Max Rose (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 23 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eyes waste away because of grief;
they grow weak because of all my foes.

Psalm 6:6-7

maxgrandd

Max dines out with his granddaughter & son. (c) Paladin

Writer/ director Daniel Noah’s film is a good character study of an elderly man overcome by grief and refusing to be consoled by either his son or granddaughter. Jerry Lewis is superb as the 87-year-old old former jazz pianist whose grief over the loss of Eva (Claire Bloom), his beloved wife of 65 years is so overwhelming that he gives up on life. Then he learns something that motivates him to act because it is so disturbing that he thinks that his marriage had been a sham—this despite the flashbacks to the pair that suggest otherwise.

The discovery follows weeks of Max’s estranged son Chris (Kevin Pollak) and loving granddaughter Annie (Kerry Bishé) trying to comfort him and help him to move on in life. He rejects every and anything that either of them suggest, his words especially to Chris tinged with hostility. Unable to care for himself, he enters an assisted living facility. The attendants try to get him interested in crafts and other activities, but they all seem meaningless to him. The counselor Jenny Flowers (Illeana Douglas) also is unable to stir him. He does enjoy an evening with a couple of other old musicians (this is a magical scene!), but his joyful mood evaporates with the rise of the sun the next day.

Then, while sorting through a box of Eva’s belongings he comes across a locket she has kept. The inscription on it, with the same date on which he had recorded his first song, suggests that she was in love with someone else all those years. He sets out to track the man down. What he finds is the bed-ridden Ben Tracey (Dean Stockwell), an old man in the terminal stages of emphysema—and from him a measure of wisdom, relief, and the awareness that life is too precious to spend it in grief or regret. The masterfully staged scene between the two rivals will remain in your memory for a long time.

With its excellent cast, headed by a talented actor better remembered as a comedian, Daniel Noah offers one more reminder that we not require young and attractive characters to make for a compelling film. At Cannes in 2013 critics dismissed the film as a muddled mess, but now, recut, it is easily comprehensible, demonstrating the need for truth and the support of others to make life worth living.

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

Mr. Holmes (2015)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 44 min.

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

Our start rating (1-5): 4.5

 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone…

Genesis 2:18a

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.

Ecclesiastes 4:9

Boy&Holm

The inquisitive young Roger forms a special bond with the elderly employer of his mother.                (c) 2015 Roadside Attractions

I go back far enough so that actor Basil Rathbone’s narrow countenance is the face of Sherlock Holmes for me, thanks to his performance in a dozen films in the 1940s.

Whoever plays him, Sherlock Holmes has become the personification of the Rational Man—his keen eye (and nose, as we see in the new film) picking up a myriad of details at once, his mind instantly arranging them in an orderly manner to unravel the deepest mystery confronting him. It is a mind unhindered by emotions that blind or confuses us lesser beings. Because of his huge reputation for his crime solving and his emotional detachment, Holmes’s life has been a solitary one, except for his association with Dr. John Watson. It is the theme of aloof detatachment, even loneliness, that this new film singles out at several points. For me Holmes has never been as human, in the sense of being vulnerable, as in director Bill Condon’s work based on what must be a very intriguing novel, screenwriter Mitch Cullin’s own A Slight Trick of the Mind.

The story starts out in 1947 with the now 93 year-old Holmes (Ian McKellan) returning by train to his country home near the Cliffs of Dover. (I love these British movies, including the Harry Potter series, in which we see overhead shots of a line of vintage passenger cars pulled by a colorful puffing steam engine!)

Holmes had been away in Japan, invited there by an admirer of his work. At home he is looked after by his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker). His first thought upon returning is to check on his beloved bees. As we will see throughout the story, he is worried that some of them are dying each day. He and Roger, who shares his enthusiasm for bees, have become close, the old man also appreciating the lad’s intelligence and growing analytical ability. Mrs. Munro is not entirely please with their relationship, her later intention to seek employment elsewhere adding a bit of suspense later on.

Alone in his library/study Holmes unwraps the package he has been carrying on the train. Packed in the small wooden box is the prickly ash plant he obtained at Hiroshima, almost buried in the blackened ashes of the atom-bombed city. It is the Japanese counterpart to the worker bees’ secretion known as royal jelly. Holmes’ interest in the two is their reputed beneficial effects in combating dementia. The elderly man is worried about his growing inability to recall names and details of the past. So is his doctor, who gives him a diary and asks him to make a mark in each day’s entry whenever he suffers a memory lapse. The pages are soon filled with the former detective’s marks.

