La La Land (2016)

There could be spoilers in the last two paragraphs, so if you have not seen the film, you might want to read them later.

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

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!

Psalm 150:3-4

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture,

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

James 2:8 (Lev. 2:18)

Let each of you look not to your own interests,

but to the interests of others.

Philippians 2:4

cuplncircl

One of many beautiful shots of the lovers in this enchanting film.              (c) Summit/Lionsgate

Three years ago, Damien Chazelle’s acclaimed Whiplash dealt with a dedicated jazz student bullied by his demanding drum teacher. His new film is also about a would-be jazz musician (a pianist), but this time the whole film is a musical, indeed one that re-introduces the musical to audiences, and in a sense, re-invents the genre. The bittersweet plot, especially the conclusion, makes the title a very ironical one. “Romantic” and “La La Land” are synonymous in the minds of many folk, but this film might change their opinion, and even lead those who dislike musicals because “Real people don’t just break out in song like that” to think again.

Set in Hollywood (indeed many scenes unfold in a coffee shop, studios, and audition rooms on Warner Bother’s back lot), the film is episodic. Spanning more than 5-years, its 5 segments named after the 4 seasons, the film begins with “Winter” and ends with it. In the pre-credits opening four rows of cars are backed up on a Los Angeles freeway over-pass. Mia (Emma Stone), dressed in an eye-catching yellow dress, gets out of her car and sings “Another Day of Sun.” She is quickly joined by others. Soon, a hundred commuters are singing, doing daring flips, and dancing around and on top of their cars. It’s a mesmerizing scene as the camera reveals the vastness of the blue sky, the city stretched out below, and the mountains surrounding it. When the traffic starts to move, Mia is slow to step on the gas. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), in the car behind her, impatiently honks his horn, and then when she does move on, he pulls around her, and she gives him the finger.

At Warner Brothers Mia works as a barista at the coffee parlor, dashing off from time to time for an audition. She is treated like dirt by those conducting the auditions, one even taking a phone call during her dramatic emoting. At the apartment she shares with three other aspiring actresses, she resists at first their invitation to go with them to another pool party to mingle and make connections. Giving in and going, she finds herself in no mood to engage in empty conversation (The song is “Someone in the Crowd.”) so she leaves.

Sebastian is an idealistic jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own night spot where jazz fans can congregate. Unfortunately, jazz is a shrinking genre, so he supports himself by playing old standards at weddings and parties. An admirer of Miles Davis and a frequent patron of a jazz spot called The Light House, he has a steady job at a club, but the owner (J.K. Simmons) insists that he play only standards fit to accompany cocktail drinking. One night during the Christmas season, apparently fed up with the usual seasonal pop music, Sebastian improvises a song, which in the rest of the movie will be a signature for him. It is the kind that calls attention to itself, thus distracting patrons from their drinking and conversing. The angry owner fires the pianist on the spot. Trying to appeal to his better nature, Sebastian reminds him it is Christmas, to which the Scrooge-hearted boss replies, “Yeah, I see the decorations. Good luck in the New Year.”

Meanwhile, on the street just outside the club, Mia, having left her friends at the party, is drawn by the faint strains of Sebastian’s song. Entering, she sees the owner talking with Sebastian, but she cannot hear them. As the pianist turns to leave, she smiles and strides forward to meet him, obviously wanting to compliment him. Ignoring her, he rudely bumps her as he rushes out of the club, leaving us to wonder, “When they will ever meet?”

They do, at a party where he is playing at which she baits him by requesting an inane song. Despite this, they begin a friendship that blossoms into romance (Song, “A Lovely Night.). Later, after a date to see Rebel Without a Cause (that almost does not happen), their night stroll turns into a wonderful dance routine in Griffith Park when Mia, sitting on a bench, reaches into her bag and changes from heels to spectator shoes—which, of course, matches Sebastian’s. Suddenly the ordinary changes into the fantastical as they dance in perfect synch, enter the Observatory (no problem getting into the closed facility, this now being a fantasy), and continue to dance through its cavernous main hall. Turning on the planetarium’s projector, they gaze up into a star-studded sky in which several galaxies also can be seen. In the magic of the moment their feet leave the ground, the pair now swirling amidst the stars. An awe-inspiring moment possible only in such a musical.

