New! Visual Parables Journal for February 2017

LOVE MOVIES? Want to spark discussion with friends? Subscribe to Visual Parables Journal. The February 2017 issue is packed with complete study guides, including: Silence, Hidden Figures, Paterson, A Monster Calls, Patriots Day, The Founder, 20th Century Women, Things to Come, Gold,
Live by Night
, and many more. Visit our Visual Parables store to subscribe.

 

The Founder (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running Time: 1 hour 55 min.

Our contents Ratings: Violence 0; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star ratings (1-5): 4.5

It is well with those who deal generously and lend,

who conduct their affairs with justice.

Psalm 112:5

Therefore walk in the way of the good, and keep to the paths of the just.

Proverbs 2:20

And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

Luke 7:7-8

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Ray Kroc opens another McDonald’s. (c) The Weinstein Company

Ray Kroc and Willy Loman have one thing in common—they are both salesmen. But what a world of difference in their fates, as is well shown in what could be called The Life of a Salesman. Director John Lee Hancock, working with Robert Siegel’s screenplay and a good cast, follows the growth of a food franchise that feeds 1% of the world every day, from one hamburger restaurant in San Bernadine California to virtually every town in America and 119 other countries around the world. Virtually every American has been influenced by the gigantic McDonald’s Corporation, even those who never pass through its golden arches.

In the opening minutes of the film Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) seems destined to wind up like the failed salesman of Arthur Miller’s play. Ray has a smooth, well-practiced patter to how his Multimixer milkshake machine will increase a restaurant’s business, but virtually everyone turns him down. He is on the road in middle America, where some of the restaurant owners won’t even speak to him. When talking on the phone with his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) back in Illinois, he tries to make it seem that all is well.

One day, when he calls his office, his secretary Jane breaks the news that he has an order for six machines. Thinking it a mistake that anyone would want so many, he calls the McDonald brothers in San Bernardino and is told that there is a mistake—they want eight. Almost before he can say “milkshake,” Ray is traveling on Rt. 66, arriving at last at the McDonald brother’s restaurant. He cannot believe what he sees.

Earlier, Ray had experienced the inefficiencies of most drive-in restaurants at the time. Besides their mediocre food, he had to wait from 20 to 30 minutes for it to arrive, brought to him in his car by harried carhops. Too often there was a mistake in the order, but he was unable to correct it because the carhop had moved on to the next customer impatiently awaiting his food. Also, the places attracted too many teenagers who loitered about, creating a very unfriendly atmosphere.

Ray’s first surprise is that McDonald’s Restaurant is not a drive-in, but a walk-up restaurant, and there are two long lines in front of the two windows. A lady ahead of him tells him not to worry, the line moves quickly. And so it does, and Ray wonders if it is really food in the bag that is handed to him just a few seconds after he placed his order–burger, fries, and a soda for 35 cents. The hamburger and fries are served in paper wrappings rather than dishes, thus no expensive plates or silverware needing to be washed and dried. He asks the attendant where he is to eat the food, and he says in his car, at a park, or at home.

While he is eating on the bench in front of the service window, a mother and her two children join him. He realizes that this a family oriented place. He also notes that the quality of the food is better than that of the drive-ins. Ray goes inside to introduce himself to the busy Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch), telling him he was the one who sold the milkshake machines. Mac shows him around, explain what they call their Speedee system of food preparation. Later that night at a sit-down restaurant he and his brother, Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), describe how they arrived at their system through long experimentation, beginning at a parking lot where they chalked in where the grill, condiment station and everything else in the kitchen would be, and then put their employees through drill sessions, making changes as problems arose. The flashback sequence is enjoyable to watch, revealing both the persistence of the brothers and their ability to think way beyond the box in which other hamburger restaurants were stuck.

