An Evening With A Broadway/Film Actress

Cherry+Jones

The actress in question is two-time Tony Award winner Cherry Jones. She has the small role of a TV news executive near the end of Tina Fey’s new film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. The evening our conversation took place, we were in the Catskills “metropolis” (population, c. 70) of Bovina Center in the last part of the 90s. First, however, a little background is needed before we get to Ms. Jones.

While pastoring the small Presbyterian Church in that hamlet, I reviewed films for the county newspaper and secured a grant to buy a video projector and a 12-foot foldaway screen so we could move our film group from homes into the church hall. Soon we moved from the church basement to the nearby library so as to open the Saturday night film sessions to the whole community. This meant changing the name from “God and the Movies” to “Movies That Matter.” We quickly discovered that community folk, some coming from 10 to 60 miles away, far outnumbered church folk, with attendance ranging from a dozen to as many as 65. Many of these film lovers were “weekenders,” NYC dwellers who liked to spend their weekends in the mountains away from the congestion of the City.

Bovina boasted a fine coffee shop/diner where one of our young adult church members worked as a part-time waiter. One night he recognized a customer as a stage and film actress—Cherry Jones, of course. During a brief after-dinner conversation with her he mentioned that his pastor hosted a film discussion group nearby. Interested, she volunteered to come and speak to the group if we were interested. We certainly were, and soon I was on the phone discussing with her what the program would be. Because I had DVDs of three of her films, we decided that we would show clips in which she appeared, and she would talk about how they were made. The films were Erin Brockovich, The Perfect Storm, and The Horse Whisperer.

Cherry Jones’ film career is not as well known to the movie-going public as her Broadway career is to New Yorkers, because, as she explained in her introduction, she does not want to commit to being away from Manhattan for the long periods of time that a major movie role would require. Her first love is the stage, and for that she must stay in New York. Accordingly, she has accepted small roles which do not require her leaving Manhattan for long—indeed, most of which can be filmed there.

In Erin Brocovich Ms. Jones played Pamela Duncan, one of the many victims that the paralegal Erin Brocovich interviews. The huge California utility Pacific Gas and Electric Company had secretly been dumping its toxic waste into the ground, contaminating the ground and water for a large number of people who lived near the facility. As I recall, Pamela was the suspicious victim who at first did not want to talk with Erin, but who eventually came around after she was convinced of Brocovich’s sincerity.

The above film was a relatively simple shoot, just dialogue between Julie Roberts’ Erin and Ms. Jones’ victimized householder. The Perfect Storm, filmed on the opposite side of the country off the coast of New England, involved a great deal of physical work in a giant water tank, as Ms. Jones showed us, exaggerating her act of hanging on to a rope, much to our amusement. She was playing Edie Bailey, a passenger on a sailboat. Seeing the dark storm clouds approaching, her character pleads with the millionaire owner to head back to port. He stubbornly refuses, with the result that the small boat is swamped, and were it not for the US Coastguard, she would have drowned. She described how fearful and exhausting the experience was as wave after wave was sent crashing into her. Standing in front of our screen, her two hands high above her head clinging to an imaginary lifeline, she moved abruptly to the right and the left as she mimicked

being swept back and forth by the rushing water. It was jolting enough for just one take, but the director needed shots of her being pounded by the water from several different angles for editing purposes, so she had to go through the dousing several times.

Her role as Liz Hammond in the Robert Redford-directed The Horse Whisperer was far less physically demanding. In fact, she didn’t need to leave her New York apartment, even though the action took place many miles away in upstate New York. The script called for star Kristin Scott Thomas to talk with her on the telephone concerning her character Annie MacLean’s daughter and horse, both terribly injured in an accident while out riding (indeed a companion of the girl was killed by the truck that ran into them). Liz is a veterinarian, hence the call from the anxious mother/horse owner. Annie did not want to put down the badly injured horse, even though others advised doing so. She saw that her deeply traumatized daughter would be even more disturbed if they ended the life of the animal. Normally the phone conversation would have been shot separately, the crew filming each of the women in turn while each pretended to be listening to the other during the talk. Cherry preferred to have the conversation shot in real time, so with film crews at both locations, Ms. Scott picked up her phone and put in a long distance call to Ms. Jones.

