Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 56 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 6; Language 6; Sex 5/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 

The heart knows its own bitterness,
and no stranger shares its joy.

Proverbs 14:10

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;

for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

Romans 12:19

susan

Though wealthy, Susan is unhappily married to an unfaithful husband, for whom she had left her first husband 19 years ago. (c) Focus Features

Writer-director Tom Ford adapted the screenplay from Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, which contains a novel within a novel, the title of which gives its name to this film. 19 years before the events in the film, Susan (Amy Adams) and Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), both from Texas, were respectively, an aspiring artist and a writer living in Manhattan. However, she had judged her work so harshly that she gave it up to become an art dealer. Worse, she also harshly judged Edward’s first novel, calling it a failure. This led to a series of quarrels, her affair, and thus their splitting up.

The film introduces Susan during the opening credits at the end of a sequence of mostly nude, over-weight models dancing and posturing to raucous music, which we see is one of her art installations at her posh L.A. gallery. A room-full of ostentatious phonies have come to see and be seen, talking a lot of blather.

Susan lives in an ultra-modern house with husband Walker (Armie Hammer), a smooth-talking businessman. It is apparent that she is not happy despite her luxurious life, Walker having not even bothered to drop in on her big show earlier that day. He says that he had a meeting and is now leaving for New York City. Later, when he phones her from a New York hotel, a gaffe reveals that he is being unfaithful to her.

Susan was surprised to receive a package that contains the galleys of a novel written by Edward, the same title as the film—and the book is dedicated to her. Because of her insomnia, Edward had often called her a nocturnal animal. A letter with the manuscript informs her that he will be in L.A. that weekend and would like to reconnect with her. Now that Walker is away, she settles in to read the book.

Susan is quickly drawn in as she reads the story of a man named Tony traveling through west Texas at night with his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and teenaged daughter India (Ellie Bamber).  They are waylaid by two cars of three rednecks, two of whom kidnap the two women while Tony is forced to drive off with the third along a dirt road far from the highway. He manages to escape and hike on foot back to the main road and eventually to contact the sheriff’s office.

Susan is deeply moved by the novel, and in the scenes from it she imagines that Tony looks like her former husband. Calling him weak and untalented, she had left him for Walker. The novel continues to unfold, Tony connecting to a jaded deputy named Bobby (Michael Shannon). With his help, they find Tony’s wife and daughter, sprawled nude upon an old couch tossed outdoors. Both are dead. Adding to his anguish, the medical examination reveals that India also had been raped. Through Bobby’s sleuthing the murderers are caught, but despite Tony’s IDing the three, it looks like the three might escape justice. This is when Bobby, about to retire because he has terminal cancer, suggests…and the already dark and brutal novel dips even further into violence. Troy and Bobby also act like nocturnal animals, the kind that stalk and dispatch their prey in the night.

The film moves back and forth between the dark novel, Susan’s unsatisfactory present life, and her fond memories of her first meeting with Edward, both having left Texas to come to New York, and their short marriage that ended with her betrayal following arguments about her overly critical views of his writing and dream of working in a bookstore and writing a novel each year. One of his last retorts especially stung her, he accusing her of turning into her mother—Susan had once described her as “Republican, conservative, racist, bigoted, and narcissistic.” From the scenes in which we see Mom (Laura Linney), this appears to be an accurate assessment—she had been opposed to her marrying Edward because she thought him a class beneath them.

Susan is struck by the fact that Edward describes the murdered wife as having the same color as her hair, red. The husband Tony is weak in his response to the three killers, just as she had once accused Edward of being weak. Is the book a means for her ex-husband to exact revenge on her?

Anyway, Susan emails Edward that she thinks the novel is brilliant and that she would gladly meet with him. As the film builds to this climactic encounter, we wonder if their old flame can be rekindled. Has she learned her lesson? Is she capable of change—in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?” Some will be puzzled (at first) by Tom Ford’s answer to this, others upset, and still others might exclaim, “Yeah!”

The film will prove too violent for some tastes, but as a character study of a person who gave up her dreams too readily and accepted the shallow values of her parents, it is a gem. No inspiration here, just a modern morality tale for those who like the old quotation, “Revenge is a dish best eaten cold.”

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

Dr. Strange (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 5; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

To do righteousness and justice
is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.
Haughty eyes and a proud heart—
the lamp of the wicked—are sin.

Proverbs 3:4-5

Those who try to make their life secure will lose it,

but those who lose their life will keep it.

