A  Monster Calls (2016)

There might be spoilers in the last two paragraphs, so beware of how far you read if you

don’t want any hints as to the conclusion.

 

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 48 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

I went about as one who laments for a mother,
bowed down and in mourning.

Psalm 35:14b

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12-year-old Conor faces the Monster that visits him while his mother is slowly dying of cancer. (c) Focus Features

Spanish director J.A. Bayona, who in 2012 gave us the wonderful, grace-filled disaster film The Impossible, returns in a very different film with A Monster Calls. His previous film was set amidst a tsunami that took over 230,000 lives in Southeast Asia. This one, based on screenwriter Patrick Ness’s own novel of the same name*, is more miniature in scope, dealing with the impending death of a mother and the anger of her son who does not want to give her up.

The film, set in England, begins with 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) on the edge of a cliff near an old stone church and a huge yew tree. An earthquake has just destroyed the church, and deep fissures split the grounds. In a close-up, we see his hand holding onto that of what we assume is a woman’s. His grip is slipping, he lets go, and…he wakes up. It is a bad dream, one that keeps recurring throughout the film.

The next morning, he looks in upon his mother, still asleep, and fixes his own breakfast. Afterwards, when he returns to her room, bedridden Lizzy (Felicity Jones) talks about her wigs and a new chemotherapy treatment. When she says that he will not have to fix his own breakfast because his grandmother is coming, he is clearly not pleased. At school an older boy stares at him, and after class follows him with two friends, who watch as he beats up Conor.

That night as he is about to go to sleep, the numbers on his digital clock switch from 12:06 to 12:07. He hears a deep voice calling his name. The huge yew tree near the old church, which he can see at a distance from his bedroom window, shakes, slowly taking on a humanoid form, becoming a tree monster. The boy tells it to go away, but the Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) grabs and carries him outside, telling him that he does not come around often, but that he will visit him again to tell him three stories, and that then Conor will tell a fourth. It will deal with truth, Conor’s truth about what he is most afraid of, and which he hides in his dreams. This is why he (Conor) has called out to him. When the Monster is gone, and Conor is back in his room, the floor is covered with leaves. Was this more than a bad dream?

Grandma does show up, and it is immediately apparent that her strictness does not set well with Connor. He keeps asserting that his Mum will soon be well after another treatment. When she tries to prepare him for what she sees as the inevitable result of the cancer, he angrily lashes out at her.

Later he has to move in with her, his anger over this and his mother’s illness erupting in a fury that causes him to destroy a room full of her possessions, the loss that hurts her the most being a beautiful heirloom, an antique grandfather clock. This destructive episode accompanies the Monster’s second story which ends with the Monster destroying the church.

Part of the boy’s feeling of loss erupting into anger is due to his divorced father (Toby Kebbell) returning for a short visit from Los Angeles where he has remarried and is raising a daughter. Conor wants him to stay, but he cannot, due to his American family and job. The promise that he will return in a couple of weeks, and that Conor can visit them at Christmas time is not consoling.

The Monster does return three times to tell the promised stories, but they are so dark and morally ambiguous (if not repugnant) that the boy is left frustrated and puzzled. There is no trace of the simple moral or inspirational lesson contained in most fairy tales. The first two stories are illustrated by water color animation, skillfully executed. We also wonder about them, though as each tale progresses, both Conor and we viewers begin to see their connection to the boy and his situation, especially when Mum tells her son, after the chemo treatment fails, that her doctors are going to try a treatment using a medicine extracted from yew trees. The fearful boy has been pleading all along for Mum to be cured, but as the stories progress, the Monster tells him that he has come not for his Mum’s sake, but for Conor’s.

Though the intended audience for the film and book is children, this dark tale is very different from such cheery tales as Trolls or Sing. Adults should take seriously the PG-13 rating and pay attention to the conversations between Conor and the Monster, the latter an embodiment of his fierce anger and rage. Children, especially if they discuss the film with an adult, will discover that humans are far more complex creatures than those found in most other films and books. As the Monster explains after telling the story about a prince, there is no good or bad guy in the story—most people are in between the poles of Good and Bad. But the ultimate truth that the Monster forces Conor to face and admit is more specific, more personal. It stems from the basic human desire to escape from, or to end, suffering. This is the meaning of his persistent dream of letting go of his mother’s hand, a truth which he, like so many of us faced with the seemingly endless suffering of a loved one, buries deep within himself.

Have you felt anger at times that it seems a monster is taking over? I recall an incident when I was a child working on what was then called a “stick model” airplane, requiring that long thin strips of balsa wood had to be glued to a series of carboard bulkheads, and then over the struts, colored tissue paper glued to them, forming the skin of the fuselage and wings. You pressed the stick onto the spot of glue on the bulkhead and had to wait a few minutes until the glue dried. I did this for several struts, but the glue would not hold for one, and the stick sprung up when I released my hold on it. I reglued it several times, but still the stick would not hold. I finally grew so frustrated and irritated that I raised the model, over which I had already labored a couple of hours, and smashed it to the ground. The anger last several minutes more, until it was replaced with regret. I had spent my allowance money on the model, and spent a couple of hours in assembling it!

And regarding Conor’s truth, perhaps you also have felt a tinge of impatience when visiting a loved one in a hospital or hospice that it was taking so long for the sufferer to die. You probably pushed this feeling or thought down because it centered as much on yourself as on the loved one. You certainly would not express it aloud to anyone, knowing how selfish it would seound. And yet it is there, and often the relief that we feel when the victim finally gives in to death is for ourselves as well. We say, “Well, at last she is no longer suffering” and secretly add, “nor am I,” even though sorrow will linger.

