Patriots Day (2016)

Rated R. Running Time: 2 hours 13 min. Our contents

Ratings: Violence 4; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.”

Psalm 122:6-7

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The films 3 principal law enforcement gents examine evidence.                (c) Lionsgate

Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) and his fellow cops in Boston and the surrounding area need not worry about the backlash that is troubling so many of their profession in other cities around the country. They are the ones who not only “pray for the peace” of their city, but actively work to preserve and restore it as well. After the terrible bomb explosions during on April 15, 2013 during the Boston Marathon, they join forces with the FBI to do just that. Director Peter Berg’s documentary style film, employing much of the time hand-held cameras is as exciting as any synthetic crime drama you are likely to see.

In this “true story” we are introduced to Tommy and his wife Carol (Michelle Monaghan) as he gets ready for security duty at the finishing line of the Marathon. His chief complaint is the knee that he has injured that night kicking down a door and capturing a thug, and that he has wear a “clown outfit,” one of those bright yellow vests that make him standout in the crowd. We also are given glimpses of the home-grown terrorists Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) and Jahar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff), Tamerlan’s wife, a white Muslim convert Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist) and their two little daughters. Around the city, we see many others getting ready to run or to view the race, one of them being the student Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang) talking with his parents back in China about his new car. Little does he know that soon he will become a hero.

Even though we know that there will be two explosions, the mood is tense as we watch the two brothers move among the crowd and plant their backpacks containing the pressure cookers stuffed with explosives, nails and other small metal objects meant to be murderous shrapnel. Despite his injured knee, Tommy rushes toward the sites, stopping to give aid to the wounded and calling on his phone for ambulances. The quick shots of the bleeding victims are shocking, but the quick responses of police and medics are heartening, as are those of fast-acting surgeons and nurses in the hospitals.

There follows immediately the complicated task of finding out how and who perpetrated the deed. This becomes a fascinating police procedural sequence of brilliant sleuthing, revealing how useful security cameras can be to law enforcers. FBI agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) and Boston police commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) are quickly on the scene, as well as the Boston Mayor and the Governor of the state. When discovers pieces of the shrapnel, he immediately calls it a Federal crime, and thus assumes jurisdiction. Within a few hours, he has set up a replica of the street in a huge warehouse. Agents have gathered up all the debris in bags which they then remove and place along the chalk-marked “street.” All the shops have been marked along the street. Tommy, with his familiarity of the street, walks with DesLauriers, identifying the stores. As he names each one technicians sitting at monitors call up the store’s monitor and scan the images for anyone looking suspicious. They discover one brother because at the moment of an explosion he is the only one looking away from the blast. The other killer they identify because of clips in which both brothers are walking together. Because of their caps, they call one “white hat” and the other “black at.”

Once they compile a significant number of photos comes the argument over whether or not to release them to the public. Agent DesLauriers wants to wait because it might alert the brothers too soon, and Police Commissioner Ed Davis believes that his citizens can help find their location. Tommy sides with the Commissioner, until DesLauriers reluctantly agrees.

Now the film becomes a chase film, the brothers deciding that they must leave town and plant bombs elsewhere. This involves Watertown Police Chief Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons), who eventually actually wrestle with one of the brothers. Sadly, MIT campus cop Sean Collier (Jake Picking) will lose his life when the brothers come up to his squad car and try to steal his gun. Shortly after this Dun Meng will be taken hostage by the brothers but manage at a gas station to escape. Thanks to his 911 call, the brother’s location is almost pinpointed. When the police catch up to them, the exchange of fire turns the quiet neighborhood into a war zone, the brothers tossing bombs at the cops. Jahar manages to escape, running over the body of his brother in the process, and the film climaxes in what has become the most famous of all backyard boats in the country.

Fittingly, the last part of the film is a series of shots and photos of the real characters, with the film dedicated to the police and other first-responders. The filmmakers do little editorializing regarding Muslims and terrorism. They do not have to, this film being a fine tribute to both the law enforcement officers and the civilians who made “Boston Proud” by their prompt and brave acts during the hundred or so hours following the blasts—all that is except for a few. Besides the terrorists and the wife who shows no remorse or emotion over what the brothers had done, there is a group of one of the brother’s fellow college students gathered in his room. Searching through his things for some weed, they discover bomb-making materials, but, even though they watch the news unfolding on TV, they never call the authorities about this. Deservedly they receive jail sentences for obstruction of justice.

Director Peter Berg’s film unfolds like a documentary, information about the number of hours before and after the blasts appearing in a lower corner of the screen. If his intention was to make viewers proud of the ways in which Bostonians responded to the horror and chaos of that day, he certainly succeeds. Everyone who sees will join the “Boston Proud” circle. The bad guys score a short victory, but out of the results of their twisted hatred springs a multitude of courageous and loving acts.

