A Dog’s Purpose (2016)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.  Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.

1 Peter 4:9-10


Mom & her son Ethan enjoy a moment with the dog they rescued from a closed-up car. (c) Universal Pictures

The author of 1 Peter was addressing, of course, humans, but his admonition to serve is certainly exemplified by the canine hero/ine in director Lasse Hallstrom’s latest film, based on W. Bruce Cameron’s novel. I don’t know all the facts of the controversy over the alleged mistreatment of a dog during the making of the film, but I don’t think that the maker of Hachiko: A Dog’s Story would have allowed this had he known. These two films were helmed by a man who clearly loves “man’s best friend.”

My only qualm is the acceptance of the Eastern doctrine of reincarnation, but this is the link connecting all the dogs in the film, so for the sake of the story, I went along with the concept. As a film that demonstrates love and loss, loyalty and service, this will serve as a good family outing.

The film begins with Bailey philosophizing about the meaning of life. “Are we here for a reason?” the dog (voice of Josh Gad,) asks. (All the sequences are narrated by Bailey.) At first Bailey is

a cuddly golden retriever puppy that 8-year-old Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) and his mother (Juliet Rylance) find almost prostrate with heat in a locked car. (That they break the window and take the dog home without any interchange with the car’s negligent owner might require some parental explanation to young viewers, because the film offers none, but hey, this is a movie.)

Ethan’s alcoholic father (Luke Kirby) is dubious at first about keeping the dog, but gives in. There follows a series of events through the next ten years that includes Bailey’s love for retrieving a deflated football for Ethan; the dog’s nudging teenaged Ethan into a relationship with Hannah (Britt Robertson), who soon loves the dog as much as Ethan does; the dashing of their plans to go off to college together; and the inevitable death of the old and sick Bailey at the vet’s office.

Next, Bailey reawakens as a German Shepherd pup named Ellie (quite a shock when the dog notices something is missing between his hind legs). Chosen for the K-9 division of the Chicago Police Department, Ellie forms a close bond with her handler Carlos (John Ortiz). The dog empathizes with the lonely man, still not recovered apparently from the loss of his wife. Their relationship ends abruptly, with Ellie’s heroic act during a kidnaping. As a short-legged Corgi named Tino, the dog provides companionship for still another lonely person, female college student Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). Tino also serves as an agent for romance for Maya and another African American student, also a dog owner.

Last of all, Bailey returns as Buddy, a lost mutt (now a mixture of Australian Shepherd and St. Bernard) who re-enters the life of the now grown Ethan (Dennis Quaid). Companionship and service are again themes because Ethan too is very lonely as a farmer who had given up his dreams of college and a life with Hannah due to a sad event in high school. Again, it is Bailey who brings Ethan and Hannah (Peggy Lipton) back together. When Buddie discovers that old flattened football in the barn, he makes his startled master aware of his identity.

Despite some improbabilities, I think anyone who has ever owned a dog will enjoy this film. It took me back to my childhood days when one of the heartaches growing out of my parents’ divorce was having to give up my pet chow Blackie, one of the joys of which had been for me to emerge from school at the end of the afternoon and find him patiently waiting to walk home with me, (No leash laws or fences in those more innocent days.) Back then my favorite film was Lassie, Come Home, which was to launch several TV series. The euthanasia of the aged Bailey was especially moving because I held Tigger, who had grown up with our children, in my arms while the vet injected the drug that would end his suffering and his life.

The film is often as funny as it is moving, thanks to the comments that Bailey makes. He is not all-knowing, his remarks coming from his limited understanding of human behavior. He doesn’t know what they do when they mysteriously go away, and when the teenaged Ethan and Hannah kiss in the car, he wonders at first if there is food in their mouths that they are sharing or fighting over.

As a tribute to the unconditional love and loyalty of dogs, this is a film both adults and children can enjoy.

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


Things to Come (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hours 43 min.

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

Our star rating: (1-5): 4.5

Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.