All of the above roles were brief cameos, but in the Tim Robbins-directed Cradle Will Rock, one of my favorite show biz films, she had a much bigger role as real life Hallie Flanagan, director of the Federal Theater Program during the tumultuous 1930s. It involves her, Orson Welles, and other thespians staving off politicians opposed to their pro-union plays that they were staging around the country. (I will soon search this out in the March 2000 issue of VP and post it on the site.)

To learn even more about this busy actor’s impressive TV credentials, type in her name at the IMDB.com website. Cherry Jones is one of our least known national treasures, one who generously provided a room full of film lovers some 20 years ago with a memorable experience we will long treasure.

National Geographic Channel Offerings

See what you are missing if you don’t subscribe to the journal form of Visual Parables. besides the discussion questions for the film reviews there are other features, such as in the April issue short reviews of two National Geographic Channel films. “The Story of God,” narrated by Morgan Freeman, who seems to be going for a world record for the most films narrated by an actor, is still going on through May, and hopefully, the channel will bring back the fascinating docudrama on the earlier life of Pope Francis.

The individual journal costs $4.95, but a year’s subscription is just $39,95–plus you have access to several years of back issues. Check it out on VP’s website.

VP pic

 

RAOUL WALLENBERG (1985)

Wallbrg

I have neglected this blog for far too long due to an overcrowded schedule, but I promise to do better from now on. I am prompted to update the blog thanks to Suzy Farbman’s latest GodSigns posting on a new PBS documentary film on the Swedish diplomat who saved so many Jews from death during the Holocaust. I urge you to read it, and then if you are as fascinated by this dark period during which we can see the worst and the best of which humanity is capable, you might want to see a dramatic 1985 TV film I was impressed with many years ago.

Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story stars Richard Chamberlain and, at 200 minutes, goes into considerable detail of the diplomat’s courageous action that saved an estimated 100,000 Jews in Hungary. The film is so effective that it evoked 100 reviews on Amazon, where the DVD can be bought. (Go to http://www.amazon.com/Wallenberg-Heros-Story-Richard-Chamberlain/dp/B004KL0OVU.)  I reviewed it for a Catholic magazine at the time, but unfortunately, this was before I founded Visual Parables, so I have no digital copy of that review–nor of the magazine. This man, who came to a sad end, truly deserves the appellation “Hero.”

Coming next: A biographical docudrama about Pope Francis.

The Gospel and Comedy

Here are some ideas for approaching your Easter celebration or preaching from a little different angle. The article below appeared originally the April 1997 issue of Presbyterians Today.

 EXIT LAUGHING

Why the long faces in Church?

Jesus is alive!

The Gospel is not a tragedy.

 By Edward McNulty

When Thou Shalt Laugh, a DVD featuring a stage full of Christian comedians, was released last year, some critics were amused by what they considered an anomaly- the idea that Christians could be funny. Let’s face it: many regard Christians as humorless and church services as boring affairs for the seriously pious.

But not only are humor and laughter indigenous to the Christian (and Jewish) faith, they are rooted in the very nature of the Bible. Smiles and celebration belong in church, especially at Easter, when we remember Christ’s victory over sin and death.

 

Godspell got it right

John-Michael Tebelak saw the potential for humor in the gospel story when, joining with composer Stephen Schwartz, he conceived his Broadway musical Godspell. He daringly depicted Christ as a clown, who calls men and women from their humdrum world to form a troupe of comic performers. Through mime, song, dance and vaudeville skits, they sing the good news. Tebelak was very much in tune with theologian Harvey Cox, whose book The Feast of Fools (1969) called the church to rediscover the joyful spirit of the Gospels.