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

 

Midnight Special 2016

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 52 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

O Lord my God, in you I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers, and deliver me

Psalm 7:1

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Hebrews 11:1

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Lucas, Roy, Alton, & Sarah on the alert in Florida. (c) Warner Brothers

Director/Writer Jeff Nichols begins his film well into the story. An 8-year-old boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) has been abducted by his father Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) from the Ranch, an isolated community where a religious sect ruled over by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) had taken custody of the boy two years earlier. Roy and Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) had been divorced, apparently when she had joined the sect. She has managed to escape, but was unable to take Alton with her because Calvin had the boy under his thumb.

Roy is assisted by his best friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a state trooper convinced that what they are doing is for the boy’s best interest. Calvin has dispatched two members of the sect to get the boy back, Levi (Scott Haze) and Doak (Bill Camp). Alton possesses strange powers, and thus is regarded as a prophet, one from whom Calvin expects to profit. Although they do not understand the boy, Roy and Lucas plan to take the Alton to an undetermined location on a specific date where something important is to take place.

Also trying to apprehend the three fugitives are agents of the Federal government. FBI Agent Miller (Paul Sparks), aware that the cult had been stockpiling a great number of guns, leads a small army of well armed agents to round up the religious cult’s members and bus them to a high school gym where they are detained for questioning. Somehow Calvin’s sermons based on Alton’s prophecies and sets of numbers quoted in them include some secret government codes. Thus they are anxious to learn how and why the boy knows of this information. NSA officer Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) also is participating, setting up his base at the Fed’s office in Mobile, Alabama. As the mission’s lead operations analyst Sevier thinks the special powered boy might be a dangerous weapon.

The Feds have issued an Amber Alert on the trio to the media, so Roy has to be careful when they stop for gas and supplies. As the three head East across the Southern states, they stop to help a victim in a wrecked car, which leads to a shootout with a state trooper; they narrowly escape the flaming debris of a satellite that falls on the gas station that they stop at for supplies; and then after a potentially deadly run-in with the pair of religious fanatics who have traced them to a motel, they have to give chase in order to retrieve Alton. They also reconnect with Alton’s mother Sarah, who though fearful, is overjoyed to see her son again.

At the beginning of the flight through the night Alton appeared like any normal boy, in the car’s backseat glued to his Superman comic. However he wears tinted swimming goggles and headphones, the latter apparently to cancel outside noise. As the story progresses over the next few days it becomes obvious that, as the boy explains, he is from a higher plane. Roy and Sarah are his biological parents, but his true home is elsewhere. To return to it he must get to a certain spot within four days.

During the series of exciting events leading up to the climax, not only does he convince Roy, Sarah, and Lucas of this, but also, when he falls into the hands of the Feds, Paul Sevier as well. The latter helps him to re-unite with his parents and Lucas in the Florida panhandle. When they at last reach the coast of the Gulf of Mexico something awesome happens. Even if you had not thought of them before now, the film’s enigmatic boy will remind you of both E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind–but with far more violence.

There are some tender moments between father and son in the film that lift this above the usual sci-fi thriller. Roy has given his all to secure the safety of his son, only to learn that he must give up the boy to a mysterious fate if the boy is truly to be safe. As they reach the end of their journey Alton tells his father that he does not have to worry about him anymore. Roy replies, “I like worrying about you,” thus expressing well the sentiment of every father and mother for their children, no matter how old or far away they travel.

The film is a story of faith, as well as love, but is not the twisted faith of Calvin and his fanatical followers. Hebrews puts it, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” None of those helping Alton can see their goal; they can only hope that they can reach it despite the enormous obstacles in their way.

The filmmaker does let us see their destination, Alton’s future home, in that spectacular vision at the end. It is debatable whether this is too much or not, that maybe the filmmaker should have held back. (I remember feeling this way when Steven Spielberg in his director’s version of Close Encounters added the scene in which we are shown Roy Neary inside the mother ship. It was a lovely scene, but not at all necessary.)

During most of the film director Jeff Nichols does hold back, offering very little explanation for what is happening. He trusts his audience to be able to piece things together from the sparse dialogue and action. This makes this a film truly to treasure. In his remarkable film Mud the director gave us a boy truly of Mississippi. In this one he treats us to a boy who, in the words of Jim Reeves’ song, “This world is not my home I’m just a-passin’ through.” Nichols leaves us to wrestle with the connection between the old prison song that gives its name to his film. “Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me”—there is no train with its headlight piercing the dark in the film, so what does the “light” mean? The fate of Roy and Lukas does not seem a happy one, and yet they do not seem depressed or defeated. Is it because they both were enveloped in the light and believed in their mission of getting Alton to where he belonged? Are they worthy enough to be included in Isaiah’s visionary statement “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined”?

