3 Generations (2015)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 32 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 3.5

A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.

Ecclesiastes 1:4

He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Matthew 22:37-40

Ray/Raymona, Maggie & Dolly are talking with a doctor about Ray’s desire for a sex change treatment program. (c) The Weinstein Co.

Thanks to this film, I’ve just expanded my list of “Susan Sarandon’s Mother Movies” again*—though as you might guess by the title, she’s also a grandmother. (Where have the years gone since 1992’s Lorenzo’s Oil?). It too is enjoyable, though because the script is somewhat superficial, will probably not be one listed in a summation of her remarkable career. Her Dolly is a supporting character. The film’s original title was better attuned to its plot: About Ray, the 3rd generation member, daughter Ramona (Elle Fanning) who wants to enter a sex-change program.

Now calling herself Ray, she is eager to begin the series of injections before he/she enters a new high school so that he can begin as a boy and not be stigmatized by having to explain the process for making the change. However, because she/he is a teenager, the 2nd Generation character, Maggie (Naomi Watts) her mother, must give her consent.

Both mother and grandmother are confused by Ramona and express mixed feelings. Dolly herself bucked the system, coming out years ago to declare that she is a lesbian. Ever since she has been in a long-time relationship with Frances (Linda Emond). Single mother Maggie and Ray have lived in the 1st Generation’s large apartment for a long time. Dolly blurts out, “Why can’t she just be a lesbian?” Maggie’s response is simple, showing that she has accepted her birth-daughter’s decision, “She likes women.”

When Maggie at last feels she can sign the legal document she discovers that the signature of Ray’s father Craig (Tate Donavon) is also needed. Her trip to the suburbs to find him leads to the discovery that he has remarried and that he is not eager at all in signing. This of course leads to Ray, and then Dolly and Maggie, traveling to his home—and also a revelation concerning Maggie that is not at all to her credit.

Directed by Gaby Dellal, with Nikole Beckwith as her co-scriptwriter, the film is more amusing than enlightening about transgender people. I do not recall the term “transgender” ever being spoken by any of the characters! Ray travels about the city on his skateboard and is sometimes seen with other teenagers. I recall no hint of his being despised or bullied by “straight” peers, as one might presume. We might also have expected to have sought out the company of other kids regarded as “deviants,” but not so.

The so-so script is well offset by the excellent performances of Elle Fanning, as well as Naomi Watts and Susan Sarandon. Also, the film is another good reminder of how diverse a form the family can take on today. (Unless we think about it, many of us of the older generations are still bound to the image of the ideal family as being male and female parents with a son and a daughter.) We have come a long way from the nuclear two-parent family of Father Knows Best. Back in the 50s gays were subject in the media to derisive humor and stereotyping. Now it is a lesbian that is depicted as expressing her confusion and frustration over a transgender granddaughter. We are in an age when the old Bible-based guidelines for gender roles are obsolete (and even possibly destructive), too culture-relevant to be of help—although, on the other hand, its two basic commandments are even more relevant than ever.

*See the article “Mothers—As Played by Susan Sarandon in the June 2016 VP.

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

After the Storm (2016)

 (Umi yori mo mada fukaku)

Unrated. Running Time: 1 hour 57 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Can Ethiopians change their skin or leopards their spots?

Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.

Jeremiah 13:23

 Famly

A broken family due to the father’s failure to grow up.
(c) Film Movement

In Japanese director/writer Hirokazu Koreeda’s film, set in the small city Kiyose just outside of Tokyo, there are two storms, an oncoming one, and a past storm in the life of Shinoda Ryôta (Hiroshi Abe). The one was in his past, the emotional storm enveloping him and his wife Shiraishi Kyôko (Yoko Make) that resulted in her divorcing him. The second is a typhoon that TV weathermen have been warning about for the past few days.

Once an aspiring, award winning writer, Ryôta has not been able to write anything since that first novel of 15 years ago. He has been eking out a living by working at a detective agency. With his younger partner Machida (Sosuke Ikematsu), he follows wayward spouses and takes photographs of them for use in divorce cases. He justifies his sleazy work by claiming to be doing research for his next novel.

