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.

 

 

Queen of Katwe (2016)

Rated PG.  Running time: 2 hour 4 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 

Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord,

and he will reward them for what they have done.

Proverbs 19:17

… and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him.

Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.

Luke 4:17-18

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The widowed Harriet is fiercely protector of her daughter Phiona. (c) Walt Disney

What a pleasure to watch a film totally about Africans overcoming adversity without any noble white person around to assist them! Nine-year-old Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) is indeed an underdog, living with her single mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) in the slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda. Her rescuer and mentor is the black minister Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a former soccer player who has started a chess club in an old dilapidated church building.

Mira Nair, the director who gifted us with Monsoon Wedding, has scored again with this excellent film fit for the whole family. And it touches on social justice issues as well! The script by William Wheeler is based on Tim Crothers’ nonfiction book of the same name. The game of chess is not as cinematic as basketball or football, but the filmmakers manage to catch the excitement in the room as Phiona and her opponents make their moves, capturing each other’s pieces. Those who know the game might wish for longer match sequences, but for us who know barely the moves of the pieces, just enough is shown to give us an idea of the game’s complexity. Like most game/sports films, this one is really about human relationships and the struggles of the heart.

Phiona lives with her mother and older sister and two brothers in a Kampalan shanty town where they and their mother barely eke out a living selling produce in the streets. One day she follows Brian (Martin Kabanza) to the church where she sees him join a group of children whom Robert is teaching the rudiments of chess. To draw in the participants, he gives the always hungry children a large cup of porridge at the beginning of a session. Phiona becomes fascinated by the game as a smaller girl explains the moves of the pieces. She is especially intrigued that a lowly pawn, much like herself, can struggle across the board to be transformed into a queen. Soon she is surging ahead in the inter-group competitions. Robert is astonished at her prowess, learning that she can see eight moves ahead. He offers her some of his chess books, but the girl cannot read. Many of the other children also prove to be good chess players, so he manages to finagle an invitation for his club to a regional chess competition at a prep school.

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Robert is delighted to see how quickly Phiona masters the game of chess. (c) Walt Disney

The students at the posh school where the match takes place look down on the newcomers dressed in castoff clothing. (I was reminded at this point of the way in Pride the ghetto youth swim was treated by the white suburban teams at their first match.) After a handshake with Phiona one arrogant student wipes his hand on the tablecloth. It is he whom the girl plays, and what a surprise it is for him when she beats him. Indeed, led by Phiona, the interlopers come away with the prize trophy. Phiona can scarcely believe in her victory. “Did he let me win?’ she asks her coach.

There are yet many obstacles for the girl to overcome. Her mother needs a lot of convincing from Robert to allow her children to continue to participate in matches. She fears that they are being set up for great disappointment in a world stacked against the poor slum dwellers. She also needs them to help sell their vegetables and fetch water from a distant public source. Also, the girl is illiterate, so Robert manages to raise funds for her to go to school, just as earlier he had returned briefly to his professional soccer team to earn money to pay for the enrollment fee for his students in their first tournament. Phiona does not always win, so she must learn to deal with defeat: coached by Robert, Phiona and her team represent Uganda at an international match in Russia, but she loses. The teary-eyed girl is so distraught that she is ready to give up chess. It is Robert who consoles her and motivates her to continue on. Back home in Katwe she and her teammates are still given a royal welcome, and later one man calls out to her that the next time she will win.

Harriet is upset when oldest daughter Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze) leaves home to live with a rough older man whom she had tried to keep away from her daughter. The poverty-stricken mother faces another crisis when Brian is hit by a motor scooter. It is Night’s boyfriend who rushes on his motorbike the injured boy to the hospital. Unable to pay for Brian’s medical treatment, Harriet and Phiona sneak him out of the ward. Confronted at home by their landlady demanding rent, the whole family is thrown out onto the street. During this period Phiona moves in for a while with Robert and his wife Sara (Esther Tebandeke), becoming estranged from her mother.