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

Sicario (2015)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 1 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 8; Language 7; Sex /Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 Woe to those 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

 How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Matthew 16:11-12

Agents

FBI Agent Kate Macer narrowly escapes from being blown up during a raid on a drug haven. (c) Lionsgate Films

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s and scriptwriter Taylor Sheridan’s new film really puts WAR into the War on Drugs. In response to the murderous business practices of the Mexican drug cartels the area on both sides of the Rio Grande has become a war zone—and neither side pays any heed to the Geneva Convention Rules of War. Amidst what becomes a moral morass Emily Blunt’s idealistic FBI agent Kate Macy experiences a rude awakening to what the War on Drugs has become—from a law and order or justice cause to one of cruel revenge by means of operations that ignore international boundaries and the taking into custody and treating those arrested with fairness.

The film begins with a note informing us that the title comes from the time of the Jewish Zealots’ uprising against their Roman occupiers when a band of killers known as the Sicario hunted down and killed Romans. Then we see a SWAT team, of which Kate Macer is a member, crash into a house in an Arizona development, killing the gang members who resist. When an agent notices scrapes and holes in the wall, he tears away the dry wall and discovers a badly decomposing body. Tearing away more of the drywall, other bodies are discovered wrapped in plastic sheets or bags. All in all there are more than three dozen found, the stench now so overwhelming that many of the agents rush outside, either to vomit or to breathe fresh air. Then a padlocked underground chamber is discovered in a shed. An agent obtains cutters to open it, setting off a massive explosion. Kate, just coming out of the door to the house is knocked to the ground, and two agents in the shed are killed. The camera pulls back for one of many shots that reveal the desert landscape.

Kate and her black partner, Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), sit outside a conference room where a group agents from various alphabet soup organizations discuss them. They decide to accept Kate onto a new team because of her experience in managing a SWAT team but reject Reggie because he is relatively new to the FBI. However, we will see quite a lot of him because he is used to chauffer the new team from mission to mission.

The group leader is Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who smiles a lot, but gives out little information to the new recruit, telling her for now just to watch and learn. He wears on his feet flip-flops, so she wonders what agency he comes from. When he asks why she might accept her new position, she replies that she wants to get those responsible for the horrific killings in the raided drug house. Even less talkative is the Hispanic team member identified only as Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), whose glower suggests he is not a man to trifle with.

Even more exciting, and bloody than the earlier raid, is the episode of the Americans crossing in a big caravan of vans from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez. Their mission is to pick up a drug lord and transport him back to the U.S. to stand trial, though later Matt says it is to create chaos in the man’s drug cartel so those even higher up will make a fatal mistake. We lean tensely forward as the caravan moves at fast pace through litter-filled Mexican neighborhoods where naked mutilated bodies hang upside-down from an overpass. They pick up their prey from prison without incident, but then get stuck in a massive traffic jam near the border crossing, all agents looking keenly at the cars on both sides of their caravan. Sure enough, they spot suspicious, tattooed characters in neighboring cars, as well as several gun barrels. When the thugs get out of their cars, the agents also leap into the lanes, getting the drop on the goons and killing everyone of these amidst the panicked cries of civilians in the other cars.

Told to stay in the van, Kate still kills one of the attackers when he approaches her van and smashes one of the windows. Shaken by all the slaughter, and on the Mexican side at that, Kate angrily berates Matt, declaring that they have broken virtually every rule of law enforcement. Matt waves away her objections, still providing little information to her. Later at a transport terminal where groups of rounded up illegal aliens are awaiting, and Matt and Alejandro are asking cryptic questions of some of the prisoners, Reggie and she demand some answers. When told that they are obtaining some information useful for finding a major tunnel dug by the cartel through which they are funneling drugs into the US, the two accept the explanation.

However, as events, most of them violent, escalate, Kate cannot accept the methods of her colleagues. Alejandro turns out to be a grieving husband and father hunting the drug traffickers because of the horrible things they did to his wife and child. The drawn out scene between him and the drug lord, eating supper with his wife and two children, becomes almost unbearable to watch—as well as moving the film toward thriller turf instead of realistic drama. Though not a witness to this particular scene, Kate has seen so much violence during the attack on the tunnel that she threatens to expose to their superiors the dreadful tactics being used, supposedly in the name of justice, but in actuality subverting it. Were Jesus present, he might well have said to Matt and Alejandro, “Beware of the yeast of the drug traffickers!” The two veteran lawmen have become sicarios, killers sanctioned by a badge, but killers nonetheless.