Ryôta is months behind on his child support payments. His relatively small salary would barely be enough for living and making payments, but he also cannot resist gambling at the bicycle races and a pachinko parlor. No matter how much he loses, he keeps borrowing from his partner and from his sister Chinatsu (Satomi Kobayashi) for further bets. After the death of his father, he makes a rare visit to his mother Shinoda Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki) in her small apartment in a public housing project to snoop around for any valuable items he can pawn. All he finds are some pawn tickets and his father’s old ink stone. His mother tells him that has given away almost everything, that she is far better off now, feeling a sense of freedom that she had never known before. From her remarks and the pawn tickets we can see that father and son were far too much alike in her eyes.

Some of the best scenes are between mother and son. Early on she points to a small tangerine tree that he had planted during his childhood, and observes to him, “It doesn’t flower or bear fruit, but I water it every day like it’s you.” When the tree became a home for caterpillars, she saw one turn into a butterfly. “So, it’s useful for something,” she remarks.  Ryôta wistfully repeats, “I’m useful for something.” “I’m the great talent that blooms late,” he continues. “Well you’re taking too long,” she replies. “Hurry up, or I’ll haunt you.”

Ryôta, to his credit, does want to keep his relationship with his 11-year-old son Shiraishi Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa). He uses his primary detective tool, a pair of binoculars, to spy on his wife and son, feeling especially upset when he finds the two with her new boyfriend at a baseball game in which the boy is playing. Though overbearing, the boyfriend is taking an interest in the boy. The cash-struck father had wanted to give Shingo a baseball mitt, but he sees the man has already done this. Worried that he now has a serious rival, he later asks Shiraishi to report to him on how his mother and boyfriend are getting along and whether this is a serious relationship.

Kyôko is so upset with her ex-husbands continual failure to pay her child support that she threatens to refuse him time with the boy. This might not be a bad idea, because we see the father use some of his scarce funds to buy several lottery tickets and give them to Shingo. He tells him they are his, but that because he paid for them, they will split the winnings. Is this the start of the boy traveling down the same road? Elsewhere Yoshiko tells Ryôta that his father was just like him, and she does not mean this as a compliment.

Still hoping to win back his wife and son, Ryôta and his mother hatch a scheme that brings him, Kyôko, and Shingo to Yoshiko’s apartment where the latter invites them to stay for supper. Reluctantly, Kyôko agrees. The typhoon is about to start, so then they talk her into staying overnight until the storm has passed. It turns out to be quite a time for all of them, though the outcome is not the same as it would have been in an American movie (think The Parent Trap), making this a more poignant and realistic film.

Ryôta is a character so flawed that it is difficult to like him. Besides his obsessive gambling and wheedling of money, he also steals from his mother. He even shakes down one of the subjects he has been spying on as a detective, accepting money from an adulterous spouse in exchange for his destroying the incriminating photos and promising to show his client just the innocuous ones. However, I felt better about him during the stormy night when Shingo asks his father if he is the man he had wanted to become when he was a boy. Ryoto replies that he is not, but that he is trying to become what he had wanted to be. He seems to be struggling to accept his responsibility as a parent and a grown-up man.

Hirokazu Koreeda explores the broken life of a Japanese family in both a dramatic and humorous way (with the delightful mother providing most of the latter), bringing out well the universal theme of not living up to one’s early promise. Kyôko is as much a failure as Willy Loman, but there is a faint hope at the end that, whether or not he writes again, he might become a better human being than when we first met him–especially after the pawnshop owner reveals something he had not known about his father. Maybe Ryôta will be able, as his mother had urged, to let go of his Peter Pan ways and move on with his life.

This review with a set of questions will be in the May 2017 issue of VP. Please consider supporting this site by going to The Store and buying a single issue or a year’s subscription.

The Shack (2017)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours min. 12.

Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

1 John 4:16

 Moreover, we know that to those who love God, who are called according to his plan,

everything that happens fits into a pattern for good.

Romans 8:28 (Phillips)

Famly NKichn

(1) Mack's family when Missy was alive, and
(2) Max making biscuits with God at the shack 
where his youngest daughter was murdered.

(c) Summit Entertainment

Ten years after Canadian William P. Young’s theological novel became a best seller, it now comes to the screen, adding Octavia Spencer to the roster of actors who have played God—George Burns and Morgan Freeman. Or I should say, 1/3 of God, for this film features the Christian Trinity, Father (or Papa), Son, and Holy Spirit! Quite a feat for a writer and filmmaker to attempt to pull off!