There are a number of flashbacks to the time spent with the Japanese man who had invited him, Tamiki Uzemaki (Hiroyuki Sanada). Part of this includes the debunking of the popular myths surrounding the world-famous detective, such as when at dinner Mr. Uzemaki’s mother expresses disappointment that their guest is not wearing his deerstalker hat. Holmes replies, “That was an embellishment of the illustrator.” He also states that he prefers cigars to a pipe. As these flashbacks progress we learn that Uzemaki has hidden motives for enticing the famous detective to his country.

Other flashbacks take us further back into Holmes’ past to the day when Mr. Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy) engaged Holmes to investigate his estranged wife Ann (Hattie Morahan). Depressed over the loss of her two stillborn children, she has taken up the glass harmonica because it is thought to reach the spirits of the dead through it. She “talks” with (or “to”) the two children. The worried Kelmot dismisses her teacher, said to be a medium, forbidding her to have any contact with the old woman. As Holmes follows Ann about town, he notes that she practices writing her husband’s signature, then manages to withdraw money from the family bank account, and obtain a deadly poison from a pharmacist. Convinced of what she is planning to do, Holmes confronts her, urging her to return and rekindle her relationship with the man who still loves her. The result is unexpected, leaving such a negative imprint on the proud detective’s mind that he gives up his profession.

The account of the case is unfinished, the original writer, John Watson, now dead, and Holmes’s defective memory is unable to provide the details. Until—it is Roger and his keen interest in his benefactor that the aged man is able finish writing the story—and reassess his life and values. Among the several prods to Holmes’s memory is the glove that Ann left behind when the detective confronted her. Roger finds it when he is looking through Watson’s old desk still retained by Holmes. After an almost catastrophic accident involving Roger, Mrs. Munro reassess her plans to accept another offer of employment.

The film will be slow moving for some Americans, all too accustomed to the bullet-paced thriller genre, but it is a fascinating character study, with the tender scenes between the old man nearing the end of life and the bright boy just beginning his especially touching. At least a couple of times Holmes expresses his disdain for fiction, and in particular, his deceased friend’s fictionalizing of his cases. In this film when we see a cover of a Sherlock Holmes book “John Watson” replaces that of “Arthur Conon Doyle” as author. This dislike of fiction reflects something that Holmes says to Watson in the book The Sign of the Four: “Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it (A Study in Scarlet) with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story.” But it is also in that story that we find the rare, if not unique, reference to the deeply buried emotions in the detective. When Dr. Watson is wounded by a bullet, his friend evinces a brief moment of fear and concern, about which Watson states, “It was worth a wound; it was worth many wounds; to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain.”*

It is the “great heart” that this precious film reveals, one opened by the mutual love between the old man and the adoring boy. The 93 year-old no doubt has little time left, but it will be a period graced by the companionship that he had known before only while Dr. John Watson had been alive. And this time, we can be sure, Mr. Holmes will not be as reticent at expressing his feelings toward those devoted to him.

* The Sign of the Four quotes are from Wikipedia’s “Sherlock Holmes

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

Iris (2014)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 23 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

Matthew 6:28-29

 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.

Mark 10:15.

With Husb

Iris & Carl Alfert, still in love with each other & with life.    (c) 2014 Magnolia Pictures

Albert Maysles’s documentary about New York fashion icon Iris Afert ought to be a tonic for all sad souls feeling the blues over their age. At 93 Iris is still going strong, giving speeches and accepting awards, and still shopping in upscale stores and flea markets for more gewgaws to store in her apartment that looks like an overstocked clothing and gift shop.

Furthermore, Carl, her beloved husband of more than 60 years is also in relatively good health, celebrating his 100th birthday during the course of the filming of the documentary. He has been his wife’s number one fan and supporter, organizing their numerous trips to the far corners of the world during which she buys trunk loads of clothing, jewelry, hats, and trinkets that fill their apartments back home. (The plural is not a mistake. If I heard right, the couple owns so much “stuff” that it requires a house and three apartments to contain it all.) The filmmaker uses lots of photographs and 16 mm footage shot by Carl during their travels.

