After the Storm (2016)

 (Umi yori mo mada fukaku)

Unrated. Running Time: 1 hour 57 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Can Ethiopians change their skin or leopards their spots?

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

Jeremiah 13:23

 Famly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Men (2016)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hours 25 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

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

1 Samuel 19:1-4

2boys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tale of Love and Darkness (2015)

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

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

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

Deuteronomy 30:19-20

A cheerful heart is a good medicine,

 but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.

Proverbs 17:22

The human spirit will endure sickness;

but a broken spirit—who can bear?

Proverbs 18:14

famly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Meddler (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy.

Proverbs 31:20

Mar&Lori2

Marnie & her daughter Lori have at times a difficult relationship. (c) Sony Picture Classics

Of all the mothers that Susan Sarandon has played through the years, Marnie Minervini is one of the most interesting and entertaining—and she deserves the label of “meddler.” I suspect that long before her beloved husband died she was constantly giving out advice to all who would listen, including their daughter Lori (Rose Byrne). When their daughter had left Manhattan to pursue her screenwriting career in Los Angeles, her parents had followed her—and I would bet it was not the father who had initiated the move. Marnie’s story could easily have been told as a hilarious parody, a big screen summation of all of those interfering sit-com mothers, but writer/director Lorene Scafaria refuses to go that rout, giving us instead a warm dramedy that aims for both heart and head, and scores a bulls eye. (Or should it be “eyes”?)

When Lori plans to fly back to Manhattan to supervise the taping of her TV pilot she rejects Marnie’s offer to go with her as her assistant. There leaves no doubt that she would like to put as much distance as possible between herself and her meddling mom—at least for a while. With no daughter to drop in on, usually unannounced, Marnie is bored. Her husband has left her financially well off, so she does not have to work outside the home. But her very upper class house and garden are not enough to occupy her, so she volunteers at a hospital where she befriends a mute old woman (Jo Jordan). At the Apple store where she seeks help in using her new device she engages the young associate Freddy (Jerrod Carmichael) in conversation. Seeing that he is intelligent but lacks a college degree, she advises him to go for more education, even if it means taking night courses. She also shows up (with her usual bag of bagels in hand) at the door of Lori’s best friend Jillian (Cecily Strong) because she has learned that the young mother is in need of babysitting help. And of course, the little daughter takes an immediate liking to Marnie.

As these three relationships develop we see that Marnie’s care for others grows, almost exponentially. Upon her return to the Apple story Freddy tells her he has taken her advice and enrolled in a night course. When he says that he will be using public transportation because he has no car, she volunteers, and then insists on driving him the two or three nights a week to his class. From Jillian she learns of her wish that she had been able to have a formal wedding rather than a small private one. But her spouse is also a woman, so this was impossible years ago. Marnie offers to foot the bill for the dream event, aboard a large yacht no less. During the preparations for the ceremony she also dispenses advice to the bridesmaids, who also become impressed with her wisdom and generosity. Marnie is a meddler, but one with a lot of good common sense, and the generosity and the means to follow up on her suggestions.

Through a roundabout but funny incident with Freddy and his brother Marnie makes the acquaintance of retired police officer Zipper (J.K. Simmons). She agrees to take a ride on his motorcycle (he corrects her by saying “It’s not a motorcycle, it’s a Harley”), and thus the two of them enjoy a nightlong drive and stops along the beach. (This delights Jillian when she hears about it.) Zipper confesses that he has not been a good father, his daughter no longer wanting to have any contact with him. Marnie, of course, offers advice, saying he should keep trying, even though she hangs up on his calls.

Lori re-enters the picture when Marnie flies back to Manhattan to visit her on the set of her TV show. (One of the film’s funny moments happens when at the airport security check-in Marnie answers that the purpose of her visit is to see her daughter “shoot a pilot”!)

Marnie again “meddles” when it becomes obvious that Lori’s new boyfriend is not the one for her. She also visits her husband’s Italian family, which reawakens the grief over his death that she had not pushed into the background. We see that the busyness of “meddling” has been her way of staving off the pain that grief brings. She learns that Lori too has not dealt well with their loss, the daughter in a very tender scene telling her she misses her father so much.

