Collateral Beauty (2016)

 

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 37 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 3.5

Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?

Jeremiah 20:18

…for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Matthew 5:45b

blocks

Howard escapes his grief by playing with blocks, thus neglecting his ad agency. (c) Warner Brothers

Director David Frankel’s film, like Manchester by the Sea, deals with the unmitigated sorrow of a father over the tragic loss of a young daughter. Howard (Will Smith) has been a highly successful advertising executive. Called the “resident poet-philosopher of product,” he dispenses such motivational bromides as “Find your why!” That is, what is your basic motivation for getting up in the morning. Now he has lost his “why,” coming to the swank Soho headquarters and spending several days building an elaborate construction of towers and walls with domino-like building blocks, which he then knocks down in about 5 minutes by pushing over the last block, which falls into the next, and so on. He then starts over again, Sisyphus-like, arranging the blocks in a new construction. Spending just a few hours a day, he ignores the questions and pleas of his three partners, and leaves for points unknown.

His partners, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Pena) are worried for him and for the firm. Clients, who are being ignored, are continually calling. The firm is headed toward ruin unless they can bring him back to sanity—or have him declared mentally unfit so they can gain control of the firm. (He is the majority shareholder.)

In desperation Whit hires private investigator Sally Price (Ann Dowd), who begins following Howard when he leaves the office. She learns that he sits alone on a bench at a Brooklyn dog park, even though he has no pet. He stands outside the window of a counseling center to watch a therapy group, but he never goes in. At home he sits alone, never using the phone or internet. He often writes three letters and drops them in the same postal drop box. Through her connections Sally is able to obtain a key, and so right after he deposits his letters, she quickly unlocks the box and retrieves the letters.

If you have seen the trailer, you know that the letters are addressed to Love, Time and Death. Like one of the sorrowing characters from the Bible, Howard pours out his anguish to the three. Whit, in a roundabout way comes up with a plan to use three actors he has encountered to pose as the three, appear to Howard, and capture his responses on videotape, doctor the tape by digitally removing the actors from the scene, and thereby convince Howard and the firm’s Board of Directors that he is too mentally disturbed to head the business. At first Claire and Simon raise ethical objections to Whit’s plan, but, aced with financial ruin if they do not do something, they agree to it.

If this sounds far-fetched in the telling, it did not while viewing the sequence in which the actors Brigitte (Helen Mirren) as Death, Raffi (Jacob Latimore) as Time, and Amy (Keira Knightley) as Love. Howard is too smart to be convinced right away that the three are what they claim to be, but he is certainly unsettled. He even eventually enters the room where the support group is being conducted by the beautiful Madeline (Naomie Harris), herself a grieving mother, she confesses after another member shares her own story. As the complicated plot unfolds there are a couple of twists that are very surprising.

My son who accompanied me was as moved as I was, stating that the film was better than he had expected. The film’s time setting of the Christmas season enhanced the mood of the merriment of the season set over against Howard’s almost suicidal depression. Indeed, the three personages bring to mind Dickens’ A Christmas Carol’s Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Many of the scenes were deeply moving, but then, as I thought about the film, the artificiality of Allan Loeb’s screenplay arose—made especially apparent because I had just written my review of Manchester by the Sea. The latter is such a simple straight-forward story in comparison. The unlikeliness that the three actors could pop in and out of Howard’s life at precisely the right second, or that the expensive process of digitally removing the actors from the tape within such a short time—just too unbelievable, though this great cast convinces you while watching them.

This film, which years ago would have been dubbed a “Three Hankie flick,” manipulates our feelings shamelessly. I should also mention that there are some subplots involving the three partners, the one in which Simon must learn to share his own upcoming crisis with his family (rather than shielding them) is the most moving. The film is far from being the Christmas classic that it is intended to be. Still, if you want a good cry and some surprising plot twists that lead to a happy ending, this film delivers. Just do not think much about it afterward.

Good Scene: Howard’s monologue in which he bitterly rejects all the lame attempts by which believers try to “explain” tragedy and sorrow. This would be good to bring up when discussing the film Jackie with its many scenes between Mrs. Kennedy and her priest, the latter refusing the facile “explanations.”

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

 

Manchester By the Sea (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 17 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance,

but by sorrow of heart the spirit is broken.

Proverbs 15:13

Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?