Another popular 1970s musical, Jesus Christ: Superstar, presents the story of Jesus as a tragedy. It’s the tale of a good Jewish boy who becomes a hapless victim. Lamenting the situation, narrator Judas wonders (to Jesus) “why you let the things you did get so out of hand?” The show closes with the soft music of “John Nineteen Forty-One,” referring to the verse in John’s Gospel about the tomb where the body of Jesus was laid. No resurrection here.

In contrast, Godspell presents the story of Jesus as a comedy, filled with exuberant music, clever sketches interpreting Jesus’ parables, funny pratfalls, soft-shoe dance routines and outrageous comments uttered by Jesus and his disciples. True, the scenes of the Last Supper, Gethsemane and the crucifixion are serious and moving: the disciples sing a dirge-like song, “Long Live God,” as they carry the dead body of Jesus on their shoulders. But then the film version concludes with the disciples breaking into the raucous “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” Jesus’ body is gone, and his risen presence seems mystically embodied in the disciples who are skipping and dancing again as they did earlier in the show.

A resurrection outlook

Tragic elements certainly exist in the story of Jesus. But even the grimmest passages recounting events leading up to Jesus’ death offer hints that the impending tragedy will ultimately be swallowed up in God’s “divine comedy.”

For example, Jesus’ appearance before Pilate, as depicted in John 19:10-11, is a serious confrontation. Pilate challenges Jesus: “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” But Jesus answers, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” His reply brings to mind the child’s response to the naked potentate in Hans Christian Anderson’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” “Look,” the youngster blurts out, “the Emperor doesn’t have any clothes on!” Jesus’ faith in God enables him to see through the humiliation and pain to the reality that Pilate is not as mighty as he thinks he is. Suffering must be endured; but Easter will reveal that God’s power not only surpasses that of any political leader, it is greater even than sin and death.

Followers of Jesus today view the tragedy of the cross through the lens of resurrection. How much more inviting would Christian worship services be to outsiders, if they embodied this resurrection outlook. The Lord’s Supper, for example, ought to be more like a celebration than a funeral service. Instead of the preacher solemnly intoning the familiar words of the liturgy against a background of muted organ chords, why not sing a joyful hymn such as “Lord of the Dance” while preparing to share the bread and wine?

A Sunday for laughter

A pie in the pastor’s face during worship is not standard fare in most churches, but it’s no longer unexpected at First Presbyterian Church in Winter Haven, Fla.

Nine years ago the church joined the Holy Humor Sunday movement, and attendance has been climbing steadily for its Sunday-after-Easter service. Associate pastor C. Alan Harvey says church leaders got the idea for the service from an article in The Joyful Noiseletter (see “Humor helps,” opposite page). They read that early Greek Orthodox Church leaders called the Sunday after Easter “Bright Sunday,” emphasizing the joy and laughter engendered by Jesus’ resurrection.

Last year’s Bright Sunday service at First Church will be hard to top. At the climax of the children’s sermon, pastor Steven D. Negley pushed a pie in Harvey’s face. It was one of those “guess you had to be there” moments, but the pastors say the stunt somehow related to a telling of the Bible story.

The church has adopted the butterfly as a symbol for Bright Sunday. Thanks to Florida’s warm climate, worshipers are able to go outside and release butterflies given to them at the beginning of the service.

 Clowns and comedians

Resurrection-centered faith is the basis for clown ministry, a movement that sprang up around the country in the 1970s. Inspired by Paul’s words about “the foolishness of God” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31), chaplains at retirement homes and hospitals have donned clown make-up to lift the spirits of patients and demonstrate the healing effects of humor. As Lutheran minister Floyd Schaffer put it in his 1984 book If I Were a Clown, “a clown is someone who lowers himself, in order to lift someone else up.”

(Not a bad description of Jesus’ ministry.)