Long-time readers of VP know of my lack of enthusiasm for almost all faith-based films. I have always regarded these films as visual sermons preached to the choir. While the same is true for director Stuart Hazeldine’s film adaptation, there is a huge difference in that this film explores so many Christian doctrines in an unconventional way that it challenges believers to move beyond the narrow boundaries of their present understanding of their faith. The Shack is a Christian apologetics work, following in the train of the 20th century’s famous C.S. Lewis. But just as Lewis’ works served to challenge and stretch the faith of believers, rather than to convert staunch atheists like Bertrand Russell, so this one will likewise be unconvincing to those outside the Christian faith. Especially if they read the tepid and negative reviews of most critics: the critic for The Wall Street Journal reveals his ignorance by condemning this as a “New Age” film, despite the three marvelous actors who are expressly identified as members of the Holy Trinity! (No, make that four actors, as God changes her appearance into a male late in the film.)

Before the title appears, we are shown the sad background of the protagonist in scenes in which the young Mack Phillips (Carson Reaum) and his mother are abused by his church-going but alcoholic father. We do see that a kindly neighbor (Olivia Spencer), offering him a piece of pie, tries to comfort him. When he asks her what he should do, she tells him to turn to God. The script never suggests that this is like what the apostle James condemned in 2:14-17 of his Letter—or even that it goes against the child abuse laws requiring a person to report any incident of sex abuse about which she or he learns. That this advice proves to be ineffective we see when the boy can endure the abuse no longer. Abandoning his faith (or maybe patterning himself after one of the vengeance-seeking characters in the Old Testament) after he reveals his father’s abuse during his church’s alter call, which results only in more abuse, he pours poison into his father’s bottles of liquor. However, we are not shown the results, and after the film’s title appears, the story jumps ahead when Mack seems to be a well-adjusted husband and father of three adorable children. (Neither novel nor film make any more references to the boy’s act of patricide, which does seem to be a strange omission!)

Mack (now played by Sam Worthington) and wife Nan (Radha Mitchell), living in Oregon, are justly proud of their three children teenaged Kate, Josh, and six-year-old Missy (well-played by Megan Charpentier, Gage Munroe, and Amélie Eve), all of them attending together their local evangelical church. It is Nan who refers to God as “Papa,” perhaps influenced by Jesus’ calling his Father Abba, “Daddy” when praying, the children also picking up on this.

Although Nan is prevented from going on their planned family camping trip, Mack piles the three children into their camper-hauling van and head for the mountains. On the way, they stop and view a spectacular waterfall plunging in a long narrow stream hundreds of feet down a cliff. Mack tells the myth of the Indian princess who sacrificed herself for her people, after which the tears of her grieving father became the waterfall. We see how perceptive little Missy is when that night she connects the sacrifice of the princess to that of Jesus.

After bonding with another family around a campfire, the next day everyone enjoys the lake, the two older children waving at their father as they paddle by in a canoe. Kate stands up to show off, thus turning the canoe over. Mack can see her head bobbing in the water, but not Josh’s. Diving quickly into the water, Mack swims out, finding his unconscious son beneath the canoe trapped in its webbing. Bringing him to shore, he frantically compresses the boy’s chest to force out the inhaled water. Everyone gathered around expresses relief when the boy comes around. However, Mack’s relief is short-lived, because Missy is nowhere to be found. Only the picture of the Indian princess whose dress she had colored red, like her own.

That night as the sheriff’s deputies mount a night-time hunt through the hills, they reveal that a man responsible for the murder of several other young girls was sighted in the area. Mack’s worst fears are borne out when they find Missy’s red dress, as well as her bloodstains in an old abandoned shack. There is no trace of her body. Not only Mack is wracked with guilt, Kate, whose foolish canoe antics caused everyone on the beach to focus their attention on her and her brother, feels responsible as well.

