Miracles from Heaven

Posted on March 15, 2016 at 10:11 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material, including accident and medical issues
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Serious illness and peril involving children, sad death (offscreen)
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 16, 2016
Date Released to DVD: July 11, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B01D1U6V58
Copyright Sony Pictures Entertainment 2016
Copyright Sony Pictures Entertainment 2016

Christy Wilson Beam’s book title says it all: Miracles from Heaven: A Little Girl and Her Amazing Story of Healing. In the book, she tells the story of her daughter Annabel, critically ill with an incurable digestive disorder, who fell thirty feet from a tree branch. Incredibly, she was not injured. And even more incredibly, possibly even miraculously, she was cured.

All of this happens in the trailer, and the movie’s biggest challenge is that the entire story is not much more than that.

A happy, loving family is catapulted into crisis when their sweet-natured daughter becomes ill. It takes a long time to get the right diagnosis, and then it takes a long time to see the only doctor who may be able to help them. And then she gets sicker and sicker and the family is under more and more pressure. And then she climbs the tree and falls. The rest, despite the best efforts of the always-appealing Jennifer Garner, mostly seems like so much padding. So, so much padding.

Just to make sure we didn’t miss the title’s reminder of where miracles come from, we are told right at the beginning what a miracle is: not explainable by natural or scientific laws. And then we meet the Beam family, as adorable as the ray of sunlight of their name, living a life somewhere between a country song and a Hallmark commercial. Everyone is beautiful, loving, patient, and trusting in God. There are sun-dappled vistas and cute animals. They have a kindly preacher, played with warmth and good humor by John Carroll Lynch.

And then Annabel (a very sweet Kylie Rogers), the middle of their three daughters, gets sick. At first, doctors reassure them that it is a minor problem like lactose intolerance, but it turns out to be a major digestive disorder that distends her stomach and makes it impossible for her to eat.

They are told that there is just one doctor in Boston who may be able to help her, but he is so busy they cannot get an appointment. Desperate, Christy (Garner) brings Annabelle to Boston, goes to the doctor’s office, and begs for a chance to see him. While they wait, they meet a kind-hearted waitress (Queen Latifah in a role that verges on uncomfortably confined to quirky comic relief) who gives them a tour of the city (more padding), until they get a call that the doctor is available. Dr. Durko (an engaging Eugenio Derbez) has a great Patch Adams-style bedside manner, but his diagnosis is a heartbreaking one. Annabel is hospitalized, and shares a room with another very sick little girl, who is comforted by Annabel’s reassurance of God’s love and protection.

And then, back at home, Annabel climbs an old dead tree and falls 30 feet inside.

The most touching and inspiring part of the film is not the “miracle” cure of a fall that somehow caused no serious injuries and rebooted the part of Annabel’s brain that was not telling her digestive system how to work. It is when Christy thinks back and realizes how many miracles the family has experienced through kindness and compassion.

Parents should know that this film is about a very sick little girl and includes scenes of illness, with a sad (offscreen) death.

Family discussion: Why did some of the women in the congregation blame Christy? What tested the family’s faith most? Which moments of kindness meant the most to the family?

If you like this, try: “Heaven is for Real”

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Based on a book Based on a true story DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Illness, Medicine, and Health Care Spiritual films


Posted on March 3, 2016 at 5:19 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: References to violence against abortion providers
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: March 4, 2016

TRAP stands for Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers. “Trapped” is a powerful new documentary that focuses on efforts to cut off women’s access to abortion by imposing requirements and restrictions on clinics that have no relationship to health or safety.

It could not be more timely, released the same week that the most significant challenge to Roe v. Wade was argued in the Supreme Court, just after the death of Justice Scalia makes a 4-4 split decision a possibility.

