DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of My Flesh and Blood, The Ultimate Gift, For Pete's Sake, The Bachelor, The Brothers Solomon, Montana Sky, Darius Goes West

 

Title:  My Flesh and Blood

Release Date:  2004

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: 82 Min

MPAA Rating:  not given (PG-13)

Distributor and Production Company:  Strand Releasing/HBO Documentary

Director; Writer: Jonathan Karsh

Producer:

Cast:  

Technical:

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site: “family values”

Review:

 

Strand Releasing has been known for some GLBT films, but this is a film that seems to be at the other end of the family values debate.

 

This is a docudrama about a family in Oakland, CA headed by Susan Tom, who takes on a very special mission. She adopts eleven special needs children in addition to her own two natural children.

 

At the outset, I mention the “obvious” political and social lesson. Adoption of special needs children is special calling that must be filled. One remembers ABC “20/20” shows about parents traveling to Rumania to adopt. And it bears a relation to the recent debate on gay marriage, as more and more gays seek to adopt (in most states), and as some states even encourage singles to adopt. But having or adopting kids only infrequently gives the parents the opportunity to raise a Clark Kent. On the other side of the world you have this kind of challenge. (I am adding this comment for the purposes of enlarging a political argument; the mother in this film is presented as heterosexual.)

 

This is a difficult film to sit and watch in a theater (as opposed to at home on cable). But watching it in a theater drives home the lesson, and Landmark Theaters is to be commended for exhibiting this challenging film. The injuries and genetic diseases of some of the kids are horrific. In the opening of the film, there is a pretend amputation at a Halloween party, of a little girl that has no legs. But soon the story centers around one fifteen year old, Joe, who has both cystic fibrosis and Bipolar Disorder. He looks immature for his age because of his medical problems.  His behavior is aggressive, and he seems to hate his adopted siblings who compete for attention and who remind him of his own station in life. At one point, he meets his biological parents, who have turned him over because of inability to raise him. He wants to go back to them, and is promised that one day he can make his own decisions, but he can’t; he is dying himself.

 

The filmmakers maintain a sense of objectivity. The film does not seem preachy. Susan always seems practical and focused when she talks, even early in the film when she tells Joe that he is “sabotaging himself.” She explains her circumstances, how she has not retirement or benefits herself but does get social security benefits for the disabled adopted children.

 

The film suggests a moral dilemma that is even more disturbing to me. Without imparting too much personal detail here, I mention that some people have suggested that I, too, am in some sense “disabled” and should accept my place in the world and dedicate myself to going to bat for their cause. To look upward and pay attention to people who do not appear to need me seems like playing Uncle Tom, and disparaging the worth of people who could leave more rewarding lives if given love and attention. This kind of thinking is coercive, but is seems like part of the underbelly of the family values debate.

 

Many people in the debate act as if childrearing were a basic obligation of first class citizenship. Yet, you see stars like Ryan Seacrest of American Idol or Bill Maher (Politically Incorrect) telling Larry King that they are not parents and are more comfortable with the adult competitive world. So am I.

 

ABC “Extreme Makeover” presented Susan Tom and her (now) twenty adopted children on November 6, 2005. Several of the kids in the movie were mentioned. Habitat for Humanity and some sweat volunteer work was presented, which would be necessary to build a large house for special needs kids.

 

The Ultimate Gift (2007, Fox Faith/Life n Media, dir. Michael O. Sajbel, novel by Jim Stovall, 114 min, PG). The "dead hand" is a well known issue in 19th Century Victorian English novels; and the device appears in one "unpublished" novel/screenplay by a friend of mine in LA (and, yes, I hope it gets made).  It used to be common, especially in Britain, for the wealthy to control the actions of their children from beyond the grave by attaching strings to wills, that can even be retroactive. This movie, produced by a Christian group (when it is shown, there are no previews, although there is only passing reference to the tenets of Christian faith per se), plays on that theme, that a wealthy magnate (rather Donald Trump like, in this case the billionaire is Red Stevens, played by Red Stevens), can play God with the character of his playboy grandson Jason Stevens (Drew Fuller) and mold the young man's character to his specifications.