Even outside the church, a resurrection outlook informs the performances of classic comedians such as Charlie Chaplin. For Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, life is a dangerous and humiliating waltz among the slippery banana peels of life. He suffers many falls and disappointments, but each time he stands up again, retrieves his cane and dusts off his fallen hat. Then, after doing a little hop/dance step (l like to call this his resurrection dance), he heads down the road into a new day.

Comedy in Scripture?

Many of us approach the Bible with such seriousness that we miss the comic element in some-of its stories. But readers looking for humor will not be disappointed. For example:

Gospel guffaws

In his ground-breaking book The Humor of Christ (1964) theologian Elton Trueblood pointed out examples of the under-appreciated humor of the Gospels: Jesus accuses show-off hypocrites of blowing horns before giving alms. He warns that when blind (leaders) lead the blind, both will wind up in a ditch. And he compares a money-obsessed person seeking to enter the kingdom of heaven to a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle. Some humorless scholars have attempted to “explain” Jesus’ hyperbolic joke about the needle’s eye by suggesting that there must have been a low gate in the Jerusalem wall through which a heavily laden camel could pass only by kneeling and inching its way through.

Mirthful birth Genesis 17-21

God chooses a childless couple in their 90s to begin the family of “chosen people.” Ludicrous! No wonder Sarah and Abraham laugh when God tells them they will become parents. When Sarah finally does bear a son, the parents name him Isaac, which translates as “Laughter.” Sarah declares, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me”

Sibling Rivalry Run Amok

Hebrew storytellers must have chuckled over the saga of the contentious twins, Esau and Jacob. They begin competing against each other while still in the womb, each trying to position himself to emerge first and thus have the rightful claim to the family inheritance. Second- born Jacob enters the world holding onto Esau’s heel, trying to pull his brother back into the birth canal. Jacob manages to trick Esau out of his birthright, but the trickster gets a taste of his own medicine when he finds himself tricked by Laban into marrying the wrong woman.

Wise Ass

It’s hard to miss the humor when Balaam’s donkey is depicted as having more sense than its owner.

Designer gods

Satirical passages like this one in the book of Isaiah show the absurdity of making and worshiping idols.

Fish tale: Jonah

The delightful story of Jonah could be subtitled, “Your legs are too short to run from God.” Don’t get hung up on the question of whether or not a person can survive in the belly of a whale, or you’ll miss both the humor and the point of this fisherman’s tall tale. :J

Humor Helps

 The books mentioned in the article by Cox, Trueblood, and Shaffer, are out of print but are available through Amazon.com. Go to the “Book” section and type in the title to find used book dealers that sell them. Other books related to humor and the gospel:

The Gospel According to Peanuts, by Robert Short (Westminster John Knox Press, 1964; reprinted often)

The Joyful Christ: The Healing Power of Humor, by Cal Samra (Harper & Row, 1985; also out of print but available from Amazon .com)

Reaching for Rainbows, by Ann Weems (Westminster/John Knox, 1980)

Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale, by Frederick Buechner (Harper San Francisco)

Especially for Children

The Clown of God, by Tomie dePaola (hardcover: Harcourt Children’s Book, 1978; paper: Voyager Books, 1989)

Other Resources

The Joyful Noiseletter, published by the Fellowship of Merry Christians. www.joyfulnoiseletter.com

or P.O.Box895.Portage.MI 49081-0895)

Thou Shalt Laugh (Warner Home Video, 2006), a DVD featuring 90 minutes of Christian stand-up comedians, hosted by

Patricia Heaton (Everybody Loves Raymond). Note: Since writing this article a total of five DVDs have been produced in

the series.

