Cataclysm as Marital Therapy

I love disaster movies. Armaggedon, Independence Day, Poseidon Adventure – both 1972 and 2005 versions, the Terminator series, World War Z, Earthquake, San Francisco, Knowing, Deep Impact, Outbreak, Towering Inferno (released in 1974), The Tower (very similar story made in Korea in 2012), I Am Legend, Day of the Triffids (1962 and 2009 – though I haven’t seen the 2009 version it’s on my list of things to see), War of the Worlds (2005 and 1953), even that awful environmental wacko film Day After Tomorrow, and the poorly done TV series The Stand (though the book was well written). These movies span generations (San Francisco was released in 1936), cultures, and geography. The reasons for the disasters range from extraterrestrial aliens to homegrown superbugs, from man made robots to natural disasters. From world wide to the confined space of a single building these films are visual and emotional roller coaster rides that scare the daylights out of us, give us the good example of the protagonists who follow a moral code even in the face of great danger, and the horrible warnings of the characters who do not.

They also provide perspective. Being late for work because of a traffic jam or facing yet another April 15th tax season certainly isn’t as bad as being on the menu of a 50 foot ant or knowing your job is irrelevant because the city is about to: blow up, freeze over, or be incinerated. When you wake up to a city that is not overrun with zombies it’s not hard to face even Monday with a smile.

Disaster movies generally follow a certain formula – meet an ensemble cast of characters you learn to like, then watch as they face obstacles created by: monster, disease, natural event, etc. and wait breathlessly wondering who will make it to the credit roll. The challenges bring out the best and worst in people – some you expect, some you don’t. There are elements of humor and romance, LOTS of suspense and usually plenty of special effects. And there is not usually a lot of surprise in them once you have twigged to the familiar scenarios. But for me that is OK – it’s like the path of a favorite thrill ride.

However, there is one fairly recent theme phenomenon I have noticed cropping up of late with a handful of movies and I thoroughly approve of the addition.

SPOILERS – THOUGH I WILL TRY TO REFRAIN FROM GIVING AWAY WHO DOES AND DOES NOT SURVIVE.

Over the weekend, on our 33rd wedding anniversary trip Bryan and I went to go see San Andreas, the new earth shaker flick. The main protagonist, Ray (Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson) is a divorced emergency responder. Ray is on good terms with his ex – Emma (Carla Gugino) but is freshly coping with her having a new – and rich – boyfriend.

(Quick quiz – Gugino has a habit of playing stressed out moms in weird situations. She was the mater in a trilogy of rather spoofy espionage films about a husband and wife facing outrageous life threatening situations with their kids. Answer below).

Disaster happens and in the course of Ray’s endeavors to rescue his wife and teenaged daughter, he pretty much shows up his rival to re-win the respect of his child and the affections of his wife……. and I suddenly thought –  hold on —– this scenario sounds AWFULLY familiar. Didn’t John Cusack do the same thing as a limo driver in 2012? In 2012 Cusack’s character gets advance notice of the coming Mayan-predicted end of the world so grabs wife, children and wife’s boyfriend to adventure out into a struggle against the obstacles between them and survival. Cusack ends up re-winning the affections of his ex-wife ……..and —– wait a minute – in Independence Day Jeff Goldblum realizes the visiting aliens aren’t ET so grabs his wife and her boss – who just happens to be the President of the United States (who is NOT a boyfriend, but her boss, though Goldblum’s character at one time THOUGHT they were involved so it counts) and together manage to rescue the world, and in the process re-wins the affections of his wife and ……….wait just a second!!! In Jurassic Park III William Macy and Tia Leoni are estranged. She has a boyfriend who is conveniently dispatched early (not much of a spoiler because we barely meet him in the beginning of the movie before he gets eaten). Together they go to outrace and out smart dinosaurs to rescue their son who is stuck on one of these dinosaur islands and before the movie is done they —- reconcile. Is there a pattern to be detected here?

This dovetails nicely with a two part post I’m working on which is  coming up soon, near Father’s Day. But suffice to say that Hollywood, for all its inherent contempt for traditional families, seems to understand the life affirming fundamentally satisfying solidity of the traditional family structure.