The filmmaker obviously loves his subjects, with Iris often bantering with him as she shows off various items or models for him various assortments of clothing. Her eclectic tastes are at times way too much for me at times, but nonetheless I admire her creativity and sense of adventure in finding new combinations. So do the people at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. When they mounted a show around her in 2005, people flocked to it, spreading her already considerable fame even further. (As an interior decorator expert in fabrics she has worked at the White House several times.

She has even managed to acquire numerous variations of her trademark over-sized round glasses with lens almost as thick as the bottom of a coke bottle. Some of the frames are decorated with tiny beads. There is no doubt that wherever she goes she is the center of attention. But she does not come across as a totally self-centered person. We see several of her many encounters with young women, passing on to them some of her knowledge and experience. Her obvious affection for them is returned, no one regarding her as “a nice little old lady.”

Although I think Christ might question her obsession with clothing and jewelry, I believe he would applaud her child-like enthusiasm for life and beauty. This is an elderly person not content to let the world glide by, but one who still seeks to enjoy it to the full—and to share that joy with others. It is ironic that now, with the film’s subject well into her 90s, and with a husband over 100, it was the filmmaker who died—last March at the relatively young age of 89.

Not being a fan of fashion, I attended this film only because the one I wanted to see had to be canceled due to disk failure, and Iris was the only other film at the theater I had not seen. As it turns out, this was a happy accident. Iris is an ebullient person well worth the time getting to know, as lovely in her unique way as the flower after which she is named.

 

Nebraska (2013)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Exodus 20.12

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

 Ephesians 6.4

 Then Jesus* said, “There was a man who had two sons.”

Luke 15:11

Film Review Nebraska

Woody will not believe his son David that the prize money he expects in Nebraska is a scam.
(c) 2013) Paramount Vantage

How far will the love of a son for his father go? Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt, The Descendants), working with a script by someone else this time (Bob Nelson), shows us how far in this father-son road trip film—all the way from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska, some 850 miles. And that on a wild goose chase bound to end in disillusionment and frustration.

The disillusionment and frustration will be that of David Grant’s alcoholic father Woody (Bruce Dern), who has come to believe the letter from the magazine subscription service stating that he might be a winner of one million dollars. We first see the old man walking along a highway. His disheveled hair and grizzled face appears to be more that of a scarecrow than a human being’s, but there are no cornfields in this part of Montana. A policeman stops and tries to question him, but the one word responses offer little information other than his destination is Nebraska. David (Will Forte) picks him up at the police station. He tells his father that the paper is a scam, a come-on to get people to buy magazine subscriptions, but the old man remains convinced that he is a prizewinner.

When they arrive home, Woody’s acid tongued wife Kate (June Squibb) is anything but understanding of her husband. Both she and David try to dislodge Woody’s belief that he has won a million dollars. Woody, however, has the paper that says so, and so it must be true, he tells them, because it is in print. The old man keeps trying to get away. His license and truck have been taken from him because of his condition, worsened by his drinking. Thus each time he sets out on foot, determined to pick up his prize money in Nebraska.

Kate is at her wit’s end, calling the old man “useless.” Older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), news anchor at a local television station, would like to place their father in a nursing home. David, just broken up with his live-in girlfriend and working as a salesman at an electrical appliance store, is tired of being called to rescue his father. But he is the only one halfway sympathetic to the old man and his pipe dream. Seeing that his father will keep on trying, David calls in sick to work and tells Woody that he will drive him. He also apparently sees this as a last chance at getting to know this father who has kept him and his brother at arm’s length all through their lives together.

What follows is not the usual road story, ending in tearful reconciling embraces, but it is a trip in which at least one of the pair will emerge richer for the experience. No, actually, more than one. The miles fly by in silence, with the sight of the wide-open spaces especially suitable for the wide screen format of today’s theaters. It is a landscape in which the sky offers as much scenery as the scrubby fields. At David’s suggestion, the pair stop off to see Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, but Woody is unimpressed, observing that it doesn’t look “finished.” There is also a time consuming interlude when they search along a railroad track for the denture plate that had fallen out of the drunken Woody’s mouth the night before when he stumbled from the bar back to the motel.

Along the way David tries to get his father to open up about the past. He raises the subject of drinking, and the sharp reply is, “You’d drink too, if you were married to your mother.” At another time the son seeks information about his parent’s courtship, “You must have been in love, at least at first.” He seems to be seeking some hint of affection from the surly old man. “It never came up,” Woody replies.