The Gospel and Comedy Retreat Kit provides even more humorous Scripture passages, movie references (the group watches & compares JESUS CHRIST: Superstar and GODSPELL, and if time permits, Oh, God!) and sample skits for a group to explore this topic in depth. This is based on a number of retreats I have led, and there are still ten copies left that include my first book TELEVISION: A Guide for Christians that includes 2 sample skits based on Biblical stories, designed to inspire participants to write their own humorous skits. For more details on content or for ordering, contact Visual Parables, 4337 Napa Valley Dr., Bellbrook, OH 45305, or myparables2@gmail.com.

DramaMasks

Even the grimmest passages recounting events leading up to Jesus’ death offer hints

that the impending tragedy will ultimately be swallowed up in God’s ‘divine comedy.’

The Power of a Song

The passing of folksinger/lorist Guy Carawan on May 2 at age 87  marked the passing of an era–Carawan now joining his colleague Peter Seeger. The two of them showed the power of song to galvanize masses of people to resist wrong, no matter how entrenched it was. I saw this first hand while serving for an all too brief two weeks in Mississippi during August, 1964. (For more than you might want to know about this scroll back to a series of earlier blogs.)

My friend Roger Smith and I had traveled together from our parishes in North Dakota and were assigned to Shaw MS. where we supplemented a staff of about a half dozen teachers and grad students working mainly in getting people to sign up for what was called the MS Democratic Freedom Party. This was an integrated political party designed to challenge the legitimacy of the official segregated Dem. Party at the upcoming National Dem. Party Convention later that summer.

One of the highlights of our experience were the various Freedom Rallies that we attended in Shaw and other communities. After a series of inspirational and informational speeches and prayers would come the singing, accompanied by clapping and bodies swaying to the rhythm. The last song was always “We Shall Over Come.” This was invariable a lump in the throat experience, especially when we sang the verse, “We are not afraid, We are not afraid, O deep in my heart, We shall overcome someday.

FanLouStudnts

Fannie Lou Hamer could out sing us all when she led us in “We Shall Overcome.”

 

That verse was more aspirational than a statement describing us, because we were afraid–often. We had been warned never to sit by an open window with room lights on because KKK night prowlers had fired into some of the Freedom Centers in other towns around the state. Virtually everyone had been the object of curses, as we were several times, once at a white owned gas station where some idlers had gathered by our car, one of whom said that he hoped we did not make it through the night. (This is not to be compared with the actual harm visited upon blacks and civil rights workers in other towns–the local sheriff did restrain whites in our area because he feared the FBI would move in were violence to get out of hand.) At Shaw the singers knew that across the street a white policeman was taking down the names of those in attendance. Some were fearful for their jobs–with good cause it later would turn out.

WeShOvrcom

The song, along with many others so wonderfully disseminated by Mr. Carawan, Pete Seeger, Fanny Lou Hamer and the Freedom Singers that she helped found, provided strength, comfort, and hope to all who participated in the civil rights movement. I will never forget hearing Mrs. Hamer’s strong voice rising over ours during the two night gatherings she attended. It was as if this woman, bruised and beaten so badly by state troopers that she would live with pain for the remainder of her life, was saying to us, “Come on, you all, you can sing louder. You can do more.”

You can read more about Mr. Carawan and the song at the website of the Highlander Center where he served on the staff for a long time. The site also has posted the wonderful New York Times tribute to Mr. Carawan, which also includes a history of the song. May this wonderful man, who labored for justice so long, rest in peace, receiving the promised blessing, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant!”

https://www.facebook.com/highlander.center

A.D. The Bible Continues –Episodes 1 & 2

ADPostr

Hollywood is all about Show Biz, so it should not surprise us that Show Biz, which depends upon high energy action and special effects (they used to call it razzel dazzle) will take precedent over the spiritual, the historical, and in the case of religious films, the Bible. The poster for NBC’s new series demonstrates this well. Ostensibly the film is about Jesus and the first generation of his followers,  but what dominates visually? Roman soldiers, of course, and their swords are unsheathed, ready to strike at the people they are chasing. One unfamiliar with the story of the Crucifixion might think they are forcibly driving the crowd toward those three crosses on the hill.

