Moonlight (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 51 min. Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 5 .

 Do not be conformed to this world…

Romans 12:2a

atrestrnt

Chiron (left) reconnects with Kevin, his only friend during his lonely school days. (c) AK24

Writer-director Barry Jenkins’ film is based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s drama In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Whites are seen only in the background, so the film is about more than racism, it is about a young boy facing homophobic cruelty as well. Even more, it is about the protagonist, named Chiron, struggling to find his own identity in a Miami ghetto. He is helped along the way by a very imperfect man who insists that he must choose his path himself and never give in to others. His story is told in 3 parts, named after two nicknames and his given name: Little, Chiron, and Black. Those “others” who would force him into a box labeled “faggot” are the boy’s classmates who derisively dub the scrawny 10-year-old “Little” (Alex Hibber). At school, only the Cuban-American Kevin (Jaden Piner) befriends him, telling him he must never seem soft if he is to escape from those bullying him.

It is while running and hiding from the bullies in a vacant apartment used by druggies that Little connects with the man who will begin the process of bringing the boy out of the inner chamber into which he has withdrawn.  Juan (Mahershala Ali) is a drug dealer who apparently has used the apartment in his trade. Finding the boy there, he greets him I friendly way, but is unable to get the withdrawn child to respond, even when he takes him to a diner for a meal. Still, he does not abandon Little but takes him home to his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). Equally warm and friendly, she is more successful, getting Chiron to tell his real and his nickname. Because the boy will not say where he lives, they invite him to stay overnight. The next morning, when Juan takes the boy home, the lad’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is both grateful and suspicious of the man. She might be a junkie and sexually promiscuous, but she still loves her son.

Juan continues to figure in Little’s life, as does Teresa, the latter often offering her apartment as a sanctuary from the boy’s troubles at school and home. Juan is a drug dealer, and yet also a caring man who continues to reaches out to the confused and bullied boy, gestures to which Paula is opposed. In one touching scene he instills trust in the boy by taking him to the beach for a swimming lesson. Standing in water over the boy’s head, Juan gently persuades him to lie back in his arms, telling him to relax and assuring him that he will not let him sink. The boy does so, the image of the two for a moment taking on the semblance of a baptism. The latter too is an occasion requiring trust, or faith–the Biblical word can be translated either way. Bolstered by such trust, Little soon is able to follow his mentor’s instruction and finds himself swimming. It is back on the beach that Juan tells Little he must decide his identify for himself the path his life is to take. Juan himself has to face the truth about the path he has taken in a night scene in which he spots Paul doing drugs with a man in a car. He scolds her for neglecting her son, but she reminds him that he is the one who sold her the drugs. He has no come back for this.

In the second part Chiron is a 16-year-old (now played by Ashton Sanders) in high school and still bullied by the same kids as earlier. Juan is no longer around, but Teresa continues to let Chiron stay overnight so he can avoid his mother, so into drugs now that she demands money from him in one scene. The bullies are led by Terrel (Patrick Decile) who mocks him even in class.  Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) has remained his friend, the two one night even kissing on the beach as Kevin rubs his friend’s crotch. It is Kevin who gives Chiron the new nickname of Black. However, friendship can go only so far. Outside, Tyrell, with his gang looking, on forces Kevin into a game of “Knocked Down, Stay Down” with Black. This consists of Kevin hitting his friend hard enough to knock him off his feet. Black continues to get up (reminding me of a similar scene in Cool Hand Luke). The game ends with the boys beating and kicking the prone victim. School counselors try to get bruised Black to reveal the identity of his attackers, but instead, he marches into a classroom and brings down a chair hard on Tyrell’s head.

Part 3 unfolds about ten years later when Chiron is living in Atlanta. Those who bullied him would not dare so now. Since his release from “juvie” years earlier, the once scrawny lad has transformed himself into one of those specimens that body builder Charles Atlas used to advertise in comic books and pulp magazines— “From 90 Pound Weakling to…” He is surprised to receive a phone call from Kevin, the two not having been in touch since the former was sent away to juvenile detention. Kevin, revealing that he is a cook in Miami, invites him down for a meal. Showing up shortly thereafter, the two share how they have moved on, though sexually, in different directions. That Chiron is gaining in maturity and setting his own course we see in the scene that is inserted between those with Kevin. On his return to Miami Chiron stops off to visit Paula in a rehab center where she also is taking charge of her life. Somehow Chiron has learned where she is. What transpires between them is a beautiful moment, as is the last scene of the two friends in the restaurant, the “chef’s special” cooked by Kevin taking on a symbolic meaning. That matters will not unfold in the direction that Chiron had hoped becomes evident when his friend shows him a wallet photo of his little daughter. Chiron’s future is yet to be determined, but it is evident from his buffed body that he has followed his friend’s long-ago advice and abandoned the “softness” that had made him a victim.