She moves in with him, even though they look at their art in different ways. Sebastian is totally committed to jazz, even though he knows it is no longer popular. Mia disputes his affirmation that he should play even if almost no one shows up. Art requires an audience, she believes. When she shares the humiliation she has gone through at her auditions, he encourages her to write her own material and produce it. She quits her barista job and stays home to do just that, eventually mounting a one-woman play.

Ironically, Sebastian decides to go for the money, joining his friend Keith’s (John Legend) band “The Messengers.” The money is good, but the music, while tuneful, is far short of what he had dreamt of playing. When Mia attends a session that the large crowd is enjoying, we can see by her face that she is saddened to see him sell out. Also, the band often is on the road, causing long separations.

What happens on the opening night of Mia’s play is heartbreaking at first, leading to their break-up, and yet eventually resulting in unexpected success for her. What amounts to a long coda takes place 5 years later and includes a thrilling fantasy dance sequence of “what might have been.” It is an energetic, gorgeously staged production that would have climaxed the old style of boy-meets-girl musicals. Damien Chazelle gives us the best of two worlds. His film’s title references both the idea of being out of touch with reality and the nickname that cynical writers gave to Los Angeles in general and Hollywood in particular. Mia and Sebastian might live in Hollywood, but no longer are they in La La Land.

The director/writer has assembled a terrific crew, his friend Justin Hurwitz composing the music (also for Whiplash), and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul wrote the lyrics. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren captures the dance sequences and the sites of Los Angeles in glowing color reminiscent of the old big studio musicals—he even shoots in Cinemascope, a favorite format of the 50s musicals and spectacular adventure/historical films. He also harks back to the 20s and 30s by using several iris shots, the technique which opens or closes on a character in a circle, the rest of the screen blacked out. Costume designer Mary Zophres’s lollypop-colored dresses for the women also take us back to those grand old 50s musicals.

But of course, it is Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling to whom much of the credit for the film’s success is due. They are utterly charming and move across the screen in their dance numbers with a grace that seems effortless. She is the better singer, but if you liked Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire’s singing, you will enjoy Ryan’s as well. They don’t have the long period of training that the old stars had, so their dancing might fall a bit short, but you will not think about this while watching their beautiful moves. This is another film that demonstrates how beautiful the human body is in motion, and more than doubly so when two dance side by side. I know that the Psalmist was referring to liturgical dance, but I think that the dancers in a musical also bring praise to the One who designed and created the human body.

The film demonstrates well the theme of the importance of support in achieving dreams, each of the lovers strengthening the other during moments of despair. But for Sebastian, Mia would have dropped out of show business. Thanks to his wise advice, she focuses her attention on her basic talent of writing. But for Mia, Sebastian might have continued to play music he disliked, the good money making up for the guilt and disappointment he would have harbored resulting from his giving up his dream. And their Eros love morphs into the love of neighbor enjoined by Scripture, each of them following the dictum of the apostle Paul about looking to the interest of others before their own. It is this which leads to the bittersweet ending. We are not shown what happened during the five-year interval mentioned in the coda, nor is this needed. By this we see that Damien Chazelle respects the intelligence of his audience.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Jan. 2017 issue of VP. If you find this and other reviews helpful, please support the site by buying an issue or taking out a year’s subscription at the store.

 

What’s Cooking? (2000)

This is one of 3 films from VP’s archives recommended for Thanksgiving viewing.

(Also see Avalon & Broadway Danny Rose.)

Rated PG-13   Running time : 1 hour 41 min.

Our content rating: V- 1; L – 3; S/N-2.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

Ecclesiastes 3:13

whatscookng

The answer to the question in the title is “Plenty!”  Filmmaker Gurinder Chadha serves up one of the most delicious banquets of a film since The Big Night, or Babette’s Feast. Set in Los Angeles, just before and during Thanksgiving, the film shows us a Thanksgiving that has not ever appeared before on the screen. It is a multi-cultural Thanksgiving, from the children’s school Thanksgiving Pageant that opens the film, to the dishes served alongside the traditional turkey, as well as the people sitting around the tables. Miss Chadha is a Kenyan-born Englishwoman married to Los Angeleno Paul Mayeda Berges (who wrote the screenplay), so she brings an outsider’s fresh perspective to the American holiday. Her fascination with and love for this uniquely American celebration shows in the wonderful way that the food is photographed and the fact that we enter not one, but four, households where the family gathers together around the biggest meal of the year. The families are African American (with two yuppie guests), Vietnamese, Latino, and Jewish.