There is more, much more, including Marnie’s frequent sessions with her therapist Diane (Amy Landecker); Jillian’s lavish wedding which Marnie has made possible; a would be suitor pursuing her; and, of course, what to do about Zipper, who obviously would like to develop a relationship with her, but who had acquiesced when she had told him that it would not be possible.

Marnie’s story reminds me of two other films screened fairly recently—L’attesa (The Wait) because the women in both films put off dealing with their grief in similar ways, though differing in details; and the delightful film I’ll See You in My Dreams in which Blythe Danner also plays an older woman who finds that romance is still possible at an advanced age. It’s so good to see films that take older people seriously, rather than playing them for comic effect.

Yes, Marnie is a meddler, but her advice is given not to prove her own superiority, but always out of a genuine concern for others. I was reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s view of Christ as “the man for others,” providing the pattern of an “other directed lifestyle” for those who would follow him. We don’t know about Marnie’s religious views, but somehow she has become a person who is always there for others, her advice backed up by her actions, and in the case of Jillian, her money.

After writing the above the thought came to me that one reason why I so love this character is that I married a “Marnie.” My wife is always striking up conversations with store clerks, learning about their lives and likes. Like Marnie, she is a good listener. And a caring one in that she offers good advice, sometimes even cooking hints when she talks with a stranger in the produce or meat department at our grocery store. And almost every trip finds her walking up to a woman who has left her purse untended in the baby seat of a grocery cart and warning her to be more careful, lest someone might snatch it. The world is so much better off, thanks to such meddlers!

How daughter Lori comes to understand and accept her mother makes for a delightful movie-going experience. Marnie too seems to have learned by the end of the film that she needs to observe some boundaries when dealing with her offspring. An adult group could have a great time discussing this woman and her “meddling.” Might she be like the wife and mother described at the end of the book of Proverbs?

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

 

American Gun (2005)

Dav&Girls

One story is about the younger brother of a mass shooter who has to return to the same school that his brother had attended.           (c) IFC Films

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 34 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 4; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?

Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,

 which was brought upon me,

which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.

Lamentations 1:12

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on

this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.

Luke 19:41-42

 

This collection of fictional stories about seven people affected by guns is the debut feature film of Aric Avelino, who wrote the screenplay with Steven Bagatourian. The subtitle on my copy of the DVD reads “ONE NATION UNDER FIRE,” but the film itself is not as sensational in its handling of the topic, nor as strident in suggesting an antidote for our American infatuation with guns, as we might expect. Although violence hovers around the stories like a malignant specter, the stories themselves deal with the affect of guns upon the characters, more than the act of using a gun—except for two incidents: one involves a police officer coming upon a robbery-shooting in a convenience store, and the other in which a black teenager working at an all-night gas station comes under fire. Some viewers will think of the ensemble cast of Crash when they see this film with its excellent actors.

In Ellisburgh, Oregon single parent Janet Huttenson (Marcia Gay Harden) struggles to support herself and her son David (Chris Marquette) by holding down two jobs. She is still numbed by the horrific fact that her son Robbie and another boy randomly killed several fellow students at the public Ridgeline High School before being shot and killed themselves. This was three years earlier, and younger brother David has been able to find refuge at the private St. Anthony’s prep school. However, now Janet is short on money, so David will have to leave the expensive private school and return to Ridgeline. Terrified at the prospect, David erupts, all his fears plus his long-simmering hostility toward his mother’s slob of a boyfriend contained in his screams hurled at her like bullets. Because of her money shortage, Janet agrees to a paid TV interview on the nationally televised Newsline, but the insensitive woman reporter turns the event into a hell, inferring that Janet’s bad parenting must have been a major factor in the tragedy. Unable to explain what happened, Janet claims that she saw nothing in her Robbie that would have given any warning of his deadly intentions. The sullen David does return to Ridgeline, where students whisper as he goes by that he is the brother of the killer. However, his experience is graced by a new female student who is both sympathetic and agreeable to “hanging out” with him…

