Where Have All the Fathers Gone? Good Dads are Rare in Cinema

Fathers on film get short shrift as role models. This may be that movies, or rather screenplays need drama, and drama usually spells conflict. So if it is a movie where fatherhood is a theme, Dad is portrayed as either clueless (The Ice Storm, Back To The Future, disengaged (The Incredibles) or overprotective (Finding Nemo), faltering morally (The Bicycle Thief, Catch Me If You Can), generally unsupportive or aware of who their child actually is (C.R.A.Z.Y., Paranorman, How To Train Your Dragon, The Little Mermaid, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Brave, The Croods…basically most modern American animated movies), dangerously obsessive (The Mosquito Coast), violent and abusive (The Shining, Precious, The War Zone), or simply abandon the household all together (Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Perhaps the worst ever is Daniel Plainview. As essayed by Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, he is a borderline sociopath who raises his boy as a cute, therefore effective, prop for his unfettered capitalistic ambitions and all but abandons him -twice- when that purpose is served.

Often when the dad is an encouraging, loving role-model, they exist only in memory (see Contact, below) or are eliminated after first act of the film (Leto Atreides in Dune, The Magistrate in Sansho The Bailiff, Mustafa in The Lion King). Even more often, the best dads seen on film are surrogate fathers rather than biological ones: Pa Kent in Superman, Ben Parker in Spiderman, John Hurt in Hellboy (if comics are your thing) or the kindly projectionist in Cinema Paradiso, Robin Williams in (take your pick) Dead Poets Society or Good Will Hunting, Tom Hanks in Catch Me If You Can, and of course Bilbo Baggins to his nephew Frodo in Lord of the Rings.

A good father increases his child’s wonder and engagement with the world, provides a safe-haven for health of spirit and body, and provides the toolset for his child to go out in the world. He offers a sense or humour, fair and calm evaluation of situations both good and bad, and hopefully a little dignity in how one goes about their business. Looking around the web amongst the terribly repetitive ‘Best of’ kind of lists for movie dads, not only do we see a scarcity of truly good paternal role models, but those cobbling together these things favour the fathers that either drowning in their good intentions with no clue at what to do, as in the Vacation films or are cloyingly overbearing as in either version of the Father of the Bride, or they choose the unending tirades of violence and revenge – take your pick: Kick-Ass (Nic Cage), Taken (Liam Neeson), The Godfather (Marlon Brando), Die Hard (Bruce Willis), Hanna (Eric Bana), In The Bedroom (Tom Wiklinson), Death Wish (Charles Bronson), Road To Perdition (Tom Hanks). These are films that showcase parenting as a means for their kids to survive by violence, enact violent revenge and retribution for harm done to their child, or commit violence as a living to raise their family and while (amazingly) are not completely bankrupt of parenting ideals, they are hardly the shining examples to hold up.

So now that we have the bad out of the way, and have partially defined what to look for in a good cinema father, here are a few films in which the fathers represented offer some respectability to the institution.

Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck, TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD)

Clearly the easiest and most shining example on the list, Finch is a man of significance in his community with a very straight moral compass, and a sense of dignity about his affairs, even when stumping for one of cinema’s great movie speechs. He stands up for himself and his family under no small amount of social pressure for defending those with less privilege in a time and part of the country that under the cloud or racism. More than that, he is gentle and kind with his children without ever pampering or over-entitling him. The film was made when America was at her greatest, and Peck’s portrayal remains perhaps the most iconic movie-dad ever committed to cinema. In short, he leads by examples, means what he says and says what he means. To further underscore his parental excellence, the final shot of the film is Atticus warmly watching his son while he sleeps.

