Jackie (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 5; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.

John 9:1

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief,
my soul and body also.

Psalm 31:9

“Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot,

for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot”

Lerner & Loewe

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Only 1 1/2 hours after the murder of her husband, Jackie witnesses the swearing in of Pres. Johnson. (c) Fox Searchlight Pictures

Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s first English-language film is a speculative “true story” about a famous American woman wracked by grief and determined to shape how the tragedy that produced her sorrow is to be told to the world. The director’s scriptwriter Noah Oppenheim wisely builds the interpretive screenplay around the interview conducted by journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) for Life magazine at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts just a week after President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963. This interview anchors the many flashbacks, not just to November 22, but also to the redecorating of the White House; her unprecedented televised White House Tour; the Pablo Cassels concert held in the East Room; the planning of the events surrounding the President’s funeral; and the packing for moving out to make way for the Johnsons.

Aboard the plane that has brought them to Dallas Jackie practices in Spanish her short greetings, then descends with Jack (Caspar Phillipson) to meet the Connallys and the Johnsons. We are shown the motorcade, but the filmmakers hold off depicting the tragic murder until later. In the interview itself, Jackie exhibits her steely determination to control the story. First, it is she who initiated the interview by calling Life. And second, by her sparring with the Journalist (no name is given to this Ted White stand-in, played by Billy Crudup), she seeks to control the results. She tells him that she will edit the article itself, to which he replies that that is hardly likely. Later, when she shares an intimate detail about her feelings, she declares, “Don’t think for one minute I’m going to let you publish that.” He tells her that some personal details should be included so that the public will see the human wife and mother behind her cool public persona. At the end, while the journalist has stepped out of the room to call a cab, she even looks over his notebook and jots down some notes in it.

Except for that hairdo and unforgettable pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat, Natalie Portman does not really look like Jackie, and yet she is completely convincing. She achieves this through her voice, nailing Jackie’s soft, whispery voice and finishing school diction. The actress displays the shock, grief and determination that the real Jackie must have felt on November 22. The latter we see right off when in a daze, she stands by President Johnson as he is sworn in, and then later, when Air Force One has landed in Washington, she refuses to be shunted aside as the widow. An aide has told her that she should exit by the rear door where she will not be noticed. She refuses, insisting that the world must see her amidst her grief. And so, she does leave via the same door as the new President and his wife. (She also had refused Mrs. Johnson’s suggestion that she change from her blood-stained suit, saying, “I want them to see what they have done to Jack.”)

In the hearse, in which she and brother-in-law Bobby sit by the casket, she seemingly casually asks the driver if he remembers Garfield or McKinley, two other slain US Presidents. The driver says he does not. She asks about Lincoln, and he replies without hesitation that he is the President who freed the slaves. Determining that her husband would not be forgotten like Garfield or McKinley, she has an aide lay out photographs and other materials on the elaborate funeral procession for Lincoln. She decides that she will walk behind the caisson, despite the Secret Service’s objections that she could be the next victim of an assassination. Although Oswald was in custody, no one knew whether he was part of a larger conspiracy, so their fears were justified. She also decides that her husband will not be buried in the family plot up in Massachusetts, but in Arlington Cemetery, and thus is driven over to it to examine possible sites.

The scriptwriter’s inclusion of snippets of the 1962 network television special, A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, reveals the public perception of Jackie as a First Lady concerned mainly with fashion. The black and white scenes are recreated, with Ms. Portman appearing nervous at first, but reassured by her loyal staffer Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) standing just off camera. Gaining confidence, Jackie deftly describes the historic significance of the expensive items she has brought back into the White House, especially the items from Lincoln’s presidency. She explains that it is important for the American people to see the deep historical connection between the current occupant of the Executive Manson and those who have gone before. When Jack is introduced at the end of the tour, he admits to his initial skepticism about the redecoration, but now understands his wife’s desire to have people understand the history of this house that symbolizes the nation.

There are many other great scenes, such as the one in which she informs little John and Caroline about their father’s death. Of course, the graphic depiction of the murder itself produces the horror of the deed, the hand-held camera showing her huddled over her husband’s body and Agent Hill covering her with his own body while the car speeds toward the hospital. Nor will you forget the scene back in Washington that night as Jackie removes her blood-spattered suit, struggles to remove her stained panty hose, and then in the shower washes off the blood from her hair and neck.