There is an analogy here for all of us. Many families work, struggle, love and thrive with single parents, children of broken homes, and of homes headed by widows and widowers. There is great nobility in these homes because they are operating at a huge disadvantage. These four blockbuster movies reflect in concentrated microcosm the difficulties of daily living. I may not be leaping in front of an ultrasaurus or racing ahead of a 1000 foot tidal wave or blowing up a 6 mile wide meteor but as families we all face obstacles that seem potentially world shattering. These movies touch on our core instinct that understands the strongest template for protection, for success and for survival is the mom plus dad plus kids. There is something basic in our nature that recognizes almost anything can be accomplished, any obstacle overcome, any challenges can be broken by a mom and dad fighting for their children. While not all of us have the blessings of that armor, it is a structure we can teach our children to strive towards for their own protection and the protection of their own families against the tidal waves, the dinosaurs, and the natural disasters to come.

Answer – Spy Kids, Island of Lost Dreams, and Game Over

6-10-15

Should You Trust Me?

Of course not!! When evaluating anything for your own children you should review it first hand! Even within our own close knit family, opinions differ on what is and/or would be appropriate for one’s children.

Let me tell you a story. Full disclosure here. When my oldest daughter was going on a date with her, then boyfriend, now husband, I made the grand mistake of suggesting a movie I had not seen. They were both in their twenties, almost graduated from college. I was making the recommendation based upon the director and a trailer and thought – they’re big people, this group makes fun movies, what could be the harm? It was their first movie together. And let’s just say it was —– memorable. Neither of them would consider themselves prudish but the movie was so filled with raunchy sexual humor that even they were embarrassed. I was, of course, horrified and am still needled about this poor choice to this day. I won’t tell you the name because I don’t want to give it ANY kind of endorsement, even from curiosity or some kind of reverse psychology. Suffice it to say — don’t assume every movie will be good even from a director/writer whose work you have seen before.

So – moral to the story — when I suggest something, while I can assure you, I HAVE seen it, before passing along the recommendation or showing it to your children, YOU SHOULD SEE IT FIRST!

My memory for films is quite good. Family members know better than to bet against me on movie trivia and my husband has only bested me ONCE in 37 years on ONE question, and I am kind of the family walking film encyclopedia. However, knowledge isn’t wisdom. I might forget or neglect to mention some detail that could be important to you. Or maybe I saw it BC – before children – or without the children and was not, at that time, being as attentive as I might otherwise have been about language or dialogue content. Or there could be something in the movie that could be a specific hot point for your family or for a particular child.

MINOR SPOILERS

For example, Poltergeist (the original 1982 one – haven’t seen the new version) has a really scary scene with a clown doll. In Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Ariel’s father, frightened for his daughter and angry she has been concealing trinkets from the world of people who killed his wife/her mother destroys a room with all of Ariel’s most precious possessions. In Lord of the Rings some of the Orcs EAT each other.

While every movie needs an antagonist – be it human or other – and family conflict often will move a plot along, you might not mind a roller coaster scare for a child, but you don’t want them up with nightmares for a week, or shunning a family member because of a movie they saw. And only you would know – or should know – what your child could/should watch.

So – trust me? No. Trust your own judgment. But even then, as President Reagan said – “Trust but verify”. And I hope these articles help give you the tools to do just that.

6-5-15

Rob Roy: Prolife Historical Action Adventure

Rob Roy is the story of the Chief of the Scottish Clan MacGregor. Set in early 1700’s Liam Neeson plays Rob Roy, an honorable man who seeks only to protect his family and better his Clan. Towards this end he borrows money from Montrose (John Hurt) in hopes of making a go of purchasing and breeding cattle which the MacGregor Clan has heretofore only eked out a living protecting from rustling.

SPOILERS

The borrowed money is stolen and Montrose offers Rob Roy an opportunity to wipe the debt clean if Rob Roy would falsely testify against one of Montrose’s competitors. Rob Roy refuses and what befalls the MacGregor clan and how Rob Roy fights to regain his honor and defend his family provides the bulk of the rest of the action. There are chases and intrigue, sword fights and near escapes.