Ted Arroway (David Morse, CONTACT)

David Morse is a curious actor, he can be play an unrequited monster (Dancer in the Dark, 12 Monkeys) or in the case of his Ted Arroway in Robert Zemeckis’s Contact, the warmest of father figures. Like Atticus Finch, he is a single parent, so is responsible for imparting both sides of the parenting equation to his young daughter. Instilling a love of communication and curiosity in his daughter both on earth and in heaven (or rather, outer space) and perhaps most important, a sense of patience and practicality (“turn the knob slower“) upon his daughter Ellie. His pride at his daughters accomplishment, and wonder at the vastness of the universe is also communicated very well to both her and the audience.

Chef Chu (Lung Sihung, EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN)

A third Widowed father (I am sensing a trend here), Mr. Chu maintains his relationship with his three very different daughters via a large Sunday meal prepared by his own hands. As each of his daughters push further into the modern and western model of women with corporate careers, he offers them a place for their problems at the table without (vocalized) judgement of them. While Mr. Chu is undeniably old fashioned (and reserved) China in a fast-paced and complicated globalized world, he imparts a very real sense of tradition to ground all the craziness. His daughters do not miss these meals, not because he forces them to come, but rather that its how they communicate with their father and each other. Mr. Chu exhibits a quiet dignity and that is not without charm, such as when he starts preparing elaborate lunches for a friends daughter to take to school. He may be a little more reserved than the other dads on this list, but it is clear he has found a some sort of balance in the world with his family.

‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey/Steven Maturin (Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany as surrogate dads, MASTER AND COMMANDER)

Young Lord Blakeney is doing his duty at sea at a very young age. While an officer, he is only 13 years old and exceptionally quite mature, is very much still a child. With his real father presumably safe on English Soil, he is on the Acheron, a military ship under the command of Jack Aubrey. Early in the film Blakeney loses his arm to infection from splinters caused by enemy canon fire. In a very powerful scene, it is clear that Jack loves the boy and content to play the role of surrogate father. The ships doctor, who indeed severs the wounded arm, also takes him under wing, and a large part of the films characterization is the push-pull of the Military – Science teachings upon the boy. There is a power to teaching the young officer wonder at the variety and mystery of the Natural world and the sacrifices to be made at the hands of leadership and duty. Ultimately one suspects that Lord Blakeney would rise to be a very great, and fulfilled man had there been any sequels to the film with such excellent role models and stand-in-dads.

Dill (Stanley Tucci, EASY A)

Spell it with your peas!” is the giddy suggestion from Stanley Tucci’s movie-dad, Dill, upon hearing his daughter got the boot from class for uttering foul language because he doesn’t want her to repeat the word out loud in front of her younger brother. Dill is acutely aware of his daughters adolescence, but feels he has taught her so much about being a good human being (this is of course off screen before the setting of the film, but clear in his body language) that he is willing to let her make her own mistakes. And yet it also makes it clear that while he respects her intelligence and her space, he is there if she needs him. Dill is unabashedly geeky, but clearly has a great relationship with his equally self-deprecating wife (Patricia Clarkson, also a great movie-mom) and they want to lead by the example of their love and playfulness to their children. As much as I liked Easy A, the parenting part of the film is easily my favourite part. While it is rather unabashed in its aim to be a modern John Hughes picture, Dill trumps any of the well rounded parent characters in any of Hughes’ pictures (Yes, including the excellent Harry Dean Stanton in Pretty in Pink).

Tatsuo Kusakabe (Shigesato Itoi, MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO)

One of my favourite movie Dads in one of the best parenting movies of all time. Professer Kusakabe’s wife is sick in the hospital, and he is moving his daughters into a new house in the countryside. Wanting to make the best of the transition from city to country, without mom present, he encourages his daughters to help him make the old house livable for their family, while giving them the freedom to explore the grounds at their own pace. He assuages fears with laughter, but is never dishonest about their mothers condition (which I do not believe is fatal, but still serious.) While the littlest daughter Mei does go missing on account of his not being there, he deals with the situation, erring on the side of giving his children freedom rather than suffocating them. My Neighbor Totoro is a wonderful movie that ever parent should show their children, not only for its magic and whimsy, but also for its novel take on parenting.

