Italian For Beginners (2000)


 (In Danish with subtitles)

Reprinted from VP May 2002

Rated R. Running time 1 hr 58 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5


Lone Scherfig writes and directs her film with obvious affection for the ensemble of characters. They work at and live near a suburban complex that houses a sports facility, a restaurant, a hair salon, and a church close by. Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen) has been called to replace the demented pastor of the church (besides vociferously berating his parishioners the former pastor shoved his organist off the balcony).

The young cleric soon drops in for a haircut at the salon and is drawn to the sweet Olympia (Anette Stovelbaek), who is caring for her elderly, thankless father and needs spiritual counsel.

The manager of the hotel where Andreas is staying is Jorgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler), whose heart belongs to the non-English speaking Italian cook Guila (Sara Indrio Jensen). He sees that the newly offered Italian class might be the path to his being able to communicate his love.

Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund) is the crusty manager of the restaurant, who tells off any complaining customers. When Jorgen, who owns the restaurant, orders him to get a haircut, Hal-Finn meets and falls for the hairdresser Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen).

All the Danes become involved in the Italian class, but this is threatened with cancellation when their teacher suddenly drops dead. Fortunately best-pupil Hal-Finn agrees to fill in, with all sorts of relationships developing amongst the disparate members, including a class trip to Venice.

The way the various stories of the quirky characters is interwoven is a delight, but I was especially glad to see such a positive image for a change of the church and one of its leaders. Pastor Andreas is human, needing companionship and love, and yet an effective counselor and leader. The almost empty church begins to fill up as both in sermon and in his relationships with people he offers a positive, hopeful gospel. This is one of those absorbing, uplifting little films for which we should thank God that there are theaters whose owners are willing to show them, there seeming to be an inverse relationship between their profitability and their spirituality.


A United Kingdom (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 51 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house,
it would be utterly scorned.

Song of Solomon 8:6-7

Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;
the faithful have disappeared from humankind.
They utter lies to each other;
with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.

 On every side the wicked prowl…
as vileness is exalted among humankind.

Psalm 12:1-2, 8


Seretse & Ruth Khama (with their daughter) stand against racism & colonialism in this powerful film. (c) Fox Searchlight Presents

Director Amma Asante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert’s exquisite film is based on Susan Williams’ well-received 2007 book Color Bar. It seems remarkable to me that this story of an interracial love story should come out upon the heels of Loving. Asante’s film is about an international romance, whereas the latter is a domestic one in this country, but each had widespread repercussions. The state of Virginia’s attempt to destroy the Lovings’ marriage led to the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down miscegenation laws. A United Kingdom had an international impact. When the British government, appeasing South Africa’s apartheid government, tried to prevent Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), the latter a London office worker, from marrying, there was an uproar in both England and Africa. The film’s title is a cleverer one than the book’s in that it makes us think of Ruth Williams’ home country, while at the same time taking on an ironic twist, in that the fierce debate over the interracial marriage threatened to make Seretse’s homeland, the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, anything but united.

Seretse Khama is descended from a long line of Bechuanaland chiefs who bore the title of king. He has been in England to study law while his uncle Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene) serves as regent. In 1947 in London at a church-sponsored dance he meets Ruth, they discover they have a love for jazz and dancing, and after a whirlwind romance, she accepts his proposal of marriage. One night on a street they learn depth of racism in England when several thugs attack them while they are out walking. British government representative Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) appears at Ruth’s office to warn her that their marriage is unacceptable to the government, and her father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) tells her he will refuse to see her if she goes through with her plans. The two are sobered by the opposition, but decide to go ahead anyway. From the Archbishop of Canterbury on down, the clergy are against the interracial marriage, so they pledge themselves to each other in a civil marriage. So much for the church boldly preaching God’s love for all of humanity!

In Africa, many of the crowd awaiting them in front of the family home welcome them, but the uncle sends Ruth into the house while he engages in a long talk with his nephew, the substance being that he refuses to accept a white woman as their queen. Inside, Seretse’s aunt and sister serve Ruth with refreshments, but treat her coldly. Saying that a queen must be of and know her people, they charge that her marriage is demeaning to the women of their country.