Lawyer-turned-documentarian Dawn Porter lets the people affected by these laws speak, interviewing the doctors and staff of abortion clinics to show the absurdity of the claim that the TRAP laws are based on concerns for women’s health and safety. A clinic staffer points to a requirement that “emergency lighting shall be provided in accordance with Sec. 7.9.” But there is no Sec. 7.9. Another says that they are required to spend $1100 a month on medication that has never been used but must be replaced every 30 days because it expires. Meanwhile, a protester stands outside a clinic screaming that women should be adored and cared for by men, while women who come to the clinic are berated.

We see the impact of the disinformation campaigns perpetrated by the anti-abortion forces, with clinic workers forced to provide misleading booklets and a young woman in the clinic worried that the abortion will make her sterile. It may sound reasonable to legislators who are not medical professionals to require abortion providers to have admitting privileges in the nearest hospital, but they do not understand the Catch-22: abortion is so safe that not enough patients are admitted to the hospital to retain those privileges.

And we see Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore speaking at an anti-abortion event. (He has also opposed the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality.)

We see a clinic staff member pray with a patient — and another one decide that “the grass is dry” and so she had better use her remote control to turn on the sprinkler that happens to be near a protester. Another staffer presents a doctor with a defiant bumper sticker: “May the fetus you save turn out to be a gay abortion provider.” We hear about 13-year-old rape victims who may be forced to bear the child of their rapists. What comes through most powerfully is their belief in supporting women in the decisions they have a right to make about what is best for them.

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Documentary Gender and Diversity Illness, Medicine, and Health Care Movies Politics

Touched With Fire

Posted on February 11, 2016 at 5:12 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Mental illness, suicide attempt, risky behavior
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 12, 2016

Movies are fascinated with mentally ill people but they usually do not do a very good job of portraying them accurately or compassionately. Too often they are serial killers (“Silence of the Lambs”). Even worse, many times they are adorable wise fools (“Benny & Joon,” “King of Hearts”), somehow tuned in to a finer way of thinking. We very seldom get to see them as people. But “Touched With Fire,” named for the book on bi-polar disorder by a doctor who herself is bi-polar and written and directed by Paul Dalio, who is bi-polar, has a sense of deep understanding of the characters that makes it very compelling.

Dalio takes us inside, literally shifting the color scheme and the walls of the sets so that we not only see the characters experiencing a manic high but get a sense of how thrilling, liberating, and exhilarating it feels. He is also deeply compassionate to the family members. Christine Lahti and Griffin Dunne show us the endless and sometimes exhausting love, fear, and pain for their children.

Dalio and his characters, Marco (Luke Kirby) and Carla (Katie Holmes) feel kinship to the many artists who were bi-polar, from Van Gogh to Hemingway (we see a list in the film’s closing credits). The manic cycles of bi-polar disorder can spark a kaleidoscopic geyser of artistic energy. Marco and Carla are both poets with wild, vivid word choices. They meet in a mental hospital and are immediately drawn to one another, triggering a manic episode that catapults them into ecstatic happiness. But the down cycle and the consequences of their behavior create complications.

Dalio is very good at conveying the subjective experience of mania and the family dynamics and the poetry and speech of the two main characters limns the uncertain line between art and madness. Holmes and Kirby both give performances of enormous sensitivity and insight. But Dalio’s very diligence about fairness to everyone and some didactic discursiveness are better for therapeutic purposes than narrative purposes. In its best moments, it is a thoughtful, compassionate film that shows how art can help to both heal and express thoughts that are otherwise dangerously uncontainable.

Parents should know that this movie includes themes of mental illness and medication, with attempted suicide and risky behavior, strong language, sexual references, and abortion.

Family discussion: What was the best way for Marco’s and Carla’s parents to respond to their news? Why did Carla and Marco make different choices?

