Lily to do what she knew was necessary to preserve her position in society? Why was it so hard for Lawrence to tell her how he felt?

Families who enjoy this movie should read the book and see “The Age of Innocence.

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The Patriot

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Mild
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Very graphic violence, including battle scenes, suicide, children in peril, major characters killed
Diversity Issues: White character learns to respect black character in slavery era South
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

As I watched this movie, I kept thinking of the tagline from “Jaws 4:” “This time it’s personal.” Mel Gibson plays Benjamin Martin, a veteran of the British army who was a hero during the French and Indian war. Twenty years later, he has no love for the monarchy but some skepticism about the alternative. He asks, “Why should I trade one tyrant 3000 miles away for 3000 tyrants one mile away?” and “I haven’t got the luxury of principles.” More than that, his memories of the atrocities of war, his own as well as the enemy’s, and his passion for protecting his seven children won’t allow him to fight again.

But that would not be much of a movie, would it? And we get a portent in the very first scene, when Benjamin fails in his umpteenth effort to make a rocking chair for himself. And there is a long Hollywood tradition of reluctant heroes who are forced into violence, thus giving us the best of both worlds with a hero whose heart is in the right place, but whose muscles and gun are, too. So, Benjamin has to find a reason to fight. It would have been nice if that reason had something to do with liberty and democracy, but instead it is about revenge. Benjamin’s son is killed by a British soldier. So Benjamin throws guns to his younger boys, straps several onto himself, and goes off to fight his own personal war, a sort of Robin Hood crossed with Terminator. The only heartfelt struggle for independence in the movie is teen-age rebellion.

It’s one thing when producing/directing team Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich give us a movie like “Independence Day,” with bad guy aliens who are pure evil. But it is another thing when they take an actual historical event and actual historical characters and play fast and loose with the facts. The bad guy in this movie is Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs), a villain so reprehensible that he not only burns down a church filled with civilians, he enjoys it. He makes Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil look small-time. This level of cartoonish exaggeration makes it harder for us to engage with the characters.

That aside, though, this is a very enjoyable summer popcorn movie, sumptuously and excitingly filmed, and rousingly entertaining. It faced quite a challenge, because there has never been a successful movie about the Revolutionary War. One reason is that it is not very cinematic. The dress and weaponry of that time seems more suited to 4th of July parades than to an action movie. The muskets took forever to reload. And there are other troubling issues. Many of the heroes of that era were slave holders, and thus impossibly unsympathetic by today’s standards. Those issues are handled capably. The action sequences play well, and the black characters are treated with as much dignity as possible. A French soldier says to one of the slaveholders, “Your sense of freedom is as pale as your skin.” And a slave who is given to the militia by his owner demonstrates his courage and honor, becoming a valued colleague.

Gibson delivers, as always. He is utterly compelling whether he is hacking an opponent to death, looking tenderly at a tiny daughter who will not speak to him, or agonizing over his past sins. Fellow Aussie Heath Ledger is superb as oldest son Gabriel, at first impatient to join the fight, later a brave and mature soldier and an ardent suitor. Lisa Brenner, as the object of his affection, is radiantly lovely. Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography perfectly captures the colors and textures of the era.

Families who watch this movie should talk about the real origins of the Revolutionary War. They might want to look up Francis Marion, known as the Swamp Fox, who, like the fictional Benjamin Martin, defeated the British soldiers by using his knowledge of the local topography and by staying away from open-field battles. It is also worth talking about the notions of rules within wartime, as shown in the negotiations between Benjamin and Cornwallis. How do enemies agree on rules? What should those rules be? Why did Benjamin refuse to give his name? Why did Cornwallis care about limiting the damage to civilians?

Parents should know that this is a very violent movie, with many graphic battle scenes, vividly portrayed. A character commits suicide when his family is killed. There are some gentle sexual references in a scene depicting the colonial custom of “bundling bags” for courting couples.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “The Friendly Persuasion” (about a Quaker family during the Civil War) and the most successful Emmerich-Devlin production, “Independence Day.”

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Thirteen Days

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Very tense situations, character killed in combat
Diversity Issues: Accurately depicts all-white and male historical characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2000

For once the tag line has it just right: “You’ll never know how close we came.”

It may seem like a movie script, but it really happened. American planes took photos of Soviet missiles in Cuba, a “massively destabilizing move.” If they had been armed, they could have wiped out most of the mainland US population in five minutes. President John F. Kennedy had written a book while he was in college about the failure of England to respond to German aggression when it still might have been possible to prevent World War II. But he had also made his own mistake — a bad one — by responding too aggressively at the Bay of Pigs. Advisors like Dean Acheson and the military urged him to bomb the sites. But Adlai Stevenson says, “One of us in the room should be a coward,” and he asks the President to come up with a diplomatic solution. Kennedy knows better than to fight the last war, but he is not sure how to fight the next one.

There is no time spent on introductions or exposition, giving the story a sense of immediacy and urgency. It will leave audiences reminding themselves that we are still here, so it must have turned out all right. The President and his advisors argue about what to do (“Bombing them sure would feel good!”), interrupted by “just as usual” events to avoid letting the press or the Soviets suspect that anything was going on. When President Kennedy tells Chicago Mayor Daley that he “wouldn’t miss this event for the world,” we appreciate the literal meaning of his words.

Producer Kevin Costner plays a real person, Kennedy staffer Kenny O’Donnell, but the character combines the roles and actions of several people and essentially exists to help tell the story as efficiently as possible. Most of the time, he blends in with a large, capable cast of character actors (though he seems to make himself too important in a pep talk scene and at the end there is a sort of “Three Musketeers” shot that seems inappropriate).

Parents should know that the movie features brief strong language. Most of the movie is very tense, and a character is killed.

