The Dark Horse

Posted on April 14, 2016 at 5:27 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
Profanity: Strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Gang related violence, domestic violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 15, 2016

Copyright Broad Green 2016
Copyright Broad Green 2016
It would be so easy — and so wrong — to make this true story of a Maori chess champion who struggles with mental illness as he teaches underprivileged kids into a safe, simple, saccharine, uplifting story. But writer/director James Napier Robertson, who himself played hundreds of chess games with real-life speed chess champion Genesis Potini, trusts his story and his audience enough to give us a film that is refreshingly messy, even grungy, and therefore much more powerful.

The extraordinary actor Cliff Curtis is renowned for being able to play almost any ethnicity, one reason he was an affecting Jesus in the recent Risen. Here, though, as in “Whale Rider,” he has a chance to play the part of a person of his own ethnic heritage, the speed chess champion Genesis Potini, who had bipolar disorder. Curtis shows us that Genesis is a person first, not a group of symptoms. In a meet, wanting so much for the kids he has trained to have a chance to succeed, he cannot restrain himself from shouting encouragement, and we see how painful it is for him to feel like two people at once, the one who cannot control his impulses and the one who understands what he is putting at risk.

Robertson also gives us an honest, unflinching look at the community where Genesis has come, after being released from the mental hospital with a fistful of pills and the direction to find something to care about. The only place he has to go is the home of his brother, Ariki (Wayne Hapi), and Ariki’s son, Mana (James Rolleston of “Boy”). Ariki is a member of a gang that hangs out, gets high, commits petty and not so petty crimes, and spends a lot of time in not so petty macho posturing. He does not like having Genesis there and soon kicks him out.

Genesis sees a flier for a program that provides enrichment services for needy kids and decides that this will be the purpose that will help him maintain equilibrium. He volunteers — waking the director up in the middle of the night to offer his services, and against his better judgment, the director accepts, warning Genesis that if he shows up, he cannot let the kids down. Genesis impulsively (he does everything impulsively) tells kids who have never seen a chess game before that they will be competing at a big tournament in six weeks. Before they learn how to play, he lets each of them pick a chess man to take home as a totem, and to bring with them every day so that the set can be a team again. It makes them into a team as well. He uses the money Ariki gave him for rent to buy chess sets for the kids and he sleeps outside.

Genesis’ splintered reality and lack of impulse control may be advantages for speed chess. All of the possibilities are laid out before him but that does not make him hesitate. But chess is a game of rules and it provides a certainty, order, and mastery that Genesis and the kids he teaches can hold onto and build on. Mana has to decide whether he will follow his father or his uncle. Genesis has to try to be the man Mana and the kids need. It might get corny but for Robertson’s unaffectedly gritty settings and understanding that modest gains can be enough for checkmate.

Parents should know that this movie includes violence, child abuse, drinking, drugs, mental illness, and extreme poverty. Characters use very strong language.

Family discussion: Why was helping the children so important to Genesis? Why was having Mana in the gang so important to his father?

If you like this, try: “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” “Bobby Fischer Against the World,” and “Endgame”

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Based on a true story Drama Illness, Medicine, and Health Care Movies

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 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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