Robert’s devotion to Phiona and the other students grows out of his own boyhood experience of being orphaned while still very young. He has never forgotten his boyhood pain. After graduating from college with an engineering degree and briefly playing professional soccer, he was unable to find work as an engineer. He took the job with the church-based Sports Outreach Institute working with slum children, thinking that it would be temporary. However, his impact on the children was so rewarding that he began to feel called by God to lift them into a better life. He also apparently has found an equally dedicated wife, willing to support him in his ministry. This includes late in the story a decision involving a great sacrifice to them both. Another admirable trait in Robert is his delight when Phiona starts beating him. There is no trace of chagrin or self-concern at being outplayed by his pupil.

All of the main characters are people of faith, though this is not over stated as it might have been were this made by a faith-based studio. We watch some of them praying, but do not see them at worship. (I found myself wishing that there was such scene, as from my own experience with the church in Ghana I knew this would have been a lively one.) They do not engage in much God-talk, but faith is clearly depicted as central to their lives.

We might also consider Ms. Nair’s film as another fine mother-daughter film. Harriet is fiercely protective of her children, so much so that at times this raises a wall between her and the two daughters. Forced to cope on her own after her husband and another daughter were struck down by AIDS, she is as strong a mother as any of the innumerable ones played by Susan Sarandon. * The nadir for her is the sequence in which her cold-hearted landlady demands she pay the rent immediately. Lacking money, Harriet swallows her pride and begs that they can stay until she can secure it. The woman refuses and turns her and the children into the street. As she walks with the children through the slum she sees women who cope by selling their bodies. She resists this temptation. Much later Robert pays her the compliment that she has been a good mother, thus strengthening in her a sense of dignity and pride.

The street scenes captured by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt are a delight, filled with colorfully garbed people, some with burdens carried on their heads; street venders and hawkers; bicycle and motor scooters, some of the latter carrying a whole family, along with dilapidated cars crawling through the pedestrian-crowded streets; rubbish piled high outside the jerry-built shacks—director Nair herself, though a native of India, has been living in Kampala for over 20 years, so she has a feel for local color. Also enjoyable at the end of the film are the series of side by side shots of the actors and the people they portrayed, along with information about the real person’s current status. ** It is gratifying to see that not only Phiona, but several others in her family also have scored many victories in chess. This film is certain to rank near the top of VP’s Top Ten Films at the end of this year. What a wonderful film of faith, hope, love, and human solidarity!

*For the memorable moms played by this talented actress, ranging from Lorenzo’s Oil to The Meddler, see my article “Mothers as Played by Susan Sarandon.”

**To see side by side photos and a great amount of information about the real characters go to the History vs. Hollywood site at: http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/queen-of-katwe/. Also included are several interviews.

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

Cinderella (2015)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 52  min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.

Psalm 31:24

 Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another.

Zechariah 7:9

CINDERELLA

Cinderella does not know he is the Prince when they first meet in the forest. (c) 2015 Walt Disney Studios

My first reaction to news of a new Disney Cinderella was “why another version?” Then when I checked IMDB I saw that it was 65 years ago that Disney’s classic animated version was released—yes, 1950! Where had all the time gone? Of course, in the meanwhile there also were three TV versions of the story, all with music by Rogers and Hammerstein—in 1957 starring Julie Andrews; in 1965 with Lesley Ann Warren; and in 1997 with an African American actress playing the lead. The tale also was released in 1976 under a different name, The Slipper and the Rose, but still a musical. And, of course, we’ve had two film versions of Annie, which is basically an updated and reworked version of Cinderella minus the magic. The story has also been at the heart of a number of modern-day movies.

Any doubts I had about remaking the familiar story were quickly dissipated within the first few minutes, even before the glowing Lily James (of Downton Abbey) appeared as the put-upon maiden. Director Kenneth Branagh and his erudite scriptwriter Chris Weitz are not out to render a fairytale with a 21st Century female empowerment message (girls can turn to the studio’s Frozen for this)—rather, they want to expand the tale a bit so as to add to its emotional impact, making it a love story for all, and not just a fairytale for kids. And that they do, this film being twenty or more minutes longer than the earlier versions (except for the 2+ hour-long The Slipper and the Rose).