But there is one thing that makes this movie stand apart in a way that, sadly, few movies do. Cunningham (Tim Roth), a brutal penniless aristocrat, is hired by Montrose to torment the MacGregors. Cunningham goes to the MacGregor estate and rapes Rob Roy’s wife, Mary (Jessica Lange), in an effort to provoke Rob Roy into an open fight. (Rightly) fearful her husband will hunt Cunningham down and probably get himself killed in the attempt to revenge her, she conceals the attack. Months later, while on the run, Rob Roy finds out about the rape. When he returns home Mary confesses she had thought to abort the baby (unfortunately abortion was not invented in the 1970’s) but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Rob Roy says: “It’s not the child that needs killing.” The baby – and I emphasize baby – is innocent. The child in the womb, created from a violent act of rape, is recognized as innocent. In this world there are no exceptions for rape (and presumably not incest). A child is a child. Such an acknowledgement is rare as hen’s teeth in a Hollywood film and a breath of fresh air in a culture that discards “surprise” children as one would a wart. Furthermore, as Rob Roy leaves his wife to go to an honor duel against Cunningham which will clear his name, and wipe the debt but almost certainly end in his death, Rob Roy tells Mary: If the baby is a boy name him after me, if a girl, name her after you. He not only recognizes this “product of rape” as an innocent human baby but with an open heart accepts the child into his family.

(Quick Quiz: There was another movie which dealt with a mistreated Scottish clan chief who was inspired to action by the abuse of the woman he loved. Made in the same year, 1995, it massively overshadowed Rob Roy, garnering 10 nominations and winning both Best picture and Best director, where Rob Roy only won a best supporting nomination for Tim Roth, which Roth didn’t even win. What was this other movie?)

The rest of Rob Roy is a great story too. Excellent historical drama. The cinematography is lovely. Filmed on location in Scotland the landscape is breathtaking. But this one intimate scene between Rob Roy and Mary at night in a cabin by a simple fire has always stuck in my mind as the most beautiful.

WARNING

The language is occasionally coarse and there are some truly vulgar sexual scenes involving Cunningham. The scenes, including the rape, are not gratuitous as Cunningham is awful and these scenes define his loathsome character, but they are NOT for the kiddies. There are also some gory bits, including a man literally being cleaved in twain by a broadsword.

SO — I have, on occasion, simply shown my kids isolated appropriate scenes in movies that are otherwise too old for them. Those scenes would have to be worth the trouble, and the scene between this husband and wife who recognize the preciousness of infant human life irrelevant of origin or biological parentage is one of those scenes. Delicate and gentle in a movie full of cruel men and fierce retaliation, it is a small film unto itself.

6-3-15

Answer: Braveheart

Screenit BEFORE you Screen It

I have seen the movies I review – kind of obvious. But what if you HAVEN’T seen it and you plan to go with your: grandmother, kids, first date, or priest? Or what if there are elements YOU just find offensive or unpleasant? If certain things ruin your suspension of disbelief: graphic violence, specific profanities, whatever is your personal family definition of explicit sex, or even smoking or scary “jump” music, what do you do? Call every friend you know who might have seen the movie to scour their memory for anything that you might not like? Go see it and hope for the best? Skip it?

There is a FABULOUS website called Screenit (www.screenit.com). They document ever profanity – how it’s used, the number, whether it is complete or whether it is partially used or done with humor – as in Shitaki mushrooms instead of s*** (InstaQuiz: what movie is this from? Answer below).

Screenit describes in detail every salacious scene. Is the shirt on, shirt off, position of camera, proximity of characters to each other, context of naked (are they showering or — engaged in another activity?), who are they with?……………..OK, yes, that IS kind of a funny, almost oxymoron if you’re trying to AVOID that kind of thing. But forewarned is forearmed – better to read about it than be surprised with a 22 by 52 foot wide visual AND if you read one that is a “deal breaker” there’s no law that says you have to read the rest. The morality of how you USE the information: alert or titillation is entirely up to you. LOL

Screenit documents if there is smoking and context. Movies set in World War II, for example, would be incomplete without it given the culture of the day. Violence: is it cartoonish? graphic? show beginning of a violent act but cut away for the “final blow” or is it “in your face” gory. They discuss “tense family issues”. Does the movie involve divorce, death of a close family member, alcoholism, animal abuse, loud arguments, job loss, terminal illness, etc? Is there gun use or “imitative behavior”. Will the movie feature kids jumping off the roof of a house for fun or swaggering around a school yard in a way and by a character they might want to imitate? If there is “scary” music or “jump”
scenes where creatures leap out or camera cuts happen with the intent to startle or frighten, this site warns you.