 

The story takes place in present day Charlotte, NC, which looks great in the film, as does south Texas (there is a sequence in what seems to refer to the King Ranch). Red, with the pomposity of the character Victor in "Days of our Lives," makes a DVD to be played for Jason at the reading of the will, outlining a twelve-step program for earning his inheritance. Actually, the reading-of-the-will scene has promise, as it starts in a law firm board room. There was a famous short story of that name by John Knowles, which I read once but am fuzzy about now. Somehow, I can imagine Truman Capote coming up with this kind of situation, but he would go into very different places with it.

 

Jason's problem is that he has taken his wealth for granted and acted like a playboy, with no ambitions of his own. He is hostile when he comes to the meeting, and disrespectful, smoking. That's depression. Though the (fully heterosexual) Fuller should be the picture of virility as an actor, this film gives away some humiliation right on, as his chest has been shaved, with a only little stubble to return by the time of the final kiss. I don't know if that was intended to be noticed by the director as a subliminal message or not. It's a metaphor for the fact that he has to give himself up to get anything. But actually, that is kind of the point. He really doesn't have much of a self to yield, to be, as in Corinthians, "changed."  Yet the grandfather claims he sees great fire in Jason. (Not sure why at first.)  The DVD will send Jason on a Howdy Doody treasure hunt to collect "gifts" (of the spirit) (the list reminds me of Ralph Nader's "Seventeen Traditions"(blogger)), the first task being manual labor (plugging in fence posts) at a ranch run by Gus (Brian Dennehy), who actually tazers him in bed with a cattle prod. Other tasks follow, like making a "friend" who will be leukemia patient Emily (Abigail Breslin, who is shown at least once with the effects of the chemotherapy) and eventually her mother (Ali Hillis). He gets sent to Ecuador, where he is kidnapped by drug dealers but escapes. Eventually he gets his own dreams which, naturally enough, will be to give away money to build a new cancer center and family lodging in Charlotte in Emily's memory. 

 

The tone and the pacing of the film are a bit bizarre and choppy, but not a preachy as expected. I think a story like this could explore more subtle possibilities. For one thing, a dead hand can be predicated on not doing certain things. Or it can be related to fulfilling the patriarch's sexual or lineage ambitions, like simply getting and staying married (as with The Bachelor (1999, below; it also happens in the third of the La Cage aux Folles movies). I think someone can have dreams or goals that offend the emotional sensibilities of the benefactor, who may try to "change" the family member to become more loyal to the family's interests (or to people in the family) emotionally--or to simply become more responsive to "people" with less narcissistic focus on one's own ideas. That's a lot more testing that the premise of this film.

 

The film "Starter for 10" released the same weekend makes an interesting moral comparison, as that film examines moral values (like cheating) from an individualistic perspective.

 

For Pete's Sake (1968, Worldwide, dir. James F. Collier) is another Christian film in which Billy Graham plays himself. It has 60s family drama, with Teri Garr as the wife with a serious medical problem (she throws up in a store in one scene). The film was brought back (at least in Dallas) as a paid exhibit in the 1980s.

 

