“Without this,” Clark Wang says, “dying from lymphoma feels so empty and meaningless and pointless.” Dr. Wang was diagnosed in 2003, and we meet him as he is running out of options for treatment. His doctor tells him it is a matter of months. His choice for making his death meaningful is to seek out a “green” burial. He persuades a local cemetery to preserve a tract of forest instead of cutting it down to extend the lawn area. He finds someone who can make a coffin coffin for him out of reclaimed wood. We see him try it on for size, joking that “I’m going to be here for a while.” He approves. “It’s the exact style that I want to go out in.” And, in a moment of both celebration and defiance, he dances on its cover.
“A Will for the Woods” is a documentary about the small but urgent movement for eco-burial. But its focus on Dr. Wang, a psychiatrist and musician, makes it a profound statement about death and therefore about life. While some people in the film speak in euphemisms and indirection, and even Wang himself uses terms like “burial is a very likely outcome,” the way that he and his partner Jane confront what is happening to maintain a sense of dignity, honesty, and control is both moving and inspiring. It is not surprising that this film has won audience awards at four film festivals so far.
“It’s comforting to know I’ll be in such a beautiful place,” Wang says. He speaks of learning to “befriend death,” to make sure that his last act is not an act of pollution. Jane tells him what she will do after he dies, how she will wash his body and spend time with it, caring for him in a way he can no longer care for himself.
This is a touching film and a very important one. It is about dying with dignity, but it is also about living with grace. Just as Dr. Wang approached his own death with purpose and honor, the filmmakers have done the same in telling his story and making it ours as well.
An outstanding cast, a weighty subject, and the sincerest of intentions are almost enough to make up for an undercooked, stuntish, and stagey script in this story about a man who decides to die and the family he leaves behind.
The always-brilliant Richard Jenkins plays Robert, who has been fighting cancer for twelve years, eleven and a half longer than his doctors expected. We get a glimpse of him in a flashback, superbly confident and capable as he crisply guides a boardroom through the details of a complicated transaction and then leaves them behind to take his adored and adoring 14-year-old son Jonathan to lunch.
Garrett Hedlund plays Jonathan at 26 and we first see him getting in trouble on an airplane for smoking in the lavatory, and then persuading a flight attendant not to have him arrested with charm — and a request for sympathy because he is on his way to be with his dying father. He is on his way to be with his dying father, but we get the idea that he has been using that as an excuse for a long time.
This visit is different, though. While Jonathan and his mother Rachel (the lovely Anne Archer) and lawyer sister (“Downton Abbey’s” Jessica Brown-Findlay) tell Robert that he can get through this as he has so many times before. But he says, “I fought for 12 years. I’ve got nothing.” He wants to be taken off the drugs so he can see his family clearly. And then he wants them to let him go.
He has a surprise for them. He has given away his money. “I love you both and I raised a couple of spoiled brats,” he tells them.
It takes about a day to sort this all out, and a lot happens. Some of it is touching, as when Hedlund explains why he has stayed away: “It’s hard to love someone with an expiration date stamped on his forehead.” And he did not want to come home until he could be proud of what he had accomplished. Jonathan has to admit that he is the one who is not ready. Rachel is devoted but shows some asperity when no one acknowledges the challenges she faces as the caretaker.
But too much seems artificial. Jessica Barden, like many of the other actors, does far more than it is fair to expect with an underwritten role. In her case it is the plucky dying teenager who just wants to know what one of the normal pleasures of adolescence might feel like, which gives Jonathan an opportunity to duck out on his family as a personal Make-A-Wish, with a chorus of cute sick kids cheering him on. There is a sort of seder in the hospital chapel and an impassioned oral argument. Amy Adams shows up as Jonathan’s ex and Terrence Howard and Jennifer Hudson are the doctor and nurse. All three are sensitive performances in underwritten parts. Issues and hostilities between family members appear and disappear without the underlying emotional heft necessary to provide a reason for the changes. When Robert says he is proud of Jonathan, it is hard to understand why. And yet Jenkins and Hedlund find something in the moment that makes it matter. Writer/director Andrew Levitas shows promise, but he needs to trust his audience a little more.