Anything that might put you off from a particular film or make you decide to be more discrete about who you would show it to is in this site. Of course, DO keep in mind, that means this site is almost nothing BUT spoilers — just so’s you’ll know.

I use it for almost everything I see. The only downside is that it does not cover many classic old movies, many of which have a lot of the above. Even a child’s film, like Bambi has: fire engulfing the protagonist’s home, the violent sudden death of the protagonist’s mother, mild derision of a handicapped creature – Thumper laughs at Bambi as he is trying to walk. Dumbo has the famous “pink elephants  on parade” scene – intoxication of a child, violent arrest of his mother, abuse by neighbors – the other elephant moms make fun of his ears and shun Dumbo. I mean, I saw all these films as a child. I’ve shown them to my kids as I find value in them. But everyone has their own hot buttons and it is best you avoid those things that bother you. This is where Screenit comes in handy.

They even list the topics that, should you choose to see the movie, you might want to discuss either before or after the film with your companions or, especially, your children: was the FBI agent justified in crashing through a large display glass window in pursuit of an escaping convict? should the kids have gone to their parents before trying to help the alien? would you have come back to fight if someone called you “chicken”? these are the kinds of issues Screenit  flags. (And, for the record, I wrote each “issue topic” based upon a specific movie. Can you identify them? See below for answers.)

It’s not just a cookie cutter one-size-fits-all broadband rating. They provide you with the tools to make your own personal decision for you and your family. Screenit DOES have an “Our Take” spot where they review the movie and tell you how well or badly it is presented, no matter whether the content is banal or egregious, but for the most part their raison d’être is to give you a heads up based upon your own personal, detailed family and religious codes of ethics. Even within a religion two families can have different sensitive spots depending on their history, family make up and interpretation of appropriate.

Screenit used to be free but they now charge a modest $7.95/month membership fee. I find the price WELL worth it. You can hardly buy a movie ticket, much less popcorn and drink for that. So before you queue up for popcorn, check out screenit.com to be sure the money you’ve spent on your ticket won’t be wasted by disappointment or shock or embarrassment.

So, the moral to THIS story is:     www.screenit.com BEFORE you screen it.

Answer: Spy Kids

The Rock, ET, Back to the Future.

6-1-15

Patton!

SHORT TAKE:

One of, if not THE most, brilliant portrayals of a historic figure (OK Oldman's Churchill makes this a two way tie) ever filmed. General George S. Patton, U.S. military genius, Commander of the 3rd Army, without whom we might easily have been defeated by the Nazis. George C Scott, U.S. acting genius, winner of two Academy Awards and numerous other awards, without whom this movie might easily have been reduced to a forgettable biography.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

Everyone, at least every American, eventually, should see this masterpiece. I saw it when I was twelve and despite the language and violence, it facilitated my unadulterated respect, appreciation, and love for our American Military. BUT – because OF the language and scenes of violence and war time brutality, (not nearly as unfiltered as Saving Private Ryan or Lone Survivor though), parents would be well advised to see it themselves to accomodate to their individual child's temperament and sensibilities.

LONG TAKE:

Patton. Some movies are an education unto themselves. No secret messages. No particular underlying themes. Just something to learn from watching. In 1970 I fell in love with both George C. Scott and General George S. Patton at the same time. Both men, geniuses in their given fields of endeavors.  Scott's portrayal of this iconic World War II figure is a stunning example of acting ability. He IS Patton – probably more Patton than Patton himself. This movie inspired an interest in the General that I continued for years. I am proud that General George S. Patton was OUR General. America's hero. Possibly the best American General in our history (possibly equaled by sheer nerve and determination  only by George Washington). Every battle Patton undertook he won. Every plan he pursued was brilliant.

But the man himself, as portrayed in this movie and backed up by the research I did on him in the years after, showed George S. Patton to be a complex man of ridiculously proportioned contradictions. Devoutly religious but verbally profane, he believed "give it to them loud and dirty and they'll remember it". Fought with his men on the front lines but almost courtly in his manner and dress. Reverent of life but in love with death, he wanted to die "by the last bullet fired in the last battle of the last war." Fiercely loyal to his men but intolerant of weakness as potentially lethal to the soldier and those around him Fiercely patrioticbut admiring of Rommel, his counterpart in the German Army tank division. Devoted student of the Christian Bible but believed in reincarnation. As a matter of fact he believed he had been a participant – often a humble one – in battles dating back thousands of years to the Roman military legions. He even wrote a poem about it, "Through a Glass, Darkly", a poem about reincarnation which harkens (in typical inherent contradiction) to a Biblical quote from 1Corinthians 13:12:

So as through a glass, and darkly
The age long strife I see
Where I fought in many guises,
Many names, but always me.