One of the strengths of this film is its lack of stereotypes, at least in regards to the main characters. Juan might at first seem like the usual movie drug pusher, and then we see how tender is his heart, Little has done nothing to attract his attention other than to show up at one of the dealer’s “drug holes.” When the boy does not respond to his greeting, the man could have just shooed him away. Instead, he takes the boy to the person he knows who is able to break through barriers, Teresa. Juan could have walked out of Little’s life after the boy’s mother Paula made it clear she did not want him around, but he doesn’t, even when she accuses him of interfering with her raising the boy. It would be interesting to know what happened to him, why he disappeared from the boy’s life, but, as demonstrated by the swimming lesson scene, the imperfect man played a positive role in Chiron’s development. Juan would never have been accepted as a volunteer at a Boy’s Club, and yet few others could have been a better mentor to the needy boy.

The likes of Paula the junkie we have seen up close in such movies as Precious, and yet she is more than this in the film. She does succumb to the allurement of drugs and sex to escape from the pressures of being a mother in the ghetto, but she is concerned for Chiron when he stays away. And what mother wouldn’t want to keep her son away from a drug dealer. She probably could not believe that he was genuinely interested in her son. At last, she is seeming to be making a real effort at rehabilitation when her grown son visits her at the treatment center. Her expression of unconditional love is a high moment of the film. Like Chiron, Kevin, and Juan, she is a complex character trying to make her way in a world that is not so much hostile as it is of just dismissing her as a person of no importance.

Shot with lots of close-ups of the faces of the characters, Barry Jenkins’ is a slice of life film providing audiences with a dramatic view of a man who in 21st century America is a two-times outsider—a black male in a white society in which crowds still must remind the country that “Black Lives Matter,” and a gay man in a society in which homophobia is still fueled by such fear and hatred that lives can be threatened, and sometimes taken. None of this is overtly stated in this film, the filmmaker assuming that we know this. His agenda is one of seeking understanding. That he succeeds while also entertaining us is a tribute to his skill and that of a cast so talented that we become totally immersed in their stories. In many ways, Mr. Jenkins reminds me of the first film of another creative black director, John Singleton, whose Boyz N the Hood so mesmerized me. At the time, I wrote the following in one of my several reviews of the film:

I have explored this film with a number of audiences, telling them that John Singleton has given as much an entrée into ghetto life as we, with our white skins, can ever hope to gain. He shows us the downside of being black and consigned to South Central L.A., but also the humanity of the characters, some like Tre and Ricky who cling to their dream of breaking out of the hood by going to college—and others, like Doughboy who are trapped, destined to die with a short time from one of the many bullets fired each night by gang members. By showing the close relationship between Tre and his father, Singleton’s film becomes a strong plea not only for peace and non-violence but also for African American men to offer themselves as strong, positive role models for their children.

Moonlight also is a film that all Americans should, no, need, to see!

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

Dough (2015)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 24 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

You shall also love the stranger,

for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:19

The wolf shall live with the lamb,

the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them…

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord

as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah 11:6, 9.

PaulnYya&Nat

Nat introduces new apprentice Ayyash to Joanna. (c) Menemsha Films

British-Austrian director John Goldschmidt’s whimsical tale of interfaith friendship could be a tonic for Americans fed up with political rhetoric demonizing Muslims. Stoners also will be drawn by the funny sequence in which cannabis is accidentally mixed in with the dough at a Jewish bakery, leading to the sudden popularity of the kosher bakery among new customers who wouldn’t know a challah from a Twinkie.

The elderly Nat Dayan (Jonathan Pryce) runs the kosher bakery, the clientele dwindling because the younger Jews are moving from East London to more fashionable districts of the city. He is disappointed that his sons will not take over the business, as he did from his father, but they have become successful lawyers and have no interest in continuing the family tradition. This is partly why the widowed proprietor has insisted on staying on with his establishment, rather than giving in to his sons’ advice to retire.

He is upset when the apprentice he has been training for some time quits, going to work for the large supermarket next door that intends to offer kosher goods. None of the applicants for the job turn out to be suitable, so in desperation he accepts the son of Safa Habimana (Natasha Gordon ), the Muslim woman who cleans his shop—but on a trial basis.

Ayyash (Jerome Holder) and his mother are immigrants from Darfur. The mother is worried about her unemployed son because of his hanging out with some friends with connections to the local drug seller. In fact, it will be this connection that leads to the funny episode, as well as threatening the young man’s future. Ayyash proves to be a reliable, though sometimes clumsy, employee. However, when he spreads his prayer rug in the back of the shop so he can offer a prayer to Allah, the distressed Nat orders him to stop because he is worried what his Jewish customers will think should they see the boy. (Nat has just put on his own prayer accouterments– tallit and tefillin –so we know that both are practicing adherents of their faiths.)