Proverbs 3:13-14


Nathalie enjoys the company of her former student Fabien. (c) Sundance Selects

 Lay aside any thought of the 1936 science fiction film of the same name when you go to see French writer/director Mia Hansen-Love’s film about a middle-aged woman facing loss. Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert) is a Parisian high school philosophy teacher and writer. For 25 years she and her husband Heinz (André Marcon) have shared a marriage with little passion. He too is a teacher who loves books. Almost every wall of their apartment is lined with bookcases full of tomes belonging to both of them. Their two grown children are beginning a life on their own, though they keep in close touch. When the children discover their father has a mistress, they are upset by his deceit, telling him he must choose between the women. So, Heinz informs Nathalie that he has met someone and is leaving her. Shocked by his revelation, she responds wistfully, “I expected you to love me forever. What an idiot!” The gap in her life is well symbolized by the large spaces in their book shelves as Heinz packs his belongings and moves out.

Nathalie also is dealing with a troublesome elderly mother (Edith Scob) whose health is declining. Once a model, the vain woman seems to hate being sidelined, removed from public attention, so she does all the wrong things to gain attention from the world that has shoved her aside. Because her health is bad as her attitude, and the local emergency squad growing tired of being called to her apartment several times a week, Nathalie places her in a retirement home where “the smell of death” is in the air. Soon the daughter is planning with a priest her mother’s funeral.

Another loss is interwoven through the film as she meets several times with two editors of her philosophy text book that she had written. In the new edition, the two propose all kinds of graphic changes that will make the book more appealing to young people. Regarding their suggestions as a watering down that will probably flow over into her text, Nathalie is disturbed by this. The eventual outcome of their negotiations is not pleasant.

She is cheered up by a meeting up with her favorite former pupil, Fabien (Roman Kolinka). Brilliant and free spirited, he soon makes it apparent that their beliefs and thoughts no longer move in parallel lines, so she senses another loss, that of the influence over him that she once had enjoyed. There is still another loss, apparent in the moving sequence when she goes to the family’s sea-side cottage to pack up some of her possessions. The place belongs to Heinz’s family, so she knows this will be her last visit, painful because it holds so many fond memories of vacations spent with the children and long, meditative walks along the beach.

Fabien has surprised her by giving up a promising academic career and moving into a commune of anarchists situated in the foothills of the Alps. Her deciding to pay them a visit, after several scenes where the older teacher and young man have enjoyed each other’s company, lead us at first to think this might be turning into a Fall/Spring time romance. However, this is not a Hollywood production—you know, wherein the heroine has one or two female friends telling her that the answer to her loneliness is to find a new man. From her numerous references to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Blaise Pascal, and others, we know that philosophy is not just an academic matter for her. It informs and supports her everyday life.

When Fabien picks her up at the train station, she almost celebrates her new-found freedom—free from a dull, uncaring husband, free from being responsible for her children; free from having to suddenly dash off to deal with a crisis involving her mother; and apparently free of her job now. There is one responsibility she still is saddled with, one that adds a note of humor—her mother’s large cat with which she travels, placing it in a pet carrier. At the farm, she is relieved of it when it proves that its instinct for catching mice is still strong.

Things to come for Nathalie by the end of the film are uncertain. She knows that freedom also involves loneliness. We see that she is a very resilient woman, one who, if not faith, certainly has her philosophy to support her to cope with her losses. She shows this during the scene when, from the window of a Parisian bus, she spots Heinz walking with a woman very much younger than he. For a moment, she apparently feels the pang of rejection, but suddenly she bursts out laughing. I presume it is at the absurdity of Heinz following the usual path of the older man seeking his youth by leaving a wife of appropriate age for someone barely out of adolescence.

In the classroom, Nathalie has told her students, “So long as we desire, we can do without happiness.” The things that have come in her life are putting this to the test. This thought comes from the excerpt she reads to the class from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s wildly popular 18th century novel Julie, or the New Heloise: “Woe to him who has nothing to desire! He loses everything he owns. We enjoy less what we obtain than what we desire, and are happy only before becoming so.” Words to live by? Nathalie will find out. One thing for certain, she will be her own person, not needing to find and cling to a new man for security and identity, like so many women in romance novels. I think director/writer Mike Mills would approve of her as a fit companion for the three characters in his 20th Century Women.

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

20th Century Women (2016)

Rated R. Running Time: 1 hour 59 min.

Our contents Ratings: Violence 1; Language 4; Sex 6/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 4


 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.

Deuteronomy 6:6-7

Train children in the right way,
and when old, they will not stray.