They have made good use of those extra minutes, beginning with the opening when Ella’s young but terminally ill mother (Hayley Atwell) leaves the following advice to her ten-year-old daughter (Eloise Webb), “Have courage, be kind, and all will be well.” The heart-broken little girl takes this wisdom to heart, growing ever closer to her loving merchant father (Ben Chaplin). Even the mice that others would trap are included in her circle of love. (Although the mice do not talk, they are certainly cutesyfied!)

Father and daughter live at the center of this circle of love for many years, and then comes the day when he brings home a new wife and her two daughters, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), Drisella (Sophie McShera), and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger). Dressed in the latest fashion designed to call attention to herself, Lady Tremaine has paid less attention to her daughters, garbed in gaudy matched gowns. She reveals the disdain that her icy smile covers up when she says to Ella, uncertain as to how to address her, “No need to call me ‘Stepmother’ — ‘Madame’ will do.”

Ella gives up her spacious bedroom so the sisters will have more room, neither of them, of course, offering a thank you. She moves into the dark, drab attic. After they receive news of Father’s death while he was on a business trip, Lady Tremaine dismisses the servants and orders Ella to do all the cooking and household chores. During this troubled period the mice are her only solace—and also apparently her solitary rides on a  dappled horse through the fields and woods. (No explanation of how she is able to slip away from her three captors, or even that she was missed during her absences.) During the winter months, Ella leaves the attic to sleep in front of the warm fireplace. It is when the sisters see some of the soot and cinders smeared on her cheek that they dub her Cinderella.

It is on one of her rides that Ella sees a beautiful stag rush by and she hears the sound of hounds and a party of hunters. Suddenly she encounters a handsome young man amidst the trees. Both are taken with each other. She asks him to let the stag go free, and he agrees. Another rider comes up, and the young man shushes him, thus keeping secret his identity. He is, of course, the Prince—no name given, though as played by Richard Madden he is certainly charming. He asks for her name, but she holds back. The two part ways, but it is obvious that they both would welcome another encounter.

At the palace the King (Derek Jacobi) and one of his chief advisers the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgard) want the Prince to choose a bride. The old king has a weak heart, so he is anxious to see his only son marry while he is still alive. The Prince, taken with the nameless woman he had met, tries to stall, but finally gives in to their plan for a ball at which he will select a bride from the eligible noble maidens who will attend. The Prince expands the invitation to include every maiden, high or lowborn, in the kingdom. However, the Grand Duke secretly makes a deal with Princess Chelina of Zaragosa (Jana Perez) to pair her with the Prince at the ball so that she can charm him. Thus we have two villains in this version—later when the hunt for the owner of the glass slipper is on, the Grand Duke makes every effort to prevent Ella from trying it on. It is the Prince’s favorite royal aide, the Captain (interestingly played by black actor Nonso Anozie), who overturns the Grand Duke’s plan of overlooking Ella during the search.

But we have gotten ahead of the story. There is before the despairing moment when Lady Tremaine tears the dress Ella is planning to wear to the Royal Ball, riding off with her daughters on their fools’ quest for one of the two winning the heart of the Prince. Enter Ella’s Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), and soon pumpkin, mice, a goose, and two lizards are transformed into a gilded coach, four white stallions, a coachman, and two footmen suitable for a princess. The CGI-aided transformation is awesome, and also touched with a bit of humor, as the last parts of the mice to be changed into horses are their rounded ears. Ella’s entrance at the top of the stairs leading to the ballroom is a wonderful moment. We are as struck by her radiant beauty, clad in her gorgeous blue gown, as much as the Prince is. (Costume designer Sandy Powell is sure to win an Oscar nomination!) Their swirling dance together around the ballroom might arouse memories of similar ones in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, or Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I.

Of course, Ella is working against time, and so when she notes that midnight is near, she turns and runs from the Prince, but pauses in front of the King just long enough to share what she has learned from her conversation with his son, “He really loves you.” I loved this addition, as well as that of the deathbed scene that quickly follows when the King, wanting his son to be happy, relents and gives him his blessing to search for the young woman who left the slipper behind. This tender scene is one more detail that brings out the humanity of the characters.