Those of us old enough to remember being glued to our television sets at the time will be surprised at some of the events we did not know about, such as, after Oswald’s shooting, Jackie was so furious with Bobby because he had allowed no one to tell her about the killing until later, and even more, how this had convinced her to cancel plans for marching behind the caisson because of the danger. Nearly at the last moment she changes her mind, telling presidential aide Jack Valenti (Max Casella) that she and her brothers will walk to the church after all. Valenti tries to explain that it is impossible, but she does not yield. Walk they do, and if you do not blink, you will catch a brief glimpse of the President of France, the tall General de Gaulle, about whom she and Valenti had spoken.

I was surprised and gladdened by the inclusion of a man simply called The Priest (John Hurt) who appears frequently as her spiritual counselor. Her aide and friend Nancy offers valuable support, but the cleric is better equipped to help Jackie deal with her anguished doubts that have shaken the foundation of her faith. In the first scene together, while walking in a park, she states that God is cruel. Knowing where she is going, he half-jokingly replies, “Now you’re getting into trouble…” He says, “God is love and is everywhere.” With a trace of bitterness, she asks if God was in the bullet that killed her husband, and he answers, “Yes.” He speaks about God being hidden, and amidst her anguish she asks what kind of a God takes a husband from his two children, ending with the mention of her two previously deceased infants.

We find Jackie and the priest together again, Jackie confessing that she wishes she’d had an ordinary job and married an ordinary man. The priest tells her the Parable of the Man Born Blind, suggesting that she is like the blind man. Now she is the one who is blind, blind to what God will say or do through her. During the funeral procession, there is a third flashback in which she confesses that the procession was as much for herself as for Jack. She had written a letter in which she stated that she wanted to die. If a sniper would shoot her, she would consider it a kind gesture. In still another encounter, the Priest asks why she has come to him, and she replies that she wants to die. He asserts that he is not burying her today. He adds that there comes a point in a person’s search for meaning when he understands that there are no answers. He confesses that every night at bedtime he asks, “Is this all there is?” So does everyone else, he surmises. The last time we see the priest he is officiating in Arlington at the interment of the two infant Kennedys, whose bodies have been moved from the plot in Massachusetts so they can lie beside their father.

The Priest is a made-up character, a composite of several priests with whom Jackie had corresponded with in the year after the assassination. As scriptwriter Noah Oppenheim has explained, “She did descend into a pretty dark place; she was really grappling with her faith, her will to live, her sense of justice in the world.”  I think this is a wonderful addition enrichening the portrait of a strong woman confronting the darkness with her anguished doubts. It is also a good example of an honest person of faith, a Roman Catholic priest, no less, admitting that there are no “answers” to tragedy. He does not offer the platitudes or bromides we too often hear beside a casket or an open grave. What he does offer is what we also can offer to those wracked by grief, our loving presence, and the belief that is summed up in “Nevertheless…”

Everything works together in this beautiful tribute to Jackie Kennedy, including the score by Mica Levi, its often eeriness keeping viewers from settling in too deeply into their comfortable theater seats. The scriptwriter takes many liberties in writing the dialogue spoken in privacy, as well as in a fictional sequence during which Jackie in her confusion and mental turmoil tries on dress after dress from her stylish wardrobe. The many close-ups of faces at times made me feel like I was intruding into the privacy that she prized so keenly. Indeed, this would be my complaint about the film, but is a minor one. In a way, the filmmakers are offering their film version of the Kennedy myth. Just as Jackie began the association of her husband’s presidency with the Arthurian legend of Camelot, abetted by journalist Ted White’s quoting the musical at the end of his Life interview, so now will generations of film viewers perceive this courageous (and creative) woman through this film–one made not by an American, but a Chilean!

Note: This film skips over the traumatic events at Dallas’s Parkland Hospital, to which both President Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald were taken after they were shot. The little known but excellent film Parkland reports on this, focusing far less on the Kennedy’s and more on the doctors and nurses there, plus the businessman who shot the 8-mm footage of the murder, the frustration and guilty feelings of the head of the Secret Agent detail and an FBI, and the surviving members of the Oswald family.

Also, there is the interesting Love Field, the title named after the Dallas airport where the Kennedys landed. It stars Michelle Pfeiffer as a Dallas beautician so obsessed with the Kennedys that when she learns of the President’s death determines to travel to Washington to be participate in the funeral events available to the public, despite the objections of her boorish husband.

See the reviews on this site.

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

Captain Fantastic (2016)

Note: there are plot spoilers in the last half of this review, so beware.

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 58 min. Our content ratings:

Violence 3; Language 3; Sex 4/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Listen, children, to a father’s instruction,

and be attentive, that you may gain insight; for I give you good precepts:

do not forsake my teaching.