Woody injures his head so that stitches are required at a hospital. This diversion has cost them time, so, because they cannot possibly make it to Lincoln before the weekend office closure, they decide to drive down to Hawthorne, Nebraska. It is Woody and Kate’s hometown where his brothers still live with their families.

This segment is a hoot, with Aunt Martha (Mary Louise Wilson) delighted to host the pair. The several other brothers, however, are as undemonstrative as Woody. While the women are in the kitchen talking and cooking, all the men sit stolidly looking at the TV set, the only subject of conversation being what year and make of a car one of them had been driving. Added to the family reunion are Kate and Ross, hastening down to make it a full family reunion. David advises Woody not to say anything about his supposed winnings, but the old man blurts out the reason for the trip anyway. He becomes an instant celebrity, the other family members suddenly interested in his future, especially as it pertains to money. David tries to explain the true situation, but the Hawthorne contingent is certain he is denying the winnings lest he has to share it with them. As we will see, Aunt Martha’s two obnoxious, pudgy sons, still sponging off their parents, make a drastic play for the money later on.

News of Woody’s good fortune spreads around the hangdog-looking town, the citizens also very interested in what Woody will do with his winnings. He answers that he will buy a new truck and also an air compressor to replace the one that was never returned to him by the borrower 40 years ago. One of the townsfolk is more sinister, Ed (Stacy Keach), Woody’s former senior partner in the local garage, claims that Woody owes him a great deal of money. He demands payment, or else there will be a legal battle.

Thus the past hangs heavy over the characters in this film. Woody’s life has not added up to much, nor have those of the rest of the family and neighbors. Hawthorne itself, with it’s rundown stores, some of them vacant, has more of a past than a future, most of its inhabitants being old people left behind by their children needing to go elsewhere for work. During their stay in Hawthorne David learns far more about his father from some of the townspeople than he had ever learned from his parents. The charming elderly editor of the weekly newspaper Peg Nagy (Angela McEwan) reveals that she had been Woody’s girlfriend.

Whether Woody’s withdrawal and mental confusion are due to his lifelong alcoholism or to approaching dementia we do not know. His singular determination to go to Nebraska bares a faint resemblance to the old man in The Straight Story, who set out on a John Deere riding mower to drive the over 200 miles to reunite with an estranged brother (Woody’s motives, of course, are not as pure). Or maybe, we should compare him to the old man in one of director Payne’s own films, Warren Schmidt in About Schmidt, which is about a man retiring from the insurance industry and needing to find a new reason for living beyond the shallow relationship with his wife. Woody, so devoid of an internal life, seems to have no religious faith, and so his only solace comes from the undeserved love of his youngest son. There is grace in this love that will put up with such a negative father and go the distance—some 850 miles—for his sake.

As the end credits rolled, the thought arose that I had witnessed a prodigal son story in reverse: as in Luke’s gospel, this is the story of “a man who had two sons.” But it is the younger son who is the person of love and mercy, and it is the father who is the prodigal. Woody through his drinking has runaway to “a far country,” one not of geography, but of the inner self. David even manages to bring about the best possible result from Woody’s finally learning and accepting the truth in the magazine office–that he has been entertaining a pipe dream. Besides the prize of a cap emblazoned with “Prize Winner,” David gives Woody something else that he has been wanting—actually two something elses, given by a son who, whether a person of faith or not, embodies much of the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13. It is one of the rare heart-warming moments in this appropriately black and white film.

I should mention also one other scene of grace. It takes place in the second hospital to which Woody is taken. Kate, joining David at Woody’s bedside, gently brushes back the old man’s hair, tenderly kisses him, and says something like “Crazy old man.” Listen carefully when you watch this scene. What is the tone of her voice this time? As abrasive as before, or has something that has long been submerged by putting up with Woody’s drinking bouts, finally arisen?

Supported by some spare but lovely music by Mark Orton, this slow moving film, tinged with satiric humor, will stay with you for a long time. June Squibb will make you laugh by her unfettered tongue demeaning not only her husband, but their dead relatives as well. She is no doubt a scene stealer, but it will be Bruce Dern’s career-capping performance that will no doubt be included in “Best Actor” buzz in the weeks leading up to the next Oscars presentation.