The conclusion of the film is masterfully dramatized, Conor at last able to accept his truth, painful though it is, and to accept it. The reconciliation with Grandmother, and her remark that their common ground is their love for Lizzy, is heart-warming. When Conor is in his new room at Grandmother’s house, he sees his mother’s little book of drawings she had made as a child. No doubt Grandmother placed it there for him. Leafing through it, he is surprised at what she drew so many years earlier. And this should remind us of that hospital scene in which he had let her go, and the expression on her face as she looked beyond her son to see behind him…well, you discover this for yourself.

This dark, complex tale offers so much to adults and children alike that I cannot recommend it highly enough. Though it does not follow the usual path of faith in regards to death—one might wish Grandma or one of the parents had the faith expressed at the beginning of Psalm 35—it is a profoundly spiritual film, one of benefit to believer and nonbeliever.

*Which in turn was based on a story by Irish writer Siobhan Dowd. Ironically Siobhan Dowd died in 2007 of breast cancer. She had started the book, and when she could not finish it, Patrick Ness took it on, giving her credit.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Jan. 2017 issue of VP.

New! Visual Parables Journal for January 2017

LOVE MOVIES? Want to spark discussion with friends? Subscribe to Visual Parables Journal. The January 2017 issue is packed with complete study guides, including: Manchester by the Sea, Passengers, Nocturnal Animals, Collateral Beauty, La La Land, The Eagle Huntress, Lion, and many more. Visit our Visual Parables store to subscribe.

 

Fences (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 18 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 For he is our peace, who has made us both one,

and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility…

Philippians 2:14

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may be well with you and that you may live long on the earth.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Philippians 6:1-4

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Rose goes against husband Troy when she gives stepson Lyon the loan he has requested. (c) Paramount Pictures

Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) might be illiterate, but he is no stranger to words, the spoken kind that is. From the moment we first meet this opinionated black man at work on a Pittsburgh garbage truck with his best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), our ears are bombarded by a veritable Niagara of words flowing forth from his mouth. He is an untutored master at telling stories and slinging insults. Had he been able to read, with his glib tongue he would have been a great salesman, a fit companion for Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman. Indeed, August Wilson’s Tony Award-winning play will remind you of Death of a Salesman, especially toward the end.

During the course of the interaction among the characters, we learn that Troy was sired by an abusive father in the South, leaving home while still a teenager. He served time in prison for killing a man he tried to rob; was a talented baseball player in the old Negro League, but was unable to make it in the major-leagues after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. He claims it was racism, but it also might have been due to his age—he was just born a few years too soon.

However, Troy’s belief that racism was the cause has poisoned his mind so much that he refuses to allow his youngest son Cory (Jovan Adepo) to continue playing football, even when the youth tells him that a scout for a university intends to come to town to see him play. It is 1957, and there are few professional black players, so Troy thinks he is saving his son from the pain and trauma he had gone through. He wants the boy to be responsible and contribute to the family income, hence his order to Cory to go back to the A&P where he had just quit his job. He must ask for it back, which would mean resigning from his school’s football team.

A good example of Troy’s parenting skills, or lack of them, is this speech which comes at the end of a stream of back and forth remarks initiated by Cory’s asking his father, “How come you ain’t never liked me?”

“Like you? I go outta here every morning, I bust my butt ’cause I like you? You’re about the biggest fool I ever saw. A man is supposed to take care of his family. You live in my house, feed your belly with my food, put your behind on my bed because you’re my son. It’s my duty to take care of you, I owe a responsibility to you, I ain’t got to like you! Now, I gave everything I got to give you! I gave you your life! Me and your Mama worked out between us and liking your black ass wasn’t part of the bargain! Now don’t you go through life worrying about whether somebody like you or not! You best be makin’ sure that they’re doin’ right by you! You understand what I’m sayin’?”

But this is more than a father and son play, even though there is still another, much older son from a woman he had known years before he had gone to prison– Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a struggling musician who comes around on Troy’s payday to ask for another loan. Troy’s wife Rose (Viola Davis) appears early in the film, receiving Troy’s paycheck when he returns home with Bono to share drinks and tell tall tales. She joins in the conversation with the pair. Troy makes it very evident that he adores her, no doubt one reason being that she is strong enough to stand up to him. One example of this is, in her husband’s presence, going ahead and giving to Lyons the small amount of money he had requested, despite Troy’s having turned him down. Lyons might be another woman’s son, but she cares for him, and seems determined to treat him better than his father does.

Another important member of the family is Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), a World War II veteran suffering from brain damage. Unable to hold a job, he wanders around the neighborhood while clutching an old dented trumpet because he believes he is God’s messenger. It was a large disability payment to him from the VA that had enabled the family to buy the house they are living in, Gabriel for several years living with them until he had moved on to an apartment close by.

It was at Rose’s request that Troy had started building the fence in their back yard to provide some privacy and safety. During the course of the film there are many scenes of him and Cory sawing boards for it. In one conversation, it seems to take on a symbolic meaning for Troy. Years before he had fought against death, so he regards the fence as a way to keep the Grim Reaper out. Still another meaning is suggested by Bono, “Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in.” And, as Troy and Cory clash over his giving up football, the fence also represents a barrier so high that it threatens to destroy their relationship—and not only between father and son, but, eventually, also between wife and husband.