Many reviewers have praised Cate Blanchett for being such a marvelous villain, and so she is, but not to the extent that she makes the picture. Lily James really shines as the innocent orphan who, even before her Fairy Godmother’s magic, rises above her circumstances, never giving in to self-pity.

I was intrigued to read in Richard Corliss’s review in TIME that author Kurt Vonnegut in his unsuccessful 1947 Masters thesis drew several parallels between Jesus and Cinderella. Had he seen this version, I think he might have argued all the harder for the similarities. The legacy bequeathed by Ella’s mother, “Have courage, be kind, and all will be well” could have been said by Jesus or pinned at the end of one of his letters by the apostle Paul. It is referenced several times in the film, so that both children and parents will get it. And at the end of the film there is even the offer of forgiveness. Fortunately Chris Weitz resisted the temptation to end on a sugary note of shallow sentimentality—some people have what the Scriptures call “hardened hearts” that render reconciliation impossible.

As family films go, this will probably appeal more to girls than boys, though I hope the latter would not be left at home. There is something in this film for the entire family (even if for boys it’s mainly the mice and the magic transformations).

The review with a set of discussion questions will be in the April Visual Parables.

McFarland, USA (2015)

Rated PG. Running time: 2 hours 8 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute.  Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Proverbs 31:8-9

 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly…

Luke 1:51-52

CoachTeam

Coach White and his team of runners surprise everyone.             (c) 2015 Walt Disney Pictures

Sports films are always about underdogs struggling uphill against seemingly impossible odds, and this Kevin Costner, set in the late 1980s and “based on a true story” film is no exception. It is also a truism that the best of these films usually involve issues of race and racism (think Remember the Titans; Coach Carter; Pride; and 42).

In what amounts to a prologue, we see Coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) berating his losing football team during halftime. When one youth sasses him back the angry coach hurls a cleated shoe in his direction, the cleats cutting the boy’s cheek when the shoe bounces off the locker. Cut to White, his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello), and their two daughters, teenage Julie (Morgan Saylor) and preteen Jamie (Elsie Fisher) in their packed car entering McFarland where he has a new position as an assistant coach and science teacher. This is the bottom of the barrel for him vocationally, we learn. No one in the car is impressed by the looks of the run-down town of small stucco houses. The only residents are Latinos who harvest the vegetables growing in the vast fields surrounding the town. The restaurant they stop in does not serve the burgers they seek, only tacos and other Mexican dishes. The house they will live in is drab looking except for a large Mexican-style painting of a maiden in the center of a living room wall. The family is at first startled by such an unusual decoration, but if you guess that they will not paint over it, you will be right. The fate of the painting and their feelings toward it are symbolic of what happens to each of them in a town unlike anything they have experienced before.

At school the principal (Valente Rodriguez) is glad to see Jim but wary of his past record. When White runs afoul of the football coach during a practice session, the Principal keeps him on anyway as a p.e. teacher because it is so difficult to secure staff for his economically deprived school. The students are amused by Jim’s last name and rather indifferent to his attempt to teach them. This changes when his daughter Julia points out what good runners some of the boys are, causing her father to look with renewed interest at the students and their abilities. The boys are roused out of bed by their mothers before dawn to work in the fields with their parents. Then they run the miles back to school so as to arrive in time for classes. While driving down a country road, White clocks a boy named Thomas Diaz (Carlos Pratts) at 12 mph. He points this out to him, and the boy accepts it matter of factly, as if to say, “That’s what we do.” At first he pays little heed to the teacher’s invitation to help start a cross country running team. The principal does not share White’s enthusiasm for such a project either. Jim has to admit that he has never coached anyone in the sport, but he persists, and the principal green lights the idea. White runs into roadblocks right away. Some students are interested, but Thomas, fastest of the lot, holds out. He shares his father’s fatal outlook that they are doomed to labor all of their lives picking vegetables in the hot fields. Seven members are needed for a team, so White is fighting an uphill battle. Even when finally winning over Thomas, another Diaz brother, and their chubby sibling Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez), there is Señor Diaz (Omar Levya) to contend with. White pays a visit to their home where Senora Diaz (Diana Maria Riva) keeps piling on his plate enchilladas and such. Later on the coach will try his hand at joining the Diaz family in the fields. He soon finds himself needing their help to survive the scorching sun and aching pain that stoop labor inflicts upon day laborers. Unfamiliar with such pain-enducing, even degrading, work, White gains a never dying respect for his students. As he will tell his team later, none of their competitors have faced and triumphed over the conditions that they have faced all of their lives. (I was especially interested in White’s trying to work in the field because several decades ago when I directed a Migrant Ministry project around Bowling Green, Ohio, the 12 college student participants and I also tried our hand at picking tomatoes. We did this for just half a day, but all were worn out by the experience and possessed a deep respect for those who could not walk away from the fields as we did! We at least wore hats for protection against the torrid sun.)