Also ill at ease in Ellisburgh is Officer Frank Essel (Tony Goldwyn), who three years earlier was the first to respond to the 911 call at the high school. He has lived under the cloud of the public perception that he might have done better to prevent the killings. This is revived when the Newsline interview includes clips of him, the narrative implying the slow police response bears partial responsibility for the carnage. Angered because he had neither been forewarned nor asked for permission, he calls up the station in protest of what he regards as an invasion of his privacy. This leads to his superior, who had been contacted by the station, assuring him “you have a job here,” but ordering him to appear in an interview to rebut the harsh insinuation, and also to talk with the department psychologist…

Halfway across the country in Chicago Principal Carter (Forest Whitaker) is dedicated to “making a difference” in the lives of students and parents at Taft High School, located in the West Side ghetto. Metal detectors have prevented the boys from bring guns into the building, but he is constantly having to break up fights and talk with a steady stream of students who are in various kinds of trouble. Constantly threatened with violence, the kids see no value in education. Carter’s work hours are so long and emotionally draining that he has no time for his young son and wife Sara (Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon). He is insensitive to the boy’s needs—even when the child and some friends come upon the dead body of a prostitute, Carter is too busy to talk with the boy, much to the disgust of his wife. Sara had originally agreed to his desire to help the underprivileged students, which meant leaving their now seemingly idyllic life in a small Ohio town, but now grieves over what is happening to the family.

Another character whose story is intertwined with Principal Carter’s is Jay (Arlen Escarpeta), an African American student doing well academically despite the lack of interest of his mother and siblings who are so absorbed by television that they barely acknowledge his coming and goings. He holds down a night job as a clerk in a gas station where a cage-like booth is his only protection from robbers. Thus he carries a gun with him, mainly for show, as it is not loaded. Just before entering the school building he hides it in a basement window cell. One morning while Carter is personally picking up litter on the front steps he spies Jay hiding the gun again. Seizing the gun and ordering the boy into his office, the principal explodes, telling Jay that he is expelled, even though he did not try to bring the weapon into the school, and that it was not loaded…

Still further east in Charlottesville, Virginia Maryanne Wilk (Linda Cardellini) is an unhappy freshman at her family’s traditional school, the University of Virginia. She works part-time at King’s Gun Shop, owned by her grandfather Carl (Donald Sutherland). Terribly missing his deceased wife, the lonely Carl had looked forward to re-establishing the close relationship he once enjoyed with Maryanne, but the sullen girl barely speaks to him, carrying on her simple duties in silence. The kindly man does not just sell guns, but takes a personal interest in each customer. In one scene he tries to convince a woman that a smaller pistol would suit her better, even taking her hand and showing how there is a perfect fit with the handle of the smaller weapon. Maryanne, shaken when she rescues her best friend from being raped by drunken frat boys at a wild party, starts taking shooting lessons for self-protection…

I have left three periods at the end of each of my expositions to indicate that there is more that follows. The stories vary in regard to their resolution, two of them almost coming together in a Hollywood match-up between Janet Huttenson and Officer Frank Essel, though, to its credit, the filmmakers stop before this happens. The Chicago characters do watch the Janet in Ellisberg being interviewed on TV, but otherwise the stories are bound together only by the use of guns, or in the case of the Virginia story, the possible use of one.

At just a little over an hour and a half, the film is too short for what could have been a fuller and more satisfying exposition of the lives of the seven major characters. This is especially true of the latter story, although the writers foil the expectations of gun opponents by refusing to stereotype gun owner Carl Wilk. He is depicted as a warm, caring human being who is more interested in the safety of his customers than their money. In other words, he is just the opposite of the loutish gun shop owner in Crash, who is almost demonized to the point of sprouting horns.

Aric Avelino and his co-writer Steven Bagatourian are more interested in getting viewers to think about the issue of guns and violence than in pushing one viewpoint. Their approach reminds me of the film that for me redeemed Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven, a Western that also was an anti-Western in that it explored the aftermath of violence as much as reveling in the inevitable gun fights of the genre. You might recall Eastwood’s gunman Will Munny saying, “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”

People of faith will appreciate the filmmaker’s approach in that it does call us to lament and think about what is happening in the land in which there are more guns per capita than in any other nation on earth. This is not a hopeful movie because its makers realize there are no quick and easy solutions, neither by those who believe that every citizen should be armed with a gun, nor those who think that banning all guns will solve the problem of violence. Any film that offers us the opportunity to reflect on this issue is well worth watching.