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

Proverbs 4:1-2 & 22:6

Captain+Fantastic

The family and their beloved bus “Steve.” (c) Bleecker Street Media

Contrary to the implication of the title, director/writer Matt Ross’s movie is not about a soldier or a superhero. Viggo Mortensen’s Ben Cash is the titular father, raising his six children in an Eden-like forest in the state of Washington. (Thus making this the 2nd wilderness-set film I’ve seen within a week, the other being Hunt for the Wilderpeople­—though, come to think of it, there also is Pete’s Dragon.) Years ago Ben and his wife Leslie (Trin Miller), a former lawyer, had turned against what they considered a fascist, materialistic society and set up their homestead in a forest of the Pacific Northwest so they could raise their children untainted by the American society. The parents had home schooled them and taught them survival techniques, their meat obtained either with a bow and arrow, or in the opening scene, by actually tackling an elk and killing it with a knife. What little money they need for buying things that they cannot make or raise themselves Ben obtains by selling or trading at a general store items they makes such as an attractive birdhouse. Besides hunting, a typical day for the children includes training in the martial arts, classes, individual reading (including Dostoevsky), sometimes extreme cliff climbing, and, at the end of the day, singing and playing their instruments around a campfire.

Leslie is absent, a patient in a New Mexico hospital when the film opens. Sending her there to obtain treatment for her suicidal depression is Ben’s concession to his disapproving father-in-law Jack (Frank Langella). She has been suffering from bipolar depression since the birth of their oldest son Bodevan “Bo” (George MacKay), so she and Ben had agreed to Jack’s paying for and watching over her care close to his home. However, when the family goes down the mountain to to the store for supplies and to call about her condition, Jack tells Ben that she has taken her own life—and that if he dares show up at the funeral, he will have him arrested for child abuse. When Ben tells the children what has happened, he intends to stay home, but the children do not agree. He realizes they need the closure of the funeral, so soon they are packing up their large school bus converted to family use and heading down the highway.

Their venture into the culture the parents have despised brings many a shock to the brood—they remark on the obesity of so many mall shoppers, and after the children at a diner ask questions about unfamiliar menu items, Ben stands up, telling them they must go, that there is no real food here. They stop over at the home of Ben’s sister Kathryn and her husband Steve (Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn) where their two boy cousins pay more attention to their electronic gadgets and games than the guests. One of the daughters ask who killed the two chickens on the platter, and the surprised aunt haltingly explains that the chickens were dead when they bought them.

When his disturbed sister challenges Ben’s homeschooling practice, the latter puts the question of what is the Bill of Rights to his two nephews and his youngest son. Neither of the brothers can give a coherent answer, but Nai can both quote and explain the Constitutional amendments.

Just how much Ben has rejected society we see in the scene in which he hands out presents for his substitution for Christmas, the celebration of activist Noam Chomsky’s birthday. Also there is the darker incident in which at a store where everyone has picked up numerous food items. Ben falls to the floor as he fakes a stroke. The children yell to call for 911. Amidst the chaos, the kids, still carrying their food choices, stroll out to the bus, after which Ben gets up, saying that he is now okay. He leaves with the store manager almost apologizing. Apparently we are supposed to admire the cleverness of this caper.

At a trailer camp Bo, who has had none of the social intercourse one experiences at high school, proves inept when he kisses his first girl at night. Her mother calls the girl in before they can do more. The next morning Bo, thinking the kiss was a proposal, asks her to marry him.

The family, dressed in garish hippy and wilderness-style attire, arrive late at the Catholic church, creating quite a stir as they find seats. Jack and his wife are both upset but keep silent. The priest, admitting he did not know Leslie, awkwardly tries to personalize his homily, but is quickly interrupted by Ben. The husband reveals that she had been a Buddhist, who, like him, had no use for organized religion. Waving a copy of her will about, h says that she had wanted to be cremated rather than buried. The angry Jack secures four ushers who force Ben out of the sanctuary.

At his mansion Jack angrily tells Ben that he is suing for the custody of his grandchildren, and that he has plenty of grounds for the action. There ensues more action that leads Ben to question his child-rearing practices. This includes one of the daughters coming very close to injuring her spine. Son Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) angrily blames his father for their mother’s death, revealing that he had heard them arguing one night about the family. Also Ben discovers that Bo had received acceptance letters from a number of top colleges. He regards this as a betrayal, but he is taken back when Bo reveals that Leslie had encouraged and helpd him in the process.

Ben reaches what amounts to a reconciliation with his father-in-law. saying that he will leave the children with him after all. At this point, when he drives away alone in the bus, I thought this would be a story of a father making a great sacrifice for the benefit of his loved ones, and that he perhaps would visit them on rare occasions. However, the film does not end at this point. Director/writer Matt Ross apparently does not want to leave us with the mixed feelings generated by such a conclusion, so they add a short last act in which the family carries out Leslie’s stipulations in her will. No consequences of their acts are shown, the family presumably returning to take up their idyllic life in the wilderness. Thus my feelings were even more jumbled by what seems like a tacked on ending that ignores reality.