And I see not in my blindness
What the objects were I wrought,
But as God rules o'er our bickerings
It was through His will I fought.

So forever in the future,
Shall I battle as of yore,
Dying to be born a fighter,
But to die again, once more. (General George S. Patton)

Patton recounts brilliantly the most important slice of life of this larger than life man during his involvement in the latter part of World War Two to its European end. In the process of this recounting, the movie examines not just the man but his strategies, the view the German military intelligence had of Patton, and the horrors of war through the eyes of this man who was both appalled and enamored of it.

There are some people born for (or made by – sometimes hard to tell the difference) the challenge of the time with which they are struggling: Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, William Marshall, Pope John Paul II. Patton was one of those people.

Watching this movie is a history lesson and a biography.

But be warned – the language is ROUGH. No "f" bombs or any language directly relating to inappropriate sexual encounters. But there is a bucket load of damns, hells, and a few son of a b****, s***, and G-d***. There is NO sex in it whatsoever. His interactions with women are limited to PR talks with tittering elderly British tea drinkers. He was as devoutly faithful to his wife as he was to his country. But if the language offends you or you are concerned for your children then either limit this movie to your older kids or catch it when it is shown on TV. While current TV sports FAR worse language, the TV versions of this movie were edited at a time when auditory sensibilities were more attuned to a gentler culture. In other words – they cut out more profanity than they would today.

Patton is a, straight up, history lesson and presented in one of the finest performances by, in my estimation, the premiere American actor of his time. The finest American General during one of the finest hours of American history portrayed by the finest American actor of his generation. Can't get much better than that.

5-31-15

Monsters(sic) University: A Monstrous Lesson

Betcha didn’t know that the origin of “monster” was from the Latin word “monere,” which not only means “to warn” but it also means “to instruct or teach”. So Monsters University (if we can here on out forgive and forget the missing apostrophe punctuation error in the title) really means – a teaching university.

But that is not what I came here to talk to you about. Monsters, Inc., which came out in 2001, 12 years before Monsters University, was a very cute movie. My oldest was 13 and my youngest 3 and they all loved it. Bryan and I did too. Unique quirky movie about gentle giant monsters who scared kids to make them scream, to power their world the way electricity powers ours. The story focuses  on two inseparable best friends: Sulley, voiced by John Goodman and Mike by Billy Crystal. Sulley is a big blue furry Big Foot kind of guy and Mike is a round one-eyed green basketball shaped monster who is Sulley’s coach. As a team no one can beat them in scream units. Their world believes children are toxic so they NEVER EVER touch a child or anything they own. They are transported through warp-portal-like doors which can take them instantly anywhere in the world. One day Sulley walks into the bedroom of a very small child who is just not afraid of him but follows him back into HIS world. They discover she is not toxic, there is a lot of running about, misunderstandings and learning about how friendships can traverse enormous differences. Blah blah blah. Cute.

But this is not what I have come here to talk to you about. The lesson that I have come to tell about was in the sequel — er, prequel, Monsters University.  THAT story is about how Sulley and Mike meet. Throwback, in Sulley and Mike’s time, some 12 years before we meet them in Monsters, Inc., and we have Monsters University. This, in a kind of backwards time warp, is the length of time it took the filmmakers to getting around to make Monsters University. In Monsters University, released in 2013, we find that Sulley is the academics-avoiding BMOC at Monsters U and Mike is the new guy and misfit. Mike is the smart one who will never be wanted for a team but knows every trick written in every textbook about scaring. They hate each other on sight for obvious reasons but they are thrown together by a series of events to struggle in a common challenge and learn to benefit from each others’ strengths – Sulley becomes the brawn to Mike’s brains. This is not much of a spoiler as we know they are friends in the first movie, Monsters, Inc. Blah, blah, blah.  Cute – we’ve seen it before.

But this is not what I have come here to talk about. The brilliant homeschooling moment comes in the last 10 minutes of Monsters University. Now, I promised I would not give away any spoilers without warning. Normally I don’t like to give spoilers at all but occasionally it is necessary. This is one of those times. OK, the following includes spoilers – kind of a “duh” since I AM going to discuss the end of the movie.

