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.

Gemma Bovery (2014)

French with English subtitles

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 33 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 2; Language 0; Sex 8/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Whoever is steadfast in righteousness will live,

but whoever pursues evil will die.

Proverbs 11:19

 

InBakry

Martin tells his new neighbor Gemma about his many kinds of breads. (c) 2014 Music Box Films

The author of the Proverb, one that is so similar to the apostle Paul’s famous statement in Romans 6:23, would regard this film as a morality tale warning the viewer to stay on the straight and narrow. Not so the narrator of the film, Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), a Frenchman who returned to Normandy seven years earlier to take over his father’s bakery and find a life better than in Paris. He is very intrigued when an English couple moves into the run-down farmhouse across the street, especially when he learns their last name is Bovery, so close to the spelling of his favorite tragic heroine and novel, Madame Bovary. As soon as the beautiful wife Gemma Bovery walks into his shop and samples the smell and texture of his breads the middle-aged man is stricken, abandoning what he calls “10 years of sexual tranquility” with his less attractive wife Valerie (Isabelle Candelier).

Relations between Gemma and her art-restorer husband Charlie (Jason Flemyng) have fallen into dull routine, and so while he returns on business to England, Martin fantasizes about Gemma, linking her to the ill-fated heroine of Flaubert’s classic novel. He enjoys meeting her frequently when he out walking his dog. He would welcome a more intimate relationship, but it is the young law student Hervé de Bressigny (Niels Schneider) who attracts Gemma romantically. Watching their affair develop, Martin is filled with a sense of foreboding because the bored heroine of the novel who also entered into an illicit love affair. dies at the end.

Hervé has been sent by his imperious mother in Paris, Madame de Bressigny (Edith Scob), to their country estate to bone up for his law exams, but now he spends more time on his extra-curricular activities in bed with Gemma than his law books. The mother becomes a threat when she unexpectedly shows up and is upset because a valuable statuette the two lovers had broken is missing. Broken during one of their trysts, Gemma had taken it home, planning to ask her husband to restore it when he returns.

Matters become more complicated when Patrick (Mel Raido), a Parisian with whom Gemma had been involved with before Charlie, re-enters Gemma’s life. Their love affair had ended with his betrayal of her, but wiser and repentant now, he has come to the village in an attempt to reignite their romance. As if this were not enough, Gemma has thought more deeply about her life and now realizing how good a spouse Charlie is, wants to renew their relationship.

Throughout all this Gemma has encountered Martin numerous times, one time even having him remove an insect that had crawled or flown between her back and her dress. Also, worried about rats and field mice, she decides to buy some arsnic. Almost panicing (because that is how Madame Bovary killed herself ), Martin warns her not to, his excuse being that it’s bad for the environment.

The tragic climax makes this comedy very dark tale that will remain with you, whether or not you ever read (or have read) Flaubert’s novel. Gemma’s fate itself is not a surprise, because the movie begins and ends with Martin visiting Charlie and finding him burning papers related to his wife. The surprise is not that of the beautiful wife’s fate, but the bizarre circumstances that led to her death. Martin slips Gemma’s spiral bound journal into his coat, and the story of what happened is told in flashback through his and Gemma’s words. Amusingly, there is the suggestion that Martin will continue his projection of a literary work onto the neighbors across the street. The new ones moving in are Russian, and as the film ends we hear the singing of a Red Army Chorus. I wonder how much Tolstoy has Martin read?

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September VP.

Men, Women, and Children (2014)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 52 min.

Our content ratings(0-10): Violence 2; Language 5; Sex/Nudity

Our star rating (0-5): 4.5

 The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

Psalm 19:1

 Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.

Romans 12:2-4 (J.B. Phillips)

 As for us, brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!

1 Thessalonians 17-20

HScorridor

In a number of crowd scenes the filmmakers show us what the people are texting or reading while paying no attention to those around them. (c) 2014 Paramount Pictures

Director Jason Reitman and co-screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson take a fascinating look at a group of upscale white men, women and teens (with one exception) who use and are shaped by their Internet devices that seem to be as much a part of themselves as their eyes and ears.