Jeremiah 8:22

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Lee & Patrick (rt) are joined by family friends George & his wife at the graveside of Joe, the boy’s father & Lee’s brother. (c) Roadside Attractions

 Lee’s (Casey Affleck) spirit might not be “broken,” but, as we get to know him through flashbacks, he is certainly contending with “sorrow of heart.” That is why he has left the village that gives the film its name and puts up with a thankless (almost) job as a janitor in a Boston apartment complex. He is constantly replacing a light bulb for an elderly tenant or repairing a leaky pipe or toilet. Only occasionally does he receive a thank you (from a woman, we see). During his off-hours, he drinks alone in a bar, where he sometimes gets into a fight because he does not like the way a man is looking at him. For Lee is no “glad heart” or “cheerful countenance.”

At the beginning of the film, some eight years earlier, he is standing on the stern of his brother Joe’s (Kyle Chandler) fishing trawler coaching his young nephew Patrick in fishing. They were very close then, but now that Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is a 16-year-old, the old closeness is gone. Lee has returned to the village upon receipt of the news that Joe has suddenly dropped dead from heart failure. Joe has been divorced from his alcoholic wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), so the hospital has called Lee as closest relative. Joe’s death was not unexpected, because in a flashback to a hospital bed scene a doctor has diagnosed him with congestive heart disease, news so hard to take that the distraught Elise stalked out of the room.

When Lee attends the reading of the will, he is shocked to learn that he is named Patrick’s guardian, and so is the lawyer by Joe’s not having talked over the matter with his brother. Lee has a host of reasons as to why he is not the proper guardian for his nephew. However, if he is to be in charge, he tells the boy they will have to live in Boston.

Patrick does not want to leave his school friends, hockey team, or garage band—also, the lecherous boy has been grooming two different girls (unknown to each other) as partners to shed their virginity. Over the course of numerous conversations Lee suggests the possibility of the boy staying with another uncle in Minnesota; of Patrick living with his now sober mother whose married to man in a neighboring village; or of staying with the close family friend George (C.J. Wilson), who has been employing the boy part time on the wharf and partners with him in maintaining Joe’s boat.

The film demands close attention because of its numerous, unannounced flashbacks that slowly add to our understanding of the characters. Just as in real life something will suddenly bring back an incident or person we had not thought of in years, so is Lee, while coping with watching over his rebellious nephew, constantly thrust back into his troubled past. He sees that it is not he who controls memory, but that it controls him. And for Lee, these are memories he would like to put behind him. We learn why villagers cast dark looks or whisper about him on the street and why he cannot find a job in the village. There was a tragedy that led to his divorce from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and what amounted to a flight from the town. Guilt and remorse follow him like a dark cloud hovering over his head, shutting out the sunlight.

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s somber, beautifully crafted film is good tonic for those chirpy Hallmark-type films that teach that a new romance or adventure will sweep away grief and guilt. You will find that a word-search for “sorrow” or “grief” turns up so many passages in the Hebrew/Christian Scriptures, the hurt being so great for one prophet that he cries out, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” The Scriptural answer is always tied to a right relationship with God (or making it right if the connection is broken, as was the case with the prophet’s nation). However, we see little evidence of faith in Lee, or in his nephew. And when Patrick has lunch with his reformed alcoholic mother and her new husband, their “born again” faith holds little attraction.

And yet the film does conclude with as positive note as could be expected, even a tentative note of hope. Lee proves to be a wise and caring guardian for Patrick after all. But just before that, we see how wounded Lee still is when he encounters ex-wife Randi and a friend on the street. Pushing a pram with her new baby in it, she is eager to talk with him, so her friend leaves to go fetch their car. Her voice a bit choked up, Randi apologizes for the way she had treated him during their crisis. He relies haltingly, and when she suggests that they meet for lunch to heal their breach, he turns her down. This is the most poignant scene of the film, the two actors deserving the Oscar nods predicted by critics.

I want to give this film 5 stars, but one aspect of it seems either unrealistic and/or deplorable, namely the parenting of the mothers of the two girls that Patrick is desperately trying to make his first sexual conquests. The parents are so permissive, pretending to believe that their daughters are “doing homework” while alone with Patrick, and behind closed doors, no less. They might just as well have given him an invitation, “Welcome to my daughter.” Granted, the boy is smooth and manipulative, using the grief from his father’s death to his advantage, but these women are supposedly adults. Lee also is implicated in his nephew’s plans, though we can understand he is feeling his way in his unfamiliar role of serving as the boy’s guardian, and so does not want to seem too strict. Parents of teenagers, as well as youth leaders, should be wary—there are no good role models for youthful viewers of this film, with the possible exception of George. Having said this, Manchester By the Sea is still a powerful study of grief and the struggle to find a way out of its morass, well worthy of the praise it has garnered.

