Wonder Woman (2017)

 Our associate reviewer Dr. Markus Watson offers a second look at this popular movie.

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 21 minutes.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 7; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8

Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult.  On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.

1 Peter 3:9

Wonder Woman with Steve & friends in a French village they have liberated from the Germans. (c) Warner Bros.

Themyscira is a beautiful island whose existence has been hidden for centuries from the rest of the world.  It is inhabited by the mighty Amazons, an all-female tribe of gorgeous warrior women.

It is on this island that we meet Diana (Gal Gadot), the princess of Themyscira.  Diana wants to learn to fight, has a passion for doing what is right, and she wants to protect her island and the world from whatever evil may attack.

Then one day, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane into the ocean just off the coast of Themyscira.  It is through him that Diana discovers the world is at war.  But not just any war.  It is World War I, the War to End all Wars.

Diana is ready to fight.  More specifically, she is ready to kill Ares, the god of war, who she believes is behind this Great War.   If only Ares can be destroyed, the war—Diana is convinced—will end.

So she follows Steve Trevor back to Europe where she finds a world unlike anything she could ever have imagined.  She sees pain.  She sees suffering.  She sees cruelty and cowardice.  The more darkness she sees, the more she is convinced that once Ares is dead, the world will be good and beautiful and whole once again.  When Ares is dead, there will be peace.

Diana, together with Steve and three mercenaries, embarks on a mission to destroy a chemical weapons factory.  When they arrive at the factory, Diana does finally face off with Ares (David Thewlis).  But as Diana does battle with Ares, Steve sacrifices himself to destroy the chemical weapons.  It is then that Diana recognizes what will truly bring an end to war and save the world—love.

It sounds cheesy, but Diana is right.  It is love that will save the world.  It is love that will bring an end to the darkness.  It is love that will make the world whole again.

This is, in fact, how God did save the world.  When the world was at its worst—or as the Apostle Paul puts it, “while we were still sinners”—God sent his Son to conquer the world’s evil through love.  Instead of judging people, Jesus embraced them.  Instead of excluding people, Jesus welcomed them.  Instead of hurting people, Jesus healed them.  Rather than taking from people, Jesus gave.  And when the authorities attacked, tortured, and executed him, Jesus absorbed their violence and forgave them.  Rather than making them (and us) suffer for our sin, Jesus endured torture and death for our sin.

In some mysterious way, Jesus broke the power of sin.  Not only did he demonstrate the only way evil can truly be conquered, Jesus really did conquer evil through his sacrifice.  And he made it possible for the world to be made whole once again.

Is this how Diana conquered evil in the movie?  Well, that’s the irony.  She says she understands now that “only love can save the world.”  But she still defeats evil through violence and force.  It’s the other character—the one who died while destroying the chemical weapons—who overcame evil through love.

At least Diana (aka, Wonder Woman) is on the right track.

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


The Lovers (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 37 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 0; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 8.

Our star ratings(1-5): 3.5

And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them

will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.

Matthew 7:26

This bedroom shot is symbolic of the relationship between thelong-time married Mary & Michael. (c) A24

The title might mislead viewers into mistaking writer-director Azazel Jacobs’ film as a good candidate for a date movie. Nothing could be further from such light fare, the lovers of the title being a passionless married couple plus the younger man and the woman with whom they are committing adultery. In an odd twist half-way through, the title even refers to the married couple, who find their cheating on each other rekindles the long-extinguished flame that had once brought them together. What to do?

Debra Winger and Tracey Letts are the marrieds, Mary and Michael, and Melora Walters as the would-be ballerina Lucy, and Aidan Gillen as a struggling writer. Neither of the latter seem to be bothered by the cheating, and the marrieds, though they are aware of each other’s deceptions, continue to lie about being at work during their frequent absences. It seems to be inertia that keeps them together, certainly no religion-undergirded vows about “till death do us part.” Then comes the evening when they fall into bed, each facing away from each other. But morning finds them facing each other, their limbs embraced. They are startled to discover this upon awakening. Startled as they face each other, nose to nose, they are soon kissing, and…

Given this reawakening of passion, what to do? Especially in the light of ultimatums from Lucy and Robert that they break up after the couple’s grown son Joel (Tyler Ross) pays them a visit. The four major cast members are at the top of their form, but they are committed to a story that accepts our secularized culture’s acceptance of following the heart, morality be damned, if it gets in the way of one’s happiness. Vows sound nice when uttered, but should not fetter one’s freedom—or so goes the widely accepted opinion–marriage is not something that should require continual commitment and hard work to keep fresh, but, rather, is just one more means of finding happiness. If it doesn’t bring this, walk away and find someone else.