Although in many ways like ourselves, theirs is a secular existence devoid of any sense of a higher power that might connect them at a deeper level than physical lust–their main use of the Internet with its social media outlets seems to be for sex and spreading news and gossip. The goddess Astarte might be dead, but her spirit lives on in the lives of theseMen, Women, and Children” of the 21st century.

The members of the fine ensemble cast portray the following characters:

Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt are Don and Helen Truby whose marriage has become ho-hum. She joins the Ashley Madison website in search of a “soul mate.” (If you Google the name, you will see above a photo of a couple engaged in sex the boast that it has 29,230,000 members!) Don, a consumer of on-line porn, hooks up with an online escort—the irony being that due to a problem with his own PC, he sneaks into his son’s room and uses that one. The spouses, deceiving one another, consummate their adulterous schemes at motels. Helen’s partner turns out to be an African American, Dennis Haysbert, identified in the cast list only by his Ashley Madison site name “Secretluvur.”

Dean Norris is Kent Mooney, a year ago abandoned by his wife in search of a more adventurous partner. He is struggling to understand his brooding teenage son Tim (Ansel Elgort), who had quit the high school football team. Kent had been a member of it, so he cannot fathom why his son would walk away from the glory and prestige it had brought him. Tim, in resisting his father’s and his classmates’ pressure to rejoin, endures harassment at school, as well as criticism at home. The jaded boy finds no meaning in it, retreating into a video game where he is successful and has a number of “friends” whom he has never seen in person. It is on FaceBook that he comes across his mother’s page, discovering that she is getting married to her lover—and when she learns that he has been reading her postings, she blocks him.

Jennifer Garner is Patricia Beltmyer, an overly protective mother who tracks daughter Brandy’s (Kaitlyn Dever) every movement from early morning to bedtime. She demands access to Brandy’s cell phone and computer, thus reading all of the girl’s texts, emails and Facebook posts—even deleting those she considers inappropriate. This is a woman who definitely needs to get a life of her own!

Judy Greer is Donna Clint, unsuccessful at becoming an actress, so now she promotes her cheerleader daughter Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) by taking her to auditions where she takes photographs for Hannah’s website. She even has set up on the site a “private membership” option for the more provocative photos—which will create problems later on for the girl when she has a shot at being cast for a popular reality show.

Elena Kampouris’ Allison Doss is addicted to pro-anorexic websites when she’s tempted by food. She also is one of the students at school who take out their phones to record a fight or unusual incident to post on the Internet. Following a quick sexual encounter with an upper-class jock, she herself becomes the subject of numerous posts when complications from her resulting pregnancy cause her to faint at school amidst a pool of blood in the girls’ bathroom.

As you can see, there are a lot of subplots to keep in mind. To set these human tales into the context of The Big Picture, the filmmakers intersperse shots of the interstellar spaceship The Voyager and comments by Emma Thompson as the omniscient Narrator tying things together with her wry observations.

The two stories given most screen time are those of Don and Helen Truby and Tim and Brandy’s, thus covering all ages and sexes of the film’s title. There is a possibility of growth and reconciliation in both stories. I was especially intrigued by Tim, who has apparently thought through the implications of the materialistic philosophy he espouses when he talks with the school counselor (played by Phil LaMarr—I had forgotten that he too is African American), the latter badly in need of being educated by the boy concerning the Internet. When The Shrink (as LaMarr is billed) asks why the boy will not rejoin the football team, Tim explains that his playing has no meaning in the light of the big picture in which everything will run down and disappear in the cosmic span of time. Why bother with such trivial things?