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

 

Miss You Already (2015)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 58 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 0; Language 4; Sex 5/Nudity 1.

Our star rating: (1-5): 4

A friend loves at all times, and kinsfolk are born to share adversity.

Proverbs 17:17

Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and the pleasantness of a friend springs from their heartfelt advice.

Proverbs  27:9 (NIV)

The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

1 Corinthians 15:26

Frnds

Jess & Milly have been BFF since grade school days. (c) Roadside Attractions & Lions Gate

Do not let any male friends put down director Catherine Hardwicke’s new London-set film as a “chick flick.” Only a troglodyte would come away from this sensitive and beautifully acted movie and call it a “weepie.” Tears there are aplenty, on and in front of the screen, but the story of Jess (Drew Barrymore) and Milly (Toni Collette), best of friends since grade school, is a celebration of friendship—thus it is not another TV “disease of the month” story. Illness and death permeate the film, but friendship, female friendship in particular, is the theme. As a guy I felt privileged to be able to peek in at their intimate moments, both when they laugh out loud, and when they cry together—thanks to Morwenna Banks’ fine script.

The two women are different in many ways. Milly, the more vain and bold one, lives in a stylish townhouse with her two rambunctious children and an adoring husband. Her mini-skirted mother Miranda (Jacqueline Bisset) is frequently hovering about, apparently making up for the time when she paid more attention to a glamorous career than to her young daughter. Jess, comfortable playing second to Milly, lives with her husband in a houseboat moored to the side of a canal. The two have been striving to produce a child, going to clinics and submitting to intrusive procedures. Then, when they finally succeed, Jess has to play second fiddle again. When Milly reveals she has breast cancer it would be cruel of Jess to share her joy at being pregnant. It is ironic that as she secretly rejoices at the beginning of a new life, her dearest friend faces a threat that might end hers.

The story explores the many ups and downs of their friendship, differing from other sickness films by going into far more detail of cancer treatment, first of chemotherapy, and then of the surgical procedure of and recovery from a mastectomy. During the nausea-producing procedure of the first round of treatment Milly notices at various moments small tufts of her hair coming out. At the hospital the patient wigmaker Jill (Frances de la Tour) patiently helps Milly try on a wide variety of wigs, some of which induce laughter among the three—yes, Jess is there, as she is almost always on hand to support her friend.) Miranda might have been too, but I do not recall.) Quietly suggesting that it is time to shave off the thinning hair so the wigs will fit better, she uses the shears while Milly stoically watches in the mirror. With the hair on the floor, Jill gently rubs Milly’s shorn head. There is little dialogue during this operation, but none is needed.

The two husbands are sometimes perplexed as Milly’s cancer impinges on their lives. Her husband Kit (Dominic Cooper), unable to engage in sex with her, watches helplessly her mood swings and outbursts. Feeling no longer physically attractive, Milly turns what starts out as a wonderful. Impromptu night trip to the moors made famous in their favorite novel, Wuthering Heights, into a tryst with the bar tender she had known back in London. Jess is so shocked by her friend’s indiscretion that the two break off for a while. Jess herself is concerned that husband Jago (Paddy Considine)’s job requires him to work at an oil rig platform far out at sea, this during the crucial months leading up to her delivery.

The reconciliation and birth scenes are incredibly touching, the latter even amusing because Jago has to watch it via Skype, with his workmates helping the unsteady reception by climbing up on a bunk to hold the wireless router higher. By this time Milly and Jess have reconciled and the former lives in a hospice. Despite her condition she insists on leaving to join her friend in the delivery room. Mother Miranda is a big help in this, donning a white coat and pretending to be a doctor as she wheels her daughter past the security guard and receptionist.