Parents should know that this film deals with issues of death and dying, including assisted suicide, and it includes smoking, drinking, drugs, sexual references, and strong language.
Family discussion: Who should decide when someone should be allowed to die? Have you discussed your wishes with your family?
“American Nurse” is a deeply moving documentary about the men and women who are, as the bumper sticker says, “patient people.” The film explores aging, war, poverty, and prisons through the work and lives of nurses. Jason Short drives up a rugged creek to reach a home-bound cancer patient in Appalachia. Tonia Faust runs a prison hospice program where inmates serving life sentences care for their fellow inmates as they’re dying. Naomi Cross coaches an ovarian cancer survivor through the Caesarean delivery of her son. Sister Stephen, a nun, runs a nursing home filled with goats, sheep, llamas and chickens, where the entire nursing staff comes together to sing for a dying resident. And Brian McMillion, an Army veteran and former medic, rehabilitates wounded soldiers returning from war. This film will touch, uplift, and inspire you. It was a great pleasure to speak with writer/director Carolyn Jones. I also spoke to Sister Stephen, and that interview will be published later this week.
Did this project start as a book?
Yes, it began as a book. I’ve actually published a number of books. And Living Proof: Courage in the Face of AIDS is probably the most similar for me kind of emotionally to this one, more so than any other project. I’ve really spent my career taking pictures and telling stories of people that I think are admirable, that I think we can learn something from, that we can be inspired by. I’m always eager to shine a light on those stories. So I was asked to do a book that celebrates nurses back in the end of 2011 by a global health care company came to me. They wanted to sponsor a project that would be a photo-journalistic study of nurses all across America and show the best nurses, meet the best nurses. It was a perfect sponsorship for someone like me. They had absolutely no editorial control and so it was kind of like a PBS sponsorship where they would just support the project and get behind what I was doing. I think they knew what kind of work I like to do so it was a really great match. Anyway it started off that way and I have to say as I travelled across the country my mind was completely transformed by the over one hundred nurses that I had the chance to photograph and interview. By the time I was two months into the project I knew this was an extraordinarily special group of people that I was going to want to get to know.
They’re really dealing everyday with this critical balance between being very caring and compassionate and yet holding on to some kind of sense of themselves where they don’t get washed away in it.
And that’s a very, very fine line to walk. I had no idea what nurses do. I mean zip! I had gone through chemotherapy with breast cancer and my nurse really got me through that on a personal level so I knew what that kind of nurse does. But I really knew nothing about the diversity and the depths of knowledge that nurses have and all the different things that they deal with so when that lid got blown off I was really struck. My first feeling was “Oh good heavens they’re all saints!’ and I honestly would talk to someone and just think, “You are just from a different planet than I am.” And it got very interesting: “Are you born like this? Are you born to be caring for your fellow man and completely non-judgmental?” They seemed to me, to be people that were just on a higher plane than the rest of us.
And then I kind of got comfortable and caught my stride and I realized that a lot of the qualities that nurses have are qualities that I believe as human beings are innate within us. I believe we will care for our neighbor for the most part and I believe we will help one another given a certain set of circumstances. So I started to get a little bit comfortable with it. Maybe somewhere within me I had some of the qualities that let me inhabit the same earth that they do. And then by the end of the project I was convinced they were saints and decided that they have a completely different DNA structure than I do! And I will never be anything like them, they’re incredible. Everything I want to be, everything that I think matters during life and at the end of life are things they think about and act upon everyday and just to be in their presence makes you a better human being.
Do you think that we as a culture do enough to support them, particularly with regard to the way that we structure health care?
No! I mean, not even close.
We’re so far off from understanding what nurses do and how they can contribute. We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface. We have got this group of people in this country that are non-political, can’t be bought, they see us holistically, they know how we suffer, they know what makes us healthy, they know where we find joy, they know how to make the hospitals run smoother, they know the full effect of war on our young men and women coming back from fighting, they know what poverty looks like, they know what working in the coal mines look like, they know what end of life is. They should be a part of every conversation, there should be always a nurse sitting at the table to remind us whatever choice we’re making, whether it’s about health care, going to war, food stamps, closing down a school, I don’t care what it is, they can tell us what effect this is going to have on our health and ultimately on our children.