Pod (Tomokazu Miura (or Will Arnett/Mark Strong if you prefer the USA/UK Dubs) THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY)

Yes, there are two Studio Ghibli movies on this list, most likely because, unlike their American equivalent, Disney, Ghibli tends to craft their tales around unbroken family units and incorporates their precocious young heroes into the greater social fabric, instead of constantly rebelling or subsuming it. So, I will happily include the often overlooked (or outright dismissed) animated adaptation of The Borrowers because indeed, the dad in this one is magnificent. The movie’s first chief incident is Pod, the father, taking his daughter on her first ‘borrowing’ mission. He gently guides her up the lengthy route from their tiny abode below the floor boards into the vast and intimidating world above. He helps her, but gives her space. The image of Pod quietly holding the light and waiting for his daughter to complete her climb is a powerful one. Further, when Arrietty gets entangled with a ‘big person’ in the form of the visting boy who is at the house to convalesce from physical ailment and prepare for heart surgery, her father calmly makes decisions while never outright belittling his daughter for her discoveries. The man is an ocean of calm, but you can see the care and the love painted in the margins. The whole film is that way, there is a lot of depth underneath those quiet, serene surfaces.

The Man (Viggo Mortensen, THE ROAD)

OK, this is the toughest one on the list, because unlike most of the other entries here, the main characters are in constant danger, and the world is not full of wonders or promise, but rather a post apocalyptic wasteland where death comes in many forms and life is a living hell. Dad here is also a widower – but 99% of the worlds population is, gone, so there is that – but feels more importantly than he and his son surviving in this world of ash, is that they survive together. While this is ultimate not meant to be (as death comes to us all in the end,) I imagine that the soul of the father watching down might be comforted that they boy is picked up by a potentially complete family near the end of the film, one of the very few positive notes in an otherwise soul-crushing downer of a film. Nevertheless, while travelling to some vague destination over the course (coarse?) of the film, and the Cormac McCarthy novel it was based upon, the father instills what is left, under the circumstances, of a moral code upon his son (i.e. no unnecessary killing and definitely no cannibalism) along with a number of survival skills and a fair bit of kindness and love. Sometimes that is what matters most.

Trailer: Stake Land


Jim Mickle, you put Zombies in my Vampire movie, wait, you put Vampires in my Zombie movie. Stake Land (Kurt’s Review) was well deserving of the TIFF Midnight Madness Audience Choice Award in 2010. The film is a thoughtful and intense post-apocalyptic road-movie, which begs the question on who should really be getting the gig writing and directing The Walking Dead if they wish things to improve in that series in subsequent seasons. The film has a great John Carpenter vibe leavened with a hint of the higher production values afforded the likes of John Hillcoat and Terrence Malick. It is nice to see that this trailer makes a bold announcement of Stake Land’s visceral tone and sense of humour within the genre. Like the director and his co-writer (and lead actor) Nick Damici’s low-budget debut film, Mulberry Street, there is no bones about being an unabashed genre effort, but they know how to inject a lot of wit, style, brains and heart in the proceedings.

Trailer (and initial teaser) are tucked under the seat.
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The Romantized and Tormenting “Ghost-Wife”

Well worth highlighting this piece from one of my favorite web-writers, Alison Willmore, who points out something, apropos of Inception and Shutter Island this year, regarding the romantic (and tormenting) idealization of women as a plot hook. So that the tormented male lead can emote and strain towards some future enlightenment (or fall into the void), there must be a woman bathed in honey-coloured light demurely glancing towards the camera in soft-focus.

Read the entire piece here with may very good examples of this.