The native tribal council accepts the marriage, to the chagrin of the local British officials and Uncle Tshekedi, who states that he will no longer accept Seretse as the future king. The couple are ordered to return to England so that they can deal in person with the government, but Seretse, seeing this as a plan that would prevent Ruth from returning to the country, convinces her she must stay behind.

We then follow them as they live apart, Ruth, after suffering an illness, slowly winning over her sister-in-law and others by her genuine interest in the welfare of the impoverished people. In London, Seretse faces the duplicity and racism of various government officials, even Winston Churchill, although we never see this iconic politician. We do see Clement Atlee, who appears bent on placating the new racist South African government that in 1950 is setting up its apartheid system, he also joining in on the plot to discredit and keep Seretse from returning to his country.  Told at first that he is exiled for five years, when Churchill returns to power, the new P.M. bans him for life, despite having claimed during the election process that he favored lifting the ban.

The courage and love of the two lovers is put to the test by all this opposition, with Seretse prevented from being present when Ruth births their first child, a daughter. Just what a plucky woman this former office typist is we see when she has to drive herself to the hospital. Earlier she had refused “the best doctor in Africa” because it would have meant traveling to South Africa.

The filmmakers probably turn the government officials into stereotypes, much as some American filmmakers have done with Southern “rednecks.” Many of the issues and history also have been simplified, but the film is not meant to be a documentary. It is a story, and all the better because it is basically a true one. The intrigue involving a mining company searching for diamonds is especially shortened, though it is made clear that the Brits would have loved to be able to claim the rights to the minerals by changing the status of Bechuanaland from a protectorate to a colony, hence their scheming to prevent Seretse from gaining power.

David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are well suited to their roles as the embattled couple bound by a love so strong that they will take on the world to maintain their bond. Quiet and unassuming in private, he becomes passionate when he addresses his people, telling him that he loves and wants to serve them, but that he also loves his wife and must have her by his side. Ms. Pike has us rooting for her as she moves from the ordinary life of a London typist, willing to lose her family for the sake of love and move to a totally unfamiliar land, where she is regarded by both the white colonials and most of the black population as an interloper.

The audience loved the Gandhian scene in Africa when the colonial officials have called for a mass meeting of the people to hear the terms of the new order they will live under. The camera shows us the officials, their wives, and the military brass all gathered on the platform. Then it is revealed that the field in front of them is empty. By now most of the people have accepted Ruth and the position of her husband, so they refuse to show up. Later on, the impasse between Seretse and his uncle is resolved in a very creative way, the scene of their reconciliation being a moving moment in the film. What an enchanting true story of the power of love and courage standing against racism and colonial oppression. Even more so when the end notes inform us that Seretse, after renouncing his claim to the crown, was elected president of the new nation of Botswana—and that he did not succumb, as far too many other African leaders did, to the lure of power and wealth.

Note: If you enjoyed this film, you will also want to see Ms. Amma Asante’s other film reviewed on this site, Belle, about a mixed-race woman in 18th century. Also, for more about Botswana see History Today’s50 Years of Botswana.

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

I am Not Your Negro (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 33 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees,

and that write grievousness which they have prescribed;

To turn aside the needy from judgment,

and to take away the right from the poor of my people,

that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless!

Isaiah 10:1-2 (KJV)

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Matthew 12:29-31


Malcolm X & MLK, Jr. were friends of James Baldwin.          (c) Magnolia Pictures

When I was in seminary and early ministry James Baldwin through his provocative writings made a deep impression on me. Many times, I quoted his statement that being a black man in America meant being in a perpetual state of rage. His polemical The Fire Next Time I regarded as every bit of a God-sent prophecy as the denunciations of injustice hurled forth by Amos and Jeremiah. And now we see, thanks to this work by film-director prophet-Raoul Peck, that Baldwin’s words are as relevant today as they were a half century ago. Despite what the naïve Supreme Court justices thought when they ripped out the heart of the Civil Rights Act, racism is still almost as strong as it was when Jim Crow laws kept “Negroes” in their place. Racism has just gone underground, those still under its sway defending themselves by using the term “political correctness” against anyone who would call them out on their remarks and acts (usually disguised by code words and phrases such as “law and order”).