Up to the last act the film is a joy to watch for its many dramatic and humorous moments, but for me it was marred by the filmmakers’ desire for a happy ending. Despite this, I will gladly watch the film again. Although it is the skillful Viggo Mortensen’s performance that dominates the film, every one of the young actors playing the six children is outstanding. Never cutesy, they convince us that these are children we would be proud to claim as our own—though in the case of the store scam we might wish that one of them would have raised the question of the morality of their scheme. After all, in several scenes Ben is shown urging the children to think for themselves, but they all go along with it.

Those desiring to discuss child rearing/nurturing techniques will find plenty of issues, as well as Ben’s Marxist-influenced view that society is too materialistic and commercial. An examination of the family’s life style might bring to mind Richard Niebuhr’s famous book Christ and Culture. Ben, despising “organized religion,” is no Christian, but his living apart from the world is an example of what the theologian called “Christ Against Culture.” I suspect many of us have been tempted to follow Ben and Leslie’s decision to “drop out” (to use the old hippy phrase). The film certainly shows the attractive side of this life style. But it also shows a dark side: some of what Ben puts his children through (an example being the family climbing a sheer cliff) would indeed be considered child abuse in many states. (Another strength of the film is that Jack is not played by Frank Langella as just the hateful father-in-law. He and his wife genuinely love the grandchildren and strongly believe that they’re living away from society is bad for them.) And even Ben must deal with outside world for items, such as parts for the bus, that the family cannot make.

A disturbing part of the plot is the lack of any pursuit by Jack in the last act. What will he do when he discovers the grandchildren have fled; and what is the future of the family? Either the filmmakers just ignore this, or, hopefully, they intend to leave it to us viewers to decide in our own minds and hearts. I hope it is the latter.

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

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Hell or High Water (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 42 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 3; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Thieves are not despised who steal only to satisfy their appetite when they are hungry.

Yet if they are caught, they will pay sevenfold; they will forfeit all the goods of their house.

Proverbs 6:30-31

 For the wages of sin is death

Romans 6:23

2Bros

Tanner (lft) & his brother stay at their ranch between bank heists. (c) CBS Films

Scriptwriter Taylor Sheridan and director David Mackenzie grace us with one of the best modern Western thrillers to come along thus far this year. Dealing with a pair of bank robbers and two Texas Rangers on their trail, it is as much a study in character and the times and mood of our country as it is an adventure.

In a tiny town in West Texas two masked men barge into a Midlands branch bank as soon as a teller opens up. They have to wait until the manager shows up, and when he angers one of them, the robber slams his pistol across the victim’s face. They take only the money from the cashiers’ drawers, not attempting to get at the larger amounts of cash in the vault.

The two men are brothers, divorced father of two sons Toby (Chris Pine) and the ex-convict Tanner (Ben Foster). As the film unfolds we see it is Toby who persuaded Tanner to undertake the robberies so they can save the ranch, which their just-deceased mother has left them. Toby wants to provide for the two sons that he has neglected. When he goes to talk with them, we discover that it has been a year since his last visit. The bank, yes, one of the Midland Bank chain, is about to foreclose on the property, so Toby is racing the clock to meet the deadline. His desperation is especially heightened by the fact that an oil company wants to drill on their land because its survey indicates that they can pump over 2000 gallons a month out of the parched land. It is actually their lawyer, to whom they deliver their alleged casino winnings for negotiating with the bank holding their mortgage, who reminds them that they must raise the full amount by the date of foreclosing come hell or high water.

Toby is the brains of the pair, while Tanner is the exuberant one. Indeed, the latter seems to derive too much pleasure from the action of holding people at gunpoint and speeding away in an old dilapidated car. Can he be kept in check? What might their brandishing their guns about lead to? To avoid tracing their getaway car, Toby buries it in a large ditch he has dug behind the ranch house. He launders the money at the Native American casinos over in Oklahoma by buying large amounts of chips. While he drinks, Tanner uses some of the money to play poker, a game that he wins more often than he loses. By the end of their stay they cash in their chips, thus insuring that none of their bills can be traced to them.

Meanwhile Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his deputy Alberto (Gil Birmingham) are assigned to track the robbers down. The curmudgeonly Marcus, like the old lawman played by Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men, is on the cusp of retirement. He maight be old, but his mind is as keen as ever. And so, unfortunately is the inbred racism of his childhood, though it does become apparent that he actually likes his Native American-Mexican partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) whom he is constantly insulting with racial slurs.