It comes as a surprise that, as much as he loves Rose, Troy has maintained a mistress for several years, much to Bono’s displeasure. When she becomes pregnant and enters a hospital, he feels he must tell Rose his secret. Of course, she is terribly hurt and resentful. When the mistress dies in childbirth, Troy brings the baby, named Raynell, home. In a confrontation so powerfully written and acted that I am sure it alone would thrust Viola Davis into the Oscar race for Best Supporting actress, Rose agrees to take in the child, but she declares that Troy will no longer touch her. Several years later Raynell (Saniyya Sidney) will be an important factor in a decision to be made by the older Cory, by then a proud member of the Marines. Gabriel is also present at this point, after spending some time in the mental institution to which Troy had committed him. For reasons I will leave you to discover, he raises up his horn so that the gates of heaven will open up…The conclusion hints that maybe old Gabe isn’t so crazy after all.

This is a fine depiction of a blue collar black family during the Fifties. Race is not a dominant theme, though it is important, racism having impacted Troy throughout his life and blinded him to the possibility that times were changing and that his talented son might have a future in professional athletics. In the first scene Troy is talking with Bono as to why there are no “Negro” drivers, blacks being relegated to picking up and emptying the garbage cans. After he registers a complaint, he is apprehensive upon receipt of a summons to the sanitation office. What a relief to be told that he will be the first “Negro” driver.  Troy becoming a driver means that the pals will no longer be working together, which has an unforeseen consequence.

It will be other factors, more than racism, that will lead to the disruption of this once close family. The fences (or “the dividing wall of hostility,” to use the apostle Paul’s phrase) we build take many forms. The apostle Paul sees Christ as the one tearing the barriers down, but only Rose is a person of faith, and she is so hurt by his betrayal that she gives up on Troy, even while still living with him afterward.  Perhaps it is that faith, symbolized by the small cross she always wears around her neck, that enables her to help Cory come to terms with his father. Dealing with the dark legacy of a father also is a major theme in the film. Troy had let his father shape his life so that he became that which he had hated. Rose, by telling Cory that he is like his father, just might liberate the young man, this possibility suggested in the scene in which Cory and his little sister sing one of his father’s old songs.

Director Washington and scriptwriter/adapter Wilson have opened up the play a bit, a few scenes set outside the Maxon’s backyard and house, but it is evident that this was once a play confined to a stage. There is little physical action, the wordy dialogue driving the story forward. But what dialogue, so rich in passion and insight! What a treasure the late August Wilson has bequeathed to us. Denzel Washington does a fine job directing and performing the lead role. Both he and Viola Davis won awards for starring in the 2010 revival of the play. What a delight that their performances have now been made available for virtually everyone to see. For adults wanting more than shootouts and impossible car chases and rooftop pursuits, this film, so full of drama, humor, and tragedy, will be one of the most memorable cinema experiences of the year!

This review with a set of questions will be in the Jan. 2017 issue of VP.

Jackie (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 5; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.

John 9:1

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief,
my soul and body also.

Psalm 31:9

“Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot,

for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot”

Lerner & Loewe

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Only 1 1/2 hours after the murder of her husband, Jackie witnesses the swearing in of Pres. Johnson. (c) Fox Searchlight Pictures

Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s first English-language film is a speculative “true story” about a famous American woman wracked by grief and determined to shape how the tragedy that produced her sorrow is to be told to the world. The director’s scriptwriter Noah Oppenheim wisely builds the interpretive screenplay around the interview conducted by journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) for Life magazine at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts just a week after President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963. This interview anchors the many flashbacks, not just to November 22, but also to the redecorating of the White House; her unprecedented televised White House Tour; the Pablo Cassels concert held in the East Room; the planning of the events surrounding the President’s funeral; and the packing for moving out to make way for the Johnsons.

Aboard the plane that has brought them to Dallas Jackie practices in Spanish her short greetings, then descends with Jack (Caspar Phillipson) to meet the Connallys and the Johnsons. We are shown the motorcade, but the filmmakers hold off depicting the tragic murder until later. In the interview itself, Jackie exhibits her steely determination to control the story. First, it is she who initiated the interview by calling Life. And second, by her sparring with the Journalist (no name is given to this Ted White stand-in, played by Billy Crudup), she seeks to control the results. She tells him that she will edit the article itself, to which he replies that that is hardly likely. Later, when she shares an intimate detail about her feelings, she declares, “Don’t think for one minute I’m going to let you publish that.” He tells her that some personal details should be included so that the public will see the human wife and mother behind her cool public persona. At the end, while the journalist has stepped out of the room to call a cab, she even looks over his notebook and jots down some notes in it.

Except for that hairdo and unforgettable pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat, Natalie Portman does not really look like Jackie, and yet she is completely convincing. She achieves this through her voice, nailing Jackie’s soft, whispery voice and finishing school diction. The actress displays the shock, grief and determination that the real Jackie must have felt on November 22. The latter we see right off when in a daze, she stands by President Johnson as he is sworn in, and then later, when Air Force One has landed in Washington, she refuses to be shunted aside as the widow. An aide has told her that she should exit by the rear door where she will not be noticed. She refuses, insisting that the world must see her amidst her grief. And so, she does leave via the same door as the new President and his wife. (She also had refused Mrs. Johnson’s suggestion that she change from her blood-stained suit, saying, “I want them to see what they have done to Jack.”)