The filmmakers and their characters are thoroughly secularized, so no one speaks of God or turns to prayer to relieve their fears and sorrows. If a hospice chaplain ever paid a call on Milly, it is not depicted in the film. The closest the script approaches spirituality is in the moving scene in which Milly is trying to explain to her little daughter Scarlett (Sophie Brown) her impending death. The thought of her mother not living to see her grow up is too much, even though Milly tries to reassure her that her spirit will be with her. Also, there is a brief nod to spirituality during the end credits, noticeable only to those paying attention. Earlier Milly and Jess had visited one of London’s Before I Die Walls, part of a movement that began in New Orleans*. An outside wall had been covered with blackboard paint upon which is printed in large letters BEFORE I DIE…Hundreds of passers-by have completed the sentence by printing in chalk such intentions as taking a trip or improving themselves. The friends gaze at the wall and add, “Fear nothing.” The Wall and its myriad of contributions form the backdrop for the end credits, and over on the left we read, “Believe in God”—not once, but two or three times.

* For more on this intriguing movement use the following link:

https://www.facebook.com/BeforeIDieWall/

Also an article by Candy Chang at http://candychang.com/before-i-die-in-nola/

Roadside Attractions & Lions Gate

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2013)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 45 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Luke 12:7

Famly

The Spivet Family on their Montana ranch.   (c) 2013 The Weinstein Co.

French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, known for his delightful Amélie and A Very Long Engagement has gifted us with a tale set in the USA that is part road movie, coming of age, and neglected son seeking parental approval. Adapted from a novel by Reif Larsen, the film centers on a ten year-old boy with the unusual name of Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet (Kyle Catlett). What kind of parents, you might ask, would saddle their son with a name so unusual that he will become known by his initials rather than his given first name?

To say that the Spivet family is unusual is understating the case. Dwelling on Copper Top Ranch in Montana, the parents could be a case study in eccentricity. Tecumseh Elijah (Callum Keith Rennie), the father, looks, and acts, like a John Wayne cowboy spin-off, a man of few words. His man cave is crammed with artifacts indicating that he is the cowboy born over a hundred years too late. Mom, Dr. Clair (Helen Bonham Carter), is an entomologist so totally engrossed in her bugs that she scarcely notices the children. Our young hero has picked up his mother’s scientific curiosity, rather than his father’s values of rugged manliness. T.S.’s teenaged sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson) is obsessed with bodily appearances because she wants to be Miss Montana and then an actress. There once was T.S.’s twin Layton, the apple of their father’s eye because he loved “shooting everything that moved.”

T.S. himself is something of a scientific genius, but no one in the family pays any attention to this. The boy feels all alone, blaming himself for his brother Layton’s death and knowing full well that his father preferred his dead brother to himself. No one talks about Layton or the shooting accident that took his life. However, all of this will change when T.S. decides to leave home and travel to Washington D.C. He has received a phone call from Smithsonian Museum representative Ms. Jibsen (Judy Davis) that his design for a perpetual motion machine has won a prestigious prize. She is unaware that the inventor is a ten year-old, so in a funny telephone scene T.S. tells her that he will call his father to the phone, but that because the man is a mute, he will serve as interpreter.

The boy packs a bag and sets out to catch a rides on a freight train, meeting colorful characters along the way, as well as dialoguing with his deceased brother. He has left a note telling the family not to worry about him—and, based on his years of neglect, he actually believes that they won’t. From Chicago he hitches a ride to D.C. where the self-promoting Ms. Jibsen is at first surprised that the inventor soon to be honored is a boy, but who quickly sees his age as a P.R. windfall. How all this culminates for T.S., and for his family back in Montana, provides for heartwarming viewing.

Known for his whimsical style, the director provides plenty of such moments, with T.S. as the narrator often giving full vent to his youthful imagination, as well as to such observations as, “The amazing thing about water drops is that they always take the path of least resistance. For humans it’s exactly the opposite.” The director adds diagrams, text and pictures to the scenes, such as the one in which the boy imagines himself at the crossroads between the Mountain of Lies and the Prairie of Truth—these work well with the film’s 3-D effects.

Permeated as it is with T.S.’s feeling of alienation and unresolved grief of the parents, this is a somewhat dark film, considering that children are a major part of its intended audience. For me one of the highlights is T.S.’s talking over the phone with his mom, the worry and concern clearly shown on her face—and standing by are his father and sister, with even the latter showing her concern for her little brother. It is a beautiful moment, one in which we catch a glimpse of what Jesus, though under very different circumstances, was conveying when he told his followers that they were worth more than many sparrows to God.