The rest of the film deals with the many obstacles that Ray meets on the long, winding road to success, perhaps the most formidable being the McDonald brothers themselves. They are geniuses at solving details of producing the food fast and efficiently, but they lack Ray’s broader vision. Fearful that changes threaten the quality of the food, they fight him when he wants to make changes that will expand the number of outlets—and in the long run we see Ray’s ruthlessness, stooping to dishonest means to get them to agree to his plans—plans that will leave them out in the cold and not even be allowed to use their own name for their original restaurant left to them. Thus, Ray Kroc is not the exemplar of the just man described in Psalms and Proverbs.  However, in persistence he is like the midnight knocker in Jesus’ parable who will not quite until his friend opens the door. Still another parable character that comes to mind is the dishonest steward who feathers his nest at the expense of his boss when he learns he is about to be fired for his dishonesty.

I love the early scene in which Ray, after driving through numerous small towns observes crosses atop church buildings and American flags flying over courthouses and post offices. Meeting with the McDonald brothers, he exclaims, “Crosses. Flags. … Arches.” He goes on to say, “McDonald’s can be the new American church.” Quite a vision for what many consider is “just a fast food joint.” *

The film also shows the importance of being open to others, beginning with the businessman Harry Sonneborn (BJ Novak), who helps the almost bankrupt Ray discern that his business model needs to change, that he is as much in the real estate business as he is in the food business. He informs Ray that the real money will come from owning the land and then leasing it to a local franchise owner, rather than the owner buying the site himself. Another person of great help is the woman whom he steals right out from under the nose of her husband, who comes up with an idea that enables them to replace ice cream for their milkshakes with another product, which means that they do not require the large money guzzling freezers to store it.

As seen in this film Ray Croc is a hard worker, dedicated to the stringent quality control set up by the McDonald brothers. He at times works along with the crew at an Illinois outlet he had set up, even sweeping the front walkway late at night. When some of the rich snobs at his country club buy a franchise, but fail to keep the restaurants clean as well as turn out sloppy food, he moves quickly against them.

If only Ray Kroc were as moral as he was business savvy, but then this is a strength of the movie, Michael Keaton portraying the good and the dark side of the man. As to the darker side of the fast food industry, that of poor food nutrition and its contribution toward our nation’s obesity problem, nothing is said in the film. Though it is enjoyable to follow Ray Croc as he surmounts one problem after another, discerning viewers might wish for a film that is not just another American success story, but one with some social bite to it. Some might see the film as one long McDonald’s commercial supporting the success myth so basic to our culture. Others, focusing on Kroc’s morally objectionable acts, such as his maneuvering the brothers into accepting his promise of giving them a share of the franchise profits with just a handshake, could regard it as an indictment of capitalistic chicanery and degraded values. You be the judge.

*A good friend of mine, Dennis Benson, hangs out in his Michigan town at a couple of local restaurants speaking to lonely travelers, thereby giving them a measure of encouragement. The management at the local  Ponderosa in appreciation of his welcoming ministry has designated “his table” with his name on a small plaque. Because he likes to write in a place abuzz with human activity, he also spends time at McDonald’s. While writing, he also keeps a sharp eye and ear out for fellow patrons in distress, often talking over problems with them. Noticing such encounters, staff members also have come to him to unburden themselves and receive a word of encouragement and hope, thus making him in effect the local McDonald’s chaplain. (His most recent story on FaceBook took place at the McDonald’s.) I hope he gathers together and publishes his accounts of his encounters, the way he did in his delightful book My Brother Dennis, back in the days when he hosted a call-in show on Pittsburgh’s KQV Radio. For more on Dennis, see my ReadtheSpirit blog.

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

 

 

Silence (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 41 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 6; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”

            …

I say to God, my rock,
‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because the enemy oppresses me?’

Psalm 42:1-3; 9

At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice,

‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’

which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

Mark 15:34

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’

John 21:15

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The “hidden Christians”eagerly attend the mass offered by Fr. Rodrigues. (c) Paramount Pictures

Rarely has there been such a film as this one, challenging us to think about faith and doubt, martyrdom and pride, the church and Western imperialism, and above all, suffering and the silence of God. Martin Scorsese and co-scriptwriter Jay Cocks have masterfully adapted the Japanese Catholic writer Shusako Endo’s 1966 prize-winning novel for the screen. It has reportedly taken the director almost 30 years to get his version produced (there have been two others—Masahiro Shinoda’s 1971 Chinmoku in Japan, and in Portugal João Mário Grilo’s The Eyes of Asia). After experiencing (a far better word than “seeing”) this one, I can gladly say it was worth the wait.