The film’s somewhat unlikely funny sequence begins when some cannabis that Ayyash has been entrusted to sell by the drug dealer accidentally falls into the mixer of the challah dough, and the buyers of the loaves soon return for more. The once almost deserted shop now has almost a block-long line of people waiting to buy the goodies, including the new line of “enhanced” brownies that the boy has persuaded his boss to make. As they work together in the shop, the old man showing Ayyash how to braid challahs, a deep bond begins to form between him and the young Muslim. Also adding interest to the story are Pauline Collins as Nat’s widowed landlady who would like theirs to be more than a business arrangement, and Melanie Freeman as Nat’s adoring granddaughter Olivia, who also befriends Ayyash.

But will their relationship survive the inevitable discovery of the magical ingredient? And what will Ayyash’s drug supplier Victor (Ian Hart) do when he demands either payment or the drugs back? There is even a second villain, Sam Cotton (Philip Davis), owner of the expanding supermarket next door who wants to buy the whole building and force Nat either to sell out to him or go out of business. What would happen were he to learn about the secret ingredient of those baked goods, even though, once Nat has discovered it, it now is no longer added to the dough?

The dramedy might seem ever so slight in a world in which Jews and Muslims murderously assault each other in the Middle East almost every day, and yet it is good to see such a film of hope as this one. It might not display the poetic beauty of Isaiah’s vision of shalom, but it is close enough to it to warm the hearts of those longing for harmony and respect among all peoples.

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

If you have enjoyed this or other of the free reviews, please consider subscribing to the journal, wherein you will find many additional features for exploring film and faith.

The Infiltrator (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hour 7 min.

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

Our star ratings (1-5): 5

O let the evil of the wicked come to an end, but establish the righteous, you who test the minds and hearts, O righteous God.

Psalm 7:9

Perverseness of heart shall be far from me; I will know nothing of evil.

Psalm 101:4

Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.

Proverbs 4:27

TI_D009_LD_00053_R_CROP (l to r) Simón Andreu stars as Gonzalo Mora Sr., Rubén Ochandiano as Gonzalo Mora Jr., Joseph Gilgun as Dominic, Bryan Cranston as undercover U.S. Customs agent Robert Mazur, John Leguizamo as his partner Emir Abreu, Yul Vazquez as Javier Ospina and Xarah Xavier as Lau in THE INFILTRATOR, a Broad Green Pictures release. Credit: Liam Daniel / Broad Green Pictures

(L to r) Simón Andreu stars as Gonzalo Mora Sr., Rubén Ochandiano as Gonzalo Mora Jr., Joseph Gilgun as Dominic, Bryan Cranston as undercover U.S. Customs agent Robert Mazur, John Leguizamo as his partner Emir Abreu, Yul Vazquez as Javier Ospina and Xarah Xavier as Lau in THE INFILTRATOR, a Broad Green Pictures release. Credit: Liam Daniel / Broad Green Pictures

I couldn’t agree more with the assessment of this crime thriller by the reviewer in TIME Magazine: “This is a summer movie for grown-ups.” So intense at times is the suspense that you will even forget your popcorn, the prerequisite required to fully enjoy the other bloated and unbelievable thrillers flooding your local cinemaplex. Neither of the film’s three undercover agents are superheroes, but they are infinitely more believable and enjoyable. Nor are the drug-traffickers super villains, but you will not find any on neighboring screens both as smooth and as cold blooded as the ones in director Brad Furman’s film.

Based on former U.S. Customs agent Robert Mazur’s book of the same name, this is the five year-long story of the bringing to justice the drug cartel run by Columbia’s Pablo Escobar. It is the mid 1980s, and the US Customs unit headed by Bonni Tischler (Amy Ryan) is dedicated to stemming the flood of cocaine flowing through southern Florida from Columbia. They feel stymied, because no matter how large an amount of drugs they seize, more keep coming. Special Agent Robert Mazur, ably played by Bryan Cranston), says, “I think we’ve been doing this backward. We’ve been following the drugs to get to the bad guys. What if we chased the money?” And so begins the epic tale of Operation C-Chase, the infiltration of Pablo Escobar’s large organization, a venture that will require much ingenuity, courage, and patience—as well as Oscar-caliber acting by the agents involved.

The partner assigned to Agent Mazur is the bold and brash Puerto Rica-born Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), so it takes a while for the calm and quiet Mazur to feel comfortable with him. They couldn’t be more different, with the older Mazur being married with two children. After careful research looking at headstones in a cemetery, Mazur adopts the identity of the deceased Robert Musella because they are about the same age, he was Italian American, and they have the same initials. With the help of the vast resources of the US Treasury Department Mazur develops the character of a rich high roller with wide-ranging banking connections. They even set up the shell of an investment company; his pitch being that investing in stock and companies is the safest way to launder dirty drug money. He is provided with a lavish mansion suitable for a rock star to add authenticity to his carefully constructed resume. When Mazur manages to capture the attention of Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), Escobar’s top lieutenant, everything about him and his claim to be able to handle the cartel’s huge amount of cash for laundering is believable. As an added touch he even has a fake fiancée in novice agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger).