Proverbs 22:6


Dorothea (C) seeks help raising her son Jamie (LL) from Abie (UL) & Julie (LR), with her boarder William (LR) of occasional help. (c) A24

Director Mike Mills gives us an interesting perspective on parenting in his new film, set in the summer of 1979. It was a time of great change, with the Feminist Movement following hard upon the heels of the Civil Rights and the Gay Rights Movement. In Santa Barbara, California Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), the divorced, middle-aged single mother of 15-year old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), is deeply concerned over her son’s development into manhood. In the Scriptural passages above, it was assumed that the father would take the lead, assisted by the wife, but there is no husband in Dorothea’s life.

There is a man in her house, William (Billy Crudup), a handyman who is helping Dorothea restore her large old house while boarding there. But rebuilding a house is far simpler than building a man. William, more interested in relating to Abbie than to Jamie, is not the man to help her with her question, “How do you be a good man?” So, she turns to the other boarder in her house, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and also to Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s s best friend at school. Each of them she thinks of as a “twentieth century woman.” She asks them to share their lives with her son, apparently thinking this will help in his maturation. It is important to note that when Dorothea asks for help she is not asking for them to bed down Jamie. She does not equate being a “good man” with possessing the knowledge of skillful sexual techniques. She begot Jamie while wedded to a man, but he was not the good man she wants her son to become. After they divorced, the father has not contacted his son for five years.

Jamie is not at all pleased with her request, angrily riding away on his skateboard when she tells him. He thinks he can manage without all the interference.

Julie is just a couple of years older than Jamie, and the magenta-haired Abbie a few years older than Julie. Abbie is a talented photographer whose current project is to take pictures of her possessions that she believes will reveal her nature. She loves dancing at a club, frequently taking along her two younger friends. She has a troubled relationship with her mother, the cause of which I will leave to you to discover.

Julie is so deeply committed to her friendship with Jamie that she wants to keep their relationship Platonic, even though her frequent sleeping with Jamie in bed tests his sexual restraint. After she has sex with another boy in the back seat of a car, she becomes worried because the boy came before he could withdraw. She worriedly informs her best friend about what might happen, and this leads to a somewhat humorous, but tense, sequence in which Jamie buys a pregnancy test kit at a drugstore and brings it home to her.

Julie, too, though discussing sex very frankly with Jamie at one point (she admits to never having an orgasm), is one who values friendship over sex, very unusual for most characters in Hollywood movies dealing with young people. She knows that at their age when passion gives way to coitus, the pair soon split up because of guilt or other reason, the lovers seldom again seeing each other. She does not want that to happen to her and Jamie.

In a sub-plot the deep bonds among the three women and Jamie provide support for Abbie during her bout with cervical cancer, supposedly beaten years ago, but suddenly reoccurring. There is also an interesting scene in which all of them are in their living room watching President Carter on TV give his “crisis of confidence” speech. William’s response to the dark tone of the speech is that Carter is screwed up. But Dorothea says, “Beautiful,” perhaps seeing it as a description of how she has been feeling in the changing world. Pay close attention to the camera cut-aways as Carter is speaking. One of them, while he says “freedom,” is of a red bi-plane soaring through the sky. This refers to one of Dorothea’s unfulfilled ambitions in the past, and the plane will reappear at the end of the film.

Mike Mills, who also wrote the script, reportedly based Dororthea on his own remarkable mother. As played by Annette Bening, she is a complex, caring mother, one of the most interesting screen mothers to be seen outside a Susan Sarandon movie. She plans ahead in regard to shaping her son into a good man, and yet can be impulsive. When, at the beginning of the film, her car catches on fire, she invites the firemen who rushed to the scene to come to her birthday party that night. That they do show up is a tribute to her earnest persuasiveness, also evident in Julie and Abbie’s agreeing to help in her son-raising project. That she is successful we see later when Jamie himself says, “I want to be a good man.”

One of my disappointments with this year’s Oscar nominations is that this film, and Annette Bening in particular, was passed over. Some of the promiscuous sex of some of the characters might be unsettling to some viewers, but do not let this cause you to make the same mistake as the Academy and ignore it. Some of Dorothea’s observations are worth remembering, such as, “Whatever you imagine your life is going to be like, know your life is not going to be anything like that.” Or her comment that the people who help you might not be the people you thought or want, but the people who show up.

There are so many insightful scenes and subplots that I have been able to describe just a few in this review. The flashbacks are told in voice-over by Jamie mainly, with the women also contributing. They speak not only of their past, but even look ahead to the future as if they had traveled in a time machine, revealing the fate of each one at the end of the century.