Other films, such as Traffic, also deal with the moral ambiguity of the War on Drugs, but not in such a personal way as this one. Although Emily Blunt’s Kate would have emerged more clearly as a rounded character had we been shown more of her back story, the actress skillfully conveys a highly moral person wracked with doubts about the rightness of her cause. Equally good is Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro. By his souful eyes we know he has suffered unimaginable horror and grief, so that even if he had not told Kate the story of his family, we would still know enough about him to discern his thirst for vengeance, rather than for lawful justice. After witnessing what he does to the drug lord we shudder near the end of the film when he threatens Kate with his gun, demanding that she sign a paper exhonorating their team from any wrongdoing. We wonder—can such a brutal person also be an agent of grace?

There is a substory that unfolds in short scenes interspersed troughout the film. It unfolds on the Mexican side of the border and it concerns a soccer loving young boy who loves practicing the game with his father. The latter is away at night and rises late in the morning, his cheerless wife on hand to cook him breakfast. She seldom speaks, most of the talk at home being between father and son. The father is nocomittal when the son asks him about his work. We suspect that he must be connected with the drug ring. At last we learn that he is a policeman, but…

Such films as this one could never have been made in the days of the old movie code that demanded that the guilty always be punished and the good emerge victorious. The world was seen so simply back then—a world of Good Guys and Bad Guys, White Hats and Black Hats. The makers of this film declare that people caught up in the war on Drugs are far more complex, and that therefore the outcome also is more complex than one of victory and defeat. If you come into this film believeing that the War on Drugs is a simple affair, and even winnable, you will be disturbed. Indeed, no matter what you think about this so-called War, the film will disturb you, and best of all, cause you to raise questions about it. This last is the best compliment that I can pay to the filmmakers.

This film with a set of questions is in the Oct. issue of VP.

 

Black Mass (2015)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 2 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 8; Language 8; Sex 7/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Behold, the wicked man conceives evil, and is pregnant with mischief, and brings forth lies. He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole which he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own pate his violence descends.

Psalm 7:14-16

Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.

Psalm 37:1-2

KillngShkngHands

“Whitey” Bulger (L) shakes hands while his goon shoots the man.         (c) 2015 Warner Bros.

For a little over two hours I felt that I was staring Evil in its face, as well as witnessing its corrupting powers on a nominally good man. Director Scott Cooper and scriptwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth have adapted their strange but true story from the book of the same name by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. Evil is embodied in James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), and the corrupted good man is F.B.I. agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Both grew up in the mean streets Boston’s Irish Southside, but followed very different paths after their teen years.

Their stories are framed, like that of the main character in Citizen Kane, by a series of testimonies—but these are given by the various thugs who had murdered and stolen for Bulger in law enforcement interrogation rooms. Each crook, seeking a plea bargain that will reduce his prison sentence, insists that he is not breaking the strict law of the streets against “ratting.”

“Whitey” Bulger in 1975 is the ruthless head of the Winter Hill gang running vaious rackets in Boston’s working-class, predominantly Irish Southside. Connolly is the rising FBI agent who both still harbors good feeling toward the man who once protected him when they were youth and to put behind bars the Italian Cosa Nostra in the north of the city. It takes a lot of persuading, but he manages to talk his more cautious superiors into using Bulger for information about the Mafia’s activities that would enable them to arrest, hold, and convict the hated “Italians.” Whitey Bulger thinks it over and agrees, though insisting that he is not becoming a “rat” but merely engaging in a business deal to eliminate the competition. It turns out to be a bargain made with the Devil, especially for Connolly.

As Bulger’s power grows so does the number of his victims, some killed at his orders by his goons, many dying at his own hands, two literally so when he strangles them. He is devoted to his mother and younger brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), the latter a Senator who serves as the President of the Massachusetts Senate. He is married to Lindsey Cyr (Dakota Johnson), and dotes on their young son Douglas (Luke Ryan), but few would call him a good role model, as we see in the following exchange at the family table. Learning that the boy has gotten in trouble at school because of a fight, he tells him, “Hey, buddy. I need you to listen very carefully to what I’m saying because there are lessons again and again throughout your whole life. You gotta learn from these things, right? It’s not what you do, it’s when and where you do it, and who you do it to or with. If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.” Lindsey Cyr objects, “Jimmy, he’s six. You really think that’s the best thing to be telling you kid?” Bulger replies, “Yeah.” What she does not know is that her husband follows his own advice, many criminal cases against him having been closed because, as we see in photos of their bodies, there are no witnesses.

Johnny Depp the serious actor, who has been away far too long sidetracked by a Caribbean vacation filled with silly antics, is back, his hair almost thinned out, and steel blue eyes as cold as ice quickly sizing up all who cross his path, sometimes deciding that they are a threat, and therefore quickly eliminating them. The shootings might be too realistic for some, with bullets puncturing skulls so that blood and pieces of brains spatter walls or the window of a car. And yet, as mentioned above, with his family he can be tender, especially when little Douglas comes down with a deadly fever that calls for hospital care. The crime boss discovers that there are some things in life that his brute force is useless.