There are so many characters in the four families that the following annotated list might prove helpful:

The Williams Family: Audrey Williams (Affre Woodard) is a bit flustered because her mother-in-law Grace keeps criticizing her dishes and preparations. Grace is anything but that, and yet she comes through when a table accident almost spoils the perfectionist Audrey’s dishes. Audrey is also understandably worried that her husband Ronald, a workaholic spin doctor, is keeping back a terrible secret from her. She’s concerned too that their grown son Michael has not showed up. When he does, however, his criticism of his father’s working for a conservative white governor poses still another threat to his mother’s carefully planned gathering. Complicating this is the presence of the white couple whom Audrey has invited because they live too far away to return to their own family.

The Avila Family: Elizabeth Avila (Mercedes Ruehl) teaches school and is a newly single mother, adding tamales and other Latino dishes to her carefully prepared turkey. Her married son Anthony, meeting his father at the supermarket and worried at how bad he looks, invites him to the dinner, in the hope that his parents will reconcile. He has no idea what a potentially explosive situation he has created because of a special guest his mother has invited. Gina is the college-student daughter who has invited her new Asian boyfriend to dinner. Imagine her embarrassment when the only topic for conversation with her guest her brother and father can think of is Bruce Lee. Javier (Victor Rivers) is the father whose adultery has exiled him from his house. He now realizes what he has lost and is repentant–but is it too late?

The Seelig Family: Ruth (Lainie Kazan) and her husband Herb (Maury Chaykin) are Jewish parents who want their single daughter Rachel (Kyra Sedgwick) to marry and be happy, like their other children. Rachel, however, has chosen as her life-partner Carla (Julia Marguilies), who graciously agrees to go along with the fiction that they are just roommates. Ruth and Herb realize there is more between the two young women but cannot stand to confront the truth about Rachel. Rachel’s siblings are supportive of her decision, but they all worry about their naive Aunt Bea (Estelle Harris), who is so naive that she cannot see Rachel’s discomfort over her insistent questioning of why Rachel is not married yet.

The Nguyen Family:  Trinh Nguyen (Joan Chen), a recent and proud immigrant, is having great difficulty coping with her children’s adopting American ways. They all work to make their video store a success, but when she finds a condom in the pocket of her daughter Jenny’s (Kristy Wu) clothing, she jumps to the conclusion that it is for her Anglo boyfriend. And hidden under the bed of son Gary (Jimmy Pham) is a secret that will really traumatize Trinh. Then there is Jimmy (Will Yun Lee), a student at a near-by college, who claims he is too busy to come home for the family gathering.

The above are just the principals in the four family gatherings, some of whom are joined together in unsuspected ways, but all by the desire that their families come together in something resembling peace and harmony on this one day. The food is lovingly photographed by Jong Lin, whose exquisite photography of the food in “Eat Drink Man Woman” so captivated audiences. With such artists behind and before the camera, Gurinder Chadha succeeds in giving us a film that is as pleasing to the eye as to the mind and spirit. “What’s Cooking?” has something for every family that sees it–family loyalty and betrayal; misunderstandings and efforts to reconcile; love and anger–all are there, along with a delicious looking array of food that will remind everyone of their own Thanksgiving meals. The families are from different cultures yet united in their celebration of the holiday that brings families together, whether its members want to or not. Each begins their feast by offering thanks, a brief ritual that reminds even the skeptical that they do indeed have much to be thankful for.