Back home Mack cannot move beyond his guilt and pain, as well as his feelings about being abandoned by God. That winter, while removing the heavy snow from his driveway, Mack sees a note in his mailbox. On a small folded piece of white paper is a typed invitation to meet at the shack, signed Papa. Upset, thinking it might be cruel joke from his best friend across the street, Mack confronts Willie (Tim McGraw). Both are astonished that there are no footprints in the snow around the mail box. After checking at the Post Office, Mack thinks it might be from the killer, so he packs a gun into his winter gear, and because Nan and the children are away, he takes Willie’s truck and heads up for the state park where the tragedy had begun. While trekking through the snow laden forest, he is joined by a slender bearded Middle Eastern carpenter. As they approach the Shack the snow disappears, giving way to lush green grass and flowers—and the once dilapidated shack is now a lovely wooded cottage into which Mack is welcomed by two women of color, an African and an Asian calling themselves Papa and Sarayu (Octavia Spencer and Sumire Matsubara). His guide is Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush). Mack is thus astonished that his invitation is to spend the weekend with the Holy Trinity. Some host(s)! There’s a light note from the beginning of their encounter with Papa’s introduction of herself– “I am…who I am;” “See? We’re already quoting Scripture.”

When Mack is puzzled that God should appear as a woman (indeed like the neighbor he had known as a boy), Papa replies, “Based on what you’ve been going through lately, I don’t believe appearing to you as ‘Father’ now would be particularly helpful to you. You’re not ready for that yet.”

It will be a weekend with quite a few conversations and just a little action—such as making biscuits with Papa, puttering in a garden with Sarayu, and walking on water with Jesus, the two at one point exuberantly running side by side across the lake’s surface. It will be those conversations about forgiveness, redemption, the nature of God and guilt, and sometimes arguments and angry charges by the troubled Mack, that change the latter’s life and allows him, after a near fatal crash involving a truck, to help his daughter Kate also to find spiritual healing.

The novel was severely criticized by evangelical leaders such as Chuck Couslon and several other leaders when it was published, and now the film also has been attacked by some leaders, as well as so many critics. (When one of the latter stated he felt nothing other than boredom during the film, I found this more an indictment of him than of the film.) Let me note several factors in the film that deeply moved me, even though I knew fully well that the basic plot was a faith-based formula (in that Mack would regain his faith):

There are so many neat visual touches in this film! Here are some of them:

  1. Papa replies to Mack’s accusation that God had abandoned his Son on the Cross (as well as Missy), to which Papa says she was there with the Son, with the camera in a close-up shot showing us the nail marks on her wrists. Papa says “Don’t ever think that what my Son chose to do didn’t cost something.”
  2. From the outside one night Mack sees Papa and Sarayu dancing joyfully in the cabin’s main room. This is a lovely depiction of God’s delight, carrying on the ancient image that God danced at Creation. There is a beautiful hymn by Richard Leach’s that you can hear (and see the fine words) on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQ55zGuti04 . “Come, Join the Dance of Trinity” is set to the familiar tune Kingsfold, used for the familiar hymn “O Sing a Song of Bethlehem, and could easily become as familiar and as beloved as Sidney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance.” (We should also mention that this dance theme is shared by Hindus whose god Shiva is a cosmic dancer.
  3. Sarayu walks with Mack through a glade of wildly beautiful but chaotic swirl of flowers. She and Mack dig a hole, the importance of which will become clear later. The camera moves around high up to a spot directly over their heads, and we see an order in the chaos: at four spots around the pair the flowers form gorgeous pinwheels. This reminds me of the old illustration about seeing a tangle of knots and colored threads on the back of a large tapestry, and then moving to the other side to behold the beautiful picture that artists have made by weaving colored threads in and out of the cloth, similar to seeing God’s plan that includes the dark.
  4. Some reviewers said the scene of Jesus and Mack running together across the surface of the lake looked silly, thus completely missing the filmmakers’ intention of depicting the human Christ as one who enjoys engaging in human abandon.
  5. Mack meets Sophia, depicted here, as in the Hebrew Scriptures, as a woman, who guides him into a fuller understanding of judgment, an involved conversation that leads him to say if it came to a decision as to which of his surviving child should be saved and which sent to hell, he would choose himself to go to hell rather than either of them. Through the waterfall at the mouth of the cave he is granted a glimpse of Missy, who, romping with a group of other happy children, is as far from hell as one could be.
  6. The Canadian veteran actor Graham Greene portrays God near the end of the film, indicating that Mack is entering the most difficult part of his pilgrimage or spiritual transformation, the forgiving not only of himself, but of the killer of his beloved daughter.
  7. The scene in which Mack faces the one who had most wounded him: how is this like a scene from Fields of Dreams?