At last White has his team, but they lose badly against a better-equipped team with more experience running a course that is far hillier than the flat plain surrounding McFarland. The only bright spot is that the heavy Danny refuses to drop out, even though he lags far behind the other runners. Thus begins the long, grueling, Rocky-like training period in which the coach  makes the athletes run up and down the only hills in their area, a big collection of high, tarp-covered mounds of nuts (which these boys might well have helped harvest). As a carrot, White holds before them the possibility that if they are successful, they might earn athletic scholarships for college. During this period Thomas’s fatalism almost gains the upperhand. In one conversation with his father, Senor Gomez puts down the notion that Thomas could go ever to college, stating that his reading does no good out in the fields.

Of course, we know that matters will go better, else there would be no story and film. Our enjoyment, and inspiration, come from seeing how the hard-training students achieve their “impossible dream.” The boys, and viewers, learn a real lesson also of corporate or communal achievement, one that rises peculiarly out of how cross country runners are scored. This is a team, not an individual sport. Points are awarded for the top five runners: first, 1 point; second, 2 points; third 3 points; fourth, 4 points; and fifth, 5 points. The team with the lowest score wins. (When White tells the boys that this is like golf, they laugh at his assumption that they know anything about this white man’s sport.) In the Big Race guess who will come in just fast enough to bring victory to the team?

A worthy by-product of this film is the spotlight it shines on farm laborers and Hispanic culture. There is a delightful sequence in which their friends, discovering daughter Julie has had her 15th birthday, quickly organize a Quinceanera for her. Jim learns that the males driving their high-powered cars through the streets at work are not the sinister gang members he had first thought, but workers who sought relief from their hard lives through joining together in an auto club. We also see what it costs in human terms for the rest of us to have relatively cheap vegetables and fruit.

Hopefully you will go on to watch the bio film about the great labor organizer who adapted the tactics of Gandhi to the American scene—not just nonviolence but death-threatening fasting as well—Cesar Chavez. We see what Liberation Theologians call “conscientization” taking place, both among the Mexican-Americans and the White family. This involves becoming aware of one’s situation and coming to believe that something can be done about it, rather than fatally accepting “things as they are.” Were this a fictional story, one might object to this being another story of a white guy delivering dark-skinned folk from bondage, but it is a true story—and therefore hopeful in that it reveals that some members of  “the oppressive class” can break ranks, much as did whites during the Civil Rights era.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the March 2015 issue of Visual Parables.

When the Game Stands Tall (2014)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.

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

Our star rating (0-5): 3.5

 Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Luke 6:37b-38

 The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Matthew 23:12

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Coach Bob Ladouceur (rt) and his friend and Assist. Coach Terry Eidson care deeply for their players. (c) 2014 Sony Pictures Releasing

In the Fall 2006 issue of Visual Parables I ended my review of the predictable faith-based football film Facing the Giants with, “A more interesting film might have been made about the team losing to the Giants: what then is our theology of success and failure?” Eight years later I am happy to report that such a film has been made, When the Game Stands Tall, starting out when the over-confident players of the real-life Spartan’s football team of De La Salle High School in Concord, California loses a game at the end of their 2003 season. This ends the longest winning streak of any team in any sport.