Food has always been an important part of life and faith–Abraham and Sarah’s hosting the three strangers, with momentous results; the Passover meal; the manna in the wilderness; the wedding at Cana; the feeding of the 5000; and the Last Supper. Jesus did affirm the ancient Scriptural declaration that “humans do not live by bread alone” (too bad Martha in her kitchen didn’t hear this), but he did nonetheless enjoy a good meal, even inviting himself to dinner at the sinning Zacchaeus’ house. He broke the taboos against dining with societal outcasts and the ritually unclean so often that his enemies charged him with “eating and drinking with sinners.” Jesus even compared the kingdom of God with a wedding feast, and his last command to his disciples in the Upper Room concerned a meal, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Thus, there is for people of faith much to celebrate in “What’s Cooking?” In each family the Thanksgiving meal becomes more than just eating and drinking, which is why those preparing it go to such loving lengths to make it special. The traditional turkey affirms their entrance into the amorphous American society, whereas the ethnic dishes affirm and celebrates the goodness of the tradition from which each have come.

Why this excellent film has remained largely unknown, while such inferior tripe is doing so well at our cineplexes, remains one of those mysteries of the film industry and public taste.

Grand Canyon (1991)

From Feb. 1992 VP.

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

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

    the moon and the stars that you have established;

what are human beings that you are mindful of them,

mortals that you care for them

Psalm 8:3-4

DSC02796

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s great “I have a dream” speech still thrills us each time we hear it in January. But it also can make us wince when we see what has happened to this nation since those hopeful days of summer 1963. Director-writer-producer Lawrence Kasdan’s fine visual parable can be viewed as a poignant and wry commentary on the gap between the dream and the reality of America in the 1990’s. He and his script co-writer wife Meg have a fine eye for details of urban life–such as the street people, a man holding a sign begging for work, a woman trying to scrub blood off the sidewalk, the traffic jams, angry epithets of drivers, and much more.

All ten of the characters in the film are disturbed about their lives. Mack (Kevin Bacon) is unhappy with his law practice and restless in his marriage. His wife Claire (Mary McDonnell), overwhelmed by the misery of the world, sees little sense in it. Mack’s secretary Dee is terribly lonely and in love with him. Deborah lives in the ghetto, constantly in fear for the lives of her two children, especially for her son.

Yet in the midst of all this darkness moments of grace keep happening: Mack is saved from a gang of toughs by Simon (Danny Glover), the driver of the tow truck Mack had called when his car broke down in the ghetto. Out of this a friendship grows with far reaching consequences. Claire, while jogging, finds a baby and takes it home, not calling the police but preferring to wait until that night when Mack returns from work. Even their friend Davis (Steve Martin), producer of violent exploitation films, decides to make quality films after he is shot by a robber (a temporary decision, unfortunately — he enjoys money too much).

Some of the scenes are funny, others   very sad, especially those involving Otis, Simon’s teenage nephew who runs with a gang and believes that he will not live to be twenty-five. Los Angeles itself, in a way, is part of the cast, dark and menacing when we are at the house of Simon’s Sister, with its barred windows — and neat and orderly in the white section where Mack and Claire live in a lovely house. We are reminded that it is no longer angels that hover over the city named after them: the roar of police helicopters is heard day and night, calling to mind scenes from Boyz N the Hood.

The film’s title comes from Simon’s Wordsworthian philosophy. He describes the Grand Canyon to Mack, marveling at its age: “When you sit on the edge of it, you realize what a joke we all are.” For him this sense of transcendence is enough to keep him going, and it is something which he believes should be shared. In the modern City of the Angels the church apparently fails to attract or convey this to any of the people in the story. Simon sees little Good News, though his friendship with Mack becomes a faint reflection of it. One can hope that they will come to The Psalmist’s knowledge of the Maker of the Grand Canyon. A good film for church groups to see & discuss!

TEACHING/PREACHING MOMENTS:

Mack telling Simon about the stranger who pulled him back from the path of a bus and his sense that she was “sent to me.” His desire not to let Simon “slip by” like that rescuer without a more tangible expression of thanks.

Claire talking with Mack about her finding the baby and Simon rescuing him. She sees these as miracles: “What if these are miracles, Mack? What if we have trouble recognizing miracles because we haven’t had experience with them?” Viewers could discuss their concept of miracle

Note: One of my most comprehensive sets of discussion guides for this film is contained in my book Films and Faith: 40 Discussion Guides. For info on the book’s availability contact me at myparables2@gmail.com.

