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On Movies: 'Kids' is more than all right

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 22, 2010 - The title of "The Kids are All Right," a very engaging, mostly comedic look at how traditional difficulties can afflict a thoroughly modern family, can be taken at least two ways.

At the most basic level, "the kids" are two teenagers, a girl and a boy, who have been raised from birth by a middle-aged lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, both superb). These kids, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), are, indeed, all right - bright, well-mannered, attractive, as well adjusted as teenagers get in suburban Southern California, no more embarrassed by the sexuality of the women they collectively call "Moms" than any teenagers are embarrassed by the erotic displays of their parents. And, like any teenagers, they are terrified by the notion that one of their parents might fall in love with someone else and disrupt the family unit.

On another level, the kids in the title are the Moms themselves, baby boomers who, in many ways, are still the same people they were when they fell in love many years ago. They are comfortable with one another, even a little bored -- I'll let the movie reveal the surprising way they occasionally enliven their sex life. Nic (Bening) is an over-achieving, sardonic, anxiety-ridden Ob-Gyn, while Jules (Moore) is more of a carefree spirit, an aging hippie who has dabbled in this and that and now thinks she might try landscape gardening. Unspoken is the fact that she was the one who stayed home and watched the children while Nic went about achieving.

Jules avoids head-on conflict, but when she exclaims angrily, "We need to do more mulching around here," you know she's talking about more than protecting the roots of the petunias.

Nic and Jules, these middle-aged kids, are sort of all right, too, but ripe for a midlife crisis. One appears in the form of Paul (Mark Ruffalo), an easy-going restaurateur who can go on and on about locally grown produce. Years ago, when he was a college dropout scuffling to get by, he sold his sperm to a sperm bank. Among the women inseminated by that sperm were both Nic and Jules. The Moms had a child apiece by this anonymous donor, providing a nice symmetry to the genetic bonds uniting this new kind of nuclear family.

Now, at the instigation of Laser, the kids ferret out the identity of their biological father, and the family meets him.

I'll leave it up to your imagination to figure out which one of the two Moms fairly quickly begins a torrid affair with Paul. But I will say that the affair is not intended to mean that the Mom is no longer a lesbian, or wasn't one in the first place. The heterosexual affair comes across as an emotionally complex, physically basic, totally believable affirmation of the needs of the human body and soul.

The affair stays secret for a while, and director Lisa Cholodernko provides us with several hilarious scenes of bawdy glee, but eventually the two lovers are found out. The movie turns briefly melodramatic, but maybe any realistic depiction of the damage an affair can inflict on a family can seem melodramatic. Then it shifts gears again, and takes on a bittersweet tone. The climactic dialogue is priceless.

Opens July 23

'Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky’

If you have ever wondered why the best-selling perfume in the world is not called Chanel No. 1 - I confess I have, while waiting at the perfume counter at Christmas -- "Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky" will tell you how Chanel got to No. 5.

Otherwise, the movie, which is visually gorgeous and dramatically slow, will probably appeal mainly to those interested in learning more - a lot more - about Coco, the longtime queen of Parisian couture. Igor Stravinsky, on the other hand, remains a knotty puzzle. The great Russian composer apparently brooded a lot and couldn't resist Coco's charms, even if his wife and children were just down the hall in Coco's elegantly simple French country house. (The recreated house, a designer's dream in geometric black and white, the rigidity of its rectangles occasionally relieved by touches of the rococo, may be the real star of the movie, and could well be a reason to see it.)

As far as action goes, the best scene in the film is the first one, an intricate, skillfully staged recreation of the disastrous 1913 premiere in Paris of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." Then the movie, which was directed by Jean Kounen ("Blueberry"), skips to the postwar period, and slows abruptly as Igor and family move in with Coco (Anna Mouglalis, a Chanel model as well as an actress).

For long stretches of time, Coco and Igor (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen) passionately glower at each other, amid much ominous silence, and then they finally succumb to something very intense that feels more like mixed martial arts than love. The sex scenes are fairly explicit, but neither of these two self-absorbed people seems to be having much fun. Stravinsky's wife and kids are miserable, too. All in all, except for that marvelous house, "Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky" is not a very happy affair.

Opens July 23

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.

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