In the hearse, in which she and brother-in-law Bobby sit by the casket, she seemingly casually asks the driver if he remembers Garfield or McKinley, two other slain US Presidents. The driver says he does not. She asks about Lincoln, and he replies without hesitation that he is the President who freed the slaves. Determining that her husband would not be forgotten like Garfield or McKinley, she has an aide lay out photographs and other materials on the elaborate funeral procession for Lincoln. She decides that she will walk behind the caisson, despite the Secret Service’s objections that she could be the next victim of an assassination. Although Oswald was in custody, no one knew whether he was part of a larger conspiracy, so their fears were justified. She also decides that her husband will not be buried in the family plot up in Massachusetts, but in Arlington Cemetery, and thus is driven over to it to examine possible sites.

The scriptwriter’s inclusion of snippets of the 1962 network television special, A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, reveals the public perception of Jackie as a First Lady concerned mainly with fashion. The black and white scenes are recreated, with Ms. Portman appearing nervous at first, but reassured by her loyal staffer Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) standing just off camera. Gaining confidence, Jackie deftly describes the historic significance of the expensive items she has brought back into the White House, especially the items from Lincoln’s presidency. She explains that it is important for the American people to see the deep historical connection between the current occupant of the Executive Manson and those who have gone before. When Jack is introduced at the end of the tour, he admits to his initial skepticism about the redecoration, but now understands his wife’s desire to have people understand the history of this house that symbolizes the nation.

There are many other great scenes, such as the one in which she informs little John and Caroline about their father’s death. Of course, the graphic depiction of the murder itself produces the horror of the deed, the hand-held camera showing her huddled over her husband’s body and Agent Hill covering her with his own body while the car speeds toward the hospital. Nor will you forget the scene back in Washington that night as Jackie removes her blood-spattered suit, struggles to remove her stained panty hose, and then in the shower washes off the blood from her hair and neck.

Those of us old enough to remember being glued to our television sets at the time will be surprised at some of the events we did not know about, such as, after Oswald’s shooting, Jackie was so furious with Bobby because he had allowed no one to tell her about the killing until later, and even more, how this had convinced her to cancel plans for marching behind the caisson because of the danger. Nearly at the last moment she changes her mind, telling presidential aide Jack Valenti (Max Casella) that she and her brothers will walk to the church after all. Valenti tries to explain that it is impossible, but she does not yield. Walk they do, and if you do not blink, you will catch a brief glimpse of the President of France, the tall General de Gaulle, about whom she and Valenti had spoken.

I was surprised and gladdened by the inclusion of a man simply called The Priest (John Hurt) who appears frequently as her spiritual counselor. Her aide and friend Nancy offers valuable support, but the cleric is better equipped to help Jackie deal with her anguished doubts that have shaken the foundation of her faith. In the first scene together, while walking in a park, she states that God is cruel. Knowing where she is going, he half-jokingly replies, “Now you’re getting into trouble…” He says, “God is love and is everywhere.” With a trace of bitterness, she asks if God was in the bullet that killed her husband, and he answers, “Yes.” He speaks about God being hidden, and amidst her anguish she asks what kind of a God takes a husband from his two children, ending with the mention of her two previously deceased infants.

We find Jackie and the priest together again, Jackie confessing that she wishes she’d had an ordinary job and married an ordinary man. The priest tells her the Parable of the Man Born Blind, suggesting that she is like the blind man. Now she is the one who is blind, blind to what God will say or do through her. During the funeral procession, there is a third flashback in which she confesses that the procession was as much for herself as for Jack. She had written a letter in which she stated that she wanted to die. If a sniper would shoot her, she would consider it a kind gesture. In still another encounter, the Priest asks why she has come to him, and she replies that she wants to die. He asserts that he is not burying her today. He adds that there comes a point in a person’s search for meaning when he understands that there are no answers. He confesses that every night at bedtime he asks, “Is this all there is?” So does everyone else, he surmises. The last time we see the priest he is officiating in Arlington at the interment of the two infant Kennedys, whose bodies have been moved from the plot in Massachusetts so they can lie beside their father.

The Priest is a made-up character, a composite of several priests with whom Jackie had corresponded with in the year after the assassination. As scriptwriter Noah Oppenheim has explained, “She did descend into a pretty dark place; she was really grappling with her faith, her will to live, her sense of justice in the world.”  I think this is a wonderful addition enrichening the portrait of a strong woman confronting the darkness with her anguished doubts. It is also a good example of an honest person of faith, a Roman Catholic priest, no less, admitting that there are no “answers” to tragedy. He does not offer the platitudes or bromides we too often hear beside a casket or an open grave. What he does offer is what we also can offer to those wracked by grief, our loving presence, and the belief that is summed up in “Nevertheless…”

Everything works together in this beautiful tribute to Jackie Kennedy, including the score by Mica Levi, its often eeriness keeping viewers from settling in too deeply into their comfortable theater seats. The scriptwriter takes many liberties in writing the dialogue spoken in privacy, as well as in a fictional sequence during which Jackie in her confusion and mental turmoil tries on dress after dress from her stylish wardrobe. The many close-ups of faces at times made me feel like I was intruding into the privacy that she prized so keenly. Indeed, this would be my complaint about the film, but is a minor one. In a way, the filmmakers are offering their film version of the Kennedy myth. Just as Jackie began the association of her husband’s presidency with the Arthurian legend of Camelot, abetted by journalist Ted White’s quoting the musical at the end of his Life interview, so now will generations of film viewers perceive this courageous (and creative) woman through this film–one made not by an American, but a Chilean!