Bulger enjoys power and making people squirm, as in a dinner table scene when he asks his associate John Morris (David Harbour) about the recipe for the steak he has served up. Morris says it is a family secret, but soon tells it when Bulger persists. The latter coldly says, “…You said to me this is a family secret, and you gave it up to me, boom just like that. You spill the secret family recipe today, maybe you spill a little something about me tomorrow, hm?” Poor Morris, knowing what has happened to others who aroused the boss’s ire, shows his fear. Bulger lets the ominous conversation go on a bit further, and then, with a nasty laugh, reveals that he was “just f—king” with him.

John Connolly has to work hard to keep his fellow FBI agents off Bulger’s back, the gangster literally getting away with murder with his protector covering for him. Then new federal prosecutor, Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll) returns to his native Boston, fully intending to clean things up. He is puzzled as to why Bulger is not one of their primary targets. He does not buy Connolly’s story about the valuable evidence Bulger has been giving them. Poring over the many investigative reports of his staff, he notices that much of the evidence supposedly coming from Bulger, has actually come from other sources. Connolly finds himself working under a cloud, one that is a harbinger of the storm to come.

Matters are not going well at the Connolly home, either. His wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) tells him she does not like the change that has come over him. He denies this, insisting that his relationship with Whitey Bulger is part of his job. But when Bulger insists that they socialize, she draws a line. She serves up supper to the guests and then retires to her room. Bulger, asking where she is, goes up to her room, and in one of the most tense scenes in the film all but rapes her, telling her that she is to support her husband. His cold eyes are as menacing as a cobra’s as he fondles her while delivering his warning that she become more accommodating.

For those who know their classic movies the situation of the two anti-heroes is very much similar to the two characters in the classic film Angels With Dirty Faces. But the film’s excessive amount of strong language and blood-spurting violence would never have been permitted in the Thirties, and the rank sentimentality of that earlier picture is nowhere to be found in this frank look into evil. As indicated earlier, Johnny Depp gives the part his all, and Joel Edgerton is also excellent as the good man gone bad. The supporting cast also is fine, from the menacing mugs of the thugs to those working the other side of the law (Kevin Bacon even has a small role as one of Connolly’s fellow agents). The end notes about the fate of Bulger and Connolly and their cohorts are fascinating to read, calling to mind the psalmist who apparently worried about the wicked prospering so long despite their terrible deeds. Not nearly as neat and tidy an ending as in Angels With Dirty Faces. Both men did at last reap what they sowed, to bring to mind Paul’s warning (Galatians 6:8), but it took a long time for them to reap their just reward, and a lot of people were hurt or killed along the way.

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

 

Selma (2014)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hour 8 min.

Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 6; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 For the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones. The righteous shall be kept safe forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.

Psalm 37:28

 When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous, but dismay to evildoers.

Proverbs 21:15

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5:24

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Coretta accompanied her husband on the third March From Selma to Montgomery.                            (c) 2014 Paramount Pictures

In the struggle for a free India, Gandhi’s famous March to the Sea in defiance of the British is a historical milestone. Similarly, America has the Gandhi-inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Selma March. This was a shorter march than Gandhi’s, but as it turned out—it was far, far more dangerous.

We have two films that depict those brave leaders and marchers, Richard Attenborough’s splendid Gandhi, and now Ava DuVarnay’s memorable Selma. No film in the past year comes close to being both as inspiring and to being—in the light of ongoing protests against police abuse of blacks in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland—as relevant. Although the depiction of President Johnson in the first half of the film is flawed, the film is still the finest and most nuanced film depiction of Dr. King, and, important to note, also of those around him.

The film begins in Norway in December 1964 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., (David Oyelowo) is dressing in formal attire for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. As Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) helps him with the unfamiliar tie, he expresses his discomfort at living amidst such luxury while so many of their people back home are living in poverty. After a brief snatch of his acceptance speech, about equality and justice, before the assembled dignitaries the camera cuts to a group of black children dressed in their Sunday best. As they come down the stairs by a stained glass window, we suddenly realize what we are about to witness took place at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. Sure enough, a powerful explosion destroys a section of the church, the scene ending with a view of one of the twisted bodies of the four girls killed in the blast. This incident actually took place over a year earlier, on September 15, 1963, but the juxtaposition serves well to show the contrast of the two worlds in which Martin and Coretta Scott King moved in during their tormented lives.

The film then focuses upon black hospice nurse and activist Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, who also served as a producer). She is attempting to register to vote. The ordeal which the arrogant registrar puts her through—not being able to find fault with the application itself, he demands that she recite the Preamble to the US Constitution, and when she does, flawlessly, he still turns her down—gives the audience a good example of what blacks attempting to register to vote went through. As Dr. King explains later, without the right to vote, not only can blacks not choose their government representatives, but they cannot serve on juries, thus prolonging the day when all white juries refuse justice to black defendants.