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Texas Rangers Marcus (rt) & Alberto are on their way to intercept the bank robbers. (c) CBS Films

With his slow drawl and flinty face, eyes half slits because they have taken in too much of the relentless Texas sunlight, it would be easy to underestimate the Ranger, much as everyone did with Detective Columbo. However, this old boy knows the thinking of the crooks he chases, correctly guessing that the robbers are probably gathering cash for a mortgage. He understands their modus operandi, entering a bank first thing in the morning so as to avoid customers, and stealing only the lower denomination bills that cannot be traced. He also notes that all of their banks are Midland Banks located in a small area together. He knows that they are bound to make a mistake, so he is confident they will soon catch them. Figuring which bank will be struck next, he rents a motel room, and the two wait for their prey to show up.

The brothers’ mistake comes when…well, here let’s just say that it is both a thrilling and a funny scene. Funny because while Toby is at a diner talking to a flirty waitress, Tanner goes across the street and robs the bank on his own. Yelling to his brother to start their car, he runs back with loose bills flying into the air as he tries to keep the ones he has stashed between his stomach and his shirt from falling out. Later, the film takes on a darker tinge because when you use guns to rob banks, sooner or later someone is going to shoot back. During a thrilling chase scene there are some very sudden, unexpected developments when Marcus and Alberto finally catch up with one of the brothers.

This is a film in which the countryside and the mood of the times are important. The wide open spaces with tiny, dilapidated towns and their small banks; the numerous bill boards with large words such as DEBT, CASH, and LOANS prominently displayed, indicating that in such a hound dog economy only the financial service industries are thriving.

The myriad of bit characters are spot on—the table of good ole boys at the diner who banter with Marcus; the bank clerks and managers; a belligerent Commanche at a casino whom we expect to get into a row with Tanner; the driver at a gas station who threatens Tanner with his gun, severely beaten by Toby when he comes up from behind; and best of all, two waitresses at diners—the flirty one upset when Marcus demands that she hand over the $200 tip that Toby had left her. The second is an old gal at The T-Bone Diner who confuses Marcus and Alberto when she comes to their table and says, “What don’t you want ?” As she rants on, we see that apparently she has grown tired of Eastern tourists coming in and demanding vegetable dishes not on the menu, this being a steak and potatoes place. If there were Oscars for cameo roles, the actress playing her would be nominated!

All four actors in the major roles are terrific, with Bridges especially dominating almost every scene he is in. What a far cry from his glib tongued Jack, the radio talk host in The Fisher King! His aging lawman character who lives solely for the pursuit of the bad guys is well demonstrated in the last scene of the film that ends with a note of ambiguity.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster make us feel sympathy for their characters, even though we know what they are doing is wrong. We can understand why they venture outside the law due to their impoverished background. The billboards mentioned earlier are aimed at desperate people like the brothers, indicating that they are victims as well as predators, a theme harking back to older Westerns featuring characters like Jesse and Frank Jamses The intelligent Toby knows he is the bad guy: in a poignant scene with his older son, he emphasizes that he does not want the lad to be like him.

The film even places the current mortgage crisis in which so many people are losing their homes into an historical context, one going back a couple of centuries. In a scene wherein Marcus mocks Alberto’s heritage, the latter observes that 150 years ago his people ruled in the land, and that the grandparents of the present owners took it. Now it is the banks that are taking it from them.

With Nick Cave’s music ably enhancing the somber mood, this film for me is just about perfect. Due to be released to a limited number of theaters on August 12, and then on a wider basis, I would urge you to mark the date on your calendar. If you love well crafted films that make you feel for the characters and think about their lives and the times, this is a film not to be missed!

 

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

Anomalisa (2015)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 30 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 0; Language 6; Sex 7/Nudity 7.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.

Proverbs 17:22

(L-R) David Thewlis voices Michael Stone and Jennifer Jason Leigh voices Lisa Hesselman and Tom Noonan voices Emily in the animated stop-motion film, ANOMALISA, by Paramount Pictures

(L-R) David Thewlis voices Michael Stone and Jennifer Jason Leigh voices Lisa Hesselman and Tom Noonan voices Emily in the animated stop-motion film, ANOMALISA, by Paramount Pictures

Charlie Kaufman, who wrote the scripts of such intriguing films as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malcovich again challenges us in this new stop-motion animated tale based on his stage play, which he also co-directed with Duke Johnson. Its characters may be puppets, but this is no children’s film! The puppets are very life-like except for lines at the eye line and jaw which makes us wonder if we are watching androids. However, there are such minutia of details piled on in the early scenes of an airline flight, taxi ride into Cincinnati, and check-in at the hotel that this thought fades into the background. And they certainly do when the protagonist Michael Stone engages in sex with a woman he meets at the hotel, a scene so graphic that a few decades ago it would have earned the film a rating of NC-17 rather than an R. The film is bizarre in that just three actors provide the voice talent for a film that has a dozen or more minor characters–David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan. Thewlis and Leigh play the two leads, and Noonan voices all the other characters, including females! As we will see, there is a purpose in this that reveals much about the mental and spiritual condition of the protagonist.