Luke 17:33

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,

Philippians 2:3-7a

Marvel's DOCTOR STRANGE..L to R: The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)..Photo Credit: Jay Maidment..©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

Marvel’s DOCTOR STRANGE..L to R: The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)..Photo Credit: Jay Maidment..©2016 Marvel

Although I was not looking forward to still another Marvel Studio super hero tale, I found myself completely drawn in to director/co-writer Scott Derrickson’s origin story Doctor Strange. A combination of good script and direction, strong cast, the best special effects currently on display, and some nuggets of wisdom shared by Eastern and Western religious thinkers—all these add up to a film that will make you for two hours forget everything but what is rushing before your eyes on the big screen. Maybe even your popcorn.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is right up there with Tony Stark in the arrogance department. A brilliant surgeon able to perform delicate operations that seem almost miraculous, Strange knows it and makes certain that everyone else does also. He enjoys publicly humiliating a talented fellow surgeon, much to the dismay of fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who despite his haughty spirit, is attracted to Strange. And so, the fate predicted by the writer of the familiar words of Proverbs 16:18 (one of many warnings about pride and haughtiness in the Hebrew/Christian Scriptures) descends upon our heelro when his reckless driving of his fancy sports car leads to a horrendous crash on a mountain road. Pulled from the wreckage barely alive, Strange awakens in the hospital to find both his hands studded with wires and posts. Virtually every bone, nerve, and muscle have been severely injured. Despite physical therapy Strange knows that his days as master surgeon are over. Unable to accept this, he lashes out cruelly at those trying to help him, including Christine who can take only so much before walking out on him.

Then he learns of a man named Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), whose spine had been miraculously healed by nonsurgical means. Extremely rational, Strange is skeptical until he finds the man playing basketball in one of those pick-up games to be found all over Manhattan. Through him he learns that there exists in Nepal a center for spiritual healing. Landing in Kathmandu, Strange searches vainly at first through the crowded streets, but eventually is successful at coming upon the unpretentious center where he is greeted by Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who looks like one of the Jedi’s from the Star Wars series. Mordo explains that the head of their center is called The Ancient One. Like Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, Strange does not recognize the Ancient One when they come upon two similarly garbed personages. He mistakes a venerable Asian man with a goatee to be the person he seeks, rather than the youngish looking woman devoid of all hair.

Telling him that he must forget everything he has ever learned, The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) begins his training. He proves to be, like Luke during his training with Yoda, a hard case to convince. During the first sessions, The Ancient One tells him that he is like a man peering through a key hole and has tried to widen it. Strange says that he cannot see how all the exercises can heal his hands, and she tells him that is not the purpose of the training. He is in for something much greater than physical healing. Strange refuses to believe in anything beyond what he can see, but the marvelous things she can do, such as create fiery figures in front of her, slowly bring him around to accept that there are some things which cannot be explained.

The toughest obstacle to his break-through is himself. “Who are you in this vast universe?” she asks him. This was probably a question he had never thought of because it is obvious that he had believed himself to be the center of that universe. “Silence your ego,” she says. This is not a command he wants to hear as he continually borrows books from the library under the watchful eye of the no-nonsense Wong (Benedict Wong), perhaps the strictest and brawniest librarian ever depicted in a film. He even steals one of the forbidden books that is beyond his level of spiritual competence, but he wants to learn its secrets anyway.

Strange does progress in his reading and practice, able to conjure up fire in the air, especially when given a device that looks like a brass knuckle. He learns that there are many parallel worlds and dimensions, including a dark world. Along the way, doubts arise in Mordo’s mind about the Ancient One possibly making use of the dark world to retain her youthfulness and power. A former pupil named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) had succumbed to the darkness and is now abroad trying to bring on catastrophe as part of a plan to dominate everything. He himself operates under the command of Dormammu (also played by Cumberbatch), whom we see in just a few scenes, but who no doubt will figure in more in the inevitable sequel.

The rest of the film deals with the conflict with Kaecilius and Strange’s reconciliation with Christine, the latter who treats him when he lands in the hospital again. Through fiery portals Strange and company are able to dash back to New York to do battle with Kaecilius. With each side engaging their powers, the buildings and streets are distorted into scenes that look like paintings by M.C. Escher or Salvador Dali, the streets at times turning side-wise to others, and even upside down, the buildings twisting and bending over. Even more than the above artists, you might be reminded of Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception, a fantasy in which the city turns also topsyturvy and enfolds upon itself. These are scenes, I suspect, that will bring audiences back for a second look, so spectacular are they! Especially memorable is the scene in which time is stopped and…well, go see this for yourself.

The film is fantasy, but it serves to expand the mind with such concepts as parallel dimensions, time travel, and mysticism. Much of the latter is New Age stuff, but still, it teaches, in company with all religions, that the universe, including ourselves, is more than matter; that there is a spiritual dimension that can be as powerful as any physical power. Best of all, is the depiction of the spiritual journey of Steven Strange from that of a bullying braggart centered on himself to repentant hero concerned as much for others as himself. At the end of the film I was reminded of another movie with a similar plot, though light years away from being a fantasy super hero one. In the 1991 The Doctor, William Hurt played an arrogant heart surgeon who treated his patients like objects and not persons—until he became ill and found himself treated the same way by other doctors, and thus emerged a far better, humbler, person. If you enjoy Doctor Strange, then I urge you to take a look at this reality-grounded film—the fantasy might make you enjoy the older film even more. Steven Strange has learned something that the apostle Paul taught that even most Christians find difficult to practice, the ability to empty oneself on behalf of others.

 

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

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

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

Our content ratings: Violence 0; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 4.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

Romans 12:3

Costum

Florence is as bad a costume designer as she is a singer. (c) Paramount Pictures

What Rachel Maddow has often said about strange happenings in the world of politics, so it goes with Stephen Frears’ film about Florence Foster Jenkins. “You just