Thus it became obvious to me that this new production from the people who brought us The Bible* miniseries, the husband-wife team of Roma Downey and Mark Burnett , will push action over Biblical accuracy and meditation, even though they are professed Christians. Who could forget the sword-wielding acrobatic ninja angels fighting the Sodamites in The Bible as if this were part of an Asian martial arts tale? Thus I was not surprised to see in their new series that “They’re b-a-a-a-ck.” More on the ninjas later.

The first episode “The Body Is Gone” had many good elements, including the speculative scenes involving High Priest Caiaphas conniving with Governor Pontius Pilate to remove the troublesome prophet from Galilee from the scene. Each seeks to use the other in his schemes–and the ambitious wife of Caiaphas and the fearful wife of Pilate also play important roles.

The role of Jesus is filled by a different actor this time, the Argentine actor Juan Pablo Di Pace. He suffers convincingly in the trial and crucifixion, but I wish he had been given a little more dialogue, especially while on the cross. Surly there was time to include more of the so-called Seven Last Words, this episode, like so many Life of Jesus films being an attempted harmony of the four gospels.

The “color blind” casting decision by the producers is commendable–as Ms. Downey has said, “to reflect more” of the audience watching the series. However, the African Babou Alieu Ceesay, aside from the matter of ethnic authenticity, distracts from the story. “Hey, look at John!” one is drawn to say, leading one to speculate, “How did one of his Jewish parents hook up with an African?” Better to have used this fine actor later in the scene from Acts in which Philip meets up with the Ethiopian official in his chariot. On the other hand, the casting of Chipo Chung as Mary Magdalene works better, the actress’s features and Mary’s background arguably more vague than that of John’s.

The casting of Greta Scacchi as Mother Mary was a good one, with her face clearly revealing her as a middle-aged woman, rather than the still youthful Madonna of so many Renaissance paintings and earlier Hollywood films, including Son of God (in which Ms. Downey played Mary).

The carrying out of the crucifixion and burial are movingly depicted, but the producers’ desire to make explicit what in the gospels transpires takes place “off stage” is a  sad mistake, even though it provided employment for a team of special effects teckies. The Resurrection is an act beyond the realm of history and the physical senses, an act of faith, and not sight (hence the old hymn we sang in church last Sunday, “We walk by Faith, and Not By Sight.”). The producers of the wonderful animated Life of Christ film The Miracle Maker understood this. This is why they used the realistic Claymation for most scenes and then switched to flat drawn animation for “faith scenes” such as the miraculous healings and the parables. I wish that Downey and Burnet had possessed the same spiritual insight. And bringing back a ninja angel atop the tomb of Jesus, a repetition of the mistake from The Bible!

Episode Two “The Body Is Gone” includes far more scenes involving the enemies of Jesus. Caiaphas becomes obsessed with finding the body that he is convinced was stolen by the disciples. Pilates is enraged that the High Priest did not reveal to him immediately that the body was missing. The investigation of the circumstances of the missing body is pressed forward relentlessly, ending tragically for the Roman soldiers who had been on guard. The script goes over the top at this point, with Pilate himself stabbing in the back the leader of the guards, thus making the Governor even more ruthless than depicted in the gospels or the writings of Josephus.

And there is the repetition of the ninja angel atop the tomb, joined by some others in the background. Equally ludicrous is a chase sequence right out of The Bourne series or one of Liam Neeson’s semi-superhero Taken movies. The disciples are in the upper room when the soldiers sent out to hunt for them arrive. They climb out the window and run over the rooftops, jumping across wide spaces, rush through rooms, onto the streets and through the crowds, the soldiers in hot pursuit. Maybe I shouldn’t harp on this too much if it draws in young action-loving viewers, but still–what will they do to (and this preposition is deliberately chosen over “to”) the adventures of the apostles as recorded in the book of Acts?