And it’s critical that we stop and listen to them because we don’t have another group of people with this incredible treasure chest of knowledge. We don’t have them; there isn’t anybody else that we can turn to that is as, dare I say, pure and straight forward and non-judgmental and non-political as this group. They are capable of great things because they do have something innate that they are born with that make them different than the rest of us. But they are educated constantly to be non-judgmental, to look at things at face value, to accept everybody and try to understand the cause of someone’s behavior rather than just react to it. And it’s absolutely invaluable and I think this country needs them desperately and doctors are great, this is not a project that is trying to say nurses are great and doctors aren’t. That’s not my message at all.
We don’t know many things about our nurses and “Nurse Jackie” just doesn’t cut it. I’m a huge fan of Edie Falco. She’s brilliant and I wish she had lent herself to something else because it did a great disservice to nurses. I haven’t met a nurse in the last three years that had anything good to say about that. It’s not who they are. And I was lucky enough to meet some of the finest in this country.
How did you find the nurses you followed in the film?
First we would settle on a topic like returning war veterans and what the military had to say about what those women and men were facing. And so we went to the place in America that had more returning war veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan than any other place in the country. That was the VA Hospital in San Diego. Then we went to that hospital and asked them to nominate a few nurses that not only can speak to this issue but also represent the hospital really well, that are like the finest nurses in the industry. So that’s the way we functioned all across the country. We were able to meet nurses that were nominated by their peers and by their supervisors, and all of them are kind of the best of the nurses in that particular facility or place where we were. And so I say that because I’m not trying to say that all nurses are without fault either, they’re human just like the rest of us. But there are more great nurses than any other pocket of a profession that I have certainly encountered in my life and I’ve been interviewing and meeting people for over 25 years. This is an extraordinary group.
It reminds me a little bit of documentaries like “Twenty Feet from Stardom” or “Only The Strong Survive,” where we turn our focus to the people at the side and not the ones that usually get the leading role. Their job is to help other people.
I happen to love stories like that because you find the richness in life there. And you can do a deep dive in and find out makes things work and I love that. But I think in this case in the process of uncovering that I discovered that there is a reason that they don’t have a loud enough voice right now. We don’t know what they do, we have this preconceived notion of what nurses do and it involves holding hands and taking your temperature, and caring for people and being empathetic and all of those things.
We don’t realize how smart they are; we don’t realize the kind of education it takes to become a nurse and we don’t realize how they continue to educate themselves. I heard this so many times, they’ll get a patient who…it could be anything, a burn victim that is hurt in a different way that they didn’t encounter before. They dig in and find out how to help that person. And they get more certifications to be able to help the next person who is dealing with the same thing. That’s just the way their minds work. That’s why there are so many darn letters after all of their names. They have like this long list of number of letters, all of them. Half the time I couldn’t keep straight to who have what but that’s because they are so well educated and they continue to educate themselves because they’re driven by taking the knowledge that they had from the person that they just cared for and using it for the next person. And it’s remarkable.
And what do they do to keep from not falling apart over the tragedies they see around them all the time?
I was thinking, “Do you all get in your cars and drive for 45 minutes and sing Dionne Warwick songs or something to let it go?” But they all do different things. So for some of them there are groups of their colleagues in the hospitals, so there might be something that happens and they’re able to meet right after someone has died, and they can talk about it and kind of get beyond the moment by finding strength in others. Some of them actually do get in their cars and cry or sing or just try very hard to leave that moment behind them and drive home and then walk in the front door, take of their scrubs and make dinner for their families. That just blows my mind on so many levels, it’s incredible! And some of them aren’t able to cope, frankly. Some of them have a difficult time having personal relationships because it’s so hard to talk. Nobody wants to hear that stuff. Nobody wants to know what your day was like.