3–2–1– you have been warned. At the end of Monsters University , the pair overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles by doing what countless other movie protagonist pairs or groups have done in many many other movies. They overcome the odds the same way Captain Kirk conquered the Kobyashi Maru — they cheat. They break the rules. Now, there ARE grounds and justifications for these actions but nonetheless the rules are broken. In most cases, including in my beloved Star Trek scenario, rule breakage is usually not only forgiven but rewarded. Punishment is usually – to use a Catholicism – indulged, in that given the circumstances the intrepid heroes are cut about a mile’s worth of swathe and they get everything they want and are seen in the end as the champions to be emulated. To me this has always been a mixed message. Yes, whatever they did was brave and for a good cause but —– they did something wrong. Often terribly wrong. And kids are supposed to imitate this??

Well, guess what? In the end of Monsters Univerity our heroes, Sulley and Mike, who we have come to love and laugh with and cheer for over two movies, who we KNOW become champions in Monsters, Inc.,  are NOT forgiven but ——- are expelled! They are thrown out!! Their one track to success, financial reward, employment in their dream jobs at Monsters, Inc. seems thwarted – forever! But how is that possible? Do they plan a rethink of the first movie? Furthermore this breaks the mold! The campus BMOC and the one who would have otherwise been valedictorian are —-kicked out! I was astonished that reality would be appropriately crashed into this little film.

But then the pair, instead of giving up their dream as a hopeless cause, make a very realistic decision. They apply for work at Monsters, Inc. —- as mail room clerks. The rest of the movie is without dialogue but shows the duo, in a series of news clipping and photos taped to the inside of their workroom locker, making the absolutely best out of the bed they have made themselves. They are promoted again and again, given more and more responsibility. Until one day they apply for and are accepted as scarers. The rest is …well, history from the first familiar movie.

OK – what to make of this? Two important lessons, I think. The first is that actions have consequences. One does not often see that in movies. From people who sleep around without getting pregnant or STDs, to car crashes without passengers going into shock, to celebrity police breaking every rule and never getting more than a token slap on the wrist, to intrepid (often teen) heroes  being given carte blanche for a “good cause”, the heroes are never really chastened.

Here, Sulley and Mike ARE punished.  If you decide to break the rules, violate the law, even for a good cause, you must accept the consequences of your actions – even if, in the scheme of the bigger picture, those rules seem unfair. Sulley and Mike expect and accept the responsibility of their punishment with dignity and grace. They are neither angry nor bitter but understand it is the consequence of what they have done, no matter the exigent circumstances. There is a nobility and maturity written into these characters which you just do not often see.

This is a valuable lesson by itself. But THEN they demonstrate yet ANOTHER extremely important life lesson – that if you do not get what you want through conventional channels, perhaps you just need to take another route and WORK YOUR BUNS OFF TO GET IT!

I think the messages from the end of this movie were surprising and wonderfully applicable to the real challenges all of us eventually face. Monsters, Inc. was a nice kid film. That kid audience grew up in the 12 years between Monsters, Inc. and its prequel and, interestingly, the growth of maturity of the lesson in this sequel/prequel is tandem to the growth of its first audience. The kids who went to bed with stuffed animal versions of Sulley and Mike from Monsters, Inc. would be the teenagers and young adults observing their childhood friends accepting responsibility for their actions and making responsible decisions in Monsters University. That is truly a large life education. So — Monsters University really IS a monstrous lesson.

5-28-15

If there was only one movie I could have on a desert island………

……….I would choose It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). It is astonishing to me  how many people have never heard of this classic. It is the perfect movie: funny, warm, family friendly, yet deals with issues from suicide to accusations of embezzlement and adultery.  Faithful to Catholic teaching yet respectful to all religions. Diverse population without being politically correct. Time travel – of a sort as we review a man’s life. LARGE ensemble cast but every one three dimensional, each given at least one memorable defining moment. Beautifully and purposefully filmed in black and white with shots that take advantage of the natural shadings the way a master artist might lovingly shape a charcoal sketch of their family. Tragedy, hope, despair and redemption. Thoughtful, witty and moments of slapstick. This REEL life is much like REAL life. Some of the most memorable characters you will ever encounter, some of the best acting you will ever see, shots long enough to impress Alfred Hitchcock… forgive an apparent hyperbole but — it really does deal with the meaning of life, and the danged thing makes me cry EVERY — SINGLE — TIME — I — WATCH — IT!