It is sad that the Weinstein Company, after purchasing US distribution rights, let the film sit on the shelf for a couple of years, and then, when they did release it, used very little of their usual vast promotional means to inform the public about it. Here in the Cincinnati area the film came and went in just a week with no fanfare. Fortunately Amazon.com has picked it up, making it available for streaming. The film will be a treat either for families or for groups wanting to watch and discuss something decidedly different from the usual family fare—the film has touches of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and the modern classic A Christmas Story, so if you like those works you should enjoy this one. If you agree that this is an undiscovered gem of a film, then tell your friends about it–it deserves a better fate than its present one.

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

 

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.

Self/less (2015)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 57 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 6; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 3.5

  No one has power over the wind to restrain the wind, or power over the day of death…

Ecclesiastes 8:8a

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling— if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden…

2 Corinthians 5:1-4a

Lab2

As scientist Albright looks on, the elderly Damien’s mind is transferred from his cancer-ridden body into a young one. (c) 2015 Gramercy Films

Real estate tycoon Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley) is very much in the upper part of the 1 % made infamous by Occupy Wall Street. The view of New York City from his King Louis XIV –like gilded condo is breathtaking, and his sleek black limo is almost spacious enough to hold a board meeting in. No 1st Class air flights for him, as he can flit about the world in his private jet. But there is trouble in his paradise—terminal cancer. However there is a way out for him: for a mere $250 million a secret organization can provide him with at least fifty more years of healthy life.

Director Tarsem Singh’s film is in the sci-fi film genre, so what the author of Ecclesiastes says is humanity’s limited “power over the day of death” is no longer the case. The apostle Paul referred to the human body as a tent, and what Damian’s quarter billion dollars will buy amounts to a new and improved tent, a young body that looks like Ryan Reynolds. The process is called “shedding.”

The head of the secret lab, known only as Albright (Matthew Goode), says to Damien as they stand looking at the body his mind with all of its memories and associations will be transferred to, “You’ve built an empire from the ground up. People will insist that your buildings make you immortal. Now, as you slip away, do you feel immortal? We offer humanity’s greatest minds more time to fulfill their potential. Designed to offer you the very best of the human experience.” As the two stare at the face of the inert body there is a slight facial movement. “It’s alive?” Damien asks. “An empty vessel,” Albright replies. Supposedly the body was grown in this lab—but how much can you trust this slick scientist salesman?

To undergo “shedding” Damien must agree to make it appear that he really died and to sever all ties with his past, including those with his estranged daughter Claire (Michelle Dockery), now head of a nonprofit agency. He of course, stashes away millions to live on, and then undergoes the process. His new life begins as Edward in New Orleans where he enters into an orgy of wining, dining, dancing, and coupling with a new sex partner every night. He also picks up a new friend Anton (Derek Luke). However, his life is not quite as free as he had thought because he must take regularly some red capsules lest he fall into hallucinations and worse—of course, Albright is the source of the pills. And did Anton just happen to become his friend through their chance meeting on an outdoor basketball court?

Up to the Sin City sequence the film has been an intriguing story raising moral and philosophical questions, perhaps, like so many tales of this genre, leading to a cautionary conclusion—like The Fly or Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. Instead, after suffering flashbacks to military training and shots of a woman (Natalie Martinez) and young girl, the film shifts into the high gear of a chase and thriller movie. Lots of fights, gun fire, and dead bodies as Edward, struggling to obtain the red capsules that stabilize his life, heads north to locate the woman he has identified through Google. It seems that Albright will do anything to keep his organization a secret and to control its clients.

Although I agree with most critics that the quality of the film deteriorates in this violent action section, it is good to see that Damien/Edward does develop into a better person as he bonds with the mother and little girl during their flight. He even does something that perhaps reflects the title of the film, as well as recalling for us something that Albright had said, “There is no science, no progress, without sacrifice.” The same thing is true in the moral realm as well, as Edward/Damian demonstrates in the film’s moving climax.

 This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the August issue of Visual Parables.

 

Gramercy

Citizen Kane (1941)

Not Rated, Running time: 1 hour 59 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?

Luke 9:25

CitznKan

Virtually everyone, even Charles Schultz’s Snoopy, rates Orson Welles’ first film as a masterpiece. The issuance of the classic in DVD form gives us a chance to see the film in all its pristine B&W clarity—and of course, there are those extras: commentary on the film and the ability to go instantly to a favorite section of the film, which make the DVD format superior to tape. So, if you have been waiting to purchase a DVD player, this great film is reason enough to rush down to Ames or Wal-Mart to pick up one of their bargain-priced players.