One unintended amusing or ironical touch occurred when the upper room scene of the apostles and the risen Christ was interrupted by a commercial that began with the announcement, “Today you brighten the room…”A cheerful couple are painting a room in this WalMart/Glidden Paint ad.

In a preview scene purportedly depicting the Day of Pentecost it appears that the producers are continuing their Hollywoodizing of Acts. I can hardly wait to see the whole episode.

I plan later to report on two earlier takes on the book of Acts of the Apostles–a six-hour 1985 TV miniseries produced by the same British/Italian filmmakers who gave us Moses the Law Giver and Jesus of Nazareth. Also the Visual Bible filmed the Book of Acts, using the text of the NIV as the basic script. Both of these are far superior to the portions of the new miniseries that I have seen so far.

* You can see my series of skeptical reports on The Bible by scrolling back a ways on this blog.

 

 

 

 

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4074084/?ref_=nv_sr_1

 

http://www.nbc.com/ad-the-bible-continues

Film Capsules April 2015

To see longer reviews with the Scripture texts, click onto the film title.

Metalhead

Rated R. Psalm 139: 7-12; Matthew 11:28.

This Icelandic film is an uplifting Good Friday-Easter themed film about a farm family unable to let go of their grief when their teenaged son dies in a tractor accident. His sister Hera takes over his heavy metal music collection, guitar, and even his clothing as she seeks respite from her pain through heavy metal music. Years later the new pastor of their Lutheran Church becomes the catalyst for healing of the girl and her parents, leading to their passing from Good Friday into Easter. The wonderful last celebratory scene of the film reminds me of the main character in  Zorba the Greek (or even Snoopy for you Peanuts fans). Although the film has not yet come to our art house theaters, you can watch it as a streaming video on several outlets such as Amazon. It is well worth seeking out—may well be Visual Parables’ Top Film of the year. A good film for church groups to watch and discuss, though be warned, there is a brief sex scene.

While We’re Young

Rated R. Jeremiah 17; Zechariah 8:16a.

Noah Baumbach’s comedy for real adults is a delightful tale of two Manhattan couples, one in their early 40s who have become blasé about life, and the other in their mid 20s who are experimenting, eager to find good in things the older couple have given up—such as vinyl records, VHS tape, and bicycles. The contrasts drawn are insightful, with the older couple at first finding renewal, until the husband, a documentary filmmaker unable for almost 10 years to complete his film, begins to question the motives of the young couple who have inserted themselves into his life.

 It Follows

Rated R. Psalm 55:4-7.

This is a chilling horror story, much of it set in decayed Detroit It is almost a throwback to the old moralistic horror films of the last century in which promiscuous teenagers die for their sins. The young woman infected by a curse when she engages in sex finds that her friends and sisters loyally stand by her as a strange, shape-shifting creature follows her everywhere, its movement as slow as a zombie’s, and just as relentless. One of the better films of this genre, its ambiguous ending leaves us wondering.

 Cinderella

Rated PG. Psalm 31:24; Zechariah 7:9.

My question as to why another take on the old fairytale—there have been so MANY film versions since the 65 year-old Disney animated version—was quickly answered in this live actor release. Director Kenneth Branagh and scriptwriter Chris Weitz have provided more details to the plot, making this a romantic tale in which the put-upon maiden, played so beautifully by Downton Abbey’s Lily James, is much more human. This family film will especially be loved by girls, but the boys will find plenty of delights and laughs in the transformation of creatures into the coach and horses that deliver Cinderella to the ball.

 ‘71

Rated R. Psalm 10:8-9; Luke 17:2.

Set in Northern Ireland’s Belfast in 1972 when the Catholic push for civil rights was changing into the violent IRA-dominated underground war, the story transpires over one chaotic night when a novice British soldier is separated from his mates in Catholic territory. Literally running for his life, he is wounded when a Protestant pub is destroyed by a bomb (a touch of irony at this point), and then, unconscious on the street, is taken in by a Catholic couple who save his life by stitching up his deep wound. All the while two young IRA members, searching for him through the night, are drawing closer to his hiding place. The brutality on both sides of “The Troubles” is revealed, turning a thriller into a plea for better understanding.