Naomi Cross is a Labor and Delivery nurse at John Hopkins and is also a Bereavement Counselor. So she’s the one helping moms when their babies don’t live. She’s married to this guy named Jason Cross. We should clone him because he’s so supportive and so aware of how important the work that Naomi does is. And he cooks and he’s there and that’s the way they solve it. They have a young boy who is just adorable, he’s in the film as well, and they kind of have found this balance in life so that she can get in the car and go home and walk through the door and leave it outside most of the time and just enjoy and build herself back up with the love of her family.
But it’s not easy and it takes a very, very special person to be married to a nurse because of what they go through in a day. The film takes us over the threshold into the patient’s room so that we can see them caring for other people. You actually see a baby come into this world and you see a prison nurse attending to a nasty wound on a man’s leg and you get a little glimpse, a little understanding of how dramatic and profound these moments can be that nurses go through. And a lot of the nurses who have seen the film have said things like: “I can’t wait to show my sister and my mother and my cousin or even my husband or my wife because now they’ll get it. Because there isn’t any way for us to understand. They put their hands inside our bodies, they deal with gruesome things and they’re fearless.
I’m going to speak to one of the nurses in the film, Sister Stephen.
Oh my gosh! Sister Stephen transformed me, I want to you to know. There is more life at Villa Lerado than any place I’ve been. I live in Manhattan and I think we very often spend time in the here and now. Oh come on…we all do right? We are very focus on right now and one of the things I think is wrong with the way we live, we’re so trying to hang on to our youth we’ve forgotten that there is a cycle to life, that we’re born and we die. And we try to stay young for so long.
Sister Stephen has the full cycle of life at Villa Laretto. She’s got all these animals that she uses as animal therapy. I’m not just talking about a couple of ducks. She’s got llamas and woodpeckers and monkeys and these animals all give birth and she brings those baby animals either into the facility herself and puts those little babies into the laps of the elderly or she puts the elderly in wheelchairs and takes them out to witness all those baby animals on the farm. And then on top of that this woman is a genius, she also brings in respite kids from the town, kids that have all kinds of different problems either developmental problems or problems at home. She brings them in and they help her care for the animals. And those young people relate to the elderly in such an extraordinarily beautiful way.
We need to be reminded that our time here is so precious. She reminded me of that. I think of her every day. She’s reminded me that we are born, it beautiful here, we are lucky to be here. We need to cherish it, we need to make the most of our time and then we leave. And that can either be a beautiful moment or a difficult moment but that’s the way it’s going to be for all of us. And I think she lives that every day. She taught me more in the amount of time that I have known her probably than anyone else in my life and she’s a very, very special human being.
According to this movie the two universal human imperatives are the need to find out whether we can contact the dead and the need to use Google to do so. Can we please de-Google-ize movies? I love Google, too, but it is impossible to make a compelling movie scene out of someone typing into a search engine and scrolling through the links that pop up.
Clint Eastwood’s latest film is a meditation on death, with three entwined stories. A French journalist survives the tsunami but is haunted by visions from an NDE (near-death experience). An English boy sees his twin brother die and desperately tries to find a way to communicate with him. And an American factory worker resists his gift for acting as a conduit between the living and the dead. There are some powerful and moving moments, but the film overstays its welcome and fails to deliver on its promise.
There are people who are consumed with the need to talk with those they have lost, to ask forgiveness, to forgive, to know there is something, someone there. And then there are those who do communicate with the dead, and can be just as consumed with the need to get away from them, whose most important lesson from those who have passed over is that they need to make a life among the living. George (Matt Damon) is one of those. He once had a website and a business doing “readings” for those who want to reach out to their loved ones who had departed. A book was written about him. He appeared on television. But the comfort he brought to those who found some sense of completion in his ability to connect to the dead was outweighed by his own inability to disconnect from the messages he was carrying.