At the beginning, in the year 1637, we hear words of Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) in a letter he has sent from Japan to his superior in Lisbon describing the way in which a group of Japanese Christians were tortured to death. Hands bound to their bodies, the unfortunates, all of whom had refused to recant (the less familiar word “apostatize” will also be used throughout the film) their faith, are led to the volcanic springs where their captors sprinkle onto them boiling water, and then tie them to posts where they slowly die from their scalding wounds. We see the heads of two priests displayed on a wooden trestle by the side of one of the springs. The priest says that the two missionaries not only refused to renounce their faith by stepping one foot onto a fumie, a sacred plaque bearing the image of Mary or Jesus, but asked to be tortured “so they could demonstrate the power of their faith.”

The above is from the last of Ferreira’s letters describing his intense experience in Japan, read by Father Valignano (Ciarán Hinds) to two idealistic Jesuits, Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver). When he tells them that there is a rumor that Ferreira apostatized and is now living in Japan with a wife and child, the two priests refuse to believe the report. It is beyond Fr. Rodrigues’ comprehension that the man who had been his teacher and mentor could have done so. “Impossible,” they both say. They gain permission from their reluctant superior to journey to Japan so that they can find Fr. Ferreira and prove to the world that he is still the great missionary he was reputed to be.

Thus, the film becomes a quest story, one that has reminded some of the quest by Martin Sheen’s idealistic Capt. Willard for Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Indeed, this film might remind viewers of numerous films, such as those made by the Japanese filmmaker whom both Scorsese and his friend George Lukas admire so much, Akira Kurosawa, thanks to the glorious cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto who captures so well the mists from which figures emerge so mysteriously, and the sun which at times lights up the sky, mountains, and seascapes. Then there also is The Mission, Roland Joffé’s film about Jesuit missionaries a century later in South America.

In the Chinese port of Macao our adventuresome priests are brought to the only known Japanese person in the city, and does he turn out to be a disappointment! Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) is in a drunken stupor, dressed in rags, and lying in the bottom of a boat. He claims not to be a Christian, but is willing to put them in contact with some hidden Christians near Nagasaki. Dating back to 1549 when Francis Xavier had begun missionary work in Japan, there had once been a flourishing Catholic enclave there, said to number between 200 & 300K, much of this growth being due to the Jesuits’ mixing of trade and religion. Then later in the century the rulers, sensing danger from the introduction of a foreign cult and the learning of the take-over of lands in the Americas by the Portuguese and Spanish, reversed their initial tolerance and banned Christianity under pain of death.

Rowed close to shore during the night, the three furtively make their way to shore where a party from the nearby village of Tomogi await them. The kakure kirishitan, “hidden Christians,” are both thrilled and afraid as they welcome their three guests. Thrilled, or perhaps I should say “thirsty” like the deer to which the psalmist compares himself, to at last have priests who can hear their confessions and administer the sacraments. Afraid because word of them might bring their shogun’s Inquisitor to their village, which could lead to interrogations, arrest, torture, and death. Rather than house the two priests in the village, they conduct them to an old shack up the mountainside. They give them a secret knock, telling them never to open the door if the knock is different. There is a tiny room under the floor for the two to hide in.

Thus, days are spent confined to the small one-room shack, and nights are spent in a busy round of hearing confessions, baptizing children, and celebrating Mass. The people have long lived without any visible sign of Christ, so they are excited when Rodriguez gives one his small wooden cross and fashions others out of strands of straw. There are so many eager for a tangible sign that he even dismantles his rosary and hands out the beads. All but their guide Kichijiro eagerly receive one. Later the guide reveals to them that when arrested and told to step on the fumie, his parents had refused, but he did. They were burned alive as he looked on. He cannot consider himself a Christian any more.