With the skillful insertion of newsreels, archival photos, and such activities as the women’s smoking, Jamie participating in the new skate board craze, and a great deal of references to feminist literature and Judy Blume, the film reflects well the time between the raucous Sixties and the soon-to-come Reagan era. All the characters are well delineated, even William, who no father figure or role model for Jamie, is an interesting carry-over from the Hippy era. This is one of the most original coming of age films you are likely to see this year.

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

Gold (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running Time: 2 hours 1 min.

Our contents Ratings: Violence 2; Language 6; Sex6/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5) 4


For where your treasure is,

there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:21

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,

and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith

and pierced themselves with many pains.

1 Timothy 6:10


Mike, Kay, Kenny & Wall Street friends launch their company on the NY Stock Exchange. (c) TWC-Dimension

Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey) has inherited his prospector grandfather and father’s love of searching for treasured beneath the ground, as we see in an opening scene. In 1981 he is working in his father’s Reno, Nevada Washoe Mining office using his girlfriend Kay’s (Bryce Dallas Howard) purse as the ground from which such treasure as copper is mined. Out comes a copper item, and then sneaking in a gold watch, he pulls it out and presents it to her. She will become the under-appreciated treasure of his life, though his heart will not be with her later in the film.

Six years go by. Kenny’s father has died, the 1980’s recession has hit their firm so hard that Kenny had to give up the firm’s plush offices and operate out of the bar where Kay now works. Kenny looks like a has-been, sloppily dressed and his disheveled hair-line now receding, and his pot belly making him look pregnant. Most of his former employees also make phone calls from phones in the bar about new mining ventures. No one wants to join in, not even prosperous Clive Colson, the man whom his father once set up in the business. He will not even meet with Kenny, sending two assistants instead.

Kenny has dreams of Indonesia, and then remembers having met geologist Mike Acosta (Édgar Ramírez) years before. His “ring of fire” theory has made the geologist well-known among miners. He believes that tectonic plates in the Pacific Rim rubbing up against each other have created a wealth of minerals, including gold. Telling Kay he will be back in a week or more, Kenny snatches some valuables, including her gold watch, and pawns them so he can fly to Jakarta and meet with Mike. The latter is less than impressed at first by Kenny’s pitch to join forces, but, being desperate himself because he has not struck it rich after years of searching, agrees. Kenny gets on the phone to order his associates to make a new round of pleas to potential investors. This time because of Mike they are successful, though the over a quarter million dollars they raise will only begin to finance the project.

Mike thinks he knows the exact spot up Borneo’s the Busang River to begin digging. The sight of villagers panning gold all along its banks is reassuring as their equipment-laden boat chugs along. The steamy jungle is cleared around the area, and the drilling starts. Day after day they find nothing. Kenny spends weeks sick in bed with malaria. Their native laborers walk off the job when Kenny’s money runs out. Then comes the day when Mike announces that the assayer’s report is positive. They have struck gold. Kenny, clad in his underwear because he is only partially recovered dances with Mike in the mud. They might have the biggest gold strike in the 20th century!

If in Borneo the film reminds one of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, back home, the film morphs into Wall Street. Everyone wants in on the strike, some Wall Street sharks waving a huge pile of money before Kenny in a bid for control of his company. He is disdainful of it because it would reduce him to minority ownership. He also turns down an international gold business owner. Kay has come with him to their posh suite at the Waldorf Astoria, but her initial enthusiasm for their new life of luxury soon fades. Everyone is so insincere, as she learns when she overhears two big shots mocking Kenny as a fool. Kenny allows a woman executive to flirt with him, and so when he will not listen to Kay, she packs up and leaves for Nevada.

I also should mention that the corrupt Indonesian President Sukarno sends his soldiers to take over the mine. Suddenly all of Kenny’s friends have desert him. How he schemes his way back into ownership sounds too far out to believe that the film “is inspired by actual event”—it involves the family black sheep son of Sukarno and the petting of a Bengal tiger that you probably have seen in the film’s trailer. Kenny is up again, and then down again when an independent assayer discovers that the strike is a fraud—and thus the question of why Mike leaves the banquet hall before his friend finishes his speech accepting the miners’ association’s annual award of The Golden Pick Ax. Down and broke again, Kenny must now deal with the FBF investigators and the wrath of his disappointed colleagues, most of whom had invested their life savings in his company.