Note: This film skips over the traumatic events at Dallas’s Parkland Hospital, to which both President Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald were taken after they were shot. The little known but excellent film Parkland reports on this, focusing far less on the Kennedy’s and more on the doctors and nurses there, plus the businessman who shot the 8-mm footage of the murder, the frustration and guilty feelings of the head of the Secret Agent detail and an FBI, and the surviving members of the Oswald family.

Also, there is the interesting Love Field, the title named after the Dallas airport where the Kennedys landed. It stars Michelle Pfeiffer as a Dallas beautician so obsessed with the Kennedys that when she learns of the President’s death determines to travel to Washington to be participate in the funeral events available to the public, despite the objections of her boorish husband.

See the reviews on this site.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Jan. 2017 issue of VP.

Arrival (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 56 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 0.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

When I look at the sky, which you have made,
at the moon and the stars, which you set in their places— 

what are human beings, that you think of them;
mere mortals, that you care for them?

Psalm 8:3-4

 “Happy are those who work for peace; God will call them his children!

Matthew 5:9

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy,

which shall be to all people.

Luke 2:10 (KJV)

 He came closer to the city, and when he saw it, he wept over it, saying,

“If you only knew today what is needed for peace! But now you cannot see it!

Luke 19:41-42

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Louise begins the process of trying to converse with the aliens. (c) Paramount Pictures

Director Denis Villeneuve’s new film is both one of the best films of 2016 and one of the best science fiction films to come along in a while. With its theme of first contact between humans and extra-terrestrials, it is almost as good as Steven Spielberg’s 1977  Close Encounters of the Third Kind—and far superior to Independence. The latter, with its scenes of evil aliens destroying iconic buildings, is for kids who enjoy kicking over sand castles at the beach, whereas the new film is for adults who want not just entertainment from a film but also some food for thought. Scriptwriter Eric Heisserer has adapted Ted Chiang’s 1998 short story, the Nebula Award-winning “Story of Your Life,” into a film that will appeal to peacemakers seeking greater understanding among peoples and nations.

The story begins and ends with scenes from the modernistic lakeside home of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a noted professor of linguistics who a couple of years earlier had helped the CIA translate an important ISIS document written in Farsi. Here and throughout the film we see flashbacks of her and her deceased daughter Hannah interacting as she reflects upon her loss. She also is separated from her husband for reasons unknown. At first we barely hear Louise quietly say, “There are days that define your story beyond your life. Like the day they arrived.” By “they” she means 12 black 1500-foot-long space ships shaped like an elongated egg that has been cut in half. So absorbed is she in her work, perhaps as a means of coping with Hannah’s death by cancer, that she arrives at her lecture room unaware that all the TV and cable channels are filled with reports of the alien spaceships that are hovering close to the ground at 12 seemingly random places around the world, the chief ones being China, Pakistan, Russia, and the U.S.A. When she takes note of the paucity of students in attendance, one of them alerts her to what is happening. On a screen, she sees the huge ships hovering close to the ground. Their black color and towering height might remind you of the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

One night soon the roar of a helicopter disrupts the placidness of the lake community. It has landed on her lawn, disgorging Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) who asks that she accompany him to a base set up in Montana where one of the space ships is hovering. Because of her expertise in linguistics and her still intact security clearance from her past service, the CIA is requesting her help in the attempt to communicate with the extraterrestrials. The question being anxiously asked, here and in the 11 other nations visited by the aliens, is, “What is your purpose?” The news reports show throngs in some countries rioting and stock markets nosediving because of fear.

When Louise arrives at the base camp she learns that teams from all 12 visited nations are linked by TV so that they can share their thus far meager information about the aliens. She is joined by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and CIA Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg). Suiting up in orange hazmat gear, they enter a port that opens every 18 hours in the bottom of the ship. Because of low gravity inside the tunnel, they are able almost to float up to the top, where they enter a chamber wherein a huge window reveals to them two aliens emerging from the mists on the other side. The towering creatures look like a form of octopus or squid, 7 spindly limbs hanging from large fist-like bodies. During the attempts to communicate, one of them reaches out to the partition, the end of his tentacle splaying into a seven-pointed star that squid-like emits an inky substance onto the partition. This forms a circle with various squiggles and protrusions—a word?

Louise herself has approached the partition holding a sign reading “Human.” Her next sign, as well as one held by Ian, spells out their names. The military, of course, are anxious for quick progress, but Louise tells them that patience is required. “Every language we learn gives us a new/different way of perceive the world,” she says. Sensing that their suits are a barrier, and that the atmosphere is breathable, Louise removes her bio-hazard suit. Even though over their intercoms they can hear the worried Colonel telling them not to, Ian quickly follows. Both obviously believe this a must, despite the risk.

At first the 12 video-connected teams are able to help with Louise’s work so that she makes progress in understanding the alien’s language. But there are important ambiguities, most notably in the word that could be translated as “Weapon” or “Tool.” Anybody who has learned a foreign tongue has encountered this, discovering that often it is the context that determines the meaning. Thanks to TV and the Internet, paranoia is spreading around the world. An alarmed religious cult in North Dakota commits mass suicide. In one scene, a Rush Limbaugh-like talk show host spews out his fear, urging the military to attack the ship before it attacks us. China drops out of the network, followed by Russia, and, soon, all of the other 11 nations have severed their connections. General Shang (Tzi Ma), head of the Chinese military announces that he is preparing to lead an attack before the aliens attack his country. Thus an urgency descends upon Louise and Ian, with them soon having to plead with CIA Agent Halpern not to evacuate the camp so that the military can roll in and mount an attack. Shades of The Day the Earth Stood Still! Louise is soon taking a risk that makes her shedding her hazmat suit child’s play. And yet the pair maintain their scientific training, keeping calm as they tackle the complex task of trying to understand and be understood. They even evince a small measure of humor by referring to the two extra-terrestrials as “Abbot and Costello”—perhaps because of the duo’s famous skit on misunderstanding words, “Who’s on First”?