Director Thomas Carter and writer Scott Marshall Smith have crafted a memorable film from the book by Neil Hayes. Few sports films deal very much with losing, and none as well as this story of a California high school football team that, after a winning streak of 151 games, loses its 152nd—and the first two of the next season. Although a lot of fictional material has been added for dramatic purposes, most of the incidents are true, including the drive-by murder of one of the team’s best players.

The devout coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) uses Scripture passages to drive home his message that winning is not the most important part of the game, but the film is not a super pious affair. Although some have criticized the actor for his laid back performance, I found Jim Caviezel’s performance more than adequate. His character is a quiet, admirable man of faith dedicated to his team, possibly to a fault, in that his long hours on the field and in the classroom leave him little time for his son Danny (Matthew Daddario) and wife Bev, well played by Laura Dern. Fortunately, she is as devoted to him as he is to the team. After the loss that shakes the whole community, the coach faces a number of obstacles in bringing the dispirited team back to life, including a heart attack that decommissions him for a summer.

The most devastating incident, however, is the random, drive-by shooting of star linebacker Terrance Kelly (Stephan James). His superior playing had guaranteed him a promising future in college and beyond. He also is shown as a caring person, reaching out to a discouraged fellow black team member and encouraging him to continue despite his family problems.

Probably the best sequence in the film, one showing Coach Ladouceur’s creative approach in motivating his players, discouraged because they were stigmatized as the team that lost the school’s winning streak, is the their visit to a veteran’s hospital. Seeing soldiers without an arm or leg going through their long, grueling rehabilitation exercises gives the players a new perspective. Admiring the determination and pluck of the wounded men make them realize how trivial their own problem is. One player says sometimes his legs hurt so much that he wishes he couldn’t feel them. “No, you don’t,” a paralyzed veteran responds. The students, after interacting in positive ways with the amputees, return humbled and rejuvenated. Sports writers might call football players “warriors,” but they know they have met the real thing.

I also should add a note about the assistant coach Terry Eidson, played by Michael Chiklis. No one could have a more supportive friend than this unassuming man who must always stand in the shadow of his more gifted boss. This should remind us that even the best leader needs loyal supporters to succeed, just as a team needs more than just its star players. This message runs throughout the film, even during the end credits. We are treated to clips of the real Coach Ladouceur speaking gently to his team, reiterating the lessons that winning streaks and victories are not, for him, the point of the game.

Although it adds drama to the last part of the film, I believe it is too bad that the filmmakers felt they had to make up the fictional team captain Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig) and his verbally abusive father (Clancy Brown), the latter obsessed with his son’s winning a touchdown record. The real story of the team and their amazing Bible quoting coach should have been enough. The ending seems a bit over the top, leaving me with the same dissatisfaction as that of the teacher film Mr. Holland’s Opus. However, it must be admitted that the unsatisfactory, manufactured ending, does show good Scriptural teaching of self sacrifice embodied in what Chris Ryan leads his teammates to do in the climactic game of the season. This is a film I can highly recommend for youth groups, especially those with members of athletic teams, to watch and discuss.

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

Remember the Titans (2000)

Rated: PG. Running time; 1 hour 53 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5) 4.5

 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.        

2 Corinthians 5:16

RemTitans5

Coach Bill Yoast and Head Coach Herman Boone confer. (c) 2000 Walt Disney Home Video

They do not come much better than this story of hard-won inter-racial respect and friendship. Much of the action of the film takes place on the high school football fields of Alexandria, Virginia, but the story’s real battleground is the hearts and souls of the students and parents who come into contact with the city’s first black coach Herman Boone (Denzil Washington). Football had long been king in Alexandria, Virginia, where the citizens religiously supported their high school teams. Coach Bill Yoast (Will Patton) over the years had amassed a good record and large following, almost insuring a place in the state’s Football Hall of Fame. But then the schools were forced to integrate, bringing the black and the white high schools together physically, but certainly not spiritually. As part of a deal the school board brought up an outside coach, an African-American coach, from North Carolina and hired him as head coach. It was an arrangement that the white members of the school board must have regarded as temporary merely to placate the militant blacks and certain to end in failure. The city was wracked by pickets, some proclaiming the need for racial justice, others advocating resistance and featuring slogans demeaning to blacks. Alexandria was a tinderbox, ready to ignite, as one character says, “like Watts.”