Stone (Thewlis) is a motivational speaker and author of the book How May I Help You Help Them? flying from Los Angeles into the Queen City to deliver the keynote speech at a trade convention. In almost painful detail we see and hear him interact with a passenger afraid of flying; the taxi cab driver giving unwanted tips about taking in the city’s zoo and chili; and the Fregoli (more on this name later) Hotel’s bellhop prattling his insincere welcome. It is very obvious that Stone needs some motivation himself, his voice is so flat and his face so set with a vacant stare. As he makes a desultory phone call back home to speak with his wife and young son, we wonder how such a depressed guy can ever lift the spirit of an audience. He seems so spiritually dead that the old Simon and Garfunkel song came to mind with its line, “I am a rock, I am an island.”

Stone calls Bella Amarossi, an old flame, to set up a rendezvous at the hotel bar, but this ends badly because the woman is still angry over the way he walked out on their relationship years before. He has better luck when he meets two women, Emily and Lisa, by happenstance and is immediately drawn to the plainer and less confident of the two by her voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh). They are taken aback that standing before them is Michael Stone because he is the reason they decided to attend the conference. Both are customer service representatives at a company in Akron Ohio that uses his book to train its employees. They eagerly accept his invitation to meet and talk in the lounge, after which Lisa shyly accepts his invitation to come to his room for a nightcap. After encouraging her friend, Emily gamely returns to their room, while Lisa accompanies Stone in the opposite direction. His spirit now animated, Stone gently coaxes the shy Lisa out of her shell, overcoming her reluctance with compliments. When she sings (not at all well), something deep within him is touched, and tears form in his eyes. The bed scene is as graphic as one is ever to find in an R-rated film, each thoroughly enjoying the tender experience of their mutual pleasure. We also learn the meaning of the unusual title, Charlie telling the insecure Lisa who sees herself as a person of no value that she is an anomaly. Her name being Lisa, he calls her Anomalisa. Lisa takes this as a great compliment, because no one ever saw her as standing out. Emily had always been the one whom men found attractive, not her.

Their bed tryst is followed by a scary experience that I will leave for you to discover. The next morning, over a room service-delivered breakfast the rejuvenated Stone tells Lisa that he does not want this to be one-night stand. Lisa is reluctant to be a home wrecker, but he tells her that his wife and son no longer exist for him, that they and everyone are all the same person, except for her. And then, strangely, he begins to criticize her for some small things about her eating. Lisa’s voice slowly changes from Lee’s into that of Noonan’s. What happens afterwards is a continuation of this downward spiral, which again, I do not want to spoil.

Michael Stone’s feeling that everyone he meets is the same person, so strikingly conveyed by Tom Noonan’s voicing all of the characters but his and Lisa’s, is related to the name of the hotel at which Stone is staying, The Hotel Fregoli. Tipped off by another reviewer, I Googled the name and found lots of hits, the articles defining the word as, “A disorder in which a person holds a delusional belief that different people are in fact the same person.”(See more at: http://glennmillermd.com/the-fregoli-delusion/#sthash.cwzvtyh1.dpuf. One of the articles even reveals that it is derived from the last name of an early 20th century actor said to be “the man of a thousand faces.”)

Thus Michael Stone, whose book advises readers dealing with the public to “Look for what is special about each individual, focus on that,” is unable to follow his own advice—at least until he meets Lisa. His alienation and self-absorption has led him into a solipsism that we wonder if he will ever be able to escape. The film offers a bleak look at American society and makes us wonder about so much alienation among a people who have so much material wealth.

Viewed from a mental health perspective, the film makes us aware of a little known mental disorder that plagues some people. Indeed, my Google search for “Fregoli” turned up the article “Murder, Intrigue, and a Case Involving Fregoli Syndrome?” that examines John du Pont, subject of the film Foxcatcher as a victim of the disorder. Viewed from a spiritual perspective, Michael Stone seems like the “Hollow Men” of T.S. Elliot.