This is an outstanding movie, with much for families to talk about. Parents and grandparents should tell children any memories they may have of the Cuban missile crisis. They should talk about what we do when we have hard choices to make — President Kennedy and his brother, his closest advisor, listen to advice from experts, but, as the President says, “There is something immoral about abandoning your own judgment.” At the end of the day, he realizes that “there’s no wise old men; there’s just us.” Why does Kenny O’Donnell say that the only word in politics is “loyalty?” Why did the Soviets send a message through a reporter instead of using diplomatic channels? Why was it important for Adlai Stevenson to make a strong statement at the UN? Why did they ignore the second letter from Kruschev? How did that change things? What must someone do in order to direct soldiers to take actions that may get them killed? Who told the truth and who lied? Why?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Air Force One” and some of the books and documentaries about President Kennedy and his brother, Robert Kennedy. DVD note: This first release from Infinifilm demonstrates shows us why the DVD technology was developed. It is packed with extras that are genuinely thrilling, from commentary by the real-life participants to a copy of the shooting script. Families with DVD players should consider this treasure for their permanent collection.

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What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril
Diversity Issues: Multi-racial cast, stereotyped gay character
Date Released to Theaters: 2001

This movie has a terrific cast and some very funny moments. But there is an overall slackness and an underlying cynicism that takes this outside of the category of mindless fun and makes it uncomfortably distasteful.

Martin Lawrence plays a thief named Kevin who falls in love with a pretty English anthropologist named Amber (Carmen Ejogo). She gives him a lucky ring that once belonged to her father. He and a pal named Berger (John Leguizamo) break into what they think is the deserted vacation home of Max (Danny De Vito), only to find that Max is there, having an assignation with Miss September. Max captures Kevin and calls the police. When they arrest Kevin, Max sees the ring and tells the police that it is his. They believe him, and make Kevin give Max the ring. Kevin spends the rest of the movie trying to get revenge – and trying to get the ring back, too.

The movie’s underlying premise is that everyone is a thief and that the only difference between the businessman, the politician, the lawyer, and the man who steals is that at least the professional thief is honest about what he does. Some people, like Donald Westlake, the author of the book that inspired this movie, can make that premise seem wickedly delicious. But screenwriter and director Sam Weisman, remove the satiric twists to make it into a star vehicle for Lawrence and the result lacks any sense of dramatic build-up. Instead of two wily adversaries, it is so one-sided in favor of Lawrence’s character that any narrative arc evaporates. It’s just a string of skits.

That might be all right – some of the skits are pretty funny and I don’t insist on logic or political correctness or even trivial consistencies in a movie. But there is something unsettling about the underlying assumptions here, especially the smug self-righteousness of the thieves (including Max). Ask us to believe that Kevin is a crook and the hero of the movie, and we can accept it. But it is a little harder to accept that his girlfriend is an educated, loyal, devoted person who is happy to be a “perky” waitress and wait up nights for Kevin to come home from a hard night of packing other people’s things into his bag of loot. The mincing gay detective and the evil businessman who uses Yiddish and his long-suffering lawyer and mistress are tired stereotypes. And too much simply does not make sense. The last scene in particular is nothing more than a chance to put Lawrence in a huge Afro and pretend that everyone is living happily ever after.

Parents should know that the movie includes drinking, smoking, swearing, and sexual references and situations. A woman has sex with a man who does her a favor, and this is shown as charming and even romantic. The stereotypes mentioned above will make many families uncomfortable.

Families who see this movie should talk about the idea that everyone is a thief of one kind or another, and what they think would be a fair resolution.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy some of Lawrence’s other movies, like “Big Momma’s House” and “Bad Boys” (both for more mature audiences).

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A River Runs Through It

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Mild
Alcohol/ Drugs: Paul has a drinking problem
Violence/ Scariness: Mostly off-screen
Diversity Issues: Paul brings a half-Cheyenne date into a bar that does not permit Indians
Date Released to Theaters: 1992

Writer Norman Maclean’s autobiographical story of growing up in Montana with his brother Paul begins, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.”

Their Presbyterian minister father taught Norman and his brother Paul schoolwork, religion, and fishing as though they were all one subject. He was strict and thorough in all of those lessons. Reverand Mclean believed that no one who did not know how to fish properly should be permitted to disgrace a fish by catching it. He used a metronome to time their four-count stroke between the positions of ten o’clock and two o’clock.

Norman, though more sober, loved the wild streak in Paul that made him “tougher than any man alive” but feared that it would destroy him. And it did. While Norman becomes a professor of English literature and falls in love with Jessie Burns (Emily Lloyd), Paul becomes a reporter and gets into trouble drinking and gambling. Norman is called by the police to get Paul out of jail, and ultimately, he is called again when Paul is killed.

One of the tragic realizations of growing up is that you can love someone without being able to understand or save them. Like Norman, Jessie has a brother who is self-destructive, though his part of the story is played more for comedy. In today’s terms, Jessie’s mother would be considered an enabler because she does not impose any limits on her son, and does not insist that he recognize the consequences of his behavior.

Parents should know that the movie has some mature material, including family tragedy, alcohol abuse, a sexual situation (nudity), and prostitutes. A Native American woman is insulted by bigots.

Families who see this movie should discuss what they would do in Norman’s position. What would you have said to Paul? When? Why didn’t Norman say those things? If you were Jessie, what would you say to Neal? Why was it important to have Neal’s story in the movie? What does Norman mean when he says that his father saw no difference between religion and flyfishing?

Director Redford also addresses the theme of loving families who do not communicate pain well, with one member of the family suffering the consequences in two other movies, “Ordinary People” and “Quiz Show.”

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