Directing a great cast that breathes life into Paul Webbs’s script, Ms. DuVarnay explores the events and the people surrounding what actually were three Selma marches—the first, led by Rev. Hosea Williams and John Lewis on March 7, 1965 onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the day becoming known as “Bloody Sunday” because of the vicious beatings by the police; the second led by Dr. King on March 9, known as “Turnaround Tuesday,” due to Dr. King stopping and then turning the marchers around; and the third, completed, march from March 21 to the 25th, when, in Montgomery on the steps of the state capitol building, Dr. King gave his speech that climaxes the film, “How Long, Not Long.”

The marches and the violent attacks are well enacted, but the quieter, more intimate personal scenes are what make the film really stand out. The film readily acknowledges the conflict between Dr. King’s well-established Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and its offshoot the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”). Local Selma African Americans had been trying to register to vote since the late Fifties, forming the Dallas County Voters League.  SNCC workers began working with the DCVL in early 1963, but had succeeded only in getting jailed or beaten up. In the film we see Dr. King, in response to the DCVL’s invitation talking with them and SNCC leaders John Lewis, the latter who regard him as invading their turf. The young SNCC leaders are still smarting that Dr. King did not just fail to support their Freedom Rides, but tried to dissuade them.

Dr. King’s SCLC has had a bad time in Albany, GA with its “Albany Movement.” The astute police chief Laurie Pritchett had pursued a policy of mass arrests but no beatings, just the opposite of Bull Conner in Birmingham, who used dogs, fire hoses and clubs against demonstrators. As a result the SCLC’s movement won few tangible results, but because no atrocities meant little publicity in the North, the Albany Movement was generally regarded as a defeat for the SCLC. Thus Dr. King asks the Selma leaders, “Is your sheriff Bull Connor or is he Laurie Pritchett?” When they respond that their Sheriff Jim Clark is a Bull Conner, King and his aides know they have come to the right place. Eventually SNCC worker John Lewis is won over, becoming a close associate of King.

The scene with Coretta Scott King and Martin listening to the tape which FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) has sent them to discredit the man whom he has labeled “the most dangerous man in America” is beautifully staged. A bit of humor is injected when King says that the sexual panting and groaning on the tape is not his, and she replies, “I know…I know what you sound like.” But then she goes on to say that she is no fool, that she wants to know if he loves any of the other women. He assures her that he loves only her, and they embrace. This is a strained marriage, but not a broken one. In another scene she reassures her husband when he expresses his self-doubts, and the fatigue with living with “the constant closeness of death.”

In another intimate scene in a car at night Dr. King shares his self-doubts with John Lewis. By now totally in tune with his former adversary, the future Congressman reassures King by telling him that it was because he had heard King speak that he had decided to join the group on the Freedom Rides. He quotes for him Matthew 6:27. Then too, there is the moment late at night when the troubled mind of the leader will not allow him to sleep. He calls up Mahalia Jackson (Ledisi Young), and the great singer soothes his soul with a song.

All this time King and his associates are under constant surveillance, as we see when many sequences are introduced by brief F.B.I. field reports typed onto the screen, a technique that helps us know where and when the depicted event is taking place. One of the film’s flaws is the suggestion in a scene showing Hoover and Johnson talking in the Oval Office, that the President initiated the surveillance and the production of the tape, when in reality the conservative Director, offended by what he regarded as King’s radical tactics, had started keeping King under close scrutiny for years during the Kennedy administration. Hoover was not only opposed to King’s politics, but regarded him as a “political and moral degenerate.”

The film is appropriately titled because it does not attempt to tell the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. but to focus on a pivotal moment in US history. The filmmakers wisely show us through a series of cameo performances that the Movement was not a one-man affair, but a team effort with many members playing important roles. Along with John Lewis we see the Rev. Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce); the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo, playing King’s best friend); the Rev. C.T. Vivian (Vorey Reynolds); Andrew Young (Andre’ Holland); James Forman (Trai Byers); Jimmy Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), the young black activist murdered by police while protecting his mother (the killer cop escaped justice for 40 years!); and a CR organizer too often overlooked because a woman had a hard time rising to prominence in that patriarchal age, Diane Nash (Ms. Thompson), about whom an entire movie should be made. Veteran actor Martin Sheen plays Judge Johnson, then the only Southern judge sympathetic to blacks, whose decision against the State of Georgia allows the March to go on legally. Even Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) enters the picture, coming to Selma to speak at Brown Chapel as a sign of solidarity, and telling the worried Coretta that he wants to show whites that they had best support Dr. King and his nonviolence, lest blacks turn to those who do not believe in a nonviolent approach to racism.