Bookmarks for December 22

  • God, Gaia, and Avatar
    “The question is whether Nature actually deserves a religious response. Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality. And the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.”
  • Movie Posters of the Decade: A Follow-up
    “Last week [The Auteur’s Notebook] posted my selection of the decade’s best movie posters: a post which attracted a remarkable amount of attention, not least from the estimable Roger Ebert, who posted his rival choices on his blog. The Auteurs contributor Andrew Grant, a.k.a. Filmbrain, was also inspired to post his own favorites, many of which are absolute knockouts. We also received a phenomenal and rather humbling response on our forum, enough to convince me that I need to do a follow-up post.”
  • Larry Gross’s Four Most Underreported / Misreported Movie Stories Of 2009
    The Hangover, The Road, Zoe Kazan, Funny People. Have at it; Larry is not shy with his opinion.
  • On Brittany Murphy…
    “One of the first things Brittany Murphy did when she showed up on the Oregon set of her indie thriller “Something Wicked” last June was acknowledge — and apologize for — her weight.”
  • When Critics Fight Critics
    IFC goes over many of the tiffs and tats between critics over the banner-year-of-change in the industry, 2009.

Doomsday Marathon: Le Temps du Loup

Doomsday Movie Marathon

An unnamed apocalypse lies at the center of Michael Haneke’s very underrated Time of The Wolf. The unnamed, and unexplained disaster (hinted at one point to have poisoned the water) only adds to the anxiety and dread that shrouds both the characters and eventually engulfs the audience by seriously fucking with expectations. The film begins not unlike his controversial 1997 film Funny Games, with a young bourgeois family (the so called ‘million dollar family:’ husband, wife, one boy, one girl) driving to their isolated cottage somewhere in rural France. They find, while unpacking their gear, another family holed up in their very-much-private property. The other family, like dark doppelgängers (and foreigners to boot) quickly lay waste to the idyllic nuclear family, dispatching Dad and leaving Mom and the children to fend for themselves in the harsh world.

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Bookmarks for November 23-30th

What we’ve been reading over the past week or so.

  • A Top 10: Lengthy Tracking Shots
    From Godard to Scorsese. Showy Shots abound. There are plenty more to add (feel free to suggest in the comment, I am surprised they left out the big D.W. Griffith shot in Intolerance. Or for that matter, The Protector, Brazil, Serenity, Boogie Nights, Satantango, etc. etc. But then again, it is only a top 10.
  • Playboy does James Cameron (no photos!)
    “Avatar is made very consciously for movie fans. If critics like it, fine. I can’t say I won’t read the reviews, because I may not be able to resist. I spent a couple of decades in the capricious world of being judged by those not knowledgeable about the depth and history of film and with whom I would not want to have a conversation—with a few notable exceptions. Why would I want to be judged by them? For me, this past decade has been about retreating to the great fundamentals, things that aren’t passing fads or subject to the whims of some idiot critic. You can’t write a review of the laws of thermodynamics.”
  • SPIEGEL Interview with Umberto Eco on the vertigo of making lists
    “I was fascinated with Stendhal at 13 and with Thomas Mann at 15 and, at 16, I loved Chopin. Then I spent my life getting to know the rest. Right now, Chopin is at the very top once again. If you interact with things in your life, everything is constantly changing. And if nothing changes, you’re an idiot.”
  • ‘Nine’ Leads Indie Heavy Golden Satellite Nods
    While the awards – handed out by International Press Academy – are generally disregarded as a serious Oscar precursor due to their often inexplainable decisions, this year’s batch is definitely full of worthy nominees, particularly from the specialty sector.
  • More Mainstream Press for THE ROOM.
    “Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room” is a train wreck of almost incomprehensible proportions: Whole scenes are out of focus, while others are repeated in their entirety; characters appear without introduction, while others vanish without explanation; and the unfortunate cast engages in behavior that few would consider typical. All of which, of course, makes the painfully overwrought relationship drama one of the greatest comedies ever to be created entirely by accident.”
  • The Road Takes Desolate Journey From Page to Screen
    To deliver “The Road’s” worn and weathered ambience, Hillcoat avoided as much as possible the over-the-top digital approach employed by director Roland Emmerich for his post-apocalyptic spectacle, “2012.” Hillcoat shot “The Road” at 51 real-world locations to give the R-rated film, which opens Wednesday, an extra dose of authenticity.
  • 100+ Cliche Dialogue Lines
    ‘The Definitive List of Cliched Dialogue’ or just another day at the office for those ink stained grinders writing Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mark Dacacos or Steven Segal flicks.
  • Critical Shift: New Moon vs. Gone With The Wind
    Peter Howell considers what has changed in the critical landscape in how lurid melodrama and hammy acting was received in 1939 vs. 2009.
  • Tres Chic Twin Peaks Photo Gallery
    Quite an awesome (yet creepy) set of on-set photos taken during the taping of Twin Peaks by Richard Beymar.
  • The 99 Most Jaw-Dropping Movie Moments
    We love those movie moments that make us feel like we’ve been swiftly punched in the gut. The shocking scenes that give us goosebumps and gasps at the same time. Because we love those shock & awe bits so much, we’ve compiled our 99 favourites, counting down to the all-time greatest jaw-dropping movie moment.