The Haitian-born filmmaker in a way finishes a work that Baldwin was working on at the time of his death in 1987, Remember This House. He had completed just 30 pages and was hoping to visit the survivors of the three prophets he had cherished as friends, murdered between 1963 and 1967, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. As we see words addressed to his literary agent typed onto the screen, Baldwin wanted “these three lives to bang against and reveal each other, as in truth they did, and use their dreadful journey as a means of instructing the people whom they loved so much, who betrayed them, and for whom they gave their lives.”

The author’s text from his unfinished book are scattered throughout the film, read forcefully by Samuel L. Jackson. We hear Baldwin himself in numerous clips from his TV appearances and speeches on college campuses. All of these provide evidence of what an articulate and courageous observer he was, a true prophet willing to call out liberal whites, as well as rabid segregationists, on their shortcomings. Whites too often, Baldwin observed, thought racism to be an individual affair, conquered by converting the individual, when in reality it was systemic, embedded in our culture. The director also inserts archival photos and news clips from Civil Rights demonstrations and clips of his three friends, as well as photos and clips from ads demeaning to blacks, the latter including scenes from Hollywood films. None of the black screen characters, he says, acted like any black person he knew.

The film clips will be of special interest to VP readers. They go back to the silent era’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin­ and the Thirties era King Kong, Dance, Fool, Dance, and the Stepin Fetchit movies with their negative image of blacks. Films from later on include Imitation of Life, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and The Defiant Ones. Baldwin’s comments on the latter remind me of my surprise years ago, when I first read his report of the reaction to the film of the audience in Harlem (I think this was in The Fire Next time.). Like other whites, I saw the film, about a black and a white convict (played by Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis) escaping while still chained together, as an appeal to racial brotherhood because their hatred of each other slowly changes to mutual respect. Blacks saw it otherwise. The two convicts manage to break the chain that had bound them together. When Poitier’s character jumps aboard a slow-moving freight train, Curtis’ almost reaches the black’s outstretched hand, so he can be pulled aboard. Failing to do so, the black jumps off, now unwilling to abandon his friend. Baldwin approvingly reports that the black audience yelled, “Fool! Get back on the train!” The author points out that liberal depictions of black-white relations in film are attempts to get blacks to let whites off the hook and make them feel better without really facing up to the enormous damage that racism has inflicted on blacks—and on whites as well.

Early Hollywood’s negative view of blacks was carried over into print, a series of shameful magazine ads depicting blacks only in servant roles, adding a touch of color to the mostly B&W documentary. (Aunt Jemima was just one of many such servile characters.)

Just as traditional Christianity teaches the total depravity of humanity, Baldwin teaches the total depravity of American society because of the embedded racism in it. Indeed, he fled his native land to Paris so that he could experience for the first time a sense of freedom, but felt compelled to return to the U.S. when the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum. He says that he wanted to be a witness (and participant) to the struggle to change America, rather than watch if from afar.

Baldwin wrote as an outsider, pointing out that he was not Black Muslim, a Black Panther, nor a Christian –the latter, he says because the church did not practice the command to love the neighbor. He also might have added that the intense loathing of homosexuals of most of church leaders and members at the time also put him outside its pale. (There is just one mention of his homosexuality in the film, revealed in an excerpt from a report by the FBI that kept a watch on him because Hoover saw the writer as Communist endangering the security of America.)

Because of his repeatedly calling out the “moral apathy of American whites’, viewers might be reminded of Baldwin’s friend’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which Dr. King denounced his Southern white detractor’s, some of whom considered themselves liberal, and complained that he was pushing racial matters too hastily. By including scenes from Ferguson and recent police beatings and shootings (including Trayvon Martin’s murder), the director shows that the Black Lives Matter movement is very much needed.

This is truly a movie that matters, and should be seen and discussed along with another film that ought to dispel illusions that racism has been defeated, Ava DuVerna’s 13th. Some have called racism “America’s Original Sin.” When Jesus’s summary of the Law is read, it is apparent that it is indeed the church’s, given the long history of so many of its members’ complicity in the slave trade, slavery, and the maintenance of segregation. All religious leaders who believe that the Scriptures have relevance to current life should be calling this important film to their people’s attention!