Director Stephen Gaghan keeps things moving along, using voice-overs to help us understand the film’s jumping back and forth in time and location. Matthew McConaughey must have had a ball as the gregarious, loud mouthed prospector rising and falling two times over in the business world. The upbeat ending of the film feels a bit strained, though perhaps it plays to the desire of the audience. The plot and characters (some are a combination of real life persons) come from Canada’s Bre-X mining scandal in the 1990s, which had a very different ending from that of the film’s. To compare film with history, go the Wikipedia article at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bre-X. We might be glad for Kenny, but it certainly leaves some ethical issues up in the air. I wonder what his next step will be after the last scene fades to the credits.

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

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


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.



Patriots Day (2016)

Rated R. Running Time: 2 hours 13 min. Our contents

Ratings: Violence 4; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.”

Psalm 122:6-7


The films 3 principal law enforcement gents examine evidence.                (c) Lionsgate

Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) and his fellow cops in Boston and the surrounding area need not worry about the backlash that is troubling so many of their profession in other cities around the country. They are the ones who not only “pray for the peace” of their city, but actively work to preserve and restore it as well. After the terrible bomb explosions during on April 15, 2013 during the Boston Marathon, they join forces with the FBI to do just that. Director Peter Berg’s documentary style film, employing much of the time hand-held cameras is as exciting as any synthetic crime drama you are likely to see.

In this “true story” we are introduced to Tommy and his wife Carol (Michelle Monaghan) as he gets ready for security duty at the finishing line of the Marathon. His chief complaint is the knee that he has injured that night kicking down a door and capturing a thug, and that he has wear a “clown outfit,” one of those bright yellow vests that make him standout in the crowd. We also are given glimpses of the home-grown terrorists Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) and Jahar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff), Tamerlan’s wife, a white Muslim convert Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist) and their two little daughters. Around the city, we see many others getting ready to run or to view the race, one of them being the student Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang) talking with his parents back in China about his new car. Little does he know that soon he will become a hero.

Even though we know that there will be two explosions, the mood is tense as we watch the two brothers move among the crowd and plant their backpacks containing the pressure cookers stuffed with explosives, nails and other small metal objects meant to be murderous shrapnel. Despite his injured knee, Tommy rushes toward the sites, stopping to give aid to the wounded and calling on his phone for ambulances. The quick shots of the bleeding victims are shocking, but the quick responses of police and medics are heartening, as are those of fast-acting surgeons and nurses in the hospitals.

There follows immediately the complicated task of finding out how and who perpetrated the deed. This becomes a fascinating police procedural sequence of brilliant sleuthing, revealing how useful security cameras can be to law enforcers. FBI agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) and Boston police commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) are quickly on the scene, as well as the Boston Mayor and the Governor of the state. When discovers pieces of the shrapnel, he immediately calls it a Federal crime, and thus assumes jurisdiction. Within a few hours, he has set up a replica of the street in a huge warehouse. Agents have gathered up all the debris in bags which they then remove and place along the chalk-marked “street.” All the shops have been marked along the street. Tommy, with his familiarity of the street, walks with DesLauriers, identifying the stores. As he names each one technicians sitting at monitors call up the store’s monitor and scan the images for anyone looking suspicious. They discover one brother because at the moment of an explosion he is the only one looking away from the blast. The other killer they identify because of clips in which both brothers are walking together. Because of their caps, they call one “white hat” and the other “black at.”

Once they compile a significant number of photos comes the argument over whether or not to release them to the public. Agent DesLauriers wants to wait because it might alert the brothers too soon, and Police Commissioner Ed Davis believes that his citizens can help find their location. Tommy sides with the Commissioner, until DesLauriers reluctantly agrees.

Now the film becomes a chase film, the brothers deciding that they must leave town and plant bombs elsewhere. This involves Watertown Police Chief Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons), who eventually actually wrestle with one of the brothers. Sadly, MIT campus cop Sean Collier (Jake Picking) will lose his life when the brothers come up to his squad car and try to steal his gun. Shortly after this Dun Meng will be taken hostage by the brothers but manage at a gas station to escape. Thanks to his 911 call, the brother’s location is almost pinpointed. When the police catch up to them, the exchange of fire turns the quiet neighborhood into a war zone, the brothers tossing bombs at the cops. Jahar manages to escape, running over the body of his brother in the process, and the film climaxes in what has become the most famous of all backyard boats in the country.