Review: The Road

Doomsday Movie Marathon

When it was announced that Australian director John Hillcoat would be taking up the challenge of bringing the bleak and difficult novel, The Road, to the screen it seemed liked the absolute perfect match of director and material. After all, his gritty and fly-coated outback western The Proposition had that right mix of apocalyptic and tender that is the essence of Cormac McCarthy’s prose (the crisp non-nonsense sentences are as sparsely worded as any book that I have read, yet finds power and poetry in its repetition). And are not many post-apocalypse survival movies similar in tone and execution to the modern anti-western? Make no mistake, this is a handsome, consistent and harrowing adaptation of the work, but it is not quite a filmic masterpiece because I fear the novel as it is, is not translatable from the written page to the screen. There is something about letting the immediacy of each small sentence in the book sink in slowly, whereas Hillcoat and co. have only 2 short hours with with to pain their gray portrait of a world in ruin. It is a faithful adaptation of the book to be sure, many of the “Day After Tomorrow” images in the gawd-awful trailer cut by the Weinstein Company are (thankfully) not in the in the film, and any scars or signs of its length (and likely troubled) production history are not evident on screen. Rest assured that The Road is the quiet and intimate drama, and very likely to be the bleakest multiplex movie of 2009 (should the distributor finally stop shuffling it back in the calender again and again) as it should be; yet, nevertheless between book and screenplay, something of the soul was lost in translation.

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The Doomsday Movie Marathon

Emergency Broadcast

Hemorrhaging Financial Markets
Rapidly Depleting Natural Resources
Threat of Pandemic Disease
Polar Ice Caps Melting
An Apocalyptic Mayan Prophecy

And thats BEFORE we even start our Doomsday Movie Marathon. For the next couple months Row Three will be ground zero for discussion on movies that embrace the paranoid and prophetic anxieties of doomsday scenarios. Such scenarios both fantastical and plausible offer us a glimpse into how, when stripped of our modern conveniences, we might fair, let alone survive, with only our wits to provide. Somewhere between Kevin Costner (a whopping 4 appearances in this batch) and Steve Guttenberg (The Day After), the truth doth lie.

Some effort has been made to arrange this programme from as wide a variety of genres and time periods as possible while still staying true to this basic theme. More often than not, films were chosen not for pedigree so much as for for their potential as conversation-starters, films on the fringe of the familiar, or worthy of a second look. Brought together here is quite a mix of films including 90’s throwbacks to natural disasters, post-apocalyptic epics, some schlock science fiction, a couple art house musings, a few too-close-to-home geopolitical scenarios and an alarming amount of 80’s hair.

From now until the end of the year, contributing writers of Row Three will watch and review films that in one way or another evoke the doomsday ethos. Part of this is a lead up to Roland Emmerich’s deliciously absurd 2012 and John Hillcoat’s masterpiece, The Road, both of which will also be reviewed as part of the marathon.