Hmm, am I getting too old for such films as this one? It brings out the preacher in me—sorry about that, but I can’t help but think that all four characters are like the foolish man described by Jesus in his parable, building their lives upon the sand. Anyway, if you are looking for a date film, meaning one of those romances that warm your heart, there are always the DVDs of Before Sunrise or Casablanca.

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

Cars 3 (2017)

Rated G. Running time: 1 hour 49 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Leviticus 19:18

In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’

Acts 20:35

 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Philippians 2:4

Lightning even becomes ensnared in a demolition derby. (c) Walt Disney/Pixar

Director Brian Fee, who served as a story artist on the first two films of the Pixar series, redeems the franchise after the crtics’ drubbing of Cars 2. Of course, he is greatly aided by co-writer Mike Rich (and several other writers), a talented voice cast, and spectacular animation that, with its 3D photography, places us seemingly in the middle of the action. Mention too must be made of the background art which is among the most beautiful that I have seen, especially the night scenes.

The world of Cars is a fantasy one in which not only are cars driverless, but one from which all humans have disappeared—and come to think of it, other creatures as well. Even the spectators in the huge stands are cars, cheering as excitedly as any human fans at a NASCAR event. The wonder is that the art of the animators and skills of the voice talent can convey distinct characters beneath the hoods of the vehicles—no, these are no longer “vehicles,” tools for transporting humans, they are personalities in themselves. In such scenes, as when a trainer named Cruz shares her unfulfilled dream of becoming a racer herself, you probably will feel a tear or two welling up in your eyes.

The plot involves the champion speed racer Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) trying to get his mojo back after suffering a defeat, and then in a later race, a crash that puts him out of commission for a while. The rookie Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a jet-black new breed of racing car, has come out of nowhere to beat the Champ and gain critical and popular acclaim. Storm pretends to respect Lightning, but he really is bent on sowing the seeds of self-doubt in his competitor’s mind with his false praise. One by one Lightning’s friendly fellow racers drop out of the sport as technological change renders them obsolete. The consensus among sports commentators is that Lightning too is at the end of his career.

Lightning, returning to his hometown of Radiator Springs, is aided by his numerous friends in his attempt to recover, including possible love interest Sally (Bonnie Hunt), his tow truck pal (Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), and later on by a famous coach Smokey (Chris Cooper), and a new character Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a small bright yellow-bodied roadster. Cruz is the head trainer working for Lightning’s new sponsor the mysterious investor Sterling (Nathan Fillion) who has set up an elaborate high-tech training facility. Cruz expresses her admiration for Lightning’s record, but also says, “I call you my senior project!” Both she and the racing experts regard Lightning as a has-been. Little wonder that Lightning does not take well to the high-tech simulation tests and such. Learning that Sterling is interested in him only for the money to be made selling products under Lightning’s famous name, Lightning leaves the facility inside the trailer of his transport truck Mack (John Ratzenberger).

Cruz accompanies Lightning, the pair winding up at a demolition derby. Under disguise, Lightning enters, changes his mind, but both are trapped when the gates close. The wild race, as much as a duel to smash the other car as it is to cross over the finish line first, finds both Cruz and Lightning unbattered, but, surprise, it is Cruz who wins the race. She is elated, failing to see Lightning’s downcast reaction. They have words, with Cruz pouring out her heart, explaining how she had long ago given up her dream to be on the track competing, and instead settling for the next best thing, training others to race.

The two separate, but come back together the next day. Although she resigns as his trainer, Cruz agrees to accompany him in his quest for the trainer of his old mentor Doc, Smokey (Chris Cooper), in hopes of securing some helpful advice.  Smokey tells him that he will not be able to beat Jackson’s speed, but that he can outsmart him, whereupon he puts Lightning through a rigorous series of training exercises involving his pupil’s being surrounded by a large “herd” of tractors through which he must navigate. Smokey also reveals that the retired Doc’s biggest joy was not the memories of his own string of victories, but of a young rookie named Lightning. (In the flash backs we hear the voice of Paul Newman, again voicing the character, thanks to some digital wizardry.) This leads our favorite racer to do some rethinking of his priorities when the day of the Big Race arrives, Lightning’s last chance to save his career.

Lightning’s decision will be one that would gladden the heart of the apostle Paul, quoted above, and propels this sequel to a level of maturity far beyond that of Cars 2. In a culture which mostly teaches “Winning is everything” and “getting” is what makes for the abundant life, it is good to find a film that states that real joy comes from giving to others.  Lightning’s decision during the Big Race is thus very counter cultural. The focus upon Cruz adds a touch of feminism to a series that hitherto has been exclusively male-centered, except for the small role of Sally. Race lovers will revel in the racetrack scenes. I don’t recall any  live-action racecar films that provide such thrilling views of a race from the viewpoint of the driver. All this wrapped in a package that includes much beauty and thrilling action.