The story starts in Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve. Snow is falling and as you pan over the night of this idyllic town you hear in voice over the prayers of men, women and children on behalf of a man named George Bailey. Then we hear a conversation taking place among Saint Joseph and his superior and….Clarence – an angel Second Class, at which point we immediately understand this movie, while dealing with serious adult and even theological issues, will not mire itself in the somber. One of the brilliances of this film is the way it balances humor with the serious – and in such a way that is completely natural.

You will meet your friends and neighbors, family and — yourself. There is something of the familiar and relatable in all the characters. Bert the cop (Ward Bond of many war movies and old Western TV shows), Ernie the taxi driver (Frank Faylen). (And yes, this is the origin of the Sesame Street characters’ names.) Mr. Gower the druggist (H.B. Warner), Uncle Billy the eccentric (Thomas Mitchell of Gone With the Wind fame), Violet the local vamp (Gloria Grahame), Mary Hatch (Donna Reed – the perfect homemaker LONG before Martha Stewart) plays the girl next door, Peter Bailey (Samuel S. Hinds) – owner of the local Building and Loan…and of course George, his son, the protagonist of the movie played by none other than Jimmy Stewart…and many more. The actors are either famous or classic character actors whose faces you will recognize if you have ever haunted TV Land, Turner Classics or just watched old favorite movies with your grandparents.

While the movie follows, in a very Our Town kind of intimate but universal way, the details of life in this small mythical but archetype town, the plot traverses timeless struggles about the definition of success, responsibility versus one’s personal desires, love versus lust, fame versus family, and with a protagonist who is definitely not perfect. He is truly an Everyman. George wants to be a SUCCESS – build skyscrapers and bridges – but, well, life happens, and instead he builds modest but beautiful houses for a lower income population. He wants to be famous but is pretty much only known by his friends and family. And then there is Mr. Potter (THE Lionel Barrymore, in REAL life the patriarch of three generations of distinguished actors including Drew of ET the Extraterrestrial fame) – the clear antagonist who is the “richest man in town” and who hates/envies the Building and Loan in general and the Baileys in particular. The whys don’t really matter but are easy speculation – the Baileys are competitors for Potter’s banking business and the Baileys have what he can’t – love, home and family.

It is hard to talk about this movie without giving away essential details but I do try to be VERY careful to avoid spoilers. So I won’t say much more but to tell you that this is a film that I would recommend to ANYone.  Child, adult, priest, grandmother, roommate, your 5 year old little sister and your Army buddy.

OK How does this relate to homeschooling? Well, I’ll tell you. I saw It’s a Wonderful Life probably half a dozen times when I was a kid then probably once a year for every one of the 33 years of our marriage. That makes dozens of times. And I plan to see it in the future every year that God gives me. I no more tire of it than I would the face of an old friend. And I see something new in it EVERY time I watch it.

Bryan and I  have been homeschooling for 24 years. As I explain to newbie homeschoolers, homeschooling is not a curriculum, it is a way of life, seeing everything as an opportunity to teach your child something. And I can tell you that not a week has gone by since my adulthood, especially since we have been having kids, without SOMETHING from that movie informing a moment, a thought, a decision. It has inspired me to let an unfair comment go unrevenged, a temptation be avoided, assure an unwanted obligation was lovingly fulfilled. I cannot think of a single challenge in life that could not benefit from an example set by at least one of the characters in this movie. What feats of strength will love for a brother help a man perform? What burdens can be born guided by a sense of honor? What trials can be endured with a sense of humor and just the smallest spark of love for another person? Simple honesty, trust in a parent, the keeping of a confidence, courage to keep a friend from making a terrible mistake, love for your spouse and child, understanding what makes life worth living………

These are lessons that are beyond school books.

I am honored to have seen this movie and to be able to make it the subject of my very first post of my very first blog. I hope Mr. Frank Capra is pleased.

BTW – there was a remake with Marlo Thomas in the lead called It Happened One Christmas, but sadly and all due respect to both Ms. Thomas and her wonderful father, Danny, who founded St Jude’s Hospital – um — just see the 1946 version.

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