“This is It” is here to rescue us from the tabloids and remind us what true star power looks like. There are moments of aching sadness as we get a behind-the-scenes look at the concert tour that never happened, but it is the very intimacy of the preparation process that makes the film so enthralling. Jackson comes across as the consummate professional, always polite and appreciative but with a stunning mastery of the smallest detail and the biggest special effect in putting together what would have been a ground-breaking performance.
Jackson seems physically frail at times, conserving his voice and his energy in the musical numbers as the back-up dancers give it performance-level power every time. In one lovely moment, he falls so much in love with a song he is rehearsing that he cannot resist giving it full power and, as happens more than once in the course of the film, all of the people working on the show just stop to watch and listen, utterly entranced. In another moment, we glimpse his quick, private smile of satisfaction with a number that has come together. When he sings “I’ll Be There,” we can’t help being reminded that even though he is gone, his performances will be a part of our lives forever.
There’s a glimpse of the auditions, the dancers almost overcome with the chance to try out for what they consider the zenith of entertainment. He tells one musician to “let it simmer” and demonstrates a guitar riff for another. He is unfailingly appreciative and thoughtful, over and over thanking everyone and unfailingly respectful in giving direction, almost apologetic when he says that the earpiece is making it harder for him to hear. The endless series of bizarre outfits with their military stripes and Munchkin-like shoulders, seem irrelevant when we watch the way he interacts with people and the way he thinks about the songs and dances. Appropriately, the most thrilling moment is “Thriller.” Jackson says he wants to take us places we have never been before, and in this combination concert film/documentary, he reminds us of the power of imagination and talent and the reason he was a star.
The athletes have worked harder than they ever imagined, pushing themselves to the limits of their endurance. They’ve learned how to run faster and hit, kick, or shoot harder. They’ve watched tape of the other team, the champions, the ones who seem unbeatable. They’ve learned that there is no “I” in “team,” and then they learned it again. And then comes that moment when they feel that they have nothing left. It is time for some encouragement and motivation. They need some words that can remind the players that what they are doing matters, that it is worth stretching their souls and bodies to the limit, that this is a defining moment that will tell them and everyone who knows them and everyone who will ever know them who they are. They need to know that it is not about scoring or medals or applause; it is about courage, determination, loyalty, and knowing you have given your entire heart to something. That is when they need a great coach.
Movie coaches, most of them real-life characters, have provided some of the most memorable moments in film history, inspiring us in the audience as they inspire the athletes on screen. And, in our own private, faint-hearted moments, we often think back on those “Win one for the Gipper” speeches for our own sense of meaning, purpose, and confidence. When you feel as though you can use a pep talk, these coaches are always available on DVD.
12. A League of Their Own Sometimes the coach is the one who needs some inspiration. In this movie, Tom Hanks is a former baseball player who is bitter following an injury. He has a drinking problem, but his former fame gets him a position as the coach in an all-female league, created to keep the fans happy while the male players were fighting in World War II. It is the heart, dedication, and ability of the players that inspires him to become the coach they need. Quote: “There’s no crying in baseball!”
11. Personal Best Scott Glenn plays the coach of women training for the Olympics. In one memorable scene, he has a monologue as he watches one of his athletes run around a track, and shows his frustration on both of their behalfs at the second-class treatment of women athletes and and his fierce pride in watching her beat a man. Quote: “The high jump is a masochist’s event–it always ends on failure.”
10. Knute Rockne All American The legendary Notre Dame coach was an innovator who changed the game of football by popularizing the forward pass and set many records including five undefeated seasons. Pat O’Brien plays Rockne in this film, and Ronald Reagan plans the player whose death inspired the most famous locker room speech in history. Quote: ” I’m going to tell you something I’ve kept to myself for years — None of you ever knew George Gipp. It was long before your time. But you know what a tradition he is at Notre Dame…And the last thing he said to me — “Rock,” he said — “sometime, when the team is up against it — and the breaks are beating the boys — tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper.”
9. Remember the Titans When an Alexandria, Virginia school was integrated for the first time, it wasn’t just the teammates who had to learn to work together. Coach Boone (Denzel Washington) and Coach Yoast (Will Patton) had to become a team as well. This true story of their first team and its undefeated season, and if you plan to watch, bring a handkerchief. Maybe two. Quote: “In Greek mythology, the Titans were greater even than the gods. They ruled their universe with absolute power. Well that football field out there, that’s our universe. Let’s rule it like Titans.”