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



Megan Leavey (2017)

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

Our content ratings: Violence 4; Language 3; Sex/Nudity -2.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

 Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.

1 Corinthians 16:13-14

Megan & Rex ready to detect IEDs in Iraq.             (c) Bleecker Street

Veteran movie-goers will recall many movies about a master and a dog that tug at the heart when circumstances separate the owner, usually a likable boy (remember Lassie, Come Home?), from pooch. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film is sort of a combination of the 1943 film and The Hurt Locker. Featuring Kate Marla in her best role yet, this “based on a true story” film is part military and part redemption themed, as well the bonding of pet and mistress.

Megan is a listless young woman living with her mother Jackie (Edie Falco) and Jim (Will Patton), the latter who had once been her father’s best friend until he and her mother had cheated on him. Unable to hold a job and depressed over the death of her best (and probably only) friend, Megan joins the Marines, like so many young people, as an escape and as a means of finding order in their haphazard lives. After making it through the tough basic training, she again screws up her life at Camp Pendleton in California while she is out carousing with her friends and is caught urinating in public.

She is punished by being sent to the K-9 unit to clean out the dog cages. There she falls under the tutelage of the tough but kindly Sgt. Gunny Martin (Common) who demands of her, “What’s your problem, Leavey? Why’re you here?” She does not know, but during her unpleasant chores she observes fellow Marines with their dogs in training to detect IEDs, mines, and caches of guns and ammunition. It is the warm bond between handlers and dogs that attract her.

However, her newfound purpose to become a dog handler is not enough. Megan’s service record is so mediocre that she does not qualify—that is, until she buckles down and trains hard to up her marksmanship score and every other required skill. We can tell that Gunny is pleased with her when he finally gives in and assigns her—not a live dog, but a stand-in, a metal box with a leash that she drags over the training course as if it were a canine. She has had a run-in with the meanest dog in the unit, a German Shepard named Rex, and it is of course Rex that she is paired with when he bites his current handler’s arm so viciously that several bones are broken. With a lot of patience and time, Megan manages to calm the troubled dog down so that the two can go through the drills of sniffing out contraband.

Veteran handler Andrew Dean (Tom Felton), recently returned from Iraq, joins the training staff. Watching Megan and Rex closely during their practice sessions, he tells her, “I can’t teach you to bond. Listen to him. Everything you feel goes down the leash.” As the training progresses Megan sneaks Rex out of his cage and beds down with him in her room, she and the dog growing closer.  Rex has at last found a human he can trust.

Soon, dressed in combat gear, she and Rex are aboard a huge plane bound for Iraq where they are badly needed. None of the planners of the war had figured on the terrorists using IEDs, a weapon so deadly that hundreds of American soldiers are being killed and wounded. On patrol along a desert road, the pair find the hidden devices, Megan marking their location with small flags attached to a wire stand. The two accompany a unit searching the shop of a rug merchant. At first the man seems innocent, but Megan, sensing Rex’s uneasiness, sends the dog up onto a high stack of rugs. Rex sniffs out a large cache of guns, grenades, and ammunition hidden in the wall. The pleased officer in charge tells her that they have potentially saved hundreds of lives.

With her renewed sense of purpose and self-respect Megan now relates better with humans, especially Cpl. Matt Morales (Ramon Rodriguez), a fellow handler from New York who enjoys bantering with her over rival sports teams. Their relationship might have blossomed, but then Megan and Rex become embroiled in a firefight between her unit and a band of terrorists who have hidden themselves amidst the ruins of some nearby buildings, an explosion injures both handler and dog. Fortunately, they quickly recover and continue the search for IEDs while bullets and propelled grenades strike near them. There are so many attackers that the Americans have to call in helicopters to fly them to safety.

Both handler and dog are commended with medals, and Megan decides to leave the service now that her tours of duty are over. She hopes to be able to adopt Rex and provide a good home for him. Morales decides to stay in the service, so they reluctantly part. It is now that Megan’s second battle begins, one fought on two fronts. The first is a struggle with PTSD, which alienates her from her family, and the second is with the military bureaucracy that refuses to give her custody of Rex. The latter is complicated by the hostility that the veterinarian in charge of the care of the dogs harbors toward both her and the animal, one that she considers unstable and vicious.