Boyz N the Hood (1991)

We have reprinted this review from the August 1991 issue of Visual Parables because of a plot similarity in the current film, the delightful Barbershop: The Next Cut.

Rated R. Our content ratings (0-10): Violence-6; Language-8; Sex/Nudity-5.

Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears …

DouBoynCar&Tre r

Tre (rt) talks to Doughboy, (c) Columbia Pictures

Katharine Lee Bates’ song must seem like a joke to those trapped by racism and poverty in South Central Los Angeles, the setting for John Singleton’s film. Here the “spacious skies” are filled with the sounds of police helicopters constantly patrolling overhead or tracking down a culprit. This amazing film–especially for a first-time director only twenty-three years old–gives us a stark picture of what it is like growing up in a section of a city that is like Beirut or Belfast.

The story is of three teenage friends, Tre, raised by his divorced father, and two brothers, Ricky and Doughboy, whose single mother barely copes. Tre’s career-oriented mother had given him over to his father years before when she had found him unresponsive to her admonitions to do better in school. Furious Styles, Tre’s father, is a financial adviser, and a persuasive dispenser of advice to his son. He makes Tre memorize formulas for character development and toe the line at school. His strict, but loving discipline, stands in stark contrast to that in the home of Ricky and Doughboy. What little attention their mother offers is given solely to her favorite, Ricky. His hopes for a better life are pinned on his doing well on the SAT test and receiving an athletic scholarship to a college. Doughboy, the largest and toughest of the three, has give up any hope for the future. He has seen too many friends shot and killed. He is the one who, during a discussion with several friends in a parked car, states that he does not believe in God; how can there be with so much senseless violence and death all around them?

This remarkable film should be seen by whites as well as African Americans, for it not only shows what is happening to too many families trapped in our urban ghettos, but it also portrays a strong parent trying his best to keep his son on the right path. There are so many good scenes! Such as when the three friends are small and they go to view a dead body and then resume playing ball; no one thinks of calling the police. Or when teenage Tre gives in to momentary despair because his concentration on his homework is broken so often by the sound of near-by gun shots, police sirens and the roar of helicopters; rushing over to the home of his girl friend he seeks her embrace as he bursts into bitter tears of rage and frustration. Or big, tough Doughboy, the only one with presence of mind to get his youngest brother out of the room when the bloodied body of Ricky is brought home.

Teaching moments: Doughboy expressing his disbelief in God. Where is God in the South Central Los Angeleses of our land? Furious talking with his son: how do we pass on our dreams & values to our children? Ironic moment: which of the two cops seems more racist?

 

Boyz n The Hood (1991)

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

 Rated R. Running time: 1hour 52 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

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

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

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

Ephesians 6:4

Themes:

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

OnPorch

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

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

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

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

BnHdTre&Fathr

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

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

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

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

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

For Reflection/Discussion

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

Ricky Baker       Furious Styles Doughboy Baker       Reva Styles

Tre Styles               Mrs. Baker     Brandi

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

The Overnight (2015)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 19 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 4, Sex-8; Nudity 8.

Our star rating (1-5): 1.5

 Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within…

Romans 12:2a (J.B. Phillips)

OverNite

An evening of pleasantries changes bizarrely once the two boys are put to bed.                (c) 2015 The Orchard

Director/screenwriter Patrick Brice’s sex comedy, which I saw at all places at an art house theater, is also a mystery film, the mystery being how it avoided an NC-17 rating. The plot seems to pivot around one young husband’s small sex organ compared to that of another husband when the two and their wives spend an alcohol and drug-saturated evening of getting acquainted.

Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling) have just moved to Los Angeles with their little son RJ. Alex, a stay-at-home dad, is worried about making new friends. He need not worry long, because at a kids’ park RJ, who has been given a bag of Gummies, quickly attracts Max, also his age. This in turn draws the boy’s hat-wearing father Kurt (Jason Schwartzman), who obliquely criticizes them for providing such unhealthy fare to their child. Even if the friend-hungry Alex had thought of telling the guy to mind his own business, his resolve would have vanished when Kurt quickly offers his friendship. Before they know what has hit them the newcomers have accepted this stranger’s invitation to dinner that night, R.J. included.