8. Coach Carter The great thing about Coach Carter is that after he turns his rag-tag players into a disciplined, winning team, he benches them. Samuel L. Jackson plays real-life coach Ken Carter, who benched the team and locked the gym to insist that his team members could not play unless they did their schoolwork and got good grades. Quote: “You really need to consider the message you’re sending this boys by ending the lockout. It’s the same message that we as a culture send to our professional athletes; and that is that they are above the law. If these boys cannot honor the simple rules of a basketball contract, how long do you think it will be before they’re out there breaking the law?”
7. Glory Road Josh Lucas plays real-life coach Texas Western Don Haskins, who coached the first NCAA basketball team with an all-black starting line-up in 1966. Haskins did not intend to be a civil rights pioneer. He just wanted the best players he could find. And in that era, there were plenty of black basketball players who were not getting offers from anyone else. So Haskins put together a team with a lot of talent and a lot of passion for the game, and then he showed them how to be better players and an even better team than they had ever imagined. Quote: “Your dignity’s inside you. Nobody can take something away from you you don’t give them.”
6. Miracle And don’t miss the documentary: Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team. It’s still referred to as the “Miracle on Ice.” No one thought the American hockey players had a chance against the Soviet team in the 1980 Olympics. The Americans were amateurs from different teams. The Soviets were the world champions. The David and Goliath game that resulted was voted the number one international game in hockey history on the 100th anniversary of the game. The American team beat the Soviets because they had coach Herb Brooks, played here by Kurt Russell. Brooks said he won because he picked “not the best players but the right players.” Quote: “Great moments… are born from great opportunity. And that’s what you have here, tonight, boys. That’s what you’ve earned here tonight. One game. If we played ’em ten times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight.”
5. Friday Night Lights Before the television show, there was a book and there was this movie, with Billy Bob Thornton as coach Gary Gaines. In small-town Texas, everyone in town goes to the high school football games, everyone thinks they know what the coach should be doing, and every player knows that he may never do anything again that matters to as many people as winning the season. Quote: “Being perfect means going onto the field knowing that you did everything you could have done, with clear eyes, love in your heart, joy in your heart.”
4. Hoosiers Gene Hackman plays Norman Dale, who must battle his own demons to be the coach his high school basketball team deserves in this quietly powerful film inspired by the real-life story of the small-town team that took the Indiana state championship in 1951. Quote: “These six individuals have made a choice to work, a choice to sacrifice, to put themselves on the line 23 nights for the next 4 months, to represent you, this high school. That kind of commitment and effort deserves and demands your respect. This is your team.”
3. Chariots of Fire A competitor in the 1924 Olympics took the unusual step of seeking a coach, considered vaguely unsporting in those days of the gentleman athlete. And the coach, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm) was an unconventional choice. So overcome he cannot bear to watch the race, Mussabini sits in his hotel room. When the word comes in that his runner has won, he quietly punches out the crown of his straw hat. Quote: “A short sprint is run on nerves.”
2. Stick It (and also see Bridges as a coach in Surf’s Up) Jeff Bridges is so natural as the coach of girl gymnasts in “Stick It” and a surfing penguin in “Surf’s Up” that if feels like he was born to play the perfect disciplinarian/mentor/source of inspiration. In the underrated “Stick It,” his toughest challenge is a gifted athlete who quit gymnastics and is then sentenced to compete again to stay out of juvenile detention. He has to teach her to trust him before he can begin to coach her. Quote: “This isn’t the real world. This is my world. You don’t have to like me or like it here, but you do have to respect it.”
1. The Heart of the Game Bill Resler is a tax law professor who agrees to coach a girls’ high school basketball team in this spellbinding and documentary about the quintessentially American themes: race, gender, class, lawsuits, heart, skill, optimism, despair, setbacks, and triumph. Unforgettable. Quote: “Devour the moose!”
Halloween gives kids a thrilling opportunity to act out their dreams and pretend to be characters with great power. But it can also be scary and even overwhelming for the littlest trick-or-treaters. An introduction to the holiday with videos from trusted friends can help make them feel comfortable and excited about even the spookier aspects of the holiday.