I was also happy to see the brief appearance of the martyred white minister from Boston James Reeb (Jeremy Strong), his story powerfully told in a book I read last year, The James Reeb Story. There are of course, the villains, Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), not all sorry that he is on “the wrong side of history,” and the maliciously bigoted J. Edgar Hoover. Which brings us to the portrayal of President Johnson. In 1964, after pushing through Congress the Civil Rights Act, the President was reluctant to follow this up with a bill specifically targeting the vast network of Southern laws and regulations preventing blacks from being able to register to vote. As shown in the film, he was concerned with both his War on Poverty and the War in Vietnam, the latter of which would cripple the former because of the draining of its funds to support the war. However, by the time of the Selma March, he had come around to King’s point of view that the nation needed to see the vicious result of Southern opposition, so it is unfortunate that the current argument over its historical accuracy has diverted attention away from the subject of the film, the terrible injustice of racists, who still are standing in the way of racial progress. Also, the critics do not mention that the Johnson in the last half of the film is in synch with Dr. King. In the Oval Office he dresses down Gov. Wallace, telling him he ought not to be “on the wrong side of history.” And in the re-enactment of the last part of the President’s televised speech announcing the introduction of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (which he had ordered drafted months before), we hear the concluding words that electrified those of us old enough to have heard the original, “and we shall overcome!”

I do wish that more time had been allotted for the third march that took place over four days. What we do see is fine, but seems a bit rushed compared to the time given to the build-up to this event. In addition to Dr. King’s delightfully humorous question (to Ralph Abernathy?) as they look down from the bridge to the river below, “Can you swim?” there could have been shown more of the tremendous effort in setting up the tents and preparing the food for the 300 marchers. Although we catch a glimpse of such celebrities as Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis, Jr. on the March, more of the entertainers who also had joined might have been shown—in addition, there were Frankie Laine, Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez, Nina Simone, and Dr. King’s friend Tony Bennett. This, of course, is a minor quibble, but when I consider how inflated is the film version of The Hobbit, I wish another 15 to 30 minutes could have been added for an infinitely more worthy film.

The film is well summed up by these words from poet James Weldon Johnson’s song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the “Negro National Anthem:”

“We have come, over a way that which tears has been watered
We have come, treading out path through the blood of the slaughtered
Out of the gloomy past, till now we stand at last,
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.”

(Full text at http://www4.semo.edu/abc/negro_national_anthem.htm)

The film does not use this hymn nor any of the familiar Civil Rights songs on its soundtrack, but it does employ the wonderful anthem written expressly for this film by John Legend and Common, “Glory.” This engaging rap-anthem shows the relevance of the 50 year-old events:

“Justice for all just ain’t specific enough
One son died, his spirit is revisitin’ us
Truant livin’ livin’ in us, resistance is us
That’s why Rosa sat on the bus
That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up”

Despite what the majority of the Supreme Court thought when they struck down key portions of Johnson’s Voting Rights Act, Legend and Common declare;

“Now the war is not over,
Victory isn’t won
And we’ll fight on to the finish…”

The two understand the Biblical parallel with the long struggle against racism:

“Selma’s now for every man, woman and child
Even Jesus got his crown in front of a crowd
They marched with the torch, we gon’ run with it now…”

Even Dr. King’s tactic of nonviolence is affirmed, with an interesting insight concerning the music of the Movement:

“Enemy is lethal, a king became regal

Saw the face of Jim Crow under a bald eagle
The biggest weapon is to stay peaceful
We sing, our music is the cuts that we bleed through…”

The anthem also recognizes what the film makers have asserted, that the Movement was not just centered on Dr. King:

“No one can win the war individually
It takes the wisdom of the elders and young people’s energy
Welcome to the story we call victory
Comin’ of the Lord, my eyes have seen the glory…”

http://www.lyricsontop.com/john-legend-songs/glory-feat-common-lyrics.html

I don’t know how the film will fare in the Oscar nomination race, but I hope the song will be among those nominated. If so, it will be one of the few Oscar songs that actually says something significant–as does this incredibly significant film. A friend says that Selma probably will not be chosen by Academy members as “Best Picture” because The Butler won last year, so that another racially themed film does not stand a chance. I hope he is wrong—and when you see this film, I think you also might agree. British actors David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo are superb as the couple sacrificing their private lives to the Civil Rights struggle, their dedication to the film matched by the marvelous supporting cast!

When an even more controversial film, Birth of a Nation, was shown at the White House on the evening of March 21, 1915, the impressed President Wilson reportedly said, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” That Wilson actually said this has been disputed by those who think that author of the play and novel on which the film was based, Thomas Dixon, wrote them to promote the film. Regardless of who did, the memorable words, with the word “mostly” qualifying “true,” could also apply to Ava DuVarnay’s Selma. This is a film I wish every American would see and heed.