There’s more, much more this film than we can go into here. Many churches hosted discussion around the book, so now is the time to do so around the film, either now after going to a theater, as I know that the Presbyterian Church in Oxford Ohio is doing, or a little later when it is available in some form of video.

The film is not without its flaws, a couple of which I wrote above concerning the plot, but these are minor, and even if you object to some of the theology, the film can result in a great discussion of theology, especially the nature of perhaps the most difficult doctrine of Christianity, the Trinity. Writer William P. Young and Stuart Hazeldine have joined a long line of artists who have attempted to depict the Trinity visually, from Byzantine times to the present, with the icon of the Russian painter Rublev probably being the most famous. For an interesting essay on this with illustrations go to https://seeinggodinart.wordpress.com/2016/05/22/the-solemnity-of-the-most-holy-trinity/.

To sum up this review, I don’t really care so much about its doctrinal purity because it understands that all the manifold doctrines are meant to explain the unexplainable. That in the end, only one word is need to explain Christianity and the film, LOVE.

This review with a set of 21 questions will be in the March. 2017 issue of VP.

 

Collateral Beauty (2016)

 

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

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

Our star rating (1-5): 3.5

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

Jeremiah 20:18

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

Matthew 5:45b

blocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Little Men (2016)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hours 25 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

Saul spoke with his son Jonathan and with all his servants about killing David. But Saul’s son Jonathan took great delight in David. Jonathan told David, “My father Saul is trying to kill you; therefore be on guard tomorrow morning; stay in a secret place and hide yourself. I will go out and stand beside my father in the field where you are, and I will speak to my father about you; if I learn anything I will tell you.” Jonathan spoke well of David to his father Saul, saying to him, “The king should not sin against his servant David, because he has not sinned against you…

1 Samuel 19:1-4

2boys

Two boys try to keep their friendship alive despite a dispute among their parents. (c) Magnolia Pictures

The most famous friendship in the Scriptures is that between David and Jonathan, a friendship so strong that it survived even the jealousy and hatred of the latter’s father, King Saul. As director Ira Sachs’s Brooklyn-set film unreels we wonder if this will be the case for Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri)? The threat to their friendship is due to a dispute between Jake’s parents Brian (Greg Kinnear) and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) Jardine and Tony’s Chilean-born mother Leonor Calvelli.(Paulina Garcia).

The 13 year-old boys first meet when the Jardines get out of their van and start unloading flowers and food for the gathering following the funeral of Jake’s grandfather Max. Below Max’s apartment is Leonor’s small dress shop. For many years Max had rented the space to her at below market price because they had become friends. She and her son Tony are watching as the Jardines unload their van, and when Jake drops some papers, Tony comes to his aid. Seeing some of Jake’s drawings among the dropped items, Tony expresses his admiration. So, later when the Jardine’s move into the apartment to save on housing expenses, the boys immediately bond, playing video games together, eating and sleeping over at one another’s, and traveling around the neighborhood, Tony on a scooter and Jake on skates.

Kathy’s income as a therapist is the family’s main support because Brian’s acting role in a non-profit’s production of The Sea Gull is very low paying. Greg’s sister Audrey (Talia Balsam) pushes Brian to offer Leonor a new lease that will triple her rent. Gentrification has greatly changed the neighborhood, increasing the value of its real estate. Audrey points out that her brother is benefitting from their inheritance by moving into the apartment, so she expects to receive her due from the inheritance by charging Leonor market value rent.

The three parents are often together for meals, but Leonor changes the subject when Brian raises the subject of rent. She stalls meeting with him as long as she can, but he finally visits her in her shop and explains the situation as he holds out a new lease agreement. Leonor describes her close friendship with Max and his reasons for not raising the rent as the neighborhood changed due to gentrification. When this does not sway Brian, she lashes out with the claim that his father had said some harsh things about him, that with his infrequent visits she was the real caregiver.