This film with a set of discussion questions is in the Feb 2016 issue of VP.

Room (2015)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 58 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 0; Language 3; Sex /Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs,     and will tear open the covering of their heart; there I will devour them like a lion,     as a wild animal would mangle them.

Hosea 13:8

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

John 15:13

InRoom

Jack and Ma are confined for over 5 years in a 10’x10′ room. (c) A24

Irish director Lenny Abrahamson’s film, made in Canada, is based on the 2010 best-selling novel by Emma Donoghue, the latter also being author of the screenplay. Told largely by Jack (Jack Tremblay), turning five at the film’s beginning, it takes up where most films about kidnapping and being rescued leave off. The lesser films end with everyone but the villain happy and ready to return to their normal lives. Not so this one.

Little Jack’s hair is so long that we might mistake him for a young girl: the reason for this we come to understand as we learn that his 10 by 10 foot living space is all the world he has ever known. He and his mother, whom we know only as Ma (Brie Larson) watch TV, but she has taught him it is just pretend, that this is the real world and that he dropped from heaven into it. The only other real person in their lives is Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), from whom Ma desperately keeps Jack away from by sending him to his bed in the closet during the man’s visits for sex. Jack can see Old Nick through the louvered door, but only when he is standing right in front of it. Gradually we learn that Ma was kidnapped seven years earlier and confined in the windowless soundproofed shed, with just a skylight through which the sky can be seen. Each night she has to submit to the sexual assault of her captor.

By a clever plan Ma tricks Old Nick into believing that Jack, whose body she has rolled up in a floor rug, is dead and that he should take him out and bury the body in a place with trees around it. She has instructed Jack, when he is deposited in the back of Old Nick’s pick-up truck, to unroll himself and jump out of the truck when it stops. Jack follows instructions, but is almost forced back into the truck when Old Nick chases after him. Fortunately a man walking his dog intervenes. Nick drives off, and the police are summoned. Through some gentle but carefull questioning of the shy boy, the officers figure out where Ma is being held, and when they drive up to the house, she is freed. The scene of her tearful face looking at Jack through the window of the locked police car is one you will long remember.

After a brief hospital stay, Ma and Jack are allowed to go home with her mother and father, Nancy (Joan Allen) and Robert (William H. Macy). Nancy and Robert had separated years before, the former now married to Leo (Tom McCamus). Robert had flown in when he was notified that his daughter had been found alive. In his grandmother’s large house everything is new to Jack, the crowd of reporters clamoring outside the home; the stairs, which take some getting used to; sitting at a table and eating with more than just his mother.

Jack and Ma sit in her old room looking at her picture in her high school yearbook, the bedroom still decorated as it was when she was a teenager. Downstairs, dinner turns out to be tense because Robert cannot stand to look at Jack, knowing that the boy is the result of his daughter being raped. He excuses himself after Ma yells at him to look at his grandson, and the next day he leaves town to return to his own home.

Jack at first does not speak directly to others, but slowly emerges from his shell with his mother coaching him that he must answer people. The kind doctor from the hospital visits to work with mother and child on their readjustment, but Ma opts out. Life for them both still seems to find them being confined—from the gaggle of reporters outside clamoring for information; even from their loved ones who are trying too hard to return things to normal. Jack talks little and often hides in small places. His step-grandfather Leo, who wisely takes a more indirect approach with the boy, makes a good substitute for the grandfather who has rejected him. As promised, he brings in from the country his dog, the friendly canine and boy instantly liking one another.

Because their lawyer says they will need money for the coming trial, Ma agrees to submit to a paid interview to be broadcast on a talk show. The insensitive hostess asks if Ma had felt so abandoned by God during all those years that she had thought of taking her life. Ma denies this because of her concern for Jack. The woman takes this as a cue, with her next line of questioning suggesting that Ma had been selfish keeping Jack with her when she could have given him up during his infancy so that he could have grown up and had a “normal” childhood. Afterward Ma is so depressed that…

This is an incredibly nuanced story that makes one realize how shallow and frivolous the Taken series was, the latter offering only cheap action and thrills. In those quick thrills type of film the bad guy is thwarted, if not killed, and the rescued and rescuer return to their normal pursuits relatively unscathed. Not so Ma and Jack. Especially Ma, who suffers from what we might call post rescue trauma. Filled with relief she is, yet also filled with guilt, exacerbated by her father who cannot accept Jack, and by the TV interviewer who calls into doubt that she was a good mother to Jack.