Working with screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his own troupe of American Mercury Theater players, the “boy wonder” (Welles was just 26 and already had created a sensation on Broadway and over the airwaves) stormed into Hollywood and broke all the rules of movie making to create his masterwork. The story of the rise and fall of a newspaper magnate who resembled too much William Randolph Hearst, the film almost did not see the light of a projector, so vehemently did Hearst, in his many newspapers and behind the scenes maneuvers, attack the film in a vain attempt to squelch it. He might have saved himself all the effort, for despite all the attendant publicity, the film did poorly at the box office. It was too radical of a departure from the usual Hollywood fare for the public then to be able to understand it. The use of deep focus photography, unusual camera angles, the break-up of time as the reporter searches for the answer to the meaning of Kane’s life and last words, and the downer of an ending—all weighed more heavily in keeping the public away than Hearst’s campaign against it.

The story of Charles Foster Kane does resemble that of William Randolph Hearst in some ways, but as David Thomson argues in his fascinating book Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, the film is really autobiographical—or should we say, semi-autobiographical, as the director re- worked the script originally written by Mr. Mankiewicz. It is the story of a man, denied the love of parents during his most formative years, who spends the rest of his life seeking love and acclaim, or, when failing in this, their substitute, power. As author David Thomson shows, this was the story of the rest of Orson Welles’ life after Citizen Kane. Possessed of an ego the size of the Graf Zeppelin, Orson Welles, like Kane, became his own worst enemy, using everyone whom he met to further his own plans or to gratify his own ego. (Welles, who contributed much to the script during the filming, even tried to deny Mankiewicz screenwriting credit. Fortunately, the Academy Awards people gave the Oscar for Best Screenplay to both of them.) With the exception of The Magnificent Ambersons, his second film, Welles never again reached the heights of his first film—and even Ambersons was taken from his hands because of his arrogant way of dealing with the studio and costly delays. The film was released in a much shortened, bowdlerized version, falling far short of the work intended by its director, who was ever after persona non grata in Hollywood.

Citizen Kane begins like a creepy horror movie with a night shot of a large, castle-like mansion. to the accompaniment of Bernard Herrmann’s expertly crafted music. As the camera takes us closer, we see on the iron fence a sign that says much about the inhabitant of the huge estate, “No Trespassing.” A house stands amidst falling snow, and then the camera pulls back to reveal a glass snow globe clutched in the hand of an old man. He is lying in his bed. With his dying breath the man slowly whispers “Rosebud,” his dead fingers releasing the globe so that it falls and smashes on the floor. A nurse comes in, checks the man’s heart, and covers his face with the bed sheet. Then, startlingly, follows a “March of Time” montage of scenes from the life of Charles Foster Kane,” a neat cinematic device that gives us the facts of the famous man.

Of course, the newsreel tells us little of the inner man, and it is this that the newsmen watching in the screening room want. The darkness of the room symbolizes their collective ignorance of Kane and his motives. Thompson, the reporter, is dispatched to interview all those who knew the magnate in order to try to unravel the meaning of “Rosebud.” In episode after episode we see Kane through the eyes of those who loved or worked with him—his ex-wife, his banker, newspaper staff. From their accounts a picture emerges of a potentially great but fatally flawed man who abandoned his youthful ideals in his search for love and power. The reporter never finds the answer as to the meaning of “Rosebud,” but Welles’ camera lets us in on the secret during the last scene when workers cast many of the now-worthless possessions of Kane into a furnace.

Of the many great scenes in the film, two of my favorites:

-A montage showing the disintegration of Kane’s first marriage because of his neglect of his wife during his obsession with his newspaper. In about two minutes the breakfast table sequence takes us through the years from the original closeness of the couple through their disagreements until at the end they are sitting at opposite ends of the long table, neither uttering a word but using newspapers as a barrier (she is reading a rival paper).

-At the conclusion of the film the camera takes us into the vast basement of Xanadu, Kane’s estate, where we see row after row of art treasures and antiques, stacked almost to the vaulted ceiling, which Kane has collected during his world travels. We can see that he acquired them out of a desire to own, not to display or enjoy them. As the camera travels around the vast, cavern-like room, it brings us to a large furnace where workmen are casting into the fire the once cherished but now useless possessions of the dead millionaire.

No film has better summed up the warning of a Galilean rabbi, “What does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul?”

Reprinted from the  Nov. 2001 issue of Visual Parables.