Not understanding the issues, Jake and Tony agree that they will no longer speak to their parents. This results in some awkward moments, especially between Jake and Brian. The boys continue to try to keep their friendship despite the increasing animosity among the adults—Leonor, finally served with the eviction notice that the reluctant Brian had tried to put off, hires a lawyer to see if there is a way she can keep her shop. Then, discovering the details of the dispute, the boys even try to come up with a compromise solution.

In a Disney-like film the boys pleading with the adults while offering their plan would have climaxed the film, ending perhaps with some hugs or a quiet handshake, but Ira Sachs is not out to make us feel good. He is intent on exploring the emotions and relationships of two adolescents caught in the crossfire of a serious problem felt by the adults. Both sides are short of money and have legitimate concerns they are pursuing. The closest to a villain is Jake’s Aunt Audrey, and with a little bit of empathy we can see that she too makes a fair claim.

As I thought about Jake and Tony’s buffeted friendship, the words of the theme song of the radio comedy My Fried Irma came to mind. Taken from the chorus of a Cole Porter musical, it declares, “Friendship, friendship, just the perfect blendship/When other friendships have been forgot, ours will still be hot.” A nice sentiment, and it certainly applies to the friendship that bound together Jonathon and David so strongly that not even King Saul’s fury could break. But can it apply to two young Brooklynites as well?

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

A Tale of Love and Darkness (2015)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 35 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Deuteronomy 30:19-20

A cheerful heart is a good medicine,

 but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.

Proverbs 17:22

The human spirit will endure sickness;

but a broken spirit—who can bear?

Proverbs 18:14

famly

Young Amos keeps the Klausner family together in Jerusalem during the British Mandate & the early years of Israel. (c) Focus World

Natalie Portman’s first film, for which she also wrote the screenplay (in Hebrew with English subtitles—she was born in Israel), is based on the 2002 autobiography of Amos Oz, possibly the best known of Israel’s many talented writers. She also plays Amos Oz’s mother. Indeed, her adaptation is as much about Fania Klausner (during his teen years Amos changed his last name) as it is about the son. Set mainly in Jerusalem during the British Mandate, the film begins in 1945 when Oz was just six, before his mother’s deep depression tragically influenced the family’s life—though Fania, a gifted story teller, already shows her inner darkness in the stories she tells her son.

The family has embraced the Zionist dream of a homeland where Jews would be safe from the persecution that had afflicted them. Fania had grown up amidst wealth in Poland, and fortunately emigrated with her family to Palestine before the Nazi invasion. At Hebrew University in Jerusalem she met and married Arieh (Gilad Kahana), a scholar who works at a library from which he receives a meager salary. He has written a book that no one wants to buy (except for a friend who secretly buys out the bookshop to encourage the author). With such a small income the family ekes out a Spartan living. When Fania’s mother visits she is disdainful of their shabby apartment and lifestyle. After one visit when she has criticized her daughter, Fania slaps her own face several times. The ever observant Amos (Amir Tessler) sees this. He also is present at the dinner table when his other grandma offers faint praise of Fania’s borsch, and then says how it should really be made if it is to taste good.

Fania tells the boy many stories, and Arieh passes on the etymology of Hebrew words. He explains that in Hebrew the word for childlessness is related to the word for darkness and both suggest the absence of light. Fania’s stories are very dark—one of them involves a Polish officer who shoots himself and another is about a wife whose drunkard of a husband gambled her away to be used by the winner, and who eventually burns herself to death in a shed. These might be more gruesome than those of the Grimm brothers, but nonetheless, she instills story telling in the boy. He solves his bullying problem at school by launching into a story about Tarzan, cowboys and Indians and a snake. He stops at a suspenseful moment, telling the now hooked older boys that he will continue the story the next day. No more worries about bullying.

The friendly but precarious relationship between Jews and Palestinians during the Mandate is shown when the family attends a birthday party hosted by an Arab family. Outside the home the parents lecture Amos on being polite and respectful. Attracted to a girl his own age sitting on a swing in the backyard, he talks with her, sharing his belief that “there is room for two peoples in this land” (a belief he still holds). However, when he climbs the tree and accepts the girl’s dare to hang on the chains of the swing, a weak link breaks, the seat hitting a smaller boy close by. In the resulting hub bub the Klausner’s make an hasty exit.