However, one day at the mall food court Tim does bother when he sees Brandy sitting alone at a table. He had been attracted to her at school, but had made little attempt to talk to her. This time I wonder if it is because she is uncharacteristically (for her classmates) reading a book, rather than texting. The two of them begin a relationship, their texts to each other kept secret from her prying mother for a while because she has a second phone and Tumblr account. However, when Patricia does discover her daughter’s hidden phone, her interference leads to calamitous results that will force her to re-evaluate her intrusive acts.

Each of the various stories has a sign of hope, well, most of them do—we are left to wonder about cheerleader Hannah, whom after a game we last see sitting disconsolately alone in the bleachers after she has blown a gasket with something that her newly enlightened mother has done. Does the narcissistic girl value her thwarted show business career more than the mother she has angrily attacked and run from? Will the transformed mother be able to undo the damage she has inflicted on the girl during her stage mother phase? And will the relationship that Donna had begun with Tim’s father Kent survive her current crisis?

The film offers a great opportunity for each of us to reflect on our use of social media and how our devices are affecting us. I know I thought back to my first use of a Commodore 64 computer back in the 1980s because the woman who typed my reviews got a full-time job. Learning to type with two or three fingers fairly rapidly, I saw the computer as merely a word processor. In the early 90s I saw no need for the newfangled Internet, though when I yielded to the entreaties of a colleague with whom I co-edited the Methodist publication Real to Reel, I soon saw why he had kept after me. Today I cannot imagine writing without constant access to the Internet, where I can find quick answers and information for my writing needs, and post my reviews on VP’s website. Another friend fairly recently gifted me with an iPod, from which I now receive more of my doses of daily news than from TV newscasts, as well as checking in on Facebook while eating breakfast. But I still do not have a cell phone, thus easily resisting the urge to check it every hour or text my current doings and thoughts.

What about you? How has the Internet both enriched and complicated your work and play? Lest I give the impression that this film is merely a visual rant damning the Internet, what positive uses do we see in it (though admittedly, the film dwells more on the negative)? How does it empower young people who feel socially awkward? Would it have made for a more balanced picture if there were scenes in which teachers and students were using the web for classwork?

Both adult and youth groups will find numerous issues to discuss—though any youth leader will need to inform parents and gain their consent due to the sexual content of the film—not that the sex is overly graphic, the trysts are shown only as the couples come together, the camera then switching to the story of another character. People of faith will note the total absence of any church, synagogue, mosque or temple. How does the secularity of the filmmaker influence his depiction? What might a person of faith say to any of these characters? In an age when there is a growing number who check off “None” on religious surveys, these are questions worth pondering and discussing—and I especially recommend seeing this in company with at least one other person of faith, there being so many details that no one can remember them all.

Let me leave you with the specific case of Tim. Compare what he sees when he looks up at the night sky with what the psalmist sees. Tim certainly lives up to the first part of the apostle Paul’s admonition to the Romans, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould” by refusing to rejoin the football team. How might the church—or you as its emissary—present him with the apostle Paul’s alternative to his current philosophy contained in the second part of the quotation, “but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity”?

One more thought before signing off on this provocative movie: watch for a beautiful “moment of grace” that might be debatable, especially because it does not include openness that is regarded as so important in a marriage. If Helen accepts Don’s offer, will there marriage be saved, or–?

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Nov. 2014 issue of Visual Parables.

Paramount

Blue Jasmine

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V -0; L -4; S/N-5 .

Running time: 1 hour 38 min.

 Jasmine with husband and son (far left) lived a lavish life style in the Hamptons before fall into the impoverished class.  (c) 2013 Sony Pictures Classics

Jasmine with husband and son lived a lavish life
style in the Hamptons before fall into the impoverished class.
(c) 2013 Sony Pictures Classics

‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

Luke 6:24-25

 We hear much in op eds and political debates about America’s class warfare, about how the 1% of Americans who allegedly control as much wealth as the bottom 90% are imbued with a sense of entitlement and superiority. I can think of no better illustration of this than Woody Allen’s new film Blue Jasmine, in which Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of a once wealthy wife is bound to earn her a Best Actress nomination.

