Family is a tricky subject. Most of the time, dealing with our blood relatives is hard enough in real life, watching those relationships get translated to the big screen can result in stories that are overly simplistic on one end of the spectrum and incomprehensibly angsty and complex on the other.
This month, let’s take a look at three movies about families. They range all over the spectrum, some dwelling on the strengths of family, some on the frailties and weaknesses.
Supernatural: Sins of the Fathers
Supernatural followed the story of Sam and Dean Winchester, hunters of demons and other malevolent beasties that haunt the United States. The original televisions series, created by Eric Kripke, ran from 2005 to 2015 and was massively popular with the same demographic that enjoyed the X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Angel. Even though the show came to a satisfying conclusion, fan demand was strong enough to propel Supernatural into the same club as Star Trek and Firefly, continuing the story on the big screen.
One of the hallmarks of the series was the use of local and urban legends to push the story of the Winchesters forward. Even through the tales of angels and demons, there was always episodes about the common stories that sprout up around any midwestern town: the woman in white who strangles young adulterous women, the story of the boy that was drowned by bullies who returns from the grave to have his revenge. The common touch was one of the true delights of the series, and the movie has the same touch, thanks to Kripke.
Supernatural: Sins of the Fathers' story spans five generations of hunters, ending with Sam and Dean’s children. In the Jamestown colony, James Read was a blacksmith and a hunter. He came to the New World following a man named Thomas Couper, who Read believed was a worshiper of the demon Moloch. During the first winter, the colony ran out of food. Couper inducted a number of starving settlers into his practices; sacrifice and cannibalism. Read sent his wife and child to leave with some friendly native then returned to the colony to fight the demon and his followers. Read was never seen again.
The rest of the movie moves through time periods: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Great Depression, the 60s and present day, telling the story of the generational fight with Moloch. Without getting into spoilers, it falls to the daughter of Dean and the son of Sam Winchester to finish the demon once and for all.
This is one of those movies that is so much fun that it is easy to overlook its failings. Admittedly, I am a sucker for a good piece of supernatural adventure, and I was a fan of the show back in the day. Still I expect the movie to be a flop, only because part of what made the show so good was the chemistry between the two lead actors, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles. Even though they have cameos in the movie, that couldn’t possibly be enough to give the movie the spark that the television series had. To my surprise, the two actors playing the next generations of Winchesters worked well. Dakota Fanning as a tough female action hero and newcomer Michael Schulak as her bookish cousin fit the story perfectly.
While not a masterpiece of film, Supernatural: Sins of the Father is a fun time and a solid edge-of-your-seat adventure. Perfect for a Friday night out or a Saturday night in.
I’ll cop to it. The mere thought of this movie hurt my soul.
For American audiences of a certain age, Happy Days was part of a weekly ritual. In my family it was no different; Dad would get home, we would have dinner, the kids would help Mom with the dishes then head off to finish home. The plan was to reconvene in front of the television at eight o’clock and thirty minutes of laughter with the Cunninghams, followed by another thirty with Laverne and Shirley. Happy Days was part of that genre of wholesome family entertainment that died when the Cosby Show went off the air. It showed a funny, friendly, stable form of American life that didn’t really exist; an idealized world where Mom and Dad were in a solid marriage, where siblings quibbled and fought but ultimately stuck by one another, where friends always had your back and going steady with your best girl was tantamount to being engaged.
It wasn’t real, but it was comforting, like Santa Claus, or fair play, or God.
The mere fact that this movie made it to the screen is proof that God does not exist. The writers on this movie need to be taken out and shot behind the chemical sheds.
Strong words? You betcha. And that’s what you deserve for pissing on my childhood.
Rather than taking a comical look at the perfect family in all its naive glory (as they did in the Brady Bunch movie), or going for a straight retelling of what was a good story to being with, these jackholes decided to inoculate the story with bitterness and modern ennui. They dipped it in irony and set it on fire.