Then there is Marie (Cécile De France), a successful French television journalist on vacation with her producer/boyfriend on an Indonesian resort when the tsunami hits. This is Eastwood as his best, a stunningly powerful sequence that will leave the audience feeling swept into the pounding power of the ocean. Marie glimpses a vision of what might be the afterlife when she is briefly near death. After she returns to France the concerns that occupied her before — her ambitions, the stories she covers, even her relationship — are not as important to her as understanding what she saw and what it means. When once she was excited to appear in posters for Blackberry, now she is interested in a more profound form of communication.
Jason and Marcus (played interchangeably by real-life twins George and Frankie McLaren, a nice touch to show their close connection) are British twins who are exceptionally devoted to one another. They have to be. Their mother is a heroin addict, so they have to work together to take care of her and of each other and keep the social workers from finding out what is really going on in their home. Jason, 12 minutes older, is the more verbal and the decision-maker. He is killed and Marcus sees him die. He is put in foster care while his mother goes to rehab. He is alone. And he needs, desperately, to find a way to talk to the brother who is in every way the other half of himself. He tries a number of psychics but they all seem to be well-meaning fools or downright fakes.
Nothing that happens later in the movie lives up to the inexorable, thundering, power of the tsunami, which makes the under-imagined images of the afterlife seem thin and tepid. Eastwood’s own score (he is an accomplished jazz musician) is nicely understated and evocative. And it was a relief that the heroin-addict mother and the foster parents were not Dickensian ogres. But the stories meander. The movie could lose half an hour easily — until they all come together for a conclusion that feels inadequate. When a magician shows you a hat, you are entitled to see a rabbit. No rabbit here.
Rated R for language, drug content, and some sexual humor
Very strong language
Characters inadvertantly take hallucinogenics
Comic peril, character apparently killed
Date Released to Theaters:
April 16, 2010
It feels like the world should come to a stop when someone dies, but unfortunately, it does not. And it feels like the confrontation with the eternal and the shock of grief should somehow make everyone behave, but unfortunately, it does not.
Fortunately, that can be funny, especially when it is happening to someone else. “Death at a Funeral” is a wild, door-slamming, poop-on-the-face, naked-guy-on-the-roof farce set at the funeral of a man whose family did not know him quite as well as they thought. Trying to stay on top of things is the oldest son of the dearly departed, Aaron (Chris Rock), a tax accountant and would-be novelist jealous of his best-selling author brother Ryan (Martin Lawrence). The funeral is at the home that Aaron shares with his wife (Regina Hall) and mother (Loretta Devine). Arriving for the funeral are Aaron’s cousin Elaine (Zoe Saldana of “Avatar”) and her nervous fiance Oscar (James Marsden) and brother Jeff (Columbus Short), family friends Derek (Luke Wilson) and Norman (Tracey Morgan), and cantankerous uncle Russell (Danny Glover). Meanwhile, the wrong body has been delivered by mistake and there is a man at the funeral no one knows, who keeps asking to talk to Aaron about something important.
It all moves along briskly and the juxtaposition of outrageous farce with the most serious of occasions sharpens what would otherwise be pedestrian slapstick. By far the most interesting aspect of the movie is that it is an almost shot-for-shot remake of a British film by the same name, made just three years ago. The two films even share one of the lead actors, Peter Dinklage as the interloper whose relationship with the deceased — and request for payment to keep that relationship quiet — creates a lot of upheaval. Taking a farce that appeared to rely on the understated, restrained British culture in the face of outlandish situations and transplanting it to a black family in Los Angeles demonstrates how much we bring our own expectations to a film.
Director Neil LaBute, best known for searing, disturbing, often-misogynistic plays and movies (“The Shape of Things,” “Your Friends and Neighbors”) lets his able cast run with the material. Marsden is particularly good as the nervous fiance who takes what he thinks is Valium to relax and ends up alternately — and simultaneously — ecstatic, terrified, and utterly dejected. Rock, often uncomfortable on screen, finds some dignity as well as humor in a mostly straight role. Saldana, trim as a greyhound in her LBD, has some great moments as she reassures her frantic fiance and tells off her father, brother, and would-be boyfriend. Hall is delicious as always as a devoted wife who really, really wants a baby — someone needs to give her a starring role. And Dinklage is simply a hoot, one of the most able actors in films today.