The last act of the film is thus a suspenseful one in which Megan enlists the media and a politician in her campaign. Looking smart in her uniform, she finds both sympathetic. Her on-line petition brings thousands to her side, which proves to be very helpful in gaining the most powerful ally of all, New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer (Fred Galle).

As a tale of redemption and bonding with “the least of these,” this will be an inspiring film for viewers, all the more because the story is true. The filmmakers keep the focus narrow—there is no hint of a political or moral comment on the nature of “Bush’s War.” Nor is there any hint of the allegedly wide spread sexual abuse suffered by some women in the armed services. In this film the protagonist just happens to be a woman, though we might detect a bit of feminist sentiment in that she is shown competently, no, heroically, performing what traditionally was considered a “man’s job.” (It should be noted that the director is a woman, one with a subtle touch.) A good film for the family, especially ones with a daughter and a pet dog.

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

The Dinner (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours

Our content ratings  (1-10): Violence 5; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1–5): 4

Meanwhile, when the crowd gathered by the thousands, so that they trampled on one another, he began to speak first to his disciples, ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy.  Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.’

Luke 12:1-3

After their toasts, the 4 parents will get down to the grim business that has brought them together. (c) The Orchard

The titular dinner is at a palatial restaurant so fancy that the waiter treats the courses as if each were a work of art. As four assistants parade up to the table and lay a dish before the four patrons, he describes it as if he were a docent, naming the ingredients and their provenance. Clearly, this is a culinary haven for the rich and powerful. However, throughout the film (the divisions of which are named after each course, from aperitif to digestif) none of the four members of the party are able to enjoy the meal. They have gathered to discuss far weightier matters than food.

Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan) and his wife Claire (Laura Linney are meeting with his brother Stan (Richard Gere), a U.S. congressman who is in the midst run for governor. His 2nd wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) is the fourth member of the party. Paul, a misanthropic former history teacher is there under duress because, as will see in flashbacks, he grown up always in the shadow of his high-achieving brother, but the reason for their meeting is too serious for him to stay away.

Their two teenaged sons are in trouble, deep, very deep trouble. The two boys had been out drinking at a party with friends and had come upon a homeless woman wrapped in a blanket trying to sleep in an ATM booth. Irritated, the teenagers had ordered her out, but she had refused to move, whereupon one of the boys had lighted a match and set her afire. The kids actually laugh as she burns up, regarding their deed as a prank. One of them had made a video and posted it on the internet. Now the fully sober sons are looking to their parents to get them out of their scrape.

Paul and Claire want to cover up their son’s crime, whereas Stan, surprisingly, talks about holding a press conference at which he announces his withdrawal from the campaign and then standing by their sons as they face justice. Katelyn, who realizes full well she has served as a trophy wife, castigates Stan, reminding him how she had taken over the raising of his son and being the dutiful politician’s wife for years. Paul and Claire are equally as vociferous in condemning any admission of guilt on behalf of their children.

The battle of words rages back and forth over the different courses, as well as in different rooms of the old mansion housing the restaurant. The class prejudice of Stan’s three opponents are revealed in their arguments about sacrificing the future of their sons for the sake of a homeless woman who should not have been in the ATM shelter. We witness the enormous capacity we have of self-deception and the old argument of a good end justifies. At this table we can see Cain justifying his murder of Able; of King David covering up his murder of Urriah; or to jump ahead in history, of President Nixon covering up the Watergate burglary. Will Stan be able to stand up against the onslaught of the three, or will he become like the Roman politician Pilate and cave in to pressure of others?

The film also can be seen as an interesting study of Paul’s character, one shaped by his boyhood in which he always played second fiddle to his brother and regards the world with deep cynicism—indeed as a student of history, he sees the Battle of Gettysburg as a metaphor of the world. A flashback to the brother’s touring the Gettysburg National Military Park, consisting of a montage of shots of the pair and numerous statues (some faces of the combatants in close-up), monuments and graves, is a powerful sequence.

You might have to search for this film on the internet because it played for just a week or two in a Cincinnati art theater before closing. This despite the excellent and well-known cast–Steve Coogan, Laura Linney, Richard Gere, Rebecca Hall, and an excellent supporting cast. The characters become such toxic examples of what once were called the 1% that this film fare might be indigestible for those who prefer a happy hour film, but nonetheless leaves us with plenty to chew on long after the dishes are cleared away and the screen fades to black.

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


Wonder Woman (2017)

Rated. Running time: 2 hours 21 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

Psalm 82:3-4

Diana’s bullet-repelling gauntlets enable her even to attack the German machine gun nests that have stopped the Allied troops so often.                    (c) Warner Brothers

Although I am not a keen fan of the superhero genre, I do welcome this new addition because it provides our daughters with a worthy role model, even though the film still embraces power and violence.

