Sunday, February 10, 2013

Flowers for Algernon

I am compelled to write a review of Flowers for Algernon not because it was a great movie, although I did enjoy it, but because of the important questions it raises about how we view people with disabilities.  This made-for-TV movie, based on Daniel Keyes's Hugo Award winning story, is well-acted and well-produced, but still has the feel of a made-for-TV movie (mostly because of the cheesy music).  The value of the movie, to me, is the questions it provokes.

Algernon is a mouse who, through a surgical procedure, has attained a much higher level of intelligence.  Charlie, an adult with intellectual disabilities, agrees to be the first human subject of the experimental procedure.  The procedure is highly successful, rapidly raising Charlie to super-genius status, but only for a time.  He eventually loses his newfound intelligence and learning ability.

Flowers for Algernon is fiction, but in our world of rapidly developing medical and informational technology, imagining such a procedure is hardly fantasy.  Sometimes it seems like more a question of when rather than if such things become possible.  Given the possibility, if not inevitability, of such developments, how should we address the ethical questions that arise?  If we can accomplish such enhancement of intelligence, does that mean we should?  And if we do, what does that say about the value we place on people with intellectual disabilities?

Before the procedure, Dr. Strauss meets with Charlie to discuss what will happen as a result.  "If this operation works, nobody will ever have to be like you were.  None of these babies will have have to grow up and go through what you went through."  Later, at the scientific conference where Dr. Strauss plans to present his results, he describes Charlie before the experiment.  "He was outside of society. . . . He was alone . . . without mental equipment that would lead him to a normal life.  He has . . . no hope for the future."  He was "one of nature's mistakes, a mistake that . . . we have corrected."

Dr. Strauss and his team intended well.  But where is the line that separates quality of life from no quality of life?  Charlie had a job, as a helper at a bakery, where he felt accepted, even if bullied a little bit.  He had his school, where he attended classes with other adults with disabilities.  Most of all, he had his spirit; he cared for others and endeavored to give of himself.  In response to Dr. Strauss's comments, Charlie said, "I am not aware of any contribution that Charlie Gordon made to society before his operation, but to describe him as a mistake is unfair.  He would have given you his last crust of bread if you asked for it."

So at what point does a disability become something to be cured?  Researchers have worked tirelessly to find cures for different kinds of cancer.  The cure and prevention of diseases like polio have undoubtedly prevented many from becoming disabled.  Technological developments are increasingly giving hearing to the deaf, sight to the blind, and the ability to walk to the paraplegic.  But when we look at someone born blind, or with an intellectual disability, without the ability to walk, or some other disability, and say, "You are incomplete, you are not right, you are not normal," what are we really saying about them?  When Dr. Strauss tells Charlie that his goal is that no one is born like Charlie, and that Charlie can't have a normal life, what is normal? What do we value?

As Charlie's IQ rose, his personality changed.  He became less caring, less able to relate to people, and lost his friends and connections.  Our abilities and disabilities are inextricably tied to our personalities.  We are who we are, mind and body.  Dr. Strauss personifies what some have called the "cult of normalcy," the belief that not only can disabilities be corrected, but that to the extent they can, they absolutely should be.  It's a question worth pondering next time you interact with someone with a disability.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Machine Gun Preacher

You just have to admire someone who takes radical steps to live out their faith.  Machine Gun Preacher is based on the story of Sam Childers, a low-life biker ex-con who was radically saved from a life of crime and drugs.  Inspired by a guest preacher at his church, Sam, as a new, zealous Christian, traveled to Africa to help with a mission construction project.  While there, he visited the war zone of southern Sudan, and had a first-hand encounter with the senseless brutality of the Lord's Resistance Army.  He dedicated his life to rescuing children from these heartless criminals, opening an orphanage in Sudan.
Because of his going about armed, and his willingness to gun down LRA soldiers in order to rescue children, he became know as the machine gun preacher.  Here's where the story gets complicated.  Childers is out there serving "the least of these."  I mean, how much more needy is a kid who lives in one of the earth's poorest regions, whose parents have been killed by marauders, and who may be forced by the marauders to fight?  I applaud his conviction and celebrate the fact that hundreds of children are safe, alive, and healthy because of his efforts.  Yet, I can't help but cringe at his use of violence.  Pure religion is caring for orphans, but does that mean shooting down their oppressors?  Maybe it does.

I was inspired by Machine Gun Preacher.  In many ways, it is an evangelistic film.  We see Childers's drastic transformation and his living out his faith.  The other Christians in the film are portrayed respectfully (although church was a little on the cheesy side).  We celebrate with Childers in his baptism, share his struggles as he lives out his faith and tries to convince others to join his vision, and cringe (maybe with painful recognition) as he has some failures.  This is a very Christian movie, but the portrayal of sin will bother some.  The language and violence is definitely rated R.  Although we learn that Childers's wife was a stripper before she got saved, there are no scenes of nudity.

Inspiration, action, conviction, controversy, and challenging questions about the use of violence to good ends.  A nice mix for a movie!

Bottom line, 3 stars.

For more about Sam Childers and his ministry, see:

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Marriage of Figaro (Movie Glutton Opera Edition)

Kelly, Elliot, and I attended the Sunday matinee of the Fort Worth Opera's presentation of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.  This is one of those classic operas that define opera.  It might also serve as a litmus test to determine, Are you an opera lover or not?

Just as I have come to expect, the FW Opera put on a fantastic performance.  The lavish sets and world-class singers, accompanied by the terrific Fort Worth Symphony, came together for a performance that surely would match any put on anywhere in the world.  The singers in the lead roles had a flawless performance, as did the supporting cast.  If I had to come up with one criticism, it would be some of the slapstick staging; it is a comedy, but sometimes the silliness seemed a bit over the top.