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TIFF 09 Review: Last Ride

Director: Glendyn Ivin
Screenplay: Mac Gudgeon
Producers: Antonia Barnard, Nicholas Cole, Nick Cole
Starring: Hugo Weaving, Tom Russell, Anita Hegh, John Brumpton
MPAA Rating: NYR
Running time: 90 min.

Looking for the perfect companion piece to Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road (our review)? Then look no further as Glendyn Ivin’s Last Ride is just the ticket you’re looking for. Not set in a post-apocalyptic world, but rather in a desolate and sparsely populated Australian Outback, a rugged, middle-aged man (Kev) and young son (Chook) struggle to survive while quite obviously on the run from a troubled recent past.

The film is maybe more comparable to Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World starring Kevin Costner with the only major detail change being that the boy in Last Ride is our anti-hero’s son. But the comparison still sticks as the two outlaws cross the gorgeous Aussie Outback sleeping wherever and stealing whatever they can; causing a substantial amount of intentional and unintentional amount of understated mayhem in their wake. What differentiates this film from Eastwood’s is the difference in expectations that our main characters have and wish for. While young Chook wants nothing more than a good family structure and a warm bed in his very own home, Kev wants nothing of it and would rather his son learn the ways of the world in the harshness of said world.
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TIFF09 Review: The Road

John Hillcoat's The Road

Allow me to answer the question before it is asked: John Hillcoat’s The Road is as good an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel as we were ever going to get.

Now before diving into the pleasurable minutiae of the film itself, this last sentence needs some unpacking. For me, Hillcoat’s The Road is inescapably viewed through the prism of the novel, the unprovoked visceral experience to be had free of any foreknowledge of the story is left for some other reviewer to describe. In virtually every beat of the story The Road onscreen stays loyal to the source material, and while thematically this is a very good thing, the adverse effect for me personally, is I cannot experience the film on its own terms. More to the point, considering the ambitions of both the novel and the film there is, I believe, an imposed ceiling on what a loyal cinematic retelling could ultimately achieve. Most would agree that a book has certain advantages over a film, but in this regard I am talking about something specific to this story and the chosen style. McCarthy, in his novel, jars the reader into a quite unique literary experience where the sparseness of description and minimalist gestures and use of language create an unease, almost claustrophobic space within which the drama of the story unfolds and each minute act takes on newfound monumentality because of this. The same novelty cannot adequately be achieved in cinema because experimentation of this kind has saturated the language of it, we have entire genres of film that push the boundaries of sparse minimalism, and relative to one’s exposure to these films, the experience can suffer for it. Hillcoat’s The Road does everything right in its ambition to stay true to the material, but its slavish devotion makes it still lesser in my eyes than the book because the effect of the style does not equally transfer between mediums.

Whew. Now, the remaining four stars… Would you like to know more…?

Hillcoat Reuniting with Cave for Next Project

NickCaveAndJohnHillcoatReviews are starting to roll in for John Hillcoat’s The Road and from most sources, the reviews have been very positive. Not that it’s much of a surprise considering the pedigree; Cormac McCarthy is a genius with a pen and Hillcoat is no so shabby himself when it comes to directing great films.

While the rest of us eagerly await the film’s October 16th release date, we can bask in the knowledge that Hillcoat already has a new project to jump onto once promotion and film festival jumping is complete. Hillcoat has signed on for another adaptation, this time Nick Cave’s “The Death Of Bunny Munro” which tells the story of a “sex addicted travelling salesman on his final road trip.”

I’m not very familiar with Cave’s work outside of his music, and even then I’m a fan in passing but I like the idea of another Hillcoat project and one that sounds as promising as this one. I can’t be the only one excited to see what a sex addicted travelling salesman looks like never mind what sort of shenanigans he gets himself into.

This will not be the first time that Hillcoat and Cave have worked together. Cave created the score for The Road, the two worked together on The Proposition and Hillcoat also directed the Bad Seeds film Babe, I’m On Fire.