In closing, I leave you with these Baldwin quotes to ponder:

“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”

“What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it.”

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed that is not faced.”

Note: This director’s film Lumumba can also be found on this site.

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


Collateral Beauty (2016)


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

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

Our star rating (1-5): 3.5

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

Jeremiah 20:18

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

Matthew 5:45b


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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.


Hello, My Name is Doris (2016)

Note: Last 2 paragraphs might contain a spoiler.

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 35 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 0; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 4.

Our star rating (1-5): 3.5

 The fire of love stops at nothing—it sweeps everything before it.

Song of Solomon 8:6b (The Message)


The shy Doris becomes the center of attention of her new, and younger, friends. (c) Roadside Attractions

Director Michael Showalter’s film about a woman in her 60s in love with a man in his late 20s has a lot going for it. Namely that its star is Sally Field, always enjoyable to watch. (Yes, I really do like her.) The film would be even more enjoyable were it not that the script, which the director co-wrote with Laura Terruso, includes an ethical lapse that, although the authors and possibly most of the audience, passes over, I believe people of faith will be troubled by. More on that later.

Doris (Fields) takes the ferry each day from Staten Island, where she cares for her ailing mother in the old family house. The shy, mouse-like woman has worked in Manhattan as an accountant at an upscale clothing label for many years, one co-worker saying that Doris is one of the few holdovers from the days when the company “sold chinos.” At the beginning of the film Doris and her brother Todd (Stephen Root) and his wife Cindy (Wendi McLendon-Covey) attend their mother’s funeral. They immdiately argue about the family house. Todd and Cindy want Doris to clear out the clutter of many years and sell the house so they can divide up the proceeds. They go to the extent of hiring Dr. Edwards (Elizabeth Reaser), a therapist dealing with hoarders. The doctor, fortunately, is far more understanding than Todd and Cindy, so at first, when Doris cannot stand to part with anything, the patient therapist does not give up on her.

At Doris’s workplace there is one of those meet-cute scenes in the office elevator. Doris has picked up on the street a large desk lamp, and when young John (Max Greenfield) enters facing the back, he is pushed up against Doris and unable to turn around because of the press of the crowd. They exchange a few words and then exit. In the office the manager introduces the company’s new art director, John. Doris, surprised, imagines that she has made such an impression on him that he calls her up before her peers to commend her. Later on, during a coffee break, Doris even imagines him stripping off his shirt for a quick moment of intimacy. She is clearly smitten with a man young enough to have been her son.

The company brings in slick motivational speaker Willy Williams (Peter Gallagher) whose motto is “Every week has seven days. None of them are named Someday.” Doris speaks with him, and, though knowing no details of her situation, he encourages her to follow her dream, his parting thought being, “Impossible means I’m possible.” Already a consumer of popular romance novels, Doris now determines to follow his advice by working out a campaign to woo John.

Doris shares her infatuation over John with her best friend Roz (Tyne Daly). More grounded in reality, Roz does not support her. However, her 13 year-old granddaughter Vivian (Isabella Acres), does, helping her to set up a Facebook account under a false name so she can “friend” John, and thus stalk him on the internet. Learning about John’s tastes, especially in music, Doris buys a record of his favorite local band. She draws her closer to her love object, even dressing in a groupie vintage clothes costume and attending a band concert where she knows she will bump into him. Delighted that she shares the same love for the band, he hoists her onto his shoulders for a better look. The bandleader sees her, likes her enthusiasm and wild costume, and backstage asks her to pose for photos for the cover of the band’s next album.

Doris, with John accompanying her, is thrilled to be in the spotlight for the first time in her life, and even more so from what she thinks is John’s romantic interest in her. However, two flies land in her ointment of happiness. She breaks with Roz because the latter will not accept her fantasy, and equally bad, while stalking John, she discovers that he has a girlfriend, the gorgeous Brooklyn (Beth Behrs), an aspiring singer. The generous-minded Brooklyn takes to Doris when they are introduced, even inviting her to join her knitting group. The jealous Doris plays along, enjoying the photo sessions for the band, attending its parties, and even joining Brooklyn’s knitting group—all of the younger people accepting her now bizarre garb and quaint way (to them) of talking. With Vivian’s help Doris, under her Facebook persona, posts a note on John’s wall that makes Brooklyn think he is cheating on her.