There is many a danger that could lead to their certain death, a chief one being Mazur’s devotion to his wife and his moral scruple regarding betraying his vows to her. When he and Emir at a strip club are plied with prostitutes, the younger partner willingly engages in sex, but Mazur puts off his nubile partner, claiming that he wants to be faithful to his girlfriend. Later, Emir is upset by this, declaring that they have to go all the way, do anything in order to convince the criminals that they are with them. During the following weeks, as Mazur is thrown into intimate situations with faux fiancée Kathy, it is obvious that he is drawn to her and could easily bed down with her in one of the luxurious rooms they frequent during their travels.

Perhaps the most electric scene of danger is the one in which Mazur is dining out with his wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Suddenly one of the criminals appears at his table, obviously surprised that his “friend” is dining with a woman other than the fiancée whom he has met. Just then the waiter brings their anniversary cake, and the quick-witted Musella creates a diversion by pretending that the waiter has brought the wrong cake, not the birthday cake he had ordered. As the hapless server tries to explain that he did not mix up the order, Musella feigns anger, grabbing the man and pushing his face into cake. Evelyn, of course, is horrified by this brutal act, but the crook is duly convinced by his friend’s cover story.

During the course of the five years Mazur and partners are astonished at the willingness of so many international bankers to play along with the cartel, the profits being so great. His fancy briefcase is equipped with a tape recorder. He just has to turn sideways a decorative brass eagle near the clasp to turn on the machine, so he is able to make over a thousand recordings of officials incriminating themselves.

Mazur also becomes acquainted with Escobar’s money manager Javier Ospina (Yul Vazquez), always dressed in white, including his hat. His bizarre behavior is influenced by his penchant for drugs and his obsession with sex—he even tries to come on to “Musella”!

Mazur’s sensitive conscience becomes disturbed as he develops a liking for the cultured Roberto Alcaino and his wife Gloria (Elena Anaya). The Alcaino’s are completely taken in, Roberto declaring his trust in his new friend and bestowing an expansive gift onto Kathy when they visit his lavish penthouse in Miami. The couples visit back and forth and dine frequently together. So when at the climax of the sting operation Mazur sees that Roberto and his wife have come to the fake wedding service, there is a note of regret in his greeting to his friend, who is soon to be arrested and taken away.

This is a film made all the more powerful by the knowledge that the events portrayed actually happened. There are no special effects-enhanced fistfights and careening car chases or gun battles involving the firing of thousands of rounds of bullets. Just a suspenseful battle of wits against a brutal array of suave criminals willing to do anything to maintain their vast empire of wealth. There is bloodshed, in one scene coming so unexpectedly that it is far more shocking than those in routine thrillers involving dozens of victims. At the end we are told of the fates of the various characters involved, as well as the knowledge that the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), the seventh largest privately held financial institution in the world, was brought down by the sting operation.

Director Brad Furman’s film is not just a thriller, but also a character study. Bryan Cranston is outstanding as the resourceful man who does not want to compromise his marital vows but must somehow convince the bad guys that he is one of them—the last of the two Scriptures above were chosen with him and his dilema in mind. The supporting actors are equally good, John Leguizamo as the volatile Emir Abreu; Diane Kruger, one moment all business as an agent and the next the sexy fiancée Kathy Ertz; Benjamin Bratt makes us actually like Roberto Alcaino, the brutal drug lieutenant.

We might wish for larger roles for the talented Amy Ryan as Agent Bonni Tischler and Juliet Aubrey as Mazur’s wife Evelyn, but this would have made the lengthy film even longer, and would not have added to the heart of the narrative, the dangerous deception carried on by the three undercover agents in order to bring the vicious criminals to justice. As it is there are enough scenes between Mazur and Evelyn to show that his mission came close to destroying his relationship with her and the children.

This film will soon be joined by the other crime thriller for adults, Hell and High Water, the two films making it a good summer for those unimpressed by the seemingly endless Bourne series or the overcrowded superhero genre.

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

If you find this review helpful, please consider buying an issue or taking out a year’s subscription to the journal. You will find lots more in each issue than just reviews.

Dheepan (2015)

Tamil & French with English subtitles

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 50 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

Psalm 137:4

Make sure foreigners and orphans get their just rights.

Deuteronomy 24:17 The Message

 

Three

Three Sri Lankans form a fake family in order to live in a French housing project. (c) IFC/Sundance Selects

French director Jacques Audiard’s new film immerses us in the world of immigrants so that we can feel their confusion and fears, as well as their hopes and dreams. The refugees this time are fleeing the little-known (to Americans) but bloody conflict in Sri Lanka that raged for over 30 years on the island nation. The armed conflict led by the group branded as terrorists, The Tamil Tigers, has ended with their defeat by government forces. This film deals with the aftermath by focusing upon three survivors, a Tamil soldier, a widow, and an orphaned girl. Winner of the coveted Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, the film joins others such as Sin Nombre and The Good Lie, in showing those displaced by conflict, though it is more stark and violent than either of these.

