The Father

Posted on March 9, 2021 at 9:13 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language, and thematic material
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and medication
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: Disability issues
Date Released to Theaters: March 10, 2021
Copyright 2020 Sony Pictures Classics

The beginning of any story — a movie, a play, a book — is like a puzzle. We are hardly aware of all the information we are processing, all the clues we are parsing to let us know who the characters are, where they are, when they are, and what is going on between them. And so, in “The Father,” we quickly come to some conclusions about Anthony (pronounced “An-tony”), played by Sir Anthony Hopkins. His daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) visits him in his apartment to chide him about firing his latest caregiver, as he has her several predecessors, and tells him that he must find a way to get along with his next caregiver because she is leaving London to live with her new boyfriend in Paris.

And then the movie proceeds to undermine almost everything we think we have seen and we gradually realize that we are seeing the world subjectively, through Anthony’s eyes and ears and he is the most unreliable of story-tellers because he is struggling with dementia. Just as last year’s “The Sound of Metal” told us the story of a musician’s hearing loss by letting us hear what he heard, and not hear what he didn’t, “The Father” tells us the story of Anthony’s fading memory by filtering what we are seeing through his ability to process it, so we are as unsure and unsettled as he is.

Everything we bring to the film about forming judgments and drawing conclusions is constantly undermined. Anne is sometimes played by Colman, sometimes by Olivia Williams. Sometimes she is married, sometimes divorced. Sometimes it’s his apartment, sometimes he has moved in with Anne. Sometimes he stands in the hallway, disoriented and lost. Sometimes Anne’s husband barks angrily at him.

A new caregiver (Imogen Poots) comes for an interview and we see Anthony putting everything he has into being charming and capable. He tells her he was once a tap dancer. (He was not.) He offers her a drink and has one himself. He tells her she looks like his other daughter, the one he thinks is still alive (she is not).

Hopkins is made for this role. Only a man of his decades of experience and dedication to meticulously observed and fearlessly vulnerable performances could show us Anthony’s valiant efforts to stay himself, to stay in charge. That makes the final moments, when we are finally returned to our own safe space as objective observers, even more shattering.

Parents should know that this movie concerns dementia and he strain it puts on family as well as the person struggling with memory loss. It includes some strong language, alcohol, and medication.

Family discussion: Does this film make you think differently about what it is like to have memory loss? How are the people in your life helping those who are facing this issue and those who are caring for them?

If you like this, try: “Away from Her,” “Still Alice,” “Still Mine,” “Dick Johnson is Dead,” “The Roads Not Taken,” and “Supernova”

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Everything, Everything

Posted on May 18, 2017 at 5:57 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief sensuality
Alcohol/ Drugs: Medication
Violence/ Scariness: Theme of potentially deadly illness, reference to sad death, domestic abuse
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 19, 2017
Copyright Warner Brothers 2017

“Everything, Everything,” based on the novel by Nicola Yoon, is an updated fairy tale about a princess trapped in a castle and the prince who does not exactly rescue her but gives her a reason to rescue herself.

It’s not an enchantment or a curse that keeps her inside. It’s an illness that means any exposure to bacteria or a virus could be fatal. Maddy (Amandla Stenberg, Rue in “The Hunger Games”) cannot remember a time when she was allowed to be outdoors.

Diagnosed at 2 with the immune deficiency SCID, Maddy lives in an irradiated and sterile environment. She has never left her home and has never met anyone other than her doctor mother (Anika Noni Rose), her nurse Carla (Ana de la Reguera), and Carla’s daughter Rosa (Danube R. Hermosillo). She has books, she has an exercise machine, she has 100 identical white t-shirts, and she has an online SCID support group. She and her mother watch movies and play phonetic scrabble. Maddy studies architecture and builds model rooms, placing the figure of an astronaut in each one. This avatar is her opposite. Her world is measured in square feet; the astronaut’s is unlimited.

Maddy stands at the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the backyard and imagines what it would feel like to stand on grass or feel a breeze of unfiltered air. And she has a seat in the corner of her bedroom overlooking the house next door, which is how she peers down at a new family moving in, a new family with a boy who has a beautiful smile. He is Olly (Nick Robinson of “Kings of Summer”). He draws his phone number on his window opposite her bedroom, and soon they are texting each other, sweetly portrayed as a face-to-face conversation at a table in Maddy’s model diner, with the astronaut looking on. She wears white; he wears black. She says, “When I talk to him, I feel like I’m outside.” But when she talks to him, she wants to go outside. And both of them find their worlds getting less black and white.

The elements of a young teen romantic fantasy are all here, primarily the disapproving parent, the utterly devoted and hunky but not too aggressive young male, adoring and supportive, and the big reason that they cannot get too physical, except maybe one perfect time. In “Twilight,” he was a vampire who could lose control and kill her. Here it’s just his normal human germs. Anyone over the age of 15 may be distracted by impracticalities and plot developments that go from improbable to preposterous, but even people who know that you have to have ID to get on an airplane and money to pay a credit card bill might just enjoy the pleasures of watching Maddy wake up to the world and Olly, through her, wake up to a few of his own.