Amos adores his beautiful mother, absorbing her words, such as: “If you have to choose between telling a lie or insulting someone, choose to be generous.” The boy asks, “ I am allowed to lie?” “ Sometimes… yes. It’s better to be sensitive than to be honest.” Looking to the future, she tells him, “I think you will grow up to be a sort of prattling puppy dog like your father, and you’ll also be a man who is quiet and full and closed like a well in a village that has been abandoned by all its inhabitants. Like me.”

The family listens to the radio broadcast of the U.N. General Assembly vote ratifying the creation of the State of Israel. All celebrate the decision, but Fania continues to slowly sink deeper into depression, becoming, as she had said of him, “closed like a well in a village that has been abandoned by all its inhabitants. Like me.” She is not abandoned, although the boy apparently did not see much evidence of his father’s love for her. Neither husband nor son can help her escape her dark moods. Not even an extended visit with her sisters in Tel Aviv can bring her around.

There is a strange scene in which we hear the words from Deuteronomy—“Choose life…”—while a man wearing a prayer shawl walks along a desert cliff. Unfortunately Fania cannot do this. Neither she nor her husband believe in God. Her stories reveal her deep regrets: instead of the weak man she has married, they are populated by strong men more in keeping with her youthful romantic dreams. Relations between husband and wife have reached the point where the despairing Arieh says, “She punishes herself only to punish me.” Deprived of love by husband, parents, and in-laws, Fania lives only for her son Amos. Eventually this is not enough. She ended her own life at the age of 38 when Amos was 12. The film ends with a brief account of the teenaged Amos a couple of years after his mother’s death leaving home to join a kibbutz. It was during this period that he changed his last name to Oz, a word meaning “strength.”

Many of the film’s scenes are interspersed with narration and commentary by the older Oz (voiced by Moni Moshonov, but played by Alexander Peleg). His story takes place amidst great changes, the birth of Israel being the chief one, the fulfillment of the dream of generations of Jews. But from his personal experience of the period Amos Oz observes that change is illusory, even declaring that “a fulfilled dream is a disappointed dream.” Not the most optimistic outlook. Although his parents survived the darkness of the Holocaust and saw their dream of their own homeland become reality, this did not bring happiness. The boy’s vision that “there is room for two peoples in this land” has not become reality, stymied by the hatred on both sides. The story of the life of Amos Oz and his parents is indeed “A Tale of Love and Darkness”—and something similar might be said of his beloved nation Israel. I think this is an important film for Americans to see because it leads us beyond the stereotype of the fanatical Zionist opposed to all Arabs. The film does not deal with current events, but it does show Israel as a complex society with equally complex families such as the Klausners.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the October issue of Visual Parables. If you appreciate this and other reviews, please considering buying an issue or taking out an annual subscription.

Knight of Cups (2015)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 58 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country,

and there he squandered his property in dissolute living…But when he came to himself…

Luke 15:13,17a

Sunburst

Our “knight” is seen on numerous beaches, as well as crowded streets, parties, and night spots. (c) Broadgreen Films

I found Terence Malick’s newest film even more difficult to follow than his Tree of Life or To the Wonder. Even his more traditional narrative films The Thin Red Line and The New World were a challenge to viewers accustomed to the fast pace of most American films, but now even Malick fans like myself are bound to be puzzled by this latest stream of conscious-like film. In my case this is compounded by the constant use of voice-overs whispering so low that my hearing-impaired ears could not pick up many of the words. For me this was an almost totally visual experience—and fortunately the gorgeous camera work Emmanuel Lubezki, who has not only worked on three previous Malick films, but also such grand ones as The Revenant, Gravity, and Birdman, catches the beauty of numerous beaches, sunsets, and the colorful spectacles of the casinos of Las Vegas, and even a strip club. Even were you to turn the soundtrack off, this film would be a richly rewarding visual meditation.

With good reason we hear a quotation from John Bunyan’s spiritual classic Pilgrim’s Progress early on, because the main character Rick (Christian Bale) is shown almost constantly in motion, a modern pilgrim walking amidst pitfalls and barriers that continually threaten or lead him astray. He is a Hollywood scriptwriter who was unable to love enough his first wife, a doctor named Nancy (Cate Blanchett).