Kaufman cannot seem to bear leaving us with just poor, alienated Michael Stone, so he closes with the scene of Lisa and Emily returning in their car to Akron. Unlike Bella Amarossi, Lisa is not bitter at parting from Michael. Her illicit encounter has removed her shell so that she can emerge from her sense of low self-esteem. Can we contemplate a better future for her than for Michael?

Because Kaufman strays so far afield from the usual popcorn fare that clog our cinemaplexes, Anomalisa will not appeal to everyone. For me this has been a difficult film to process and write about. I hope the above provides some suggestions for your own thinking about a film that will linger in your mind for some time.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Feb. 2015 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

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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

Coming Home (2014)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 49 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 Love is patient; love is kind…It bears all things, believes all things,

hopes all things, endures all things.

1 Corinthians 13:4 & 7

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Galatians 5:22-23a

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Lu plays an old song in the hope that his amnesiac wife Feng will recognize him again. (c) Sony Pictures Classics

Zhang Yimou, possibly the best known Chinese filmmaker in America (To Live; Not One Less; Riding Alone for a Thousand Miles; and House of Flying Daggers are just a few of his films), directs this adaptation of the novel by Chinese-American  Yan Geling, The Criminal Lu Yanshi. It is a love story, but unlike most movie love stories, its protagonists are not young but middle-aged. During the 70s when Mao’s Cultural Revolution was in full swing college professor Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) is arrested and sent away for “re-education.”

His wife Feng Wanyu (Gong Li), a middle school teacher, raises their daughter Dan Dan by herself, receiving no word from her husband for years. During this time Dan Dan (Zhang Huiwen) becomes a ballet student with her heart set on playing the lead of the propaganda ballet The Red Detachment of Women soon to be produced.

However, because her father is “an enemy of the state” she is passed over for a less talented student. She is hurt, her resentment of her absent father growing ever stronger. He escapes and during one rainy night sneaks into their rund-down tenement building. No one answers the door, so he leaves a note for his wife asking her to meet him the next day at the train station. His wife is inside, but she walks slowly, hesitantly across the kitchen floor, the stern warnings of the police against any contact with her husband no doubt the cause.

Dan Dan spots him and betrays him to the police who have posted a watcher outside their tenament. The next day Lu hides beneath the stairs of a platform at the train station while he anxiously keeps a lookout for his wife. When after a long period of scanning the crowds for a glimpse of her, he emerges from his hiding place and starts shouting her name. Above him among the throng she hears him, but so do the police. She yells for him to run, but they seize him, keeping the two apart. During her frantic struggles she is shoved to the ground, injuring her head.

Years later Lu is let out of prison, eagerly hastening to reunite with Feng. He sees Dan Dan first, no longer a ballet student but now living in a factory dormitory. Remorseful over her betrayal, the girl lives apart from her mother. She is on a short break, and asks to see him later, that there is something important he should know. Lu does not wait to find out, but goes to find his wife. To has amazement and sorrow she does not recognize him. She lives aided by neighbors, and on a certain date of each month goes to the train station expecting her husband’s arrival from prison.

Lu tries various means of reviving her memory, showing her an old photograph of the two of them, playing a song from the old days on the piano, and reading the stack of letters that he had written in prison but had been unable to send to her. At times she not only does not recognize him as her husband but gets him mixed up with Mr. Fang, the Party official involved in his arrest and conviction. She orders him out of her home. Lu sorrowfully complies.

During this period Lu lives just across the street from his wife in a storage room only half-transformed into living quarters. Dan Dan helps him all she can, her self-centeredness having melted away. When Lu finds out why his wife is so obsessed by the memory of Mr. Fang, he almost does something that would have sent him back to prison, but an ironic twist saves him.

The years pass, and the two help the increasingly frail Feng perform what has become a ritual—going with her to the gate of the train station where they hold up signs welcoming the husband home. The devotion of all three is impressive: Feng to the husband of the past whom she cannot recognize in the present, and for whom she made a great sacrifice; Lu to the wife he hopes to regain in the future, finally aware of his identity; and Dan Dan devoted to them both, painfully aware of and regretting the terrible thing she did that has brought on their present status.

Of the three Dan Dan changes the most, her journey from a self-centeredness that takes no heed of the needs of others to a concern for her parents welfare that will impede any chance for her own advancement in life—at least as long as they are alive. From ballet stage to factory floor, quite a downward turn career-wise. And yet, eyewitness to the patience and love of her father and mother, Dan Dan’s transformation into an other-concerned human being prevents this poignant story from being a tragedy. The ending is so poignant that you are warned to have a tissue on hand. In regard to love and devotion it might not be exaggerating too much to say that this is a love story for the older generation as is Romeo and Juliet for the young generation.