The film opens with rebels setting fire to a pyre on which are laid out the bodies of their fallen comrades. One of them, Sivadhasan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan), changes into civilian clothes and burns his uniform in the blazing pyre. With his wife and child dead, he devises a scheme that will enable him to escape from the island.

Meanwhile Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) is going through a crowded bazaar to discover if the children she sees belong to any of the adults. At last coming upon a woman and two girls, she learns that Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) is not the woman’s daughter, so she takes the girl in hand, later joining with  Sivadhasan to obtain papers from a dead man named Dheepan so that their fake family can leave the battle-scarred island.

In Paris Sivadhasan, now Dheepan, tries vainly to sell silly tourist items that light up, but finds few takers. The “family” manages to con welfare officials into sending them to work at a huge public housing development a little distance from Paris. At first because neither adult speaks French the girl proves her value as an interpreter because she does possess a rudimentary knowledge of the language. The project manager Youssouf (Marc Zinga) takes the three around to introduce Dheepan as the new building and grounds caretaker and show the new employee the basics of the job. Part of this is to sort the mail for several of the buildings, which leads to some confusion when Dheepan and Yalini sort it by first rather than last names. Illayaal is not at all happy at being left at the special ed class because the other children refuse to accept her. Dheepan gently talks with her, revealing a long suppressed parental skill by convincing her to return to the class.

At first the shy Yalini stays at home to cook and clean the apartment. She wants to go to London where she has a cousin, but Dheepan convinces her to stay. She reluctantly takes a job as cook and caregiver for a disabled elderly man after Dheepan compalins that she should be contributing to their meager income. Her food is so good that the man’s son, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), recently released from prison but still wearing a tracking bracelet around his ankle, pays her extra money. Although not a Muslim, she starts wearing a headscarf in order to blend in more with other women in the project.

Dheepan also is doing well, carefully following intsructions not to enter the building used by the gang selling drugs until they have left late in the morning. At night he gazes out the window at the nightlong activity of the gang, cars and motorcycles coming and going as the thugs sell their drugs, drink and carry on. Though they share the apartment, the adults sleep in different rooms. As the days pass they begin to talk with each other, Yalani commenting once that it is nice that they are having a conversation like a real family. Still, as she talks with Brahim, she refers to her family as “fake.”

With the return to the projects of Brahim, rivalry with another gang erupts into violence. Yalani and Illayaal, caught returning from a shopping trip, drop their bags and take cover behind one of the buildings as bullets whiz around them. Dheepan tries to set up a no-fire zone around his building, but the thugs ridicule his attempt and threaten the family. He intercepts the fed-up Yalani when she leaves with the girl (whom once she would have left behind) to catch a train for the coast. When she is feeding her charge, the rival gang peppers the apartment with gun fire, injuring Brahim, who then forces her to call her husband to come and rescue them. Dheepan reverts back to Sivadhasan, the Tamil Tiger soldier, taking up a machette and a pointed scewdriver as he sets forth to deal with the arrogant thugs who attempt to come between him and the woman he now loves.

As a peacemaker I was saddened by the film’s resolution, though find it understandable. The desparate man, now fully embracing his new family, defends them in the only way he can, with his training and skill learned during his years of service to his cause. Even Gandhi said that he preferred a man of courage who reverted to violence in defending his own to the cowardice of a man who runs away to safety. Were this an American film I would write that it is an updated Western–you know, the ones where a gunslinger is trying to hang up his gun belt and settle down to a peaceful life, but then circumstances arise that force him to take up his gun again, cause “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”

Despite the violence, the film excellently introduces us to still another group of “the least of these, my brothers” whom we ought not to ignore. The importance of immigrants finding solidarity with others is depicted in the beautiful sequence in which Yalani takes the girl to worship in a Hindu temple, after which the three of them enjoy a picnic with other refugees, all of them showing that they can sing the song of their lord “in a foreign land.”

This is an informative and inspiring film worth the trouble of tracking it down. Its authenticity is affirmed in the following note about the lead actor on IMDB: “Antonythasan Jesuthasan, a former child soldier with the Sri Lankan militant group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who fled the country in the late 1980s and eventually made his way to France, where he became an acclaimed playwright, essayist and novelist. “Dheepan” marks his first leading role in a film (after a supporting part in the 2011 Indian film “Sengadal”), but his commanding screen presence suggests it will not be his last.” Amen to that last sentence!

For more information on the film’s background see the Wikipedia article “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberation_Tigers_of_Tamil_Eelam

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

 

Amy (2015)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hour 8 min.

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

Star rating (1-5): 5

 How long will you torment me, and break me in pieces with words?

Job 19:2

Singing2

With her feline-like eye make up & powerful voice, Amy Winehouse commanded the stage.    (c) 2015 A24

 Janis Joplin, Brian Cole, Tim Buckley, Sid Vicious, Tim Hardin, Andy Gibb, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Ray, Curt Kobain, Dee Dee Ramone, and Amy Winehouse—what do these people who died years apart have in common?* All died relatively young (except for Ray), their deaths either alcohol/drug related or suicides, and all rose to great fame as singers or musicians. Director Asif Kapadia lets singer-songwriter Ms. Winehouse, her friends, fellow musicians who worked with her, family, and songs tell her story through home and archival video and numerous interviews. It is a story that is sad and chilling, and yet which also manages to celebrate her great gifts.

