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As a parent for going-on six years now, I’m constantly impressed by the quality of films for children these days. Going to a kid’s movie for my own parents was a groan-inducing exercise (thanks mostly, I know now, to the good bit of crapola that Hollywood was pumping out for kids in the late ’70s and ’80s), but going to a G-rated movie today can be as much of a treat for the adult as it is for the kid, with movies full of clever riffs on pop culture, music and film.
One of those kid flicks that caught my attention recently was “Ice Age: The Meltdown.” Better in many respects than its predecessor, this is a clever little film, one that never really succumbs to the “big message” sermonizing that can still creep into even the best of modern children’s movies. With the deep-and-meaningful left behind, “Ice Age: The Meltdown” can concentrate on what kids are really there for: the fun.
Set in the same world of talking animals as the first “Ice Age” film, “The Meltdown” again follows the adventures of curmudgeonly mammoth Manny (voice of Ray Romano), and his unlikely companions, saber-tooth tiger Diego (Dennis Leary) and sloth Sid (John Leguizamo).
This time the trio is facing a very modern problem: global warming. With the ice pack melting, a giant and crumbling dam of ice has formed, and the water behind it threatens to drown all the animal inhabitants for miles. Soon, a would-be prophet offers a (very “Noah’s Ark”-like) solution: All the animals must make a perilous journey to a wooden boat he has seen on a mountaintop, then use it to ride out the coming deluge. Soon after getting underway and with Manny worried that he might be the last of his kind, the three come upon a new companion, a female mammoth named Ellie (Queen Latifah), who has been adopted and raised by a family of possums. Together — and with Manny soon smitten by the uncooperative and hard-headed Ellie — the group sets out to find the big boat, meeting adventure along the way.
Though there were times I felt that “Ice Age: The Meltdown” was a little too willing to head off on wild tangents that did nothing to advance the story, most kids aren’t going to notice that in the midst of the madcap action. The characters here are as endearing as always, with Queen Latifah’s Ellie making for a sweet new addition to the gang (the sight of Ellie sleeping upside down, hanging from her tail on a branch beside her possum brothers is one of the biggest laughs in the movie, and worth the price of a ticket). While it’s not the equal of even the flattest of the Pixar films, “Ice Age: The Meltdown” is a fun and furious treat, one sure to delight children and adults.
Just like Wallace Stevens’ famous poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” there might be 13 ways of looking at “Manderlay,” the second in Danish director Lars Von Trier’s American trilogy. Though it works as simply a story about an idealist trying to make things right and failing miserably, the astute viewer will realize that Von Trier wants the film to do more: to speak about imperialism, liberal guilt, how the downtrodden keep themselves down, and a half-dozen other thorny topics. Though the film eventually collapses under its own weighty issues, with Von Trier succumbing to the same brand of heavy-handed gun-barrel idealism that he accuses his characters (and through them, America) of, it’s still a thing to behold, gloriously unlike any other movie ever made, save its sister, Von Trier’s “Dogville.”
The film centers on a 1930s mob princess named Grace Mulligan (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is caravanning across the country with her exile father and his band of thugs when they stop for a break outside the gates of an Alabama plantation house. Summoned inside by a black house servant, Grace finds a dying old woman (Lauren Bacall) and the secret of Manderlay Plantation: that the blacks there were never told about the Emancipation Proclamation, and slavery still exists within its borders. Full of righteous indignation, Grace sets out to make it right — albeit with the backing of her father’s hired guns. Taking over the plantation, she has her father’s lawyer draw up contracts that sell the white family who owns the place into indentured servitude, while freeing the slaves and making them equal partners in a kind of proto-commune. What follows is a car wreck of an experience, in which Grace sees her good intentions pave the road right on into hell. Before long, her liberal thinking leads to the worst kind of deprivation, resulting in torture, murder, near-rape and an ending in which Grace herself is devoured by the very monster she helped create.
The first thing you’re going to notice about “Manderlay” is the setting: all the action is played out on a soundstage, with houses, barns and other buildings represented by plank outlines and boundaries like state lines, fields, gardens and road names literally stenciled onto the khaki-colored floor. For those used to the obsessively-realistic sets of American films, it’s sure to be unsettling. Still, once you get used to it, the sparse sets work exceedingly well, giving “Manderlay” a sense of watching in-the-round theater.
For all the complexity of “Manderlay,” the fact is that Von Trier’s thinking about race in America is actually simple and maybe even a little offensive. In his imagined world, do-gooder thinking always leads to ruin, slaves keep themselves in chains because they like it there, and the ultimate result of interaction between the races must be mindless violence. Beyond that, it’s hard to watch “Manderlay” without thinking of the current administration’s misadventures in Iraq. Like George W., Grace — never doubting that her values are the right ones — jumps in and breaks the age-old balance that has existed at Manderlay forever. The fact that balance is hideously immoral is beside the point. What is important is that, once she has broken things in an effort to fix them, she’s stuck with the consequences.
Though “Manderlay” is a flawed piece, one that supposes to know a lot about America and America’s problems (while really delivering only the freeze-dried version), it’s still a joy to watch; a truly unique bit of film with some great acting to boot. Though Von Trier might be something of a cynic, quite possibly looking at the U.S. through the poison-green goggles that our thoroughly screwed-up foreign policy has created for most of the world of late, it’s still good to get an outside viewpoint from time to time.