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Wallace & Gromit – The Wrong Trousers

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Oscar-winner Nick Parks’ claymation masterpieces are thrilling, witty, and enormous fun. In this one, dim inventor Wallace has created mechanical trousers designed for walking his wise but silent dog, Gromit. They are rewired by a wicked penguin who turns out to be a master thief.

Wonder Boys

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This movie has a lot in common with its main character. Both are shambling and directionless, with a literary gloss and great deal of charm and intelligence. And both need all of that to be forgiven for their many failings.

Michael Douglas plays Grady Tripp, a college professor whose award- winning book was published seven years ago. He is under pressure from all sides. His third young, beautiful wife has just left him. His mistress Sara (Frances McDormand), who happens to be married to Tripp’s boss, is pregnant with Tripp’s child. His best student seems suicidal. Another student, who is also a tenant, is clearly interested in becoming young and beautiful wife number four. And his editor is pressing him for a new manuscript.

Tripp has a manuscript, now up to page 2612, but does not want to show it to anyone. Crabtree, the editor (Robert Downey, Jr.) arrives accompanied by a transvestite he met on the plane. And everyone ends up at a party at the home of the mistress and her husband, Tripp’s dean, a man who believes that Marilyn Monroe’s marriage to Joe DiMaggio was the defining moment of the 20th Century.

Tripp is irresponsible, but he cares about Sara more than he knew and he cares about James more than he thought he could. Perhaps it is because he wants to save in James what he fears he may have lost in himself — notice the way that Grady begins every sentence to James by using his name, as though to persuade himself that he is speaking to someone else. James is drunk on words and stories. Tripp may have been that way once, but now he has to resort to marijuana and whatever drugs he can scrounge from Crabtree’s suitcase.

In the course of the weekend, the dean’s dead dog, Marilyn Monroe’s wedding sweater, Crabtree’s luggage, and James’ manuscript end up in Tripp’s vintage convertible. That car then ferries the transvestite to his home (deconstructing the drag along the way), Tripp to his ex-wife’s parents’ house and his mistress’ greenhouse, then rescues James from his kindly but clueless parents, and is either stolen or retrieved by a man whose name is not Vernon but who looks like it should be.

In the course of this fantastic (in the literary sense) journey, all the characters are coping with problems and yet all are remarkably honorable and helpful. The ex-wife’s parents dress Tripp’s wound. The successful colleague tells Tripp how much he was moved by Tripp’s work. Even the man whose name is not Vernon gives Tripp and Crabtree a lift. In another movie, Tripp might think of stealing James’ manuscript, but in this one, he lets it replace his own, solving both James’ and Crabtree’s problems. Tripp limps through the movie with a bandaged hand, often wearing the ratty pink chenille bathrobe he wears when he writes. He is in something of a stupor, not just from alcohol and drugs, but from success, and failure. He still has James’ passion for writing, but he no longer has the innocence and sense of possibilities to “make the choices” necessary. When asked why he was writing the 2000-page book, all he can say is, “I couldn’t stop.” And when he says, “Sometimes people just need to be rescued,” he is talking about himself as much as James.

This grand mess of a movie has many pleasures, including a terrific soundtrack, marvelous performances, and a beguiling but highly improbable ending. Tripp’s colleague says that everyone has a story. What gets you from there to writing? He mentions faith, and Tripp mentions keeping at it. One reason is that stories like this one, highly imperfect but worthwhile, are what help us get to the ones that really make it all the way there.

Families who see this movie should talk about how the people in it establish their priorities and deal with the consequences.

Parents should know that this movie has drug and alcohol abuse, adultery, homosexual and heterosexual references (including a transvestite character), references to suicide, and very strong language.

People who enjoy this movie will also like Educating Rita and The Accidental Tourist.

What Dreams May Come

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Robin Williams plays Chris Nielson, a doctor who arrives in heaven after he is killed by a car as he attempts to help the victims of an accident. His wife, Annie (Anabella Sciorra), already devastated by the loss of their two children four years earlier, begins to fall apart, and commits suicide. As Chris explores heaven, he realizes that it cannot be heaven for him without her. But, as a suicide, she is consigned to hell. With the help of a guide, he embarks on an Orpheus-like journey.

The lush visual beauty of this movie and the interesting issues it raises make it worthwhile for thoughtful teens who are drawn to questions about death and meaning and making profound connections. Those who have endured their own real losses may find it superficial, and some be disturbed to find the concepts of heaven and hell inconsistent with their own notions. They are not even consistent within their own assumptions. But some teens will appreciate the chance to use this movie to talk about what their heaven would look like (the film’s web site gives them a chance to create a version online and post it) and how the characters’ struggle makes them think differently about their relationships and priorities. They will be particularly interested in Chris’ relationships with his children, and how he thinks about what he should have done differently after their death. Teens may also like to learn about the myth of Orpheus, to see the similarities and differences.

Parents should know that there is brief strong language and disturbing imagery.

Waking Ned Devine

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Jackie O’Shea (Ian Bannen) lives in a tiny Irish village called Tulaigh Mhor (pronounced Tully More). Like many of the other residents, he is an enthusiastic buyer of lottery tickets, and when he reads in the paper that one of the other residents has a winning ticket, he and his wife Annie (Fionnula Flanagan) and lifetime best friend Michael O’Sullivan (David Kelly) do their best to discover the winner. All of their efforts fail until they realize that only one resident of the town failed to attend their dinner party — Ned Devine. When Jackie and Michael go to his house, they discover that indeed he was the winner, and that the shock of winning caused a fatal heart attack.

Reasoning that Ned, who had no relatives, would have wanted them to have his winnings, Jackie and Michael decide to pretend that one of them is Ned Devine, to collect the prize. Ultimately, every resident of Tulaigh Mhor participates in the plot, with one notable exception, the fierce and nasty Lizzy Quinn (Eileen Dromey).

Parents should know that there is an unmarried mother who refuses to disclose the father of her child. And, there is a good deal of very black humor, including some shenanigans with a dead body, which some children will find upsetting. But others who enjoy wicked jokes will find this movie delightful, and it can lead to a good discussion of the morality of the decisions made by the characters and what they are likely to do after the movie ends.

Wild Wild West

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“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.