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IN SHORT: Wholesome story with a deadly slow pace
And sometimes the name in the trademark works against me . . .
Here in the urban jungle of New York City we have no problem with the desires of grownups on the other coast who wish to make a old-fashioned "family" movie. One with no sex or swearing, gratuitous nudity or violence. What they produced is called The Basket, and it is all that they wanted. That it took four writers and a "script consultant" to get it into shape is the film's undoing, for any family with more than a passing acquaintance with a Sony Playstation or Nintendo console. It all comes down to what kind of kids you've got: if they're old enough that they can sit still and pay attention to a slow moving story (my ten year old niece could), you're fine. If they can't (my seven year old nephew) you're gonna have a very restive kidlet on your hands.
My gut reaction is that the creators were so determined to write traditional family values into the film, the kind that you can sit around with your kids and discuss afterwards, that they failed to relax enough to let the story and their cast do that work for them. It's a good story, too...
The setting is Waterville, Washington state in the waning days of World War I. The war is not an abstraction to this rural town. Ben Emery (Elwon Bakly) has come back from France missing a leg and his father Nicholas (Jock MacDonald) and brother Nathan Emery (Brian Skala) carry a nasty hate towards all things German; Pastor Simms (Tony Lincoln) has adopted Helmut (Robert Karl Burke) and Birgitta (Amber Willenborg), German children whose parents were killed by American troops. All the kids, regardless of age, are in the same school classroom, just brimming with all that war driven racism and hatred.
The new teacher in town is Martin Conlon (Peter Coyote), who has come from Boston carrying a Victrola and a basketball and a nasty secret. With the Victrola, he uses a German opera recording to teach -- which alternately pisses off half the town 'cuz it's a German opera and enthralls the other half, 'cuz the story is intriguing. With the ball, he teaches the kids the relatively new sport of basketball, hoping to inspire cooperation. Both work against Helmut, because he can translate the opera for the class and because he is small, the five larger boys in the school can keep him off the team. So Helmut decides to teach himself how to play and his sister pawns an emotionally priceless locket to help buy a ball.
The other story involves the need to raise $500 for a downpayment on a harvester tractor that can be shared by the farmers of the town. Conlon enters his team in a match with the "professional" Spokane Spartans (undefeated in 70 straight games) hoping to win the cash prize, coincidentally $500. All the while Bessie Emery (Karen Allen) is trying to hold her family together as son Tom Emery (Eric Dane) has fallen for Birgitta, with all that entails.
As you make your way through the film it's as if you could see a checklist of important points: hatred is bad; racism is bad; helping out is good; tolerance is good and so on. We applaud all of that. The problem is that as The Basket builds towards its big finale, its dedication to making the little points keep the story from building the dramatic elements to make the ending work as the thrilling, life enhancing moment it was meant to be. That ending involves shady friends of the teacher and the 1918 equivalent of the Immigration Service. The emphasis that should have been placed on those two factors isn't there. The dramatic impact of the third act of the movie is thus diluted. Too bad.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Basket, he would have paid...
which is rental level and not a diss on the film at all. If your kids can sit still, go to the theater. If not, rent and discuss with the kidlets after. That way the restive ones can work through a piece at a time.
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