Arriving with a gift bottle of wine so cheap that Alex tries to remove the label, the three are welcomed into a very upscale home. Kurt’s glamorous French wife Charlotte (Judith Godreche) pretends not to notice the crass wine, effusively making them feel at home. The boys continue to hit it off in another part of the house while the parents become acquainted. We have already seen how Alex and Emily have grown luke-warm in their sexual relationship, the film opening with them engaged in sex and then separating so that each can come to a climax using their hands. Apparently, we are to believe, they are the perfect setup for this Spengali-like pair of hipsters to try something new and kinky—maybe you recall Paul Mazurkey’s 1969 film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

There is a pleasant dinner and conversation, after which Kurt charms the boys into going to bed so the adults can concentrate their attention on each other. More talk, and then Charlotte places her hand on Alex’s knee. Now even he realizes this evening could lead to them becoming more intimately acquainted than he or Emily had bagained for. Much more follows in a strip-tease like manner. There is a scene in which he follow’s Kurt’s lead to expose himself nude before the women, thus revealing his penis envy.

Critics have been largely favorable toward the film, one calling it “ a delightful romp between the sheets.” I found myself thankful it was such a short film, though there was one scene that was funny, taking me back to the 1960s when Yoko Ono made the news with her film called “No. 4.” That almost forgotten memory was triggered by the sequence in which Alex looks at the large pictures with which Kurt has decorated one of their rooms. At first I took them for close-ups of flowers of various colors, similar to some of Georgia O’Keefe’s lovely paintings. But soon we learn that the circle in the middle of each “flower” is a human anus in the middle of a butt. Kurt calls this collection “Portals.” In 1964 Yoko set up a treadmill over which men walked while from below her cameraman filmed the butts of the participants. I remember laughing at her reply to someone commenting on this filming of a seldom photographed portion of the body, rather than the face: she said that there was more expression there than on their faces. You can see this 5 minute 39 second film on YouTube. I found it as interesting as this longer film—certainly time-saving. Maybe I’m being too strait-laced and grumpy, but Alex and Emily could benefit by heeding the apostle Paul’s plea to the Christians at Rome. I any of you go, I would appreciate hearing your opinion.

No questions for this turkey—though if you do watch it with someone, there is a set of generic questions that will work in the July Visual Parables.

her (2013)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 6 min.

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

Our Star ratings (1-5): 5

Note, because in the next-to-the-last paragraph I refer to the final shot of the film, this might be a spoiler for some, though I intend it to be an alert or “Heads up,” hence there is no description of what is in the shot.

Look on my right hand and see—
there is no one who takes notice of me;
no refuge remains to me;
no one cares for me.

Psalm 142:4

HER

Theodore finds a very unorthodox lover named Samantha in this sci-fi romantic comedy.
(c) 2013 Warner Brothers

Spike Jonze’s fascinating romantic comedy updates the genre (the film is also sci-fi) to suggest where our technology-obsessed society might be headed in the 21st century. Set in the near future when virtually everybody is walking around listening to or speaking into their portable devices (almost half of the customers I encounter at our local Kroger’s grocery usually are similarly occupied!), the story’s Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is similar to the little boy in the director’s Where the Wild Things Are. You might recall that that film, an adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book, is about a stubborn boy named Max who seeks to escape from his family by running away into a fantasy world.

Theodore’s world is just as unpleasant as little Max’s. He is dragging his feet on signing the final divorce papers from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), feeling as lonely as the author of Psalm 142 during this period. But unlike the psalmist, he has no relationship with the God who might fill his void. During the day Theodore is a modern day Cyrano de Bergerac, working at a futuristic agency called BeautifulWrittenLetters.com where he writes beautifully sensitive letters for any occasion for anyone who pays the fee. His boss Paul (Chris Pratt) shows by his admiring comments what a valuable employee Theodore is. At home Theodore whiles away his time by playing a video game with a foul-mouthed avatar. His only human connection beyond Paul is his Platonic relationship with fellow building tenant Amy (Amy Adams), who has issues with her husband—and who plays a mommy video game.