In one clip the teenaged Amy says, almost prophetically, to a friend who told her she would become famous, “I don’t think I want to be famous … I couldn’t handle it. I’d go mad.” But, as we see in an earlier home video in which, along with two friends, she sings “Happy Birthday” with such gusto, her talent was so great that it would have been hard for her to avoid fame—and the hounding, even vicious, paparazzi eager to catch her in an unguarded moment. She was blessed with life-long friends such as Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, as well as by her first manager Nick Shymansky, who became a friend as well. But she did not luck out with a father who seemed to see her as his own ticket to fame (and as she notes in her famous song “Rehab,” advised her against going into a treatment clinic). And, of course, there was her druggie boyfriend to whom she was married for a couple of years husband Blake Fielder-Civil. In addition to the vulture press there were comedians who made her alcohol addiction into fodder for their jokes. The clip of Jay Leno poking fun at her on his show seems excessively cruel, given what we learn about her struggle in this documentary. Her death at the age of 27 in 2011 from alcohol poisoning makes her story seem like a Greek tragedy.

The most heartening part of the film for me are the shots of her with her idol Tony Bennett, first joined by her TV set as she watches from a London stage the 2008 Grammy Awards. When he announces her as the winner she is thunderstruck. (Sadly backstage she says that it was boring without her drugs, and soon she is back on them again, leading to an audience in Belgrade booing her when, unable to pull herself together, she sits down on the stage.) Later he asks her to sing with him on an album. He pays her a tremendous compliment, calling her one of the greatest voice talents to come along in years. I am glad she was able to hear this directly from him, even if it was not enough to sway her from her tragic trajectory. (This also increases even more my admiration for this great singer, who also gave so much of himself to the Civil Rights movement.)

It would be easy for preachers to mine Amy for scenes to use in a moralistic sermon on “the wages of sin.” This would be as callous as Jay Leno’s use of her for a cheap laugh. The film provides us with an intimate glimpse of a fragile greatly talented but flawed child of God who succumbed to the tremendous pressures of fame. It leaves us wondering “what might have been” had her father encouraged her to enter rehab, but does not pass judgment on him, leaving the latter up to us to decide. That the world is better, richer, because of her brief presence needs no argument—just listen to the recordings she has left behind. You will be hearing a lot more about this documentary around Academy Award-winning time.

* These are a tiny portion of stars from the voluminous list in Wikipedia’s article “List of deaths in rock and roll.

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

Boyz n The Hood (1991)

This is an updated version (mainly in the last half) of a review and guide published in VP over 20 years ago. We post it now because groups watching Straight Out of Compton might want to also discuss this, the first film in which Ice Cube was a star, and which depicts ghetto conditions against which N.W.A. was protesting.

 Rated R. Running time: 1hour 52 min.

Our content rating (1-10): Violence 5; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.

Psalm 72:14 (A Psalm describing the ideal king, but what about the ideal cop—see Officer Coffey below?)

 And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Ephesians 6:4

Themes:

Choosing between violence & non-violence, Effects of racism, Father-son relations, Sin, Where is God?

OnPorch

The boyz spend a lot of time hanging out on Doughboy & Rickey’s front porch. The boy was put in a wheelchair after being shot one night.     (c) 1991 Columbia Pictures

Director-writer John Singleton gives us a raw, unblinking look at the horror that too much of modern, urban America has become. If it ever was true, Katharine Lee Bates “alabaster cities” “undimmed by human tears” no longer is the case. Joining the grime and smog are the tears of those hurting, frustrated people who find it difficult, if not impossible, to cling to Dr. King’s dream of a raceless, classless nation. With a wisdom beyond that of most twenty-three year olds, Singleton tells the story of three young men growing up in the battleground that South West Los Angeles has become.

The two half-brothers, Ricky (Morris Chestnut) and Doughboy (Ice Cube), live in an undisciplined home where their mother lavishes almost all of her love on Rick, who has a chance of escaping the ghetto if he can keep his grades up. Doughboy, the oldest and toughest of the three, has given up any hope. A school drop out, he has seen too many friends senselessly gunned down to believe that he can escape a similar fate.

Tre (Cuba Gooding) also lives in a single parent home, but it is different. When his mother feels that he is not listening to her, she hands him over to her former husband Furious Styles (Laurence Fisburne), mortgage broker whose office is a storefront.