It is good to see Amy Adams play as strong a character as Sandra Bullock’s in Gravity or Jody Foster’s in Contact. All three women have suffered deeply, and each has been sensitized by that loss to become more effective and tough in pushing ahead in a male-dominated world. I am not sure that I understand the film’s assertion that learning the alien’s language can change our brains so much that we can control, or bend, time, but it is intriguing to think about the concept. The film’s scene of Louise and Gen. Shang near the conclusion is a heartening one, but a bit incomprehensible to me. (I want to see the film again to catch some of the dialogue that I had difficulty hearing–hence I might be revising this section of my review soon.) The film offers hope that maybe women are at last coming into their own in Hollywood—the amiable Jeremy Renner’s role is reduced to that of Louise’s side-kick, long the fate of many a talented female in hundreds of adventure movies.

In director Denis Villeneuve’s two previous films that I have reviewed, the Middle Eastern-set Incendies and America and Mexico-set Sicario, the dark side of humanity is exposed—sectarian hatred and the resultant deaths that bring on even more due to vengeance in the first, and greed, lust, and murder in the drug film. Although the dark side appears in the form of fear and the willingness to resort to violence for self-preservation, the director/co-writer dwells more on the positive side of humanity, as exemplified in Louise and Ian. This is a far more positive film than the two earlier ones.

The theme of fear is deftly handled, along with the assertion that calmness and patience are needed to combat it, lest we do foolish things. This is a message we certainly need today, so I hope the film garners as large an audience as the escapist Doctor Strange has. Throughout the Hebrew/Christian Scriptures the phrase “Fear not…” is spoken by God, an angel, or authority figure. A basic human emotion (see the animated Inside Out), it is essential for self-preservation, but can also, when not controlled, lead to terrible results, as almost happens in Arrival. From the story of Abraham and Sarah on to that of Jesus of Nazareth, fearful humans have been assured that fear can be conquered, perhaps for Christians the best-known quotation being in 1st John, “Perfect love casts out fear.”

Louise, whether religious or not, understands this, as we see from the moment she takes off her hazmat suit, through her struggle with military superiors, to her act of rebellion which came close to ending her life. What a good example she sets for a fearful world, and thus what a good message this new film brings to us.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Dec. 2016 issue of VP.

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 4 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 8; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah 40:28-31

 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely[b] on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:9-12

draggng

Des drags the wounded to safety all through the night aft er his unit has retreated. (c) Lionsgate

This is the second film to tell the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a Medal of Honor-awarded WW 2 army medic who almost never got to serve because of a court martial trial. The first film about the hero was in 2004 when documentary filmmaker Terry Benedict’s the Conscientious Objector won a major award at the Heartland Film Festival. And now we have Mel Gibson’s film, taking its title from geography rather than the role or status of its hero—on Okinawa Hacksaw Ridge was the name of the top of a 350-foot cliff atop which Japanese troops fanatically defended themselves. Whatever you think of Mel Gibson’s past misdeeds, do NOT let them keep you from seeing this film that affirms the right of a US citizen to refuse to bear arms and which also celebrates his faith, love, and courage.

Divided into two major parts, the film reminds me of a reverse version of Sergeant York in which Gary Cooper portrayed the pacifist civilian who received the Medal of Honor when he turned into a super soldier, killing and capturing many German soldiers during WW 1. Oh, yes, also both were regarded as “hillbillies”—he was from Tennessee, and Doss from Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

Doss’s refusal to even touch a gun goes back to two incidents. The first was a boyhood fight with his brother during which he picked up a brick and struck Harold in the head. The brother is slowly regaining consciousness as Des stands in front of the family’s framed lithograph of The Lord’s Prayer, around which in smaller squares are the Ten Commandments. The boy focuses upon the Sixth Commandment, illustrated by Cain killing his brother Abel. The second incident takes place during a struggle with his father. The teenage Des intervenes in a fight between his alcoholic father Tom (Hugo Weaving) and his long-suffering mother Bertha (Rachel Griffiths). Tom has been damaged mentally and emotionally by the horror of seeing his two best friends die in WW 1, so he has taken out his feelings on his family. Also, we have seen him visiting the graves of his comrades. The son manages to snatch his father’s gun. Pointing it at the older man’s head, he struggles against his pent-up rage, finally casting the weapon aside and vowing never again to touch a gun. In a more peaceful scene we see the teenager repairing a window of his Seventh-day Adventist church while the women’s choir practices.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Harold (Nathaniel Buzolic) appears at the dinner table wearing an Army uniform. Upset, Tom describes the horror of his war experience and demands that Harold leave the table. He declares that he does not want to see either of his sons die so needlessly. A little later, Des pulls out a man injured when his jacked-up car falls on him, severing an artery in his leg. The quick-thinking Des uses his belt to stop the flow of blood, and then rushes him to the hospital in nearby Lynchburg. There, while waiting, he meets the young nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). He is smitten, and the story morphs into a tender love story, the modest young man able to overcome his shyness, thanks to his stated intention to marry her.