This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the Feb. issue of Visual Parables, available at the Store.

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American Hustle (2013)

Rated PG. Running time: 2 hour 18 min.

Our Advisories Violence 3; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

  The getting of treasures by a lying tongue
is a fleeting vapor and a snare of death.

  Proverbs 21:6

 A scoundrel and a villain
goes around with crooked speech,
winking the eyes, shuffling the feet,
pointing the fingers,
with perverted mind devising evil,
continually sowing discord;
on such a one calamity will descend suddenly;
in a moment, damage beyond repair.

Proverbs 6:12-15

ENTER MOVIE-HUSTLE 2 MCT

Irving, Sydney, and Richie, from opposite sides of the law,
work out a scheme to ensnare corrupt politicians.
(2013 Columbia Picturess

The film is loosely based on the Abscam scandal back in the late 70s, an elaborate FBI sting operation using a fake Arab sheik that brought down numerous politicians and mobsters. Employing a bit more fiction than usual, director/co-writer (with Eric Singer) David O. Russell places at the very beginning of the film a title card “Some of this actually happened,” probably more accurate than the usual “Based on a true story.” The director of last year’s delightful Silver Linings Playbook, has given us perhaps the best con artist film since 1973’s king of the genre The Sting­—and there have been some very good ones since then—see The Grifters; Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; House of Games; Catch Me If You Can: and the Broadway musical beloved by many, The Music Man.

Like most con artist films, the plot is complicated, in this case starting with and coming back several times to a scene in which two guys and a woman are in a hotel room with what we later learn is the Mayor of Camden, NJ, who angrily gets up and walks out of the room when one of the men pushes a briefcase toward him. The two men, surprised that the politician didn’t rise to the bait, argue, and then one of them reluctantly chases after their quarry. Catching up with the Mayor, our man is able to patch up the relationship for the project they had been considering.

In a series of flashbacks we see con artists Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser (Christian Bale and Amy Adams), caught in a scam by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). He forces them to work with him in a sting operation to bring down Camden, N.J., Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and a number of bribe-taking US Representatives and Senators. Either work with me, or spend a lot of years in prison. What choice do they have?

Irving and Sydney had met at a pool party. Even though he is married and has a stepson whom he adores, Irving is attracted to Sydney, especially when they discover that they both are passionate about the music of Duke Ellington. Sydney, working as a grifter, had adopted a faux-British accent, calling herself  ”Lady Edith Greensly,” a Londoner allegedly on familiar terms with bankers. Irving’s ambition had been more than owning his several dry cleaning stores, so he had embarked on conning people out of their money for a “sure thing” investment, plus, on the side, selling forged art works (one that we see in his shabby gallery looks like a Rembrandt).

We soon discover that the FBI agent himself has become a con artist, so obsessed is he in getting the bad guys–he employs the same methods as the scammers in entrapping his prey. Richie is so driven by his plan, one that is extremely expensive, that when his superior refuses some of his requests, he beats the man up. Only the intervention of a higher authority saves DiMaso’s career and his project. In contrast, we see Irving beginning to have qualms about the scheme because he is developing a liking for Mayor Polito. The latter really does care for his constituents. He takes no bribes, lives in a comfortable old house and not a mansion, and enjoys moving among and helping his people. He wants to bring back to life the once vibrant Atlantic City casinos so that jobs will be created for his people. The money for the project is to come from the sheik that Irving and Sydney introduce him to—actually the phony Arab is a Mexican. The money promised by Irving and Sydney is to be passed on to the US Senators and Representatives that Polito knows, who in turn will see that the “sheik” can jump the line and become a U.S. citizen. Hidden FBI cameras will record every transaction.

There is also a subplot involving Irving and his off-the-wall, chain-smoking wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), so unpredictable that an off camera Irving says of her, “She was the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.” Of course, when Irving partners with Sydney, Rosalyn is upset, and—well, you will have to see for yourself this actress’s wonderful versatility that has impressed so many critics and viewers. If she ever gets tired of her athletic roles in such films as The Hunger Games and X-Men, Jennifer Lawrence can make it big in comedies as well.

And before closing I want to mention too that seeing Robert De Niro for his 10-minute scene of a Florida mobster attracted by Richie’s elaborate scheme is another of the great treats this film offers. Funny, suspenseful, and conducive to the discussion of issues ethics and trust, the film contains some of the best performances of the year. How everything works out in the end involves an even bigger scam, but this one we probably can applaud with few or no qualms of conscience.

 The full review with discussion questions will be included in the January 2014 issue of Visual Parables, scheduled for posting early that month. To subscribe to the publication go to the Store. A year’s subscription will gain you access not just to this issue (which has far more features in it than just film reviews and guides), but also to issues as far back as Summer 2006.