The Bachelor (1999, New Line, Gary Sinyor, wr. by Roy Cooper Mengure, based on the 1925 play "Seven Chances" by Jean Havez, 102 min, PG-13). I felt so put off by the idea of this film that I skipped it in theatrical release in 1999, but I watched the DVD after "Ultimate Gift" appeared. This movie really is a brutal satire (the opening wild west sequence reads "every man is a mustang"), and you can guess from the title what the gig is" a young man has to get married, and perform in bed for ten years with his wife to get and keep his inheritance, according to "the dead hand."  Chris O'Donnell is the young man, Jimmie Shannon, and he looks a bit emasculated (like the new Justin Timberlake) in this role -- deliberately. Renee Zelwegger is the costar and eventual bride. But the reading of the will, again Knowles-like (and with the soap opera effect of a DVD) really cuts to the quick. The young man will have to marry by his rapidly approaching 30th birthday, stay married for ten years, be away for only one day a month, and produce genetically verifiable procreated offspring. Grandpa is quite explicit about preserving "my genetic inheritance," and orders his grandson to "procreate" and lectures on the virtue of "sacrificing your happiness for your descendants." That is, you don't get to make your own choices in life (even with your own sexual apparatus) until you pay tribute to the biology that made you and connect yourself to it. That does keep a certain political order, doesn't it. He runs through some candidates, telling one girl, "I'm not interested in your g. d. vagina, I just want to marry you." The climax is pure Bollywood.  There is a nice exceprt from Orff's Carmina Burana

 

The Brothers Solomon (2007, Tri Star / Revolution, dir. Bob Odenkirk, wr. Will Forte, 91 min, R). Of course, Will Forte comes from Saturday Night Live, and this is no Dostoyevsky 's "Brothers Karamazov."  Will Arnett and Will Forte play John and Dean, two brothers living together in a luxury LA pad, and already having separate misadventures dating women. Their father has a stroke and (after managing to leave a message on an answering machine), tells the brothers he would like a grandchild, after which he lapses into a non-artificial coma. There is no explicit mention of a will, but the "dead hand" seems to be implied. The ensuing comedy needs to be offensive to make its central point -- that "family" deserve emotional empathy and connection that many men don't have. Aesthetically, the men are fit but average looking, as if they don't have enough hair on their legs. They get hooked up with a surrogate mother Janine (Kristin Wiig), and at first don't understand how artificial insemination works. And there is a complication, she already has an overweight African American boyfriend James, whose potency can provide the final irony for the natalist birthing climax. The guys do some really offensive things, enough to get them both on a "sex offender watch list" and they don't even care or understand what that means. And they do just dumb things, like paying $50 a word for a very verbose sky banner ad to get Janine back for the movie's "climax." 

 

But, as raunchy and silly as this movie is, it does communicate one thing: men need to learn empathy well before they embark on marriage and family. But maybe it carries further: the need to be made to learn it to embark on "real life" at all. Is there a moral to this comedy?

 

Montana Sky (2007, Mandalay / Lions Gate / Lifetime/ Stephanie Germain, dir. Mike Robe, novel by Nora Roberts) may seem like a supermarket special, setting up a "have to get it done" plot for women, but this time there is a social question. A Montana rancher bequeaths his 8 million spread to his three daughters, two of them estranged, on the "dead hand" condition that the two prodigal daughters, as well as the loyal one, live on his ranch for a year and work it. If any one of them leaves, the other two lose everything. How is that for a test of "loyalty to blood"? (The scene of "the reading of the will" is surprisingly informal, but this is the open west.) But the last three-fourths of the movie is concerned with plots by other parties (including possibly one excluded male family member) to take away the ranch -- by crime and force, starting with cattle mutilations and leading to a scene that could have come from "The River Wild". All of that, of course, is for your beginning-middle-end plot, making the movie into a kind of modern western (not exactly of the "3:10 to Yuma" legacy). All this movie needs is Kevin Bacon, shirtless, regardless of age. It does have Ashley Williams, Charlotte Ross, Laura Mennell, Diane Ladd, John Corbett, Nathaniel Arcand, James Baker, Tom Carey, James Dugan.

 

Darius Goes West: The Roll of His Life (2007, Roll With Me, dir. Logan Smalley, 94 min, PG-13). A teenager with Duchenne muscular dystrophy and his friends go on the road, to get on an MTV show “Pimp My Ride”.  Blogger.

 

Related reviews: Pay It Forward  La Cage aux Folles III    Bride and Prejudice  Starter for Ten

 

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