If you like this, try: the book by Kay Redfield Jamison and Mark Ruffalo’s performance in “Infinitely Polar Bear”

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Drama Illness, Medicine, and Health Care Inspired by a true story Movies Romance

Trailer: Me Before You

Posted on February 3, 2016 at 1:49 pm

Me Before You, the international best-seller by Jojo Moyes, is the story of a wealthy young man paralyzed in an accident and the happy — if sometimes hapless — girl who takes a job as his caregiver. Emilia Clarke (“Game of Thrones”) and Sam Claflin (“The Hunger Games” series), star under the direction of Thea Sharrock, making her feature film directorial debut.

While you wait for the movie, fans of the first book can read the sequel, After You.

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My All American

Posted on November 12, 2015 at 5:32 pm

If I wrote this review the way writer-director Angelo Pizzo wrote the script for “My All American,” it would be something like this: I saw a movie. It was about football. Freddie Steinmark worked hard and inspired his team, but then got sick. It was sad.

Copyright 2015 Clarius Entertainment
Copyright 2015 Clarius Entertainment

Pizzo wrote two of the best sports films of all time, “Rudy” and “Hoosiers,” but here, in another real-life sports story, he has decided that the audience needs a kind of running commentary from every character to explain — instead of show — the audience what is going on. In an early scene, Steinmark’s mother (Robin Tunney) tells him that because he is smaller than his friends, he will have to work harder. Later, other characters tell us repeatedly what we should be able to see: that he works harder than everyone else, that he is religious, even that he is handsome. This is a movie where a coach actually says that Steinmark has courage and guts. The dialogue is so exposition-heavy that it is like sawing lumber.

It is good to see a biopic that does not rely on the usual scenes of the girlfriend complaining that the lead character does not spend enough time with her. But Steinmark is portrayed as such an all-around saint that he is bland, without any character beyond niceness and determination. All of the characterizations are paper-thin. It is as though everyone on the screen is just another color commentator, not a character.

Steinmark (Finn Wittrock of “The Big Short”) is the son of hard-working Catholics. His father has two jobs, security guard by day, cop at night, but is so dedicated to his son’s athletics that he never misses a practice or a game. When a teammate suggests that perhaps Steinmark’s father is living his own dreams of an athletic career through his son, Freddie says no and the subject never comes up again. Freddie wants to play for Notre Dame and then the Chicago Bears. But college coaches think he is too small — except for Darrell Royal (Aaron Eckhart) at the University of Texas, who recruits Steinmark and his best friend. Steinmark’s devoted girlfriend, Linda (Sarah Bolger, one of the adorable Irish girls from “In America”), is accepted to UT as well.

Steinmark is so remarkable (as everyone keeps telling us and telling us and telling us) that he is made first-string in his sophomore year. He leads the defense so successfully that the championship is within reach. And then he begins to have a problem with his leg.

There are very clumsy attempts to do what “Rudy” and “Hoosiers” did in creating a sense of time and place. Here, the references to the war in Vietnam (and the protests), the moon landing, long hair, and 60’s songs are jarring and haphazard. The absence of any person of color may be authentic as regards the team, but on the campus? In the hospital? It is so strange that it becomes a distraction. The framing story of an interview decades later with Royal adds nothing. The football scenes are capably staged, but do not move the story forward.

There are references to Steinmark’s faith — he goes to mass every day and we see him pray and encourage his friend to pray. But we never get a sense of what the faith means to him or how it helps him understand his illness. There is more drama and more character in a throwaway scene involving another player who loses his position than there is in the portrayal of Steinmark’s story.

And there is only the slightest reference to one of the most interesting parts of the story; the lack of treatment options for someone with cancer in 1969. Steinmark’s diagnosis came just before the United States made its first major commitment to a “war on cancer,” with federal funds being used for research. This is the kind of context that could have provided the story with the impact it fails to muster.

Parents should know that there is brief strong language and a brief view of a bare tush, as well as discussions of serious illness and a sad death.

Family discussion: Were you surprised by Bill’s reaction to being replaced? What was it about Steinmark that made him so important to his coach?

If you like this, try: “Rudy,” “Hoosiers,” and “The Express”

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