Tom is not happy when Des tells him that he is joining up to serve as a medic, but he does not reject his son. Dorothy reluctantly goes along with Des’s argument that he cannot stay safely behind while his brother and others are risking their lives for their country. However, at the training camp Des lands in trouble when he refuses to pick up his rifle for practice firing.

His drill instructor is one of those tough characters that such movies as Platoon we have come to expect. Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) insults one and all of the recruits, sneering at the lanky Dos and declaring that he has seen more muscle on a cornstalk, thus giving the lad his nickname. Remanded to Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) when he refuses to pick up his rifle, Des tries to explain that a mistake has been made, that he has signed on as a medic, not a combat soldier. The Captain says that the Army does not make mistakes and orders him to obey or else. When Des still refuses, the officer tells Howell to make life a hell for him, thus hoping to drive the boy out of the service. All his comrades, believing him a coward, join the campaign to break Des, especially Smitty (Luke Bracey). Deliberately hitting Des on one cheek, Smitty waits for a response in kind, but Des holds back. One night a group of them beat him so severely that his face is bruised and bloody, but the next morning he refuses to divulge the names of his attackers.

Matters come to a head when Colonel Stelzer (Richard Roxburgh) orders Des to stand trial at a court martial for insubordination. His arrest spoils his plans for marrying Dorothy. Forbidden to let her or his parents know what is befalling him, it seems to those waiting for him in church to join her that he has backed out of his commitment. It is during this trying period that Tom Doss, donning his WW 1 uniform and medals for bravery, redeems himself in a moment as dramatically rewarding as that in any courtroom tale.

And so, we at last get to Okinawa where Des is serving along with his not so friendly comrades. Their first glimpse of soldiers returning from combat is not reassuring. Many are bandaged, their faces filthy, and their eyes staring lifelessly as if seeing something beyond belief and endurance. At least they can see—truckload after truckload carry bloodied bodies of dead soldiers, many of them minus legs or arms. The men pause while the 16-inch guns of the warships pound the top of the ridge. After climbing up the rope netting to the top, they are soon in the thick of battle themselves. Within seconds many of them are cut down or blasted away, discovering that their enemy had survived the seemingly devastating bombardment thanks to their thick-walled bunkers and deep underground tunnel system.

The extensive combat scene is as realistic as those in saving Private Ryan, with blood spurting when a bullet hits its mark. Men scream as their legs or heads are blasted away. Japanese soldiers run in panic when the American armed with a flame thrower sets their bodies on fire. At times, when the two sides mix it up face to face, there is bayoneting, choking, and bashing with rifle butts. There is no John Wayne-like glorification of war here! Soon rats are gnawing away at corpses sprawled in ditches and foxholes. Des and the other medics keep their heads down, but taking little heed of their own safety, they drag and carry the wounded back to the edge of the cliff, applying tourniquets to the stumps of limbs and administering morphine along the way.

The Japanese counter-attack is so furious that the Americans have to retreat back down the rope netting. Des stays behind, refusing to abandoning those who need him. All through the night he drags wounded G.I.s to the edge, ties a double bow knot around the victims and lowers them one-by-one down to the medics below. They are astonished when the first one arrives, but soon have ambulances awaiting new arrivals. Come daylight, and Des has to continually keep the Japanese soldiers who venture out to kill the wounded from killing him. In one sequence, he dodges his pursuers deep within an underground series of tunnels and chambers, during which he comes upon a badly injured Japanese soldier whom he bandages and injects with morphine. Caught in the open with a G.I., he urges the man to trust him, and covers him with dirt except for one of his eyeballs. He climbs atop him and pulls a corpse over his own body. The Japanese patrol passes them by. The next night the almost exhausted medic prays, “God, please help me get one more.” And so, he keeps going back and lowering more of the wounded down the side. Finally, with the enemy soldiers drawing close, he himself is wounded and taken down on a stretcher, the camera angle of the shot making it seem like a heavenly Ascension. (One of several indications that Gibson is no subtle filmmaker.) All in all, Des had rescued 75 comrades, ironically including his two officers, something even more striking than Sergeant York’s capture of over a hundred German soldiers, considering the circumstances of their almost miraculous feats. His arrival at the ward where the men he had rescued is deeply moving, especially when the once scornful Smitty acknowledges his bravery.

The film works thanks to Andrew Garfield, who is the epitome of the modest country boy whose simple faith is deeply held. The small Bible that Dorothy presses into his hand as the train is leaving the station becomes his most prized possession. He reads it at various times while off duty, and during his brief solitary confinement in his cell, it is his mainstay. The commandments about not killing and loving are not just words for Sunday, but literally have shaped his life. I should have written Saturday rather than Sunday, Des being a Seventh Day Adventist—and this too gets him in trouble because back in training camp he had refused to work on his Sabbath. Des is no doctrinaire pacifist, so he has no answers for those who argue with him about what would happen if everyone refused to fight against an enemy. Gandhi thought and wrote a great deal about this, but Des just sincerely believes that the Bible demands that he not take up arms. He has no alternative to war. He just knows that killing is not for him. And yet at the same time, he does want to serve his country.