Flower lovers will know that the title does not refer to the plant, the flower of which is usually white or blue, but to the mood of the character named after it. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) and Ginger (Sally Hawkins) were raised together as adopted children from different sets of biological parents. Their parents showered more attention on beautiful Jasmine over the plain Ginger, so the latter left home as soon as she could to make her own way. She married working class Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), the two of them producing two boys, both of whom are destined to have weight problems. Then comes the day that they hit the California Lottery big time, winning $200,000. Intending to start his own business, Augie sees this as their way out of their life of living from paycheck to paycheck.

Meanwhile Jasmine has dropped out of college to marry the handsome and wealthy Hal (Alec Baldwin), a rich Wall Street schemer who is always using other people’s money to fund dubious new ventures. As evidence of her upward mobility drive she has changed her name from Janette to the more upscale name of the flower. They have one grown son Danny. Jasmine’s life of conspicuous consumption in the Hamptons is filled with Manhattan shopping sprees, lunches at elegant restaurants, and hosting parties and lavish charity events. They feel put upon when Ginger and Augie pay them a visit during their trip to New York City, but when they learn that the pair have just won a big sum of money, smooth-talking Hal seduces Augie into investing it in what turns out to be a Ponzi scheme. Ginger, who was not enthusiastic about this, becomes even more worried when she spies Hal lunching with and kissing a woman who is not her sister.

All the above is told in a series in intermittent flashbacks as Jasmine, now popping pills and taking frequent sips of vodka from her flask or glass, tries to cope with her new distasteful circumstances. Not only has she finally caught her philandering husband in one of his numerous affairs, but also she precipitates the series of events that leads to Hal’s arrest, conviction, and imprisonment. Unable to cope he has committed suicide. Jasmine’s survival plan involves her moving in with her sister, whose marriage had ended with divorce after they had lost their money. None of this may seem funny, but Allen’s wit is scattered throughout the film.

As has been pointed out by several reviewers, the plot is very much like that of A Streetcar Named Desire, with Ginger’s fiancé Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a lowly (to Jasmine) garage mechanic, quickly developing a passionate hatred for the one he calls “A phony!” Chili is upset that his plans to move in with Ginger have to be put on hold now that Jasmine is there. Ginger feels caught in the middle, her sister loyalty strong despite the way Jasmine has always looked down upon her.

Jasmine wants to start life anew by finishing college and taking a computer course so she can obtain an interior decorator’s license, but has to find work to fund this, reluctantly following Chili’s tip to obtain a receptionist’s job at a dental office. However, this soon ends when Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg) tries to follow through on his lust for her. Then she meets the man who could restore her to the status she feels she deserves, the well-heeled wealthy diplomat Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard). He has long range plans to enter politics and needs a trophy wife like Jasmine. But will her less than wholesome past marriage and tendency to dodge reality and deceive herself and others get in the way?

Every member of the ensemble cast performs well, but Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the once wealthy Jasmine is unforgettable, perhaps the only other portrayal of a Narcissistic neurotic     woman that compares being that of Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara (she also played Blanche!). Her character is so fully defined—nervous tics, almost incessant drinking, tendency to talk out loud inappropriately in public places, disdainful expressions, and elegant dress—that she emerges as a real person. And even though we see what a despicable person she is, we are still drawn to her and, if not root for her, wish that she might achieve a measure of self-understanding. This is a fascinating, detailed study of a woman whose worst enemy is herself. Her fate seems to bear out what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in a far different situation, but which applies to Jasmine’s fate, “The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, but It Bends Toward Justice” Although not intended as a social justice film, Mr. Allen’s revelation of the hollow lifestyle of “the rich and famous” as seen in Jasmine could be a midrash of Jesus’ denunciation of the uncaring rich, or of the equally harsh denunciation of the wealthy by the prophet Amos. One of Mr. Allen’s best films in years, this must not to be missed!

The full version with 7 discussion question appears in the Sept/Oct issue of Visual Parables