As the days pass by, the two priests grow restless over their confinement, and so come out to bask in the sunshine. Startled to see a couple of peasants looking their way, they retreat into the shack. The terrified Garrpe urges his companion not to go to the door when they hear knocking, but Rodrigues does. The visitors turn out to be Christians from another village who have heard about the priests’ arrival. Rodriguez agrees to visit them, again finding the people eager to have a priest to whom they can confess and receive the sacraments.

Sadly, when he returns to Tomogi, he learns that the local Inquisitor has learned of their presence and taken away hostages, keeping them until the villagers renounce their faith. He returns and demands three more hostages, two who are volunteers and the third a very reluctant Kichijiro. He says that when he comes back again, they will be required to publicly deny their faith. When Rodrigues emerges from hiding and is asked what they should do, he, not wanting to see them die, counsels them to submit. Upon the officials’ return, Kichijiro quickly steps onto the holy image, and so do the villagers, but the Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata) knows this is pretense, so he demands something more degrading. They must spit on a crucifix. Kichijiro does, but the other three refuse. They are bound to stakes at the sea shore, condemned to drown slowly when the tide comes in and the waves wash over their heads.

Rodrigues, hiding at the edge of the forest, is forced to become a mere observer now, his soul tossed about by doubts about the goodness or the power of God. His anguish is expressed by his question, “How can I explain His silence to these people?” He suffers alone because Fr. Garrpe has gone off to work in another village. Soon, Rodrigues too is captured, and comes up against Inoue and his interpreter (Tadanobu Asano). The priest, kept apart in his own cage in the compound, encourages his fellow prisoners. Between these scenes are confrontations with both the Inquisitor and the Interpreter. They say that Japanese people do not want Christianity because it is alien to their land. Rodrigues replies that plants can be transplanted and grow in different soils. But, the retort is that Japan is a swamp into which an alien plant like Christianity will not grow.

Some of the Japanese Christians are brought out before the priest’s cage and told to step on the image. When they refuse, they are sent back to their cell, except for one. Without warning a guard takes out his sword and kills the man, his severed head rolling in front of the priest’s cell. As his headless body is dragged through the compound, the priest again questions the silence of God. To his captors, Rodrigues is anything but the man of faith awaiting martyrdom. “He’s arrogant, like all of them,” the interpreter declares, while Rodrigues is out of earshot, “but he’ll fall.” Taken to Nagasaki, Rodrigues watches helplessly another such brutal incident: a line of prisoners approaches, among whom is Fr. Garrpe. Wrapped in straw mats that pin their arms to their torsos, the Japanese are put aboard a boat. Rodriguez tries to shout to his friend that he should apostatize to save the hostages, but they are too far apart to be heard. When Father Garrpe sees what is being done to the hostages, he…

It becomes apparent that Inoue does not want to make his prisoner a martyr. He wants something far more devastating to any who might still cling to their faith in secret. He transfers Rodrigues to a Buddhist temple where he is told that the man who had triggered his quest is now a Buddhist scholar. The priest demands that he be allowed to see Father Ferreira. When at last he (and we) see Ferreira, there is a flashback to a time when a body is hung upside down, the head in a pit of feces. A small slit has been cut close to the victim’s ear so that slowly blood drips into the pit. This will make sure that the brain will not hemorrhage and that the person will slowly die from lack of blood. Ferreira reveals that he is that person.

The former teacher tells Rodrigues that he had been kept there for several days until at last he had broken, agreeing to convert to Buddhism. Shocked and disillusioned by reality, Rodrigues argues back and forth with his visitor, stating that he has seen many faithful Christians sticking with their faith until death. Ferreir replies that they were not really Christians, that they had mixed up “the Son of God” with the Oriental concept of “Sun of God.” Bound to a horse, Rodrigues is paraded through the village so that the people can heckle and denounce him. Still later Kichijiro visits him, ashamed of his betrayal and asking for penance again. (This is the third or fourth time, I think!) Reluctantly the priest grants it.