Fittingly, the last part of the film is a series of shots and photos of the real characters, with the film dedicated to the police and other first-responders. The filmmakers do little editorializing regarding Muslims and terrorism. They do not have to, this film being a fine tribute to both the law enforcement officers and the civilians who made “Boston Proud” by their prompt and brave acts during the hundred or so hours following the blasts—all that is except for a few. Besides the terrorists and the wife who shows no remorse or emotion over what the brothers had done, there is a group of one of the brother’s fellow college students gathered in his room. Searching through his things for some weed, they discover bomb-making materials, but, even though they watch the news unfolding on TV, they never call the authorities about this. Deservedly they receive jail sentences for obstruction of justice.

Director Peter Berg’s film unfolds like a documentary, information about the number of hours before and after the blasts appearing in a lower corner of the screen. If his intention was to make viewers proud of the ways in which Bostonians responded to the horror and chaos of that day, he certainly succeeds. Everyone who sees will join the “Boston Proud” circle. The bad guys score a short victory, but out of the results of their twisted hatred springs a multitude of courageous and loving acts.

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


Paterson (2016)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hours 58 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

My heart overflows with a goodly theme;
I address my verses to the king;
my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

Psalm 45:1


Paterson & Laura–note all the B&W items she has painted in their home. (c) Bleecker Street Media

I now have a list of two bus driver films that I like very much. Writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s, set in Paterson New Jersey, and Chazz Palminteri’s 1993 A Bronx Tale, set in that sprawling borough across from Manhattan. The two are very different, Robert De Niro’s Lorenzo being a father very concerned that his teen-aged son is too much under the influence of a local gangster who has taken a liking to the boy. Adam Driver’s Paterson has no children, his passion being his wife and his writing poetry in between his day’s activities.

There is not nearly such drama in Jarmusch’s quotidian film, save for a tavern scene that threatens to end violently. Instead, the plot consists of following the routine life of a man named Paterson for eight days. And I do mean routine, the two exceptions being the already mentioned bar room scene, and a rift on “the dog ate my homework” that would be funny if it were not so destructive to the one thing that makes Paterson so unique among bus drivers—the poetry that he writes in his off-hours, ripped to shreds when the family pet bulldog goes on a rampage when both his master and mistress are away. He finds inspiration for his poetry in simple things—such as an Ohio Blue Tip match box, and a shoe box, the theme of the first poem being love.

The Psalmist wrote the above poem for a royal audience, whereas the only other person who reads Paterson’s verses is his supportive wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). She is repeatedly pleading with him to submit them for publication, or, at the very least, to go and make copies of them for her. He at last reluctantly agrees to do this for her come Saturday.

For a creative person, Paterson follows an almost rigid schedule: The film is divided into the days of the week in which we see that there is a rhythm to Paterson’s life akin to that of the stanzas of a poem. Paterson wakes up between 6:10 and 6:25 A.M.; checks his alarm clock; rolls over and hugs or kisses his wife; eats a cup of Cheerios for breakfast along with his coffee; walks to the bus barn; sits in the driver’s seat writing in his notebook (the words appear on the screen as he writes);lays aside the notebook when his supervisor taps on the bus door to let him know it’s time to start his route; maneuvers the massive bus through the crowded streets of Paterson; listens in on snatches of his passengers’ conversations; eats his lunch by a bench facing the Passaic Falls (there is a picture of Laura in his lunchbox); walks back home from the bus barn; removes his mail from the always leaning mail box; straightens up its post again (the reason that it is always tilted is revealed in a funny scene later); greets Laura with a kiss and listens to another of her wacky schemes; after supper takes their English bulldog Marvin for a walk; and then, tying him up outside, enters his favorite bar and converses with some of its patrons, namely bartender Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley) and fellow drinkers Everett (William Jackson Harper) and Marie (Chasten Harmon).