The count doesn't recognize his wife because she . . . changed coats?
Which brings me to my next point.  I am not a musician (okay, I sang in the choir and play a little guitar), so I am really in no place to criticize the music.  It all sounds great to me.  But I do read a lot of fiction and watch a lot of movies.  Again, my tastes may not be the most refined, but I feel like I can judge a good story.  I have to say that the story of Figaro is stupid.  It's a sit-com, and not a very good one.  The misunderstandings, jealous lovers, then the whole let's-switch-clothes-and-meet-our-lovers-under-cover-of-night deal, it all adds up to a movie that would not be made or a novel that would not be published.  At least if I was the editor.

And I was surprised at the audience, refined opera lovers, guffawing at the most inane semi-comedic moments.  Sure, it's mildly funny at times, but these people are laughing like it's the funniest thing they've ever seen.  Maybe it is.  The music is great, for the era in which it was composed, and some of the arias are very beautiful.  But taken as a whole--musical theater that tells a story--I just don't get why this thing has endured for over 200 years and ranks as one of the most-performed operas.

I did enjoy it, even though it is pretty long and I was feeling sleepy, not having had time after church for my Sunday afternoon nap.  Did I love it?  Am I an opera lover?  Maybe not.

Once again, I probably sound like an idiot trying to talk about opera.  Here's the Star-Telegram review, from someone who actually knows what he's talking about!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Living My Own Life: Adults with Disabilities

Through the years, families of people with disabilities have chosen to place them in institutions, nursing homes, and group homes.  This is an especially crucial decision for families when the parent or other family member dies or otherwise can no longer care for the family member with disabilities.  But these are not the only options available.  There is a growing movement paving the way for individuals with disabilities to live independently.

Skeptics may object and argue that it's impossible, but in Michael Loukinen's film Living My Own Life: Adults with Disabilities, we meet several adults who, in spite of their disabilities, have managed to live on their own.  The argument of the film is that "people with disabilities have the same vision of adult life as everyone else does--a chance to live as independently as possible in their own home, to control who comes in through the door, to work at a real job and to be surrounded by friends."

Each of the individuals profiled in the film have disabilities which at first glance appear to need constant assistance and supervision.  While each does have support from others, whether from parents or home health assistants who come to the home, each one makes decisions about his or her life on his or her own.

The mother of one man profiled in the film summed up her own acceptance of the goal of her son's independence: "The most I ever hoped for was him just to be able to get out of the house. . . . and here he is, he's surviving by himself."  She had to give up her overprotectiveness, but, like any parent, came to see that he could manage independent of her.

Several of the subjects of the film have jobs, not aimless tasks in a sheltered workshop, but in actual businesses among non-disabled people.  Dohn Hoyle, an advocate and friend of one of the men, points out that some would say "that some people don't have the capacity to work.  What we have to look at is what can people do, not what their limitations are, not what their disabilities are, but what can people do."

Can the individuals in this film and other people with disabilities live completely independently of anyone?  Likely not.  Like all of us, they depend on others for support and community.  Their support may be more deliberate and intensive, but the key is that they choose their community and their support.  They have achieved a high level of self-determination.

Hoyle concludes, "This is possible for everyone.  The level of disability, medical needs, they don't matter; what matters is early planning and giving them a chance. . . . Limitations mean far less than letting people . . . get their piece of the American dream. . . . That's all any of us can ask."

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


I haven't seen The Avengers yet, but I'm guessing I'll be glad to know a little back story on Thor.  In Thor, we learn that the Nordic gods were actually aliens, and Thor was exiled to Earth by his father.  During his brief time here, he comes to admire humans and to consider us worthy of his protection.
Thor with his traitorous brother.
There's lots of action, of course, but Thor goes beyond the action to inter-planetary political intrigue and an operatic story line.  Thor probably would not win any awards for the acting, but it's still pretty good.

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Normally, the cover blurb "from the guys who brought you Superbad" wouldn't turn me on to a movie.  But this one sounded promising, so I gave it a shot.  It has the crude humor of Superbad but speaks to a wholly different coming of age type of story.

Meet 27-year-old Adam, played by Uncertainty's Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  He likes his job, has a girlfriend, a faithful best friend, and seems to have a good life.  Then he's diagnosed with rare type of cancer, a tumor on his spine.  Chemotherapy doesn't shrink the tumor, so he has to have surgery.  Along the journey of treatment, he learns about family, friendship, and life.
Adam's not to excited about being only his therapist's third patient.
The best thing about 50/50, which makes the movie believable and moving, is that the writer, Will Reiser, wrote from his own experience with cancer.  The result is an honest and surprisingly moving and thought-provoking account of the effects of cancer on the patient as well as on those whose lives bump against his.

I saw this quote in Bob Hoose's review on, which describes how I feel about putting such a potentially great movie under the cover of a foul language filled sex comedy:
The lowball dross seriously cheapens the powerful statements they set out to make. The truth is, if you have something that's cinematic gold and you cover it with a layer or two of filth, nobody can see the value lurking underneath. And if they discover it accidentally, they're still going to be left longing for a good scrub brush and a hose.
Bring on the scrub brush!  But besides all that, still,

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Robots.  Explosions.  Guns.  Robots.  Exotic cars.  Explosions.  Hot British girl in tight dresses.  Explosions. Over-the-top special effects.  Explosions.  Exactly what you expected.  Entertaining, but not very memorable.
Let's blow up downtown Chicago!

Bottom line, 1 1/2 stars.