 Insurgent

Rated PG-13. Psalm 72:4; Romans 12:2.

The second part of the teenage trilogy about a dystopian walled-off Chicago in the near future combines elements of the chase genre with the usual cautionary message of such films—be careful of what you seek. In this case it is the security that the law and order crowd seek at the expense of individual freedom. One of the young characters, whose mother is the leader of a rebel group, refuses to support her because he believes she would be no better than the woman leader of the faction they are rebelling against. Best part of the series is that we are given another strong young heroine who will be key to the overthrow of oppression in the remaining films of the franchise.

 What We Do in the Shadows

Rated R. John 3:20.

If you are left cold by such vampire films as in the Twilight series, then this dark spoof might be for you. I loved the “mocumentary” films Best of Show and Waiting for Guffman, and now this New Zealand one in which a documentary crew follows four vampires in Wellington who are getting ready to attend the undead community’s yearly celebration of The Unholy Masquerade. The vampires face many inconveniences in the 21st century, such as the one born during the Middle Ages, who calls himself “Vlad the Poker” because “Vlad the Impaler” had already been taken, realizing that it is no longer socially acceptable to torture people in his dungeon. Crazy fun, though be warned—the spoof is a very bloody one, not for the squeamish!

Focus

Rated R. Luke 16:18.

Another con game film, this one, like the long series of such films (remember The Sting or The Music Man?), requires us to set aside moral scruples in order to root for the protagonist. Will Smith is charming, and so observant of details that he deserves to be called The Sherlock Holmes of Scam.

 Chappie

Rated R. Psalm 12:8; Psalm 8:4

The South African director who brought us the wonderful District 9 returns to his country where in the near future the city of Johannesburg his turned law enforcement over to a company that manufactures robot cops. Their inventor wants to add A.I. to the robots, but his boss doesn’t want such a change. However, when he and a damaged robot are kidnapped by three bumbling crooks, he gets the chance to try out his experiment, which leads to unexpected results. Funny and moving at times.

 The Gunman

Rated R. Proverbs 4:17

Another of those dark tales in which a ruthless assassin, this time played by Sean Penn, becomes the target himself, leading to a search for the identity of the would-be killers from Africa to London, Barcelona, Gibraltar, and back to Africa. Quite a thriller with a large body count, crooks that can’t hit our hero no matter how many bullets they shoot (probably enough to keep a munitions factory busy for six months!), and fights, chases, and stunts that make the film totally unbelievable. Too bad that Sean Penn, like Liam Neeson, also a fine actor, has to sign on to such dreck.

 

On DVD or Streaming Video

 Wild Tales

(Spanish with English subtitles)

Rated R. James 3:4-6; Leviticus 19:18

The film is well named, this Oscar nominated Argentinean film consisting of six tales showing the terrible effects of allowing anger to move on to seeking vengeance. Some of them darkly comedic, one even grizzly in its consequences, each story is like a midrash on the numerous Scripture passages that warn us about seeking revenge. The last story about a bride learning of her new husband’s infidelity at their wedding reception (to which he has invited his illicit partner) is an over the top sequence that just as you think everything (and everyone) is out of control, ends with the possibility of reconciliation.

 The Wrecking Crew

Rated PG.

This documentary is not about a demolition team but a group of 30 and more Los Angeles studio musicians in the Sixties and Seventies who became known as “The Wrecking Crew.” They backed up, and made contributions to, such artists as Elvis Presley, Nat “King” Cole, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin. Frank Sinatra, Sonny & Cher, Nancy Sinatra, The Mamas & the Papas, The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel, The Righteous Brothers, The Monkees, and of course, The Beach Boys. If you are a fan of music of that period, you enjoy the interviews and music clips.