The film script rounds out well the supporting characters, especially Laura whose world, unlike her husband’s, is changing all the time as she flits from one artistic project to another, the one constant being that she limits her pallet to black and white. Her creations, many of them outlandish, sometimes become sight gags—using black and white paints, she daubs paint in striped, curved, and wave patterns onto table cloths and napkins, pillows and a throw rug, drapes, scarves, a shower curtain—even on the tops of the cupcakes she bakes by the hundred for some pen money she places black and white icing. Her biggest artistic aspiration, however, is to acquire a guitar so she can learn music and go to Nashville and become a C-W star. Paterson will never be bored with this dynamo of a wife—nor find a more enthusiastic supporter!

Jarmusch’s other characters have less screen time, yet come across as flesh and blood people. Doc has a wall of fame at his bar, proud of such Patterson notables as Lou Costello of the comedy team Abbott and Costello. Of course, there is a signed photo of the city’s famous poet, William Carlos Williams, whose multi-volume poem, also entitled Paterson, inspired Jarmusch long ago to make this film. The bar owner steadfastly refuses to get a TV set, and when a customer asks him to get one so they can tune in to ball games, he almost runs the upstart out of the bar. He keeps an eye on the black patrons Everett and Marie because, despite the girl’s rebuffs, Everett keeps trying to establish a romantic relationship with her. What will appear to be a violent climax to his unwelcome pursuit provides the only moment of Paterson’s playing the hero late in the film, with Doc ready to back him up.

The film will seem slow moving to fans of comic-based yarns, but for those with patience, it is an exquisite visual parable about a man paying attention to the little details of daily life, hence the filmmaker conducting us through a whole week of Paterson’s routine, starting on a Monday, Tuesday, etc., until the film ends on a Monday. Creativity often is, as Christ said to his spiritually blind disciples, having “eyes that see.” Paterson is a person who notices the little things of life and connects them to larger things, such as his love for Laura. This is well illustrated by the small Blue Tip Match box on his kitchen counter which he has turned into a simple poetic declaration. Back in the ‘60s when an inner-city Catholic mission group published a set of posters called “Full Circle” featuring quotations by various authors, one of my favorites proclaimed, “Art is the Celebration of the Ordinary,” attributed to John Dewey. This certainly what Paterson does.

The darkest day for our bus driver poet comes at the end of the work week when his notebook has been destroyed. Laura is more visibly dismayed than he, but something inside the sober-faced Paterson seems to have flickered out. We keep thinking that he is going to bring out the sheets he had copied, as he had promised, but this never happens. He had been so busy helping Laura that day and in other activities that he apparently had forgotten to get to it. The poems really are gone.

How he gets back what some would call his groove is a wonderful summary of what the film is about. It is on a Sunday, appropriate in that for Christians this is the day of Resurrection. While sitting disconsolately on a bench by a stream and the Passaic Falls, a tourist (Masatoshi Nagase) with a camera asks permission to sit. In short snatches of conversation, he reveals that he has come from Japan to Paterson pay homage to William Carlos Williams. Although Paterson denies being a poet, it is obvious to the tourist that the American is a poetry lover, conversant with the works of the ones the tourist mentions. Revealing that he is a published poet in Japan, he does something that rejuvenating for the depressed American.

This film is filled with poets—Paterson himself; a 10-year-old girl with whom he forms an instant bond as she shares a clever poem she has written called “rain Falls;” a rapper practicing his routine at a laundromat; the Japanese tourist; and of course the works of New Jersey poet Williams. We also see on a bookshelf a collection by Frank O’Hara, and Paterson and Laura discuss the 14th century Italian poet Petrarch, whose love sonnets were meant for a woman also named Laura.

Poets, as well as other artists, look at the world differently, and if we are alert and open, help us to do the same. Even if we will not become artists ourselves, they can certainly give us a greater appreciation of our world around us. Most of the poems are by a friend of Jim Jarmusch, the award-winning poet Ron Padgett. To see how simple, down to earth they are, you can read one at the PBR website.

This is a film I must see again, there being so much in it. One thing I have not mentioned, is the many twins that Paterson sees after Laura says that she is pregnant, and that there could be twins in her womb. This echoes the twins in legend and myths, and thus I want to return to the film to get a clearer view of how Jarmusch works this into his film.

Although you do not have to be a poetry fan to enjoy this film, those of you who are will revel in this simple yet profound work, proving once more that Jim Jarmusch is a visual poet.

Note: For a wonderful scene of the need to pay attention to the quotidian see Wayne Wang’s Smoke, in which the manager of a Brooklyn tobacco shop takes a photograph of the people passing by every day at precisely the same time.

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