This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the Nov. issue of VP.

May in the Summer (2013)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 39 min.

Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 1; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (0-5): 3.5

 

Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other

Colossians 3:13a

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May, Dalia, & Jasmine at the home of their estranged father and his young wife. (c) 2013 Cohen Media group

 

This gem of a film centering on four women in the midst of culture clash was written and directed by Cherien Dabis, who due to her Palestinian father and Jordanian mother has experienced her share of tension between diverse cultures. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, she grew up in a small Ohio town where her father was a doctor. She reports that she tried to fit in as a child, but when the first Gulf War began in 1991, she and her family endured anti-Arab hostility from neighbors, some of her father’s patients even leaving him.

There are three daughters and a mother in her film, which was shot in Jordan. May (Cherien Dabis) is a successful New York City writer whose book exploring the background of Arab proverbs has made her known to the book reading public in her native country as well as among New York literati. She is returning to Amman to finalize wedding plans with the family of her fiancé Ziad (Alexander Siddig), a Muslim scholar teaching at an American university. Her sisters, also Americanized, meet her at the airport, hugging each other joyfully. Fun loving Yasmine (Nadine Malouf) and Tomboy Dalia (Alia Shawkat) have also been away from home, having taken a month off to return for the reunion.

The film is divided into sections that are introduced by Arab proverbs, no doubt referencing May’s book. This section’s proverb, “Every person is a child at home,” sets us up for meeting the mother Nadine (Hiam Abbass). The latter welcomes May, but her disapproval of her daughter marrying a Muslim soon surfaces. She is an evangelical Christian, declaring, “Marrying outside your religion…never works.” She is determined not to attend the ceremony. May becomes especially concerned when she discovers her mother untying the knots of a series of ropes tied together. The “Knowledge Rope” is based on a popular superstition that believes that if one unties all of its knots, the ties between a couple unfit for each other will be broken up.

Ziad’s mother is fine with the upcoming marriage, sparing no expense. However May herself is feeling uneasy about it because she and Ziad had a serious argument just before she had left New York, and he has been less than attentive in keeping in contact by cell phone. A chance meeting at a nightspot with the friendly adventure guide Karim (Elie Mitri) no doubt adds to her feeling of unsettlement. The two even go out together, one night Karim sharing with her a favorite spot for observing the majestic beauty of the desert.

Events quickly pile up over the next few days. The girls’ father Edward (Bill Pullman), estranged from the family since he divorced Nadine and married a younger Indian woman (Ritu Singh Pande), seeks reconciliation, something that two of the sisters at first resist. May, out jogging and clad in running tights, is ogled by a carload of lustful males. The sisters joke about Muslim women all covered up in public, and the lingerie they purchase at the mall would shock their Muslim neighbors. Yasmine and Dalia agree to attend a church with Mom, not for religious reasons, but in the hope of connecting their attractive mother with a suitable man, May waiting outside in their car. The sisters, traveling to the Dead Sea resort for a bachelorette outing, find themselves arguing loudly in public. It is here that the film’s first hints of a larger conflict are introduced. While swimming in the water, one of them observes that they could swim to the West Bank shore. She is brought up short by May, stating that the Israelis have placed mines in the water. And then when they loudly argue beside the swimming pool, a jet fighter plane flies over, drowning out their words, forcibly making them aware that their conflict is so much smaller than the regional one.

The plot at times becomes a bit melodramatic, with all four women harboring secrets that are not revealed until the last act of the film. A couple of these secrets are quite shocking. Two more of the sayings that introduce the segments are insightful– “Love is an endless act of forgiveness” and “There is no pillow so soft as a clear conscious.” I was worried by the description of some reviewers’ of the mother as “an intolerant Christian” that we would be subjected to another movie stereotype of Christians, but this is not the case. Nadine is indeed being narrow minded in her intention to boycott May’s wedding, but this is also motivated by her own bad experience with her unfaithful husband. Her secularist daughters are unable to see that she has found comfort and support in her faith and in the small congregation. The film leaves some issues unresolved, except for May’s decision concerning the wedding. Each person, including the caddish father, arrives at a measure of maturity that promises a brighter future. Although the daughters will probably continue to resist the faith of their mother, we might hope that one day they might better understand its values and benefits.

This small but worthy film has attracted little attention, so you might have to seek it out, eventually perhaps on the Internet. Although there are a few subtitles for the few times that Arabic is spoken, the family converses mainly in English, surely a relief for those challenged by subtitles. The film transports its fortunate viewers into a different country and culture. I am looking forward to watching the filmmaker’s earlier film Amreeka.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Oct. 2014 issue of VP.