I don’t care if I spoil it: you cannot call a movie Happy Days and change the characters to make them all…well…miserable. It’s as if Lucifer himself decided to retell the tale. This movie is the tale of a 1950s American family pushed through a dark prism and dropped, broken and bleeding into 2016.
Howard Cunningham is no longer a lovely curmudgeon with a heart of gold; he’s a hard drinking chain smoker who’s lost his hardware store in the economic downturn and hasn’t picked himself back up yet. Marion Cunningham, once the most saintly mother on television since Barbara Billingsly played Mrs. Cleaver, was now a cougar working days at the local casino and nights in the bars picking him men. Joanie is an emo kid with a meth addiction and a habit of cutting herself. And Richie…poor Richie has been transformed into a bright teenager who is a closet homosexual who has trouble relating to the world around him.
And the Fonz? He still wears leather. And rides a motorcycle. He’s still a mechanic and still watches out for Richie. He swings both ways, being too cool for just one sex, and instead of frequenting the local burger joint he’s a staple at the raunchiest gay bar on the seedy side of Milwaukee…the Manhole.
It feels so wrong. So very wrong. So very, very wrong…to me.
And here’s the rub: the story being told in this movie, while less comfortable, might just be more relevant. The characters are drawn from more real life sources than they were before. The problems are more dire, and closer to home. It is, sadly, a more honest reflection than the original series ever was.
I wonder two things: do people want their entertainment to be a reflection of the troublesome world around them, or do they want to escape into a pretty whitewashed fantasy? When I was a kid, we wanted the latter; today, with the supremacy of reality television and cop dramas, people seem to want the latter.
Yeah…I know I sound like an old man, and I might feel differently about this film if it were the same story with a different title and different character names. Yes, I see what the writers were trying to do, and perhaps I would have thought it was clever if the original series had not been such a hallowed part of my childhood. But they do, and it was, and I think the movie is crap. Do not go see it.
And get off my lawn.
Little House on the Prairie
Originally, this series aired in the 1970’s and was based on the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, a schoolteacher and author who's family were some of the original settlers in the Kansas territories in the early 1800’s. Like Happy Days, this was family-friendly entertainment suitable for prime time. And like Happy Days, it ran for a long time, and when it went off the air, it was missed.
No one has touched the franchise since…wholesome family entertainment doesn’t have much of a shelf life in these more cynical and enlightened days. Regardless, the story of pioneers facing challenges could still be compelling if handled properly. Leave it to someone like J.J. Abrams to manage to take the raw material provided by the show and turn it into something compelling.
In the new movie, the Ingalls family is still a pioneer family, but they are on a whole new world…Mars. The year is 2308, and the surface of Mars has been terraformed and made suitable for human habitation. Charles Ingalls, a professor of history, and his wife Caroline, a botanist, apply and are selected to be one of the first families to settle this new world. They take their daughters Mary, Laura, and Carrie with them into the biodome.
Abrams and his team do a surprisingly good job of telling the tale of moving and working on a new planet through the eyes of an eleven year old girl. There is drama, there is adventure, but the writers do not shy away from sentiment. This is a refreshing turn, especially after reflecting on the Happy Days movie. The Ingalls family is close-knit and truly love one another. Charles is smart, wise, and hard working. Caroline is caring, resourceful, and clever. The characters are drawn simply and without deep-seated flaws, but in this context, it works.
Science fiction? Yes…but the story has less to do with technology and more about the human factor, about the things that hold us together and make us better people. The message is clear, that families are good, that they give us strength, and that when we are all alone, the only people you can really count on share your same bloodline.
And there we have it…three movies covering a narrow arc of the circle which is the life of a family. As much as I love to bring the snark, it is hard to do when speaking of family…except when I see writers who think that cynicism is wit, who use irony like a blunt instrument instead of a precision instrument.
That’s it for this month. Until next time…take a little time. Call your folks. It’s probably been too long.