The cast is superb, especially, of course, Brie Larson and Jack Tremblay, who totally inhabit their roles. Ms. Larson brims with the fierce mother’s love set on protecting the boy at all costs, and the young actor ably swings from wonder at the outside world to fearful retreat from its unfamiliarity. Although they spent years in isolation, they now rejoin their loved ones in the web that is life. Ma learns that the same love, courage and creativity that enabled her to raise Jack in captivity are even more necessary in the so-called free world.

Others too have been affected by Ma’s forced absence, and they also must learn how to relate with each other again. Robert cannot accept Jack, and so he leaves. Nancy has trouble breaking through to Ma, the two sometimes yelling at each other in their frustration, but she keeps trying. (We can see from where Ma had received the traits enabling her to survive captivity without going mad.) The scenes with Nancy and Jack are tender and touching, especially the one in which he allows her to cut his hair, a small but telling sign that he is healing enough to enter into the larger world, eventually even playing with the neighbor boy. Few films have shown as well the darkness that can warp the human psyche, and also its resilence responding to the love from a family and caring others.

This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the Nov. 2015 issue of VP, available for purchase on this site.

Monkey Kingdom (2015)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 21 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 0; Sex/Nudity  2.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Luke 1:52-53

WthKIP

Maya with baby Kip.           (c) 2015 Walt Disney

In the fictional film about two documentary filmmakers While We Are Young the argument is raised about two ways of making a documentary film—that of shooting and discovering truth in what is captured on film, and that of shooting with the end already in mind. In Disney’s eighth True Life Adventure it seems that co-director Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill lean toward the latter. Although not as shamelessly anthropomorphic as Disney’s African Cats—narrator Tina Fey does not voice any dialogue attributed to the monkeys—the very naming of the various animals and drawing from what must have been thousands of feet of film a cohesive narrative is to claim more than is really there.

Whatever the reality, Monkey Kingdom is a delightful family film about an outsider making good. As in all of their Nature films, the photography is excellent; some of the scenes of the jungle birds and the sun setting against the background of the spire of a ruined temple in Polonaruwa Sri Lanka are fabulous. There are so many close-ups of the monkeys doing both serious and funny things that even very young children will be enchanted.

Maya is a toque-macaque monkey living at the bottom of the social order of what is called the Temple Troop that inhabits a tall outcropping the filmmakers call Castle Rock. Headed by Raja (get it, the name from Hindi for “reign” or Power”?), the Troop members never allow Maya atop, not even when it rains, nor is she allowed to climb the large tree that bears such delicious fruit. She must settle for what falls to the ground, or forage afar for her food. At one point this includes swimming under water to reach edibles near the bottom. I don’t ever recall seeing a film of monkey’s swimming, a real revelation for this viewer. In most such films it is crocodiles that one must look out for, but here it is seven-foot long monitor lizards, one of which catches an unwary monkey. We also see that leopards pose a danger, which is why even a low-cast monkey like Maya stays with the troop despite its treatment of her.

For a brief time Maya enjoys the company of the wandering Kumar, but Raja soon drives him away. However he has impregnated her, with Maya left with little Kip. Her quest for food becomes ever more desperate. But of course, this is a Disney film, and we know that like all of their girl-empowerment tales, dear Maya will eventually overcome all obstacles. True animal lovers probably will wince at the imposing of human attributes and a Horatio Alger storyline to the monkeys—there is even a struggle with another troop that is told in such anthropomorphic terms that we expect the two alpha monkeys to unroll battle maps and pull out their binoculars. And I do not intend to demean Mary and her Magnificat by quoting a portion of it above, but this does indeed follow the arc of the script.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the May 2015 issue of Visual Parables.