In a further conversation with Ferreir, the latter tells him God had been silent to his pleas. When, late at night, Rodrigues is upset by a snoring-like noise and screams, Ferreir explains that the noise comes from five Christians being tortured as he had been, their bodies hanging upside down over pits. They have already apostatized, but their ordeal is being prolonged until Rodrigues does so also. Speaking again about the silence of God, Ferreir asserts that even Christ would apostatize for the villagers’ sake.

The next day Rodrigues is still struggling over his decision. If he is to save the lives of the tortured wretches, he must renounce Christ. The Interrogator urges him to apostatize. He increases the pressure by referring to the captives being tortured, “Do you have the right to make then suffer? Apostatize for their sake!” At last the priest hears what he assumes is the voice of God saying that He had been with him, also suffering throughout the silence. The voice says that He came into the world to share men’s pain by going to the cross. He tells Rodrigues to step onto the image. Rodrigues raises his foot above the fumie and brings it down. Then he collapses.

A year later the two former priests sit as they examine closely trade goods brought in by a Dutch trader Dieter Albrecht, we hear the Dutchman’s words as he has written them in his journal. The two men’s task is to find and refuse entrance to anything that could be construed as Christian. In one instance they uncover an image of Christ concealed behind another. Even a porcelain dish that has a group of crosses that are purely decorative in the background is rejected. Living with a wife and children, Rodrigues has taken the Japanese name of Okada San’emon. Kichijiro is now a household servant. His fate I will leave for you to discover, as well as a fascinating ending that is open to differing interpretations.

You know a film is great if you continue to think about many of its parts after leaving the theater—and indeed which prevent you from going to sleep for a long while—and which also makes you think of so many other films. The silence of God, of course, is a theme found in many of Ingmar Bergman’s somber films. Also, mentioned earlier are Apocalypse Now and The Mission, both of which end unpleasantly. Still another is the 1955 film The Prisoner in which the great actor Alec Guinness portrays a Roman Catholic cardinal in an Iron Curtain country where he is put on trial for treason. Jack Hawkins is his nemesis, like the one in Scorsese’s film, known only as The Interrogator, who also uses psychological means to break the cleric and get him to confess to the charges.

We wonder about the charge made that Fr. Rodrigues is as full of pride as much as faith. If that is the case, then his soul is in as much danger as that of Archbishop Thomas Becket in T.S. Elliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral. In that play it has become obvious to him in his quarrel with the King of England that he will be killed. Three tempters come to him, and he rejects them. But the fourth is the most tempting of all, to become a martyr and thus gain glory, hence his reply that contains the lines, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Is this also Rodrigues’ temptation? Also, would it be right for Rodrigues to preserve his own faith and place in heaven at the expense of the suffering and death of the five tortured Christians? Is this not His cross, damning his soul by his apostatizing to save them?

How the story of Rodrigues fits into the traditional tales of martyrology is another question that Scorsese raises. The church has used stories of brave believers facing death unflinchingly throughout its history, such stories inspiring believers to face their own trials. Does the last shot at the end of the film place Rodrigues in this stout-hearted company? Think of the way that The Robe ends, with the newly converted Roman soldier Marcellus and his lover Diana standing before the Emperor Caligula who has just condemned to death. They march away from the Emperor’s throne as their surroundings change to that of heaven while Caligula almost plaintively saying that they are going to a better place. A choir sings an inspiring chorus celebrating the faithful to death faith of two more martyrs.

Martin Scorsese’s probing film might well be named The Passion of Sebastião Rodrigues. Do not miss it!

Note: The Hidden Christians of Japan have evoked lots of study and comment since they were discovered when Roman Catholic priests were allowed to return in the mid-19th century. There is an interesting 34-minute documentary on them, and you can see the ten-minute preview of it at http://www.der.org/films/otaiya.html.

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

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.

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.