There is undeniable little girl appeal in this story of a big, selfish meanie of a quarterback who is tamed by the 8-year-old daughter he never knew he had. Some audiences will find it as sugary as a fruit-scented princess pony sticker book, but its intended viewers will be delighted to see a story with a little girl who is smarter and more responsible than many of the adults around her and is adored by every one of them, especially her big, tough daddy.
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Writer-director-editor-actor John Sayles has made some of the most consistently literate, subtle, and engaging films of the last three decades, including The Secret of Roan Inish, Lone Star, Casa de los Babys, Passion Fish, and Eight Men Out. I spoke to him about his new movie, “Honeydripper,” the story of Tyrone (Danny Glover), who has a bar in 1950 Harmony, Alabama. His only hope for keeping it going is an appearance by recording star Guitar Sam. When Sam does not show up, Tyrone substitutes a young performer named Sonny, counting on the fact that no one in Harmony has any idea what Guitar Sam looks like.
Would you say there is one theme in your movies, one idea that you like to explore?
The ones that are set in the US, a lot of them are about that tension between the American dream, what we think of as our ideal, and the reality. I like to show people who think they have nothing to do with each other listening to each other. Music is the way people pay attention to each other first, listening to and borrowing from each other’s music, before they are willing to share ideas.
Your last few films have been contemporary. What is different about doing a film set in another time?
Period films are more fun for the art dept. They read a lot of books and look at a lot of pictures, looking at cars, guitars, everything that appears in the film. I am thinking through the characters, how did they think back then, what did they accept, what did they question. This takes place in 1950, before the media started calling it the Civil Rights Movement. Southern towns were not on the alert yet that there was going to be a movement. They were still saying, “We thought all our colored people were happy.” You have to get yourself back into that head. I read autobiographies and biographies, to just get the vibe of the time. It’s within my lifetime, but we’re talking to people who are younger. Our audience is adults who were born years after Martin Luther King was assassinated. He’s somebody on the history channel to them and they do not have that personal experience of how radical he was.
For me the heaviest line in the movie is when the sheriff says “Take your hat off,” not because he’s the sheriff, it’s not a question of his legal authority. It is just because he is white. Unlearning what we know, every character you have to kind of work that equation in. The political activist in the film is the Pullman porter [from the railroad]. They were the guys who got around and delivered the message. They had the most radical union. That was the era of [Pullman porter labor organizer] A. Philip Randolph.
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This updated fairy tale has some clever riffs on “Snow White” but never makes use of the considerable talents of its star, Amanda Bynes.
Sydney (Bynes) is a college freshman who wants to join Kappa, the most exclusive sorority on campus, though she is more comfortable on a construction site than at a cotillion. “You know how people joke about being raised by wolves? I was raised by construction workers,” she explains and we cut to her devoted father (“The Dukes of Hazzard’s” John Schneider) illustrating the facts of life for her with plumbing supplies. When she knew she was dying, Sydney’s mother wrote her a letter, telling her how much she loved being in the sorority. Now Sydney wants to fulfill her mother’s dream.
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In this true story of determination and courage, a young man from a blue collar family wants to play football for Notre Dame, despite the fact he has neither the athletic nor the academic skills. Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger (Sean Astin) is told by his family and his teachers college of any kind is out of the question for him, and he should be content with the good, steady work with his family at a steel mill. Only his best friend, Pete, believes in him, and when Pete is killed in an accident at the mill four years after their high school graduation, Rudy puts on the Notre Dame jacket Pete gave him and takes the bus to South Bend. A sympathetic priest helps him get into nearby Holy Cross Junior College, where, with the help of a shy tutor named D-Bob (John Favreau), he is able to make the grades necessary to be accepted as a transfer to Notre Dame.
The coaches make it clear he will never be good enough to play, but they accept him on the team to act as an opposing team player in practice sessions. His determination and commitment endear him to the team, and he is finally permitted to play for seven seconds of his last game, assuring him a place in the record books as having made it to the Fighting Irish.
With some reservations about the language, this is a good family movie for a discussion of dreams – the importance of having them and the possibility of achieving them through persistence and commitment. Rudy is contrasted not only with the athletes who have far more ability but none of the “heart,” but also with his friend Fortune (Charles S. Dutton), who reveals near the end that he was once a member of the team but quit, and has regretted it every day since.
Rudy’s father is afraid of dreams; his own father lost everything in the Depression by risking all he had to have a dairy farm. He insists Notre Dame is not for people “like us.” Rudy’s older brother, Frank, does not want Rudy to succeed, because then he will have to confront his own failure to try for something more. Rudy’s teammates want him to “tone it down a notch,” not to “play every practice like it was the Super Bowl.” But ultimately, his spirit and his insistence on giving everything he can every single time inspires them. Rudy becomes an indispensable part of the team, and each of his teammates goes to the coach to insist Rudy play in his place.
Parents should know that this movie has very strong language for a PG movie. A man calls another a “pussy,” and there is a reference to “busting your balls.” D-Bob’s girlfriend tells him not to swear anymore. Characters drink beer. Rudy gets a little drunk, with consequences – he makes the mistake of telling the secret he had been trying to keep: he was not enrolled at Notre Dame. There is a scuffle in a bar and a subtext of class issues.
Family discussion: What are some of the things Rudy has to do to be able to be on the team? Which are the hardest? What are some of the things he had to give up? Which do the people who made the movie think is more important, ability or determination? How can you tell? Why didn’t Fortune admit he left Rudy the key? How did Fortune change Rudy’s mind? Why didn’t the quarterback do what the coach said at the end of Rudy’s last game? Why did Pete’s death make Rudy decide not to wait any longer? Do you think determination is a talent you have to have, or can you learn it? Have you ever been determined to make something happen? What did happen?
If you like this, try: Ideally, this movie should be seen as a double feature with Knute Rockne, All-American, that other great movie about Notre Dame football. Pat O’Brien appears in the title role, and Ronald Reagan plays “the Gipper,” whose deathbed request inspired the most famous motivational speech of all time, memorialized on a plaque in the Fighting Irish’s locker room and read aloud by Rudy.
Rudy is played by Sean Astin, son of Patty Duke (The Miracle Worker) and John Astin (West Side Story). In real life, Rudy (who appears in a photo at the end of the movie and as a fan in the stands) had a second dream: to make a movie about his time at Notre Dame. Like the first dream, it seemed impossible, and like the first dream, he made it come true.