Into this situation walks Herman Boone, confident that he can fashion a winning team from both the white and the black players. He is taken aback when he learns that he will be the head coach, with the former white head coach working under him, but he goes ahead with his own plans. Coach Yoast had intended to accept an offer to coach elsewhere, but as he saw his supporters and neighbors ready to tear apart their community, he knew that he could not allow that to happen by walking away. He swallows his pride and resentment to stay on as the No. 2 man on the school sports staff. His strongest supporter, his young, football-loving daughter Sheryl, takes a long time to accept the new arrangement. Only the persistent efforts of Herman Boone and the respect for his training methods and great knowledge of the game  her win her over at last. To overcome the prejudice and resentment of the white team members and their parents and fellow students demands all the resources and ingenuity that Coach Boone possesses. And, after night riders throw a brick through the window of his home one night, it requires the courage and support of his wife and children as well.

Coach Boone knows that unity is crucial between the white and black players if they are to become a winning team. The keystone to his plan to forge one team from the resentful white and black players is football training camp, a period when the players will be far removed from all the alienating influences of their racially-charged home environment. Boone begins his campaign even before the bus leaves. He faces down the arrogant demands of the white All-American team captain, showing him and players and parents who is in charge; then he divides the boys into offensive and defensive teams, and pairs a black and a white player together, making them sit together on the bus and room together at camp. Not a popular decision with either the black or the white players! Throughout the week, Boone works to breakdown “the dividing wall of hostility,” slowly chipping away at stereotypes and hatreds built up over generations. Slowly the students come round, learning that they must put the team above both their racial and their personal ambitions. We see the battle being hard-won, but what will happen when they return to the racially poisoned city and school?

The answer to this is found in still more hard-fought battles within the souls of the players. Some win the battle, a few do not, allowing themselves to be pulled down into the hatred of racism. Scriptwriter Gregory Allen Howard has done a fine job of taking what could be another sports epic of losers becoming winners (which unfortunately is all that some critics have seen in the film) and filling it with inspiring insights into the nature of prejudice and how to overcome it. A good example of this is Coach Boone’s’ telling the players that he does not expect them to love, or even to like each other, but that he does expect them to respect each other and to give their best on the field in playing together.

The character of a number of the players is well-rounded out: Julius Campbell (Wood Harris) and Gerry Bertier (Ryan Hurst), initially viewing each other through prejudiced eyes, but then coming to respect each other’s talent and courage, and finally embracing each other in love; Lewis Lastik (Ethan Suplee), the white, massive student who uses humor to break down barriers; and Ronnie “Sunshine” Bass (Kip Pardue), the newcomer son of a white liberal military officer who brings a very different perspective to the racial conflict; and Jerry “The Rev” Harris (Craig Kirkwood) whose piety has earned him his nickname. A fictional character who represents the changing attitude of the white students is Emma Hoyt (Kate Bosworth), Gerry Bertier’s girlfriend, who breaks with him at first over his new friendship with Julius and the other black players. When the team returns from football camp and Gerry tries to introduce his new friend Julius to her, she refuses to accept his handshake. Much later in the season, however, she comes around, just before a big game and, in a lovely act of grace, takes Julius’ hand, wishing him well.

Those looking for a family film or one to take a youth group on an outing to will find ample rewards in this film. Even someone like myself who worry about the macho hype and the arrogant cries of “We’re Number One!” associated with football was swept along by the feeling that something important occurred to the Titans, their families, and the fans during that 1971 season, something that according to scriptwriter Gregory Allen Howard affected the life of the entire city of Alexandria for the good. As Jackie Robinson’s joining the Brooklyn Dodgers helped foster integration at the national level, so the later Titans’ merging of black and white players spread the message of racial harmony through Alexandria. It is ironic that sports was as much, if not more, of a catalyst for the breakdown of segregation in Alexandria, than the churches, despite the latter’s gospel of love and grace.