The full review with a set of questions for reflection or discussion will appear in the January issue of Visual Parables, which will be available early in January. If you are not a subscriber, go to The Store to find out how you can become one. A subscription gives you access to several years of journals that contain many program and preaching ideas for the church seasons.

 

Still Mine

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V -0; L -1; S/N -4. Running time: 1 hour 42 min.

CuplEatng

Craig and Iene enjoy “dining out” together.
(c) 2012 Samuel Goldwyn Films

 Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.

Mark 2.27

A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.

Proverbs 31:10-11

We have been in a golden age the past couple of years for films that treat the elderly with respect and dignity, rather than regarding them as cute or funny incompetent supporting characters. Canadian writer/director Michael McGowan’s wonderful film based on a true story about a couple in their eighties still very much deeply in love up against a bureaucratic system is both funny at times, and greatly moving at all times.

We are treated to two great stars still at the top of their form, Genevieve Bujold and James Cromwell as a New Brunswick (Canada) couple, the former fighting his way through a maze of housing code rules in order to build a new one-level home for his wife suffering increasingly from memory loss due to dementia.

Craig and Irene Morrison (Cromwell and Bujold) have lived in the small seaport St. Martins all their lives. Son of a skilled boat builder who passed on his carpentry skills, Craig has had to resort to farming when fishing declined. Now he is faced with changes that threaten this, such as the turndown of his strawberries because the distributor now insists that they will buy only from farmers who bring them in a refrigerated truck. He and Irene decide to give them away. Also their cows have broken through their dilapidated fence, so Craig decides to dispense with the herd. Most troubling, however, is Irene’s memory loss and resulting confusion, plus her inability to negotiate the stairs of their rickety two-story house (she falls and injures herself). The two of their seven children who live close by want to place their mother in a nursing home, but both parents energetically reject that. Craig decides to mill lumber from their trees and build a small wheel chair accessible house with a grand view of the bay.

Heeding the advice of such friends as Chester Jones (George R. Robertson), Craig reluctantly goes to town to seek a building permit—and runs up against the rule-obsessed building inspector, Rick Daigle (Jonathan Potts). The old man is shocked when Daigle tells him he will have to pay $400 for a permit, but does so, and then is further upset to learn that he will have to submit a plan that includes blueprints. He has it all worked out in his head, but Daigle says that will not do, thus requiring hundreds of more dollars. The inspector even objects to Craig’s lumber, despite its obvious quality, because it is “unstamped.” Objections pile up, leading to a stop work order, and eventually to the courtroom scene, with which the film begins.

Interspersed are numerous tender scenes revealing the love that says that sixty-one years of marriage each feels the other is “still mine”? We learn that there was a rocky period when Craig had a brief affair, but time and Irene’s love have healed that wound. Despite the burden of dealing with Irene’s dementia, which causes her at times angrily to resist his help, Craig sticks to his determination to provide her last years with a snug home with a lovely view of their beloved bay—and to his intent to risk jail if necessary in the face of the rule-worshipping Daigle. There is an enjoyable moment when Craig’s cause comes to the attention of a journalist, who was put onto the story by a person that will surprise you.

Especially touching is the scene in which Craig speaks of a table that he had designed and built from fine wood that he had harvested. Around it all his family had gathered and shared their meals through the years. At first he was resentful of scratches caused by carelessness. He had worked to smooth them over, but some were too deep to eradicate. Now, however, he regards the imperfections as part of the beauty of the table, a reminder of what the family had been through together.

Although Craig insists on building the house without any help, he learns gradually the importance of the support in his battle with the rules and the rule enforcer. His son and daughter come around to his way of thinking, his lawyer Gary (Campbell Scott) stands by him in court (without submitting a bill, Craig observes), and a neighbor, without telling him had contacted the journalist. By way of warning to some of you, the rating is due to a brief shower scene in which the elderly wife and husband are nude. Reportedly Ms. Bujold at first did not want to do this, but seeing how it helped reveal the tenderness and love that the couple shared through their long marriage, was happy that it was included. This is a not to be missed film that shows that, as in Christ’s time, the rules-obsessed are still with us. But so are determination, a full measure of love and grace, and the eventual admiration that the world eventually bestows upon those sticking by those qualities. Be sure to bring a handkerchief: the tears are not cheaply evoked.

The full review with a set of 9 questions for reflection or discussion appears in the Sep/Oct issue of Visual Parables, which will be available on Sep. 23 when VP’s new site is launched.