Parents should know that this film includes risky teen behavior, some strong language, serious illness, and a non-explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: Did Carla make the right decision? Why does Maddy put an astronaut in her model rooms?

If you like this, try: “My Sister’s Keeper,” “Before I Fall” and “The Fault in Our Stars”

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Interview: Arthur Rasco on the Ebola Documentary “Facing Darkness”

Posted on February 27, 2017 at 8:00 am

Arthur Rasco  directed the extraordinary documentary “Facing Darkness,” about the efforts of the humanitarian group Samaritan’s Purse and their fight against Ebola, one that became very personal when their own doctor and nurse, Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, became infected. It was an honor to speak to Mr. Rasco about the film.

When did you start filming? It seems like you were there right from the beginning.

Samaritan’s Purse has been covering the Ebola epidemic since 2014. We have people on the ground in Liberia and some of those folks had cameras and were filming. The Deputy Country Director, Joni Byker, was filming, trying to get some clips and we were trying to get a video team off the ground to go but then late July happened and Dr. Kent Brantly was diagnosed with Ebola. And then so that changed things dramatically and then all of a sudden that threw all of us into a tailspin so it was all hands on deck to try and take care of Kent and Nancy Writebol. So we filmed bits and pieces along the way as we could, their arrivals at Emory, and then we did send our crews back in late October 2014. Once we re-engaged and sent supplies to the airlift with two 747s loaded with supplies, we sent a video crew. And then we were green lit to do the documentary in about April 2015, so that’s when we really begun in earnest putting together the film. The film will be in theaters on March 30, 2017.

How did you shape your production schedule and your approach as the story developed?

We had a great team that was involved in putting the film together. I’m just one piece among a great team of people here at Samaritan’s Purse and so we documented quite a bit of the stories of several people that had been involved. Some of the people like Bev and Kendell Kauffeldt and Dr. Lance Plyler we debriefed and recorded those interviews. So we had an idea of how we wanted to shape the story and then you go and you go there on the ground and then you also start meeting people like the nationals, the Liberians who had such amazing stories that we were able to work into the film.

We talked to people like Joseph Gbembo who lost 17 family members. We knew that he had lost quite a few and when we were interviewing him and then he says in the film, “When I look at the kids, the nieces and nephews, the children of those family members that passed away that gives me hope.” Okay, how many are we talking about? And then he says, “16.” And that moment was just so real and so we put that into the film just as it was because it was just such a dramatic earth shattering moment for all of us. We didn’t quite know that aspect of the story and so that was just amazing. Meeting people like Barbara Bono, who was a Liberian Ebola survivor and having her tell the story was just so powerful. Filming many interviews with everybody, I am crying and all of us are just in tears as we’re hearing the stories of what she went through and what she was afraid of during the time.

How do you maintain the distance that you need in order to make the film and yet to reach out to them as a human to get them to open up the way they do?

Well, I don’t know if I’m too good at keeping distance. I really enjoy and I want to engage with the folks, with people because their stories are just so amazing, they have been through some things that I am just trying to reflect, I’m just trying to share. I wasn’t able to be on the ground in 2014 when all of this happened and yet you know that these folks have been through something pretty earth shattering and so you want to respect that and you want to be able to let them tell their story openly and honestly. And so I laughed at when they laughed, I cried when they cried. I’m just trying to have them tell their story.

In America people went a little crazy on the subject of Ebola and didn’t listen to what the experts and the scientists had to say about the threat that it posed. How did that complicate things to bring back Kent to the US in the midst of all of that fear?

We as an organization as Samaritan Purse knew that we had to do everything, all that was possible to try and take care of Kent and Nancy. As you saw in the film it’s just a miraculous set of events that’s really unfolded. You almost can’t write this as a script. You just see God working in these ways. We took all the precautions that we could and Samaritan’s Purse put in place its own set of protocols to try and take care of our remaining staff. We were in touch with the CBC during this time, too. They gave us their instructions and we said, “Well, we’re going to step it up a notch because we want to keep our people safe and do the best that we can.”

What do you want people to learn from the film?

Our hope is that this is a story that will inspire young people, inspire a new generation of missionaries to set out in bold faith and go out to the mission field, to go out and serve, and serve in the name of Christ and putting their life on the line if that’s what they are called to because that’s where the need is. The need is out there and you can go out, you can make a difference. And that’s what the movie is about right? It’s letting compassion fuel a courage that will conquer fear and so that’s what we want to be able to do to encourage, to inspire a new generation of missionaries to head out there. I hope that people will feel challenged after watching this movie.

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A Monster Calls

Posted on January 5, 2017 at 5:50 pm

Copyright 2016 Universal

It turns out that there is something even more painful than the most devastating loss imaginable. That is the lesson of “A Monster Calls,” based on the Carnegie Medal and the Greenaway Medal award winning book by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Jim Kay, from an idea by the late human rights activist Siobhan Dowd.