BnHdTre&Fathr

Furious is concerned that his only son Tre survives until he can go to college. (c) 1991 Columbia Pictures

He proves to be a father who has definite ideas about discipline and life goals—and who lives up to his name when it comes to discipline. A sample of his advice to Tre: “Any fool with a dick can make a baby, but only a real man can raise his children.” Furious also is well aware that it is the white man who holds power. He asks, “Why is it that there is a gun shop on almost every corner in this community?” The old man to whom he’s speaking says, “Why?” “I’ll tell you why.” Furious answers, “For the same reason that there is a liquor store on almost every corner in the black community. Why? They want us to kill ourselves.” Later he points out that it is the whites who bring in drugs in their planes and sell it to dealers in the hood.

The poisonous relationship between police and youth can be seen in the following exchange between when officer Coffey stops Trey, who says, “I didn’t do nothing. The cop snarls, “You think you tough?” He pulls out his gun. “Scared now, ain’t you? I like that. That’s why I took this job. I hate little m—-rf—–rs like you. Little niggers, you ain’t shit! I could blow your head off with this Smith & Wesson and you couldn’t do shit. Think you tough? What set you from? Look like one of them Crenshaw mafia m—-rf—–rs. “ To make matters worse, Coffey is a black cop!

The sexism of the boys is frequently expressed, especially by Doughboy, who almost always refers to a girl as a “ho “. Shalika, one of the girls who hang out with the group calls him on this. “Why is it every time you talk about a female you gotta say bitch, ho, or hootchie?” His reply: “’Cause that’s what you are.”

I have explored this film with a number of audiences, telling them that John Singleton has given as much an entrée into ghetto life as we, with our white skins, can ever hope to gain. He shows us the downside of being black and consigned to South Central L.A., but also the humanity of he characters, some like Tre and Ricky who cling to their dream of breaking out of the hood by going to college—and others, like Doughboy who are trapped, destined to die with a short time from one of the many bullets fired each night by gang members. By showing the close relationship between Tre and his father, Singleton’s film becomes a strong plea not only for peace and non-violence but also for African American men to offer themselves as strong, positive role models for their children.

For Reflection/Discussion

  1. What scene impressed you the most? What about it made it so effective? The writing; acting; music; photography; directing?
  2. What do you think of the setting of the story? What has happened in our cities that such conditions have developed? Furious Styles has his theory; what do you think of it? How did you feel during the early scene when the young boys see a dead body but go right on playing football? What has happened to them that they behave this way?
  3. The film is rich in characters: Describe or tell what seems to motivate:

Ricky Baker       Furious Styles Doughboy Baker       Reva Styles

Tre Styles               Mrs. Baker     Brandi

  1. What seems to be Furious Styles’ philosophy of life? How does he attempt to pass this on to his son? What do you think of his methods? Compare this to the Baker household. What is lacking there?
  2. In a parked car the three friends talk about some serious matters. How does this compare to the stereotype of ghetto youth? What do you think of Doughboy’s comments about God? Can you blame him?
  3. What do the police seem to contribute to life in the ‘hood? Where is the irony in the scene when the boys are questioned by the two policemen? Why do you think the African-American cop acts as he does? Is this typical?   Is this a good way to gain the cooperation of the people of the ‘hood? (Those who have seen the film “Grand Canyon” might compare this scene with the one in which Simon’s nephew is stopped by police in a “nice” neighborhood.)
  4. How did you feel when Tre breaks under the strain of the constant sounds of violence and police surveillance and runs to Brandi for consolation? How does our environment affect or shape us? What does this say about the human need for fellowship and support? Where is the church, which claims to offer this, in this story? In the rural South the church usually did provide an environment of support through music, preaching and social activities that nurtured the members’ self esteem, so continually under attack by the white-dominated society. What happened in the cities of the North to the church?
  5. The story builds to its climax like a Greek tragedy; what irony do you see in the death of Ricky? And who is it during that aftermath that seems to be the most sensitive and aware? (He is the one who rushes his younger brother out of the room before he can see too much of Ricky’s bloody body.) Would you have expected this of him: and how does this make his despair and probable fate all the more tragic?
  6. What do you see happening to Tre and Brandi? To Furious? Is there a danger that they will become so absorbed in their striving for “the good life” that they will forget their origins, or will their experiences contribute to a sense of concern for those they have left behind?
  7. How do you feel after seeing and discussing this film? What does it have to say to African-Americans? To whites? What can be done about the South West Los Angeleses of America? (A good film to see as a follow-up to this is one already mentioned Grand Canyon, which deals with the malaise of both whites and African-Americans living in our cities.)
  8. The ‘hood” is harsh and unyielding; do you see grace anywhere in this story of violence and neglect? What word of hope might you express to Doughboy? Where do you see God in this story?
  9. What is the racial situation where you live? How involved are you or your church in dealing with it, and with poverty? Talk with your pastor and other community leaders to see where you and your group might be of help — and even more, might learn first hand what young people like Tre and his friends must contend with. (One of the most memorable encounters my people and myself had was when we met in the home of a black church member in a public housing project and saw a little of the danger that she and her child were up against every day!)

Escobar: Paradise Lost (2014)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 6; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 4.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

Isaiah 5:20

 Guard me, O Lord, from the hands of the wicked; protect me from the violent who have planned my downfall. The arrogant have hidden a trap for me, and with cords they have spread a net, along the road they have set snares for me.