The voice of his estranged father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) recites a story he had told Rick and his two brothers when they were children: “Once there was a young prince whose father, the king of the East, sent him down into Egypt to find a pearl. But when the prince arrived, the people poured him a cup. Drinking it, he forgot he was the son of a king, forgot about the pearl and fell into a deep sleep.” Thus Rick is the modern counterpart to that prince, seduced by the false values of his Hollywood culture. At one point he says, “All those years, living the life of someone I didn’t know.”

Along with scenes of love and debauchery at parties and in luxurious hotel suites with the six women in his life, we see him quarreling with his father and dealing with his brother Barry (Wes Bentley). There had been a second brother, but in some manner not revealed to us, he had died–possibly by suicide, because the death had deeply wounded the father and two remaining sons. (One scene shows the father washing his bloody hands in a bowl.)

Rick has dabbled in other religions–Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Tarot, and it is a card from the last which gives the film it’s strange name, apparently a reference to the prince or “knight” in the father’s story. It is the Christianity into which he was born that Malick seems to be inferring lies the balm for Rick’s starved soul, desperately looking for healing or fulfillment. Joseph is somewhat like the father in Jesus’ Parable of the Father and Two Sons. They may have quarreled strongly in the past, but he does not give up on his wayward son. Although at one moment feeling damned himself, he says to Rick, “”My son, I know you. I know you have a soul.” Thus Rick finds himself saying such things as “We’re not leading the lives we’re meant for. We’re meant for something else.” And more than once he asks, “Which way should I go? How do I begin?”

Earlier on, after his desert trek, it is a strong earthquake shaking his Santa Monica apartment that starts Rick on his way back. Indeed, as this was happening theologian Paul Tillich’s famous sermon “The Shaking of the Foundations,” flashed through my mind. It is based on the 6th chapter of Isaiah in which the prophet during a shaking of the temple where he is worshipping is called out of sin to a life of holiness and prophetic service.

A stream of moments from Rick’s debauched past flow by. The women come and go, with it apparent that Nancy was the one whose love for him was strongest, though his latest, with the already married Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), is also intense–Rick now able to really give himself in love to another person. “You have love in you, I know it,” Elizabeth tells him. But their relationship comes to a sad end when she become pregnant, and so unsure of which man in her life is the father is she that she undergoes an abortion.

Rick’s father when grieving over his dead son apparently has found some consolation in the words of his priest Fr. Zeitlinger, “If you are unhappy, you shouldn’t take it as God’s disfavor. Just the contrary. Might be the very sign He loves you. He shows His love not by helping avoid suffering, but by sending you suffering, by keeping you there. To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself, higher than your own will. Takes you from the world to find what lies beyond it.” Thus near the end of the film he urges his son,  “Find the light you knew in the past, as a child…. The light in the eyes of others.” This brings us back to his story of the quest for “the pearl.” At last he has found love in Isabel (Isabel Lucas), who helps him find the light he has been seeking. A baby crawls on a wooden deck. Rick speaks the last word in the film, “Begin.”

I love the way that both Pilgrim’s Progress and the story of the prince/knight and the cup inform this film! The concept of our sinful estate as being a matter of forgetting that we are the son of a king, and thus in need of regaining our memory is a helpful one. It reminds me of the concept of one of the Fathers of the early church who wrote that sinful humanity is like an almost obliterated portrait that stands in need of the talented hand of a Master Artist to restore it.

There is too much packed into Knight of the Cup for any one person to be able to take it all in—at least for this writer. No one should see a Terence Malick film alone, though you must choose your film companion wisely, lest you lose a casual friend, frustrated by having to work hard to “see” the meaning in each scene. This is a film in which my mantra “All of us see more than one of us.” We really need each other’s help—what I missed, you might see; and what you missed, I or another group member, might have seen.

Possessed of a deeply spiritual nature, Terence Malick is not interested in entertaining his viewers, but rather in challenging and expanding their vision. The spiritually lazy or complacent need st ay away, instead taking in the spiritual pap spooned out in so-called faith based films like God Is Not Dead. I am still struggling to understand some of what passed before my uncomprehending eyes, which makes me glad that it will soon be available on disc and streaming video. Although best seen on a large screen because of the gorgeous cinemaphotgraphy, any way you can watch it will prove to be rewarding—if you are ready to work hard at the process of seeing.

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