It takes place in the Irish countryside. “We begin,” the movie tells us, “like so many stories, with a boy too old to be a kid and too young to be a man and a nightmare.” The boy is Conor (Lewis MacDougall), whose adored single mother (Felicity Jones) is struggling with cancer and the ravages of its treatment. While other boys are gently awakened by their parents and sent off to school with a good breakfast and a lovingly packed lunch, it is Conor who makes breakfast for his mother (there are rows of medicine bottles in the kitchen cupboard). He also does the laundry before he goes to school, where a bully threatens him. He has a frosty grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and an affectionate but useless father (Toby Kebbell). So, he is alone with his grief, his fear, his anger, and his paints, which he must learn to use to express them all.

Let’s think for a moment about the title: “A Monster Calls.” Is that “calls” as in “pays a call,” or comes to visit? Is it “calls” as in “calls out to?” Is it “calls” as in “calls out from?”

A teacher says sympathetically, “If you ever want to talk…” Conor’s dad arrives from America, where he lives with his new wife and new baby, and he takes Conor to an amusement park. But Conor does not want to talk and he is not amused. A glimpse of the old “King Kong,” Fear and Fury bookends, and a shiver-inducing creaking noise give us a hint that a terrifying, destructive monster may be coming.

And then, yes, Conor is visited by a monster, an enormous walking yew tree with the rumbling voice of Liam Neeson. Conor may think the monster is there to protect him, but that is not exactly true. He says he is there to tell Conor three stories, and then, he says, Conor must tell him one and it must be true. The monster’s stories have a yew tree connection, as does a possible new treatment for Conor’s mother. They begin like traditional fairy tales but do not pretend that the resolutions are fair or straightforward. The fury within the stories seems to take over Conor and he finds himself becoming violent before telling his story forces him to admit what terrifies him even more than the prospect of losing his mother.

This is a complex, richly imagined film with a deep understanding, clear-eyed but compassionate. The stories it contains help us to be honest about our own.

Parents should know that this film is about a boy whose mother is dying of cancer. There are some other disturbing images and situations, including a bully and a monster.

Family discussion: Which story surprised you the most and why? Why was it important for Conor to tell his story? What monsters live inside us?

If you like this, try: the book by Patrick Ness and “Secondhand Lions”

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Me Before You

Posted on June 2, 2016 at 5:21 pm

Copyright 2016 New Line Cinema
Copyright 2016 New Line Cinema
It’s all about the eyebrows. Emilia Clarke (“Game of Thrones”) has gamine-like “natural” eyebrows ideal for expressing wonder, hurt feelings, and enthusiasm, and Sam Claflin (“Hunger Games”) has circumflex-like eyebrows ideal for expressing skepticism, irony, and stoicism. All four eyebrows get an extensive workout in “Me Before You,” based on the international best-seller by JoJo Moyes about Louisa Clark (Clarke), a high-spirited, warm-hearted pixie of a girl, just laid off from her job behind the counter at a bakery, and Will Traynor (Claflin), a once-energetic, once-successful finance type from a wealthy family who is now paralyzed below the shoulders following an accident. Lou is hired by Will’s mother (the redoubtable Janet McTeer) as a “companion” for Will, a position that only exists in novels about warm-hearted young women sent to castles with names like Thornhill that have eligible but tortured men waiting to have their hearts warmed. Will has an Aussie aide who handles the icky physical stuff (Stephen Peacocke), so Lou is there to bring cheer to Will, who has no intention of being cheered. And did I mention he lives in a literal castle?

Lou’s family depends on her for money, because her father has been laid off (due, as we will find, to the financial engineering of Will’s one-time protege). And so she accepts the job with no real understanding of caring for a severely disabled person and stays in it even when he refuses to speak to her or to accept her many offers of a cup of tea. Ultimately, through a combination of ennui, frustration, and the impossibility of resisting the charm of Lou’s kindergarten teacher meets Lisa Frank and Hello Kitty-style attire, Will begins to thaw a little. The immense pressure of what he has lost inspires him to want more for her than she wants for herself, and he feels impelled to show her that, even with a castle in its midst, her little town cannot be enough for all she should want from life. Did I mention that his name is Traynor?

This is not a movie that leaves anything to the imagination. Just in case you were not sure of that, Lou’s boyfriend Patrick (one-time Neville Longbottom Matthew Lewis) is Will’s polar opposite, a fitness instructor and “motivational coach” who thinks a few more reps can solve any problem. And just in case that isn’t enough, there’s a brief encounter with the divine Joanna Lumley to spell it all out for Louisa and for us as well.

Okay, so no surprises here, especially if you’ve read the book. Bring a handkerchief, maybe two. But Clarke and Claflin have palpable chemistry, and we are no more able to resist Lou than Will is. As she takes him back out into the world, she thinks it is for him, but he knows it is for her, and we find that the real hero of the story is Will’s, well, will.

SPOILER ALERT: Some groups have raised concerns about the film’s portrayal/advocacy of assisted death, adapting the movie’s #liveboldly tagline to urge movies to portray disabled people who are active and engaged.

Parents should know that this film includes non-explicit sexual references and situation, mild language, severe injury and discussion of assisted death.

Family discussion: Should Will have changed his mind? What will Louisa do next?

If you like this, try: “Love Story” and “A Walk to Remember”

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