The couple breaks up, and Doris is there to help John get over his pain. This leads to…

The film deserves high marks for exploring the loneliness of an older woman, a feeling no doubt felt by a great many older persons, men included. At one point she says, “I hope I don’t end up like one of those weirdo New Yorkers that chokes on a peanut and dies and no one even misses me!” In the case of Doris her loneliness is not due because she has lost a spouse, but that she had always been so occupied with caring for her mother that she had passed up an opportunity for marriage. Her resentment over being left by her brother as the sole caretaker explodes in a powerful scene with him and his wife.

The film is insightful too in its depicting of hoarding, in her case as a substitute for more healthful outside interests because of her confinement. Hoarding is such a widespread problem that there is even a TV series about it.

Also, two other good things about the film—few films have had a woman as the older partner in a romance, and the theme of true friendship is well embodied in the character of Roz. The latter is grounded in reality, able to see what Doris cannot. Unfortunately, the film’s supposedly uplifting ending sets aside Roz and her sense of reality.

And there also is the ethical lapse mentioned earlier. In real life, as opposed to reel life, usually there are consequences for stepping beyond the bounds of ethics. Doris has used a deceitful, underhanded tactic to break up the romance between John and Brooklyn. What if John learns about the false Facebook persona whose post alleging a romance caused Brooklyn to break with him? And even if he does not, can an intimate relationship based on deception really become a healthy one?

The biblical poet writes, “The fire of love stops at nothing,” and this certainly applies to Doris, the “nothing” comprising an act that the poet would not have accepted as legitimate. The preceding questions are not answered, nor even recognized, by the filmmakers. I want to applaud it because of its delightful cast and excellent scenes—there is especially a moving one on the subway when Doris, dressed in her age-inappropriate costume, feels her age, the camera coming in for a facial close-up that reveals clearly the creases around her eyes and mouth—but with a little more discernment, I believe this could have been a much better film. What do you think–have the filmmakers pandered to their audience’s desire for a happy ending?

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

The Secret Life of Words (2005)

On Video

Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our stars (1-5): 4.5

Therefore my loins are filled with anguish; pangs have seized me,

 like the pangs of a woman in labor; I am bowed down so that I cannot hear,

I am dismayed so that I cannot see. My mind reels, horror has appalled me;

the twilight I longed for has been turned for me into trembling.

Isaiah 21:3-4


Hanna is very patient with Josef, but refuses to answer his questions. (c) Focus Features


Spanish director-writer Isabel Coixet’s 2005 English language film is such a sensitive study of human anguish and potential healing that it is a wonder it fared so poorly in the US—especially because its three stars, Sarah Polley, Tim Robbins, and Julie Christie (the latter in a cameo role) are so well known and respected. Many critics received it warmly, but apparently with the distributor offering near-zero publicity, the public never learned how good the film is. Let’s hope it is doing better in its video versions.

The film opens with a fire aboard an oil-drilling platform off the coast of Northern Ireland. One man is killed, and another seriously burned. After this very brief sequence the film switches to a factory in the United Kingdom where the partially deaf Hanna (Sarah Polley) works at a repetitive job that calls for no real skills. When she speaks, which is seldom, it is with a slight accent, indicating that she is from Eastern Europe or the Balkans. Hanna keeps to herself, her daily lunch brought from home as bland as her life–chicken, rice, and an apple. Picking up her mail at home, she drops it in a pile of unopened letters, mostly from the same person. At night she does needlepoint, but not for the sake of the finished product, as she discards it as soon as she is finished. It is simply something to do to fill the lonely hours.

We do see her reach out once to another when she makes a telephone call. An older woman, whose name we later learn is Inge (Julie Christie), answers, but Hanna does not speak. She remains on the line, and the older woman, whom I mistook to be her mother, realizes the identity of her caller and tries to get her to speak.