This is one of those films in which we see little of the enemy, unlike Letters From Iwo Jima. Most of the time the Japanese are faceless fanatics charging into the Americans’ hail of bullets, or running trying to escape the flames consuming their bodies. We do see the fearful face of the wounded warrior in the bunker whose wounds Des tends to, and there are several interspersed shots of the commander who, knowing that the battle is lost, prepares to commit Hari Kari, as his bushido code demands for one’s failure. As he plunges the dagger into his stomach he remains calm, accepting his terrible fate in front of his subordinates. In another scene a group seem to be surrendering, but this is a suicidal trap to lure the Americans closer so they can toss their concealed grenades at them. The film depicts all the opponents as Japanese soldiers, not showing that many were native Okinawans forced into battle. They even forced middle school students into fighting or running errands during the battle.

Mel Gibson still seems obsessed with violence, but this time he holds up an alternative, the loving life-saving acts of Des standing in stark contrast to the shootings and stabbings of the hate-filled combatants. Some cynics might think Gibson is seeking to draw two audiences, those who love R -rated gory blood fests, whether of the war or horror genres, and those, largely from evangelical churches, who made his tortured Jesus film such a great box office success. I don’t know. Maybe I am being suckered by this canny filmmaker, but I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt. I prefer to see the film as one of the best true stories of a person of faith holding to his core beliefs and serving to make this world a better place. I think those of the 75 whom he rescued at the risk of his own life.

Note: I just discovered among the hundred or so of my yet to be viewed DVDs a copy of the above-mentioned documentary The Conscientious Objector. No time to watch it now, but when I do and can compare the two films, I’ll post a review on the site, so look for it soon.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Nov. 2016 issue of VP. If you found this review helpful, please consider supporting this site by purchasing an issue or taking out a year’s subscription.

The People Vs. Fritz Bauer (2015)

(Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 45 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5); 5

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;

remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;

cease to do evil…

Isaiah 1:16

The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,

and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.

For the tyrant shall be no more, and the scoffer shall cease to be;
all those alert to do evil shall be cut off—
 those who cause a person to lose a lawsuit,
who set a trap for the arbiter in the gate,
and without grounds deny justice to the one in the right…

Isaiah 29:19-21

friends

AG Fritz Bauer & his young assistant Karl Angermann. (c) Cohen Media Group

If ever there was a people needing to “wash” themselves, it was the German people following the defeat of Adolf Hitler and his fellow butcherers in 1945. There were purges of Nazis when the Allies took over (the worst were tried at the famous Nuremburg Trials) but by the Fifties, when democracy returned to the people of West Germany, many of those Nazis had been allowed to return to government and business posts, no questions asked. A new generation was arising that wanted to lay aside the past without dealing with their nation’s guilt. Those who resisted Hitler, such as the martyred Sophie Scholl or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were still regarded as war-time traitors. Even the popular premier Konrad Adenauer included an unrepentant Nazi in his cabinet.

We have been blessed with two excellent German films this year that examine this troubled period. In Labyrinth of Lies a fictitious young prosecuting attorney named Johann Radmann decides to investigate the Nazi past, zeroing in on Dr. Josef Mengele. His immediate superior is opposed to his crusade, but Radmannn has the backing of Attorney General Fritz Bauer, so he continues his investigation. In director/co-writer Lars Kraume just-released The People Vs. Fritz Bauer the Attorney General is the main character, and still another made-up character is one of the prosecutors under him, Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld), an earnest young man who becomes close to him.

Bauer, a Jew who had been briefly imprisoned by the Nazis, had fled the country when Hitler came to power. He had worked in Denmark, but fled just ahead of the invading Nazis to Sweden, returning after the war to again enter government service. The Attorney General has solid information that the architect of the Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann is hiding out in South America. However, the government shows no interest in pursuing the mass murderer. Both Interpol and German intelligence lamely claim they were “not responsible for political crimes.” It seems that a trial of such a high-ranking criminal in Germany would drag in other influential Nazis hiding in plain sight (besides the one in Adenauer’s cabinet, another holds a high post at Mercedes-Benz!). The Allies also, who strongly support Adenauer, do not want to allow anything that might embarrass his government, so they offer no encouragement or support for tracking down the murderers.

Taking Angermann into his confidence, the frustrated Bauer decides to inform the Israelis about Eichmann’s whereabouts. “If we really want to do something for this country, we’ll have to betray it in this case.” Indeed, sharing such information would be considered treason. Nevertheless, Bauer flies to Israel and meets with agents of Mossad. Believing that the fugitive is elsewhere, they tell him that he must obtain one other witness before they devote their limited resources to pursue this lead. When he at last succeeds, and meets again with Mossad, he asks that when they seize Eichmann that they agree to extradite him to Germany so he can be put on trial there.

Bauer’s single-minded pursuit of justice becomes complicated when we learn that he stands in peril not only of being arrested and tried as a traitor, but also outed as a criminal pervert. There are Danish police reports that he had visited male prostitutes while living there. During the Nazi regime Paragraph 175 had been enacted into law, making homosexual behavior a major crime—and it was still on the books.

The filmmakers insert a subplot into the film in which the married Angermann gives in to his own homosexual tendencies, visiting at a gay nightclub a female impersonator. This makes him vulnerable to blackmail by Bauer’s enemies when they confront the young man with incriminating photos taken by a spy camera in the club’s dressing room. Will he betray his boss in the campaign to derail Bauer’s campaign. or risk all for what he believes is the right and just cause?

Despite the fictional additions, this is a first-rate glimpse into post-World War II Germany and the events leading up to the now famous Auschwitz trials held during 1963 in Frankfort. It would be a good film to see before Labyrinth of Lies, both films being profiles in courage.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Nov. 2016 issue of VP.