Psalm 140:4-5

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

Luke 9:25

EscoSpkng

Nick sees Escobar for the first time when Maria’s Uncle speaks at the dedication of a clinic he has financed. (c) RADiUS-TWC

Director/writer Andrea Di Stefano explores the many sides of a person who has wrought extensive evil throughout Columbia, the United Sates, and, indeed, the world—Pablo Escobar. The “Paradise” of the title that is lost is sought by two Canadian brothers. Nick (Josh Hutcherson) and his older brother Dylan (Brady Corbet) have come in 1983 with Dylan’s wife and a few others to build their paradise on a picturesque beach near Medellín, Colombia. Both expert surfers, they plan to start by teaching surfing and then opening an establishment that will include a bar and restaurant on what they are told is an un-owned beachfront strip of land.

One day in town Nick spots a lovely young woman, Maria (Claudia Traisac) overseeing a delivery by several men. He asks to rent her truck, and she responds that she will not rent it, but he can use it for free. He sees her again at the dedication of a medical clinic for the villagers. He also sees Pablo Escobar (Benicio del Toro) for the first time, standing on a platform before a towering portrait of himself. The man speaks of his own humble background and of the good that the new clinic will bring and the hope that the people will be able to better their lives. Nick strikes up a relationship with Maria that quickly escalates into their mutual desire to marry, this despite the revelation that Escobar is the uncle who regards the girl as a daughter. Although he does not say it, naïve Nick does seem to be aware of the stories about the so-called benefactor’s drug dealings.

Nick is easily won over by Escobar’s warm welcome when he and Maria attend her uncle’s lavish birthday celebration at his hacienda, which is the size of a small college campus—it even has a small zoo boasting an elephant. Surrounded by hundreds of family members, hired thugs, and officials, Escobar is the epitome of a welcoming host. We also see him as a devoted husband and father. He frollics in the large swimming pool with his young children. He publically announces Maria and Nick’s engagement, embracing and blessing them.

Maria is somewhat aware of her beloved guardian’s drug business, but she refers to it as “exporting a product,” as if drugs were on the same level as coffee or copper. Brother Dylan is less circumspect, upset by Nick’s new connection with the drug lord, even warning him of the consequences. Nick, not heeding his brother at first, is thrust quickly into reality when he learns what happened to the local thugs who had beat up him and Dylan as part of their scheme to extort money from them for using “their territory” for their beach camp and future business site. Escobar had learned of this when he had asked Nick how he came by some bruises. Nick hears that the gang had been rounded up, hung upside down together from a tree and burned alive, the aftermath a grizzly sight that we see in a flashback.

The whole central story is told in a long flashback, the film beginning in the summer of 1991 with Nick being one of a small group of men, each entrusted with driving a van of treasures that Escobar plans to hide in caves and such around the country. He has entered into a bargain with the federal government to end the bloody civil war that has been wreaking such havoc in Columbia for so many years. For a reduced sentence he agrees to call off his followers from their slaughtering. His imprisonment will be in a special facility from which he can still direct his activities.

In private Escobar gives Nick instructions on where to go and what to do when he arrives—orders that include the killing of the peasant who will guide him to the cave where the boxes will be hidden. Nick hides his revulsion at being required to kill, but on the way is obviously bothered by this last order. Especially when arriving at the village he discovers that his guide is a cheerful teenaged father, he is conscience stricken. What to do, especially knowing that failure to carry out orders might result in his own death. Indeed, when he spots one of Escobar’s high-ranking assassins, he wonders if he also is to die in order to keep secret the whereabouts of the treasure.

The film is a riveting portrait of the human face of evil, with actor Benicio del Toro dominating the film. We see enough of

Escobar’s family life to see how warm and caring he can be, and from shots of dozens of murdered people we see how brutal he can be. He is also a religious man, praying over the telephone with his mother that God will protect them–but obviously sees no connection between God and morality. When he arrives to turn himself over the authorities we see catch a glimpse of how he has become regarded by millions of poor Columbians as a Robin Hood.

He orders his henchmen to get out of the car, surrounded by thousands of cheering people, and give them “a little money.” Also, we see how his generosity to the Catholic Church, along with his building of so many clinics, sports facilities, and other facilities for the poor, that has gained him its support. A priest blesses him, praying that God will keep an eye on him. To this Escobar gives to the priest his own blessing and says that he will get a big telescope, train it on the heavens and keep “an eye on God.”

Juxtaposed to this large-scale scene is the smaller one in a far away village where Nick is discovering the high price of getting into bed with the devil. His crisis of conscience has brought him to the brink of terror and despair, but can he do anything to counter his orders? He has already lost paradise. Will he also lose Maria—and his soul?

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the August issue of Visual Parables. A subscription to the journal will also give you access to Lectionary Links, a feature for preachers that links a film to one or more lessons from the Common Lectionary.