For several years Hanna has not taken a vacation or break, which causes her fellow workers to complain about her behavior. Her boss calls her in, explaining that her work is fine but that she must now go away for a month. “Go someplace warm, with palm trees and aerobics in the pool!” Instead, she goes to a colorless seaside village. Eating alone in a restaurant, she overhears a man talking on his cellphone. He is worried that he has not yet found a nurse to care for the badly burned oil rig crewman. On impulse Hanna walks over to his table and makes the surprising (to viewers) revelation that she has been a nurse, and yes, she has cared for burned victims.

Dimitri (Sverre Anker Ousdal) welcomes her aboard the rig and points out that it is a good place for someone who wants to be alone. Her patient Josef (Tim Robbins) is badly burned, his face cut and seared in several places, and he has been temporarily blinded. However, despite his continual pain, he is not self-obsessed, but very curious about his nurse. “You’re a blonde, right? I can tell from your voice.” She barely returns his queries, not even revealing her name. He decides to call her Cora, the name of his best friend’s wife, and she makes no objection.

Due to the fire damage, the future of the rig and its now skeleton crew are in doubt. Most noteworthy of the crew besides the friendly Dmitri are Simon (Javier Camara), the Spanish cook who serves up fine cuisine that most of the crew do not appreciate and Martin (Daniel Mays), the oceanographer whose official job is to measure the waves, but whose secret passion is to study and save the mussels that the filthy water from drilling is threatening to extinguish.

Hanna tends well to Josef’s wounds and gradually warms to his rough-hewn charm. Some of his questions seem intended to shock, such as does she prefer uncircumcised men? Josef shares personal secrets, one being that he cannot swim. Still, she continues to deflect his stream of questions about her life, even as to her real name. However we know her reserve is melting when she, carrying away Josef’s tray one day, notices that he has not eaten his dessert. She dips a spoon into the pudding and slowly samples it. Then she wolfs it down as if it were the first food in a long time that she has enjoyed.

Hanna does at last open up, realizing that she and her secret shame are safe with this compassionate man. In a long (for her) speech she reveals her horrible experience during the Balkan wars when she was captured and raped by enemy soldiers. Her years of retreating into silence and routine factory work had become part of her survival technique. In Denmark Inge, the woman who writes to her and whom Hanna had called, had been of some help (was she her therapist?), at least to where Hanna had been able to exist in the outside world, but without really being healed. Josef reaches out to her and they passionately embrace in his bed.

This is not the final turning point for the wounded Hanna. The time soon comes when Josef is recovered enough to be transported by helicopter off the rig to an on-shore hospital. Hanna holds his hand during the flight, but when they land, the two are separated, she walking away while her former patient is loaded into an ambulance. He calls out plaintively for her as they part, but she does not turn back.

What happens after that will warm your heart. It is what you hope for, but this being a non-Hollywood film, you are not sure, because we find Hanna back at her old factory job. She still has a blank expression on her face and keeps to herself. When she is offered an opportunity for a new life she almost rejects it—her pysche is still far from being healed, even though the journey back at has least began on the oil rig. She has experienced during the past month the compassion and support that has begun to counteract the unspeakable horror that had torn body and soul. And so the positive ending that unfolds is not a lugubrious Hallmark movie one, but a conclusion stemming from the kind of love that the apostle Paul wrote “hopes all things, endures all things.”

I am indebted to 2016’s wonderful Movies and Meaning Film Festival, hosted in Albuquerque N.M. by Gareth Higgns, for the privilege of seeing this powerful film. Gareth introduced the film and joined with trauma survivor and therapist Teresa Pasquale in leading an interactive discussion of the film. Affirming the truth and honesty of the film, Teresa emphasized how Hanna started on the road to recovery only when she found Josef’s sick room to be a safe place where she could confess the shame and pain she had endured. Although we had already seen that this film was more than entertainment, the insightful remarks by this wounded healer made us appreciate the film all the more. Although I am not suggesting that your film group become a therapy session, the film will certainly inspire and inform your members, making them more sensitive to the often unvoiced pain around them because of the secret silence of words. This is a movie to embrace, cherish, and unpack with others rather than to watch alone.

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