The film opens with a present-day prologue in which Diana Prince (Gal Gadot, aka Wonder Woman) is at her office in the Louvre when a Wayne Enterprises truck delivers a package to her. Opening it, she stares at a picture taken a hundred years ago. It shows Wonder Woman, sword in hand, standing during four armed men, a Turk, a handsome young man, a hatted Native American, and a kilt-clad Scotsman. In the background are buildings of a French village and a large WW 1 tank. It will be a while before we learn the men’s identities as the faithful and courageous companions of Wonder Woman.

The old photograph takes the viewers back in time to Diana’s youth on the island of Themyscira, shrouded by mist and some type of field shielding it from the scrutiny of the outside world. Here lives the race of Amazons, presided over by Diana’s mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and the regent’s sister, Antiope (Robin Wright). The latter is trainer whom little Diana longs to join, but she is held back by her mother. The girl persists through the years, Hippolyta eventually giving in because her sister tells her they must be ready when and if they have to face outside forces threatening the peace of their island. She tells Antiope to press her harder than she has anyone else, which she does. Diana proves to be the best of the warriors, eventually able to stand up to the onslaughts of her mentor during their arduous training sessions.

The outside world does impinge on the Amazons when a WW 2 fighter plane crashes into the sea, and Diana swims out to rescue the unconscious pilot. Soon a boat load of armed Germans land on the beach. The ensuing battle is a fierce one. As skilled as they are with their bows and arrows and acrobatic flights, many of the Amazons are nonetheless cut down by the German guns, including Antiope. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), recovering from his near-drowning, also fights along with the Amazons, and after the Germans are killed, explains that a World War is raging in the outside world. In Europe the Allies and Germans are about to sign an armistice, but there is a German general and a scientist who have developed a super weapon, a deadly gas, that they plan to release on the front lines. Millions of soldiers on both sides would be killed, but the plotters do not care if it would prevent the signing of the armistice so that they can continue the war, one which they could win with the new weapon.

Diana, of course, agrees to go into the world with Steve to use her skills and power for the triumph of right. Like young Arthur of the old legend, she goes to the shrine and extracts the marvelous sword awaiting her use and picks up the shield that will protect her body and a glowing lasso that forces anyone wrapped in it to tell the truth. She also possesses a pair of gauntlets with which she can deflect bullets. There follows lots of action-packed sequences in which our favorite Amazon lives up to the expectations of her deceased mentor and Queen Mother, her highly honed skills aided by her shield, lasso and bullet-repelling gauntlets. (Though her charge of the German trenches, during which she deflects what must have been thousands of bullets from the machine guns pointed at her from all along the line, is a bit beyond believable, but hey, this is basically an animated comic book.)

The script, mainly by Allan Heinberg, includes many humorous sequences, such as the one in the boat in which Diana and Steve set sail from. (And note that a woman, Patty Jenkins s the director!) The two exchange information about each other and are uncomfortable concerning sleeping arrangements. Steve asks, “Have you never met a man before? What about your father?” “I have no father. I was brought to life by Zeus.” Well that’s neat. Reaching London, Steve introduces his companion to Etta, who tells Diana, “I’m Steve Trevor’s secretary.” Diana asks, “What is a secretary?” and Etta replies, “I go where he tells me to go, I do what he tells me to do.” Diana comments, “Where we come from, that’s called slavery.” And Etta replies, “I like her!” (Actress Lucy Davis is a real scene stealer—let’s hope she signs on to the inevitable sequels!)

All the cast members are excellent, with Gal Gadot proving a worthy successor to the beloved Lynda Carter, star of the TV series in the 70s. Chris Pine makes us care for Diana’s companion and love-interest, so that when he sets out on his courageous mission to save the lives of others, we are truly moved by the result—especially because he has left Diana his watch, saying to her, “I wish we had more time together. I love you.”

My main criticism is that the script follows the Allied propaganda practice of WW 1 by depicting all of the German characters as brutish thugs willing to destroy villages and their civilians for their own ends, but then, this is a comic book adaptation, a genre known for painting its villains in the darkest of colors. The General is especially a cardboard character, but his cohort, the scientist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) is a bit more complex, she with her destroyed face partially covered by a mask. I would have liked to have learned a bit more of her past and motivations.

If the scripts of the sequels are as good as this one, we will be in for a real treat as we again watch a woman take the lead in saving the world. And who, despite her physical powers, has her heart in the right place when she says, “It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love. Only love will truly save the world.”

This review with a set of questions will be in the June 2017 issue of VP. Please help keep this site going by purchasing an issue of the journal or subscribing to it.