Kids ages 3-5 will enjoy Barney’s Halloween Party, with a visit to the pumpkin farm, some ideas for Halloween party games and for making Halloween decorations at home, and some safety tips for trick-or-treating at night. They will also get a kick out of Richard Scarry’s The First Halloween Ever, which is Scarry, but not at all scary! Witches in Stitches, is about witches who find it very funny when they turn their sister into a jack o’lantern. And speaking of jack o’lanterns, Spookley the Square Pumpkin is sort of the Rudolph of pumpkins. The round pumpkins make fun of him for being different until a big storm comes and his unusual shape turns out to have some benefits.
Kids from 7-11 will enjoy the classic It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and the silly fun of What’s New Scooby-Doo, Vol. 3 – Halloween Boos and Clues. Try The Worst Witch and its sequel, about a young witch in training who keeps getting everything wrong. Kids will also enjoy Halloween Tree, an animated version of a story by science fiction author Ray Bradbury about four kids who are trying to save the life of their friend. Leonard Nimoy (Dr. Spock on the original “Star Trek”) provides the voice of the mysterious resident of a haunted house, who explains the origins of Halloween and challenges them to think about how they can help their sick friend. The loyalty and courage of the kids is very touching.
Older children will appreciate The Witches, based on the popular book by Roald Dahl and Hocus Pocus, with children battling three witches played by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy. And of course there is the deliciously ghoulish double feature The Addams Family and Addams Family Values based on the cartoons by Charles Addams.
The Nightmare Before Christmas has gorgeous music from Danny Elfman and stunningly imaginative visuals from Tim Burton in a story about a Halloween character who wonders what it would be like to be part of a happy holiday like Christmas. And don’t forget some old classics like “The Cat and the Canary” (a classic of horror/comedy) and the omnibus ghost story films “Dead of Night” (recommended by the New York Times’ A.O. Scott), and “The House that Dripped Blood.”
This third in the Ice Age series is a bit sweeter and gentler than the first two, perhaps less ambitious in scope than the first but much more engaging than the second. The 3D animation is beautifully immersive and the story is exciting but so low-key that everyone, even the scary dinosaurs with the big teeth, ends up happy.
Again this is the story of woolly mammoth Manny (Ray Romano), sloth Sid (John Leguizamo), and saber tooth tiger Diego (Denis Leary), now joined by Manny’s mate Ellie (Queen Latifah), who is about to have a baby. Everything seems settled and happy, but of course we would not have a story unless everything got unsettled pretty quickly. Diego is feeling left out and worried about getting older and less powerful, so he decides to leave the makeshift “tribe” they all think of as family. Sid finds three huge eggs and immediately adopts them, his nesting instinct so over the top that he insists he is their mother. The eggs hatch, and at first the little dino babies happily follow Sid around like ducklings, though they are not entirely on board with the idea of vegetarianism. But then their mommy dinosaur comes to get them, grabbing Sid along with her chicks, and pending childbirth or not, Sid, Manny, Ellie, and Diego go off to rescue him.
They end up in an underground portal to a place where the weather is temperate and the dinosaurs still rule. “I thought those guys were extinct,” one of our heroes comments. (Note that in real life the last Ice Age was about 20 thousand years ago and the last dinosaurs were about 65 million years ago, but what the heck, animals do not talk or build playgrounds, either.) There they meet up with an off-beat piratical weasel named Buck (Simon Pegg), who teaches them some survival skills and leads them to Sid. Along the way, they have a number of adventures, and yes, that baby decides to arrive at just the wrong place and time, but despite some chases, several falls, and one near-ingestion by a hungry plant, everyone ends up happy and healthy.
Children and their parents will enjoy the portrayals of family life. “You’re trying to childproof nature,” Ellie chides Manny as his approaching fatherhood brings literally home to him the dangers of the world. And they will enjoy Buck’s rakish antics and the traditional subplot about the prehistoric squirrel Scrat and his perpetual quest for the elusive acorn. This time, his biggest impediment is a long-lashed female, who outsmarts him at every turn.
Scrat’s romantic confusion is a lot of fun, but there is a sense that the folks behind this movie are not evolved enough to think of the female characters as anything other than wise and nurturing — and a little bossy. Ellie’s job in the movie is to be the grown-up; apparently even in pre-historic times the females were more, uh, evolved. Not as funny, however.
But the sweet nature of this film is engaging and the adorable characters designed by illustrator Peter de Seve make this movie both satisfying and fun. The squirrels’ tar pit dip, romantic tango, and post-romantic home-decorating session, Sid’s efforts to mother the adorable dinosaur babies, and a nimble balance of action and humor make this one of the best family films of the year.