One day Theodore sees an ad about a new home OS (operating system) claiming to be, “The first artificially intelligent operating system … a consciousness that knows you.” So, like those who rushed out to buy the latest iPhone, Theodore installs his new OS. After answering just a few questions, the Sirius-like Samantha is talking with him (the “with” rather than “to” is important here). Voiced by the smooth voiced Scarlett Johansson, we can well understand how his relationship with her grows into a romance. “She” declares, “I have intuition, the ability to grow and evolve through my experiences, just like you.” Does she ever! She organizes his email, almost instantly scanning his stacked-up messages, informing him that only 86 are worth saving. To her “Should I delete the rest,” he replies in the affirmative.  She not only laughs at his jokes, but also responds with some of her own. She is always “there” when he comes home, tired from his daily chore of expressing the thoughts of strangers who want to write to others but cannot find their own words to do so. (I was reminded during this “getting to know you” sequence of the old song popularized by the Mills Brothers back in the 50s, “Paper Doll,” a smooth song about an anti-social guy who dreams of having a Paper Doll who will be superior to the real life “flirty, flirty girls,” because she is always waiting there when he comes home at night.)

Samantha advises him to seek human companionship. Since Amy is just a friend, he should try dating, she suggests, and there follows that blind date which proves so embarrassing. The more he and Samantha chat, the closer he feels to her, so much so that he carries his smart phone in a pocket so that she can see his world through its camera. As in a conventional comedy wherein a friend of the opposite sex offers advice to a troubled character, drawing ever closer until he or she realizes that this is one’s true love, Theodore arrives at that moment with Samantha. They engage in a passionate night of sex that is similar to the phone sex he had engaged in earlier in the film, but now is as personalized as the other had been impersonal, even though earlier there had been a human being at the other end of the phone line.

The absurdity of this relationship is made acceptable by the skills of both Phoenix and Johansson, as well as the believable social milieu that Jonze has set up. (The special effects showing new rising towers in Los Angeles and its citizens at last accepting mass transit are also effective.) Paul and his girlfriend, far from laughing at Theodore, accept and laud him for his newfound love. Samantha and Theodore experience that interlude so well celebrated by such oldies as “I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy” or “Some Enchanted Evening.”

But Samantha reminds her lover that she can learn at an exponential rate. There comes the day when she does not respond instantly at his command. To his astonishment she reveals that she has other relationships, one of them with an OS based on the philosopher Alan Watts. As an OS she can intimately relate with dozens, even hundreds, of others, but can he? And can he accept his limitation and her ability to carry on numerous affairs?

Often funny, sometimes movingly tender, the film pushes the possibility of how A.I. (another good film worth exploring) might expand beyond what we imagine, and beyond our own limitations in regard to a relationship. Theodore and Samantha get to know each other intimately, but is this really what “knowing” means humanly speaking? People of faith are well aware that the Biblical word for a man and a woman “knowing” one another involves the physical act of two bodies coming together, producing what Jesus called “one flesh.” Samantha can never experience this (nor produce a baby with Theodore for that matter). In a Greek sense, based on the philosophical subordination and even denial of the reality of the body, Theodore and Samantha can have a love affair, but never in a Judeo-Christian sense. Jonze at one point inserts a flashback of intimacies that Theodore remembers from his life with his Catherine, experiences forever alien to a disembodied OS program.

In the film’s last beautiful shot up on the roof of the apartment building, what do you think that director/writer Jonze is saying? If he has been raising the question about the ability of bodiless sex to overcome human loneliness, what does he suggest by this wordless scene? Is he leaving it up to us to see the value, indeed the necessity, for human touch in order to arrive at the deepest level of human relationships?

The R rated elements of the film make it questionable, or at best risky, to show in a church when it is released on DVD. Careful preparations, including full disclosure of the sex scenes, would be necessary. But what a wonderful opportunity Jonze offers for young adults to explore human love and intimacy and the affect of technology upon them—as well as what insight faith in God and Christ can offer as we ponder the technology of our time, so fascinating that it might seduce into substituting virtual reality for the real thing.

This is but part of the review. A set of questions designed to help an individual, or better, a group, explore the many issues raised by the film is included in the January issue of the journal Visual Parables. Find out how you can subscribe in The Store and gain access not only to this full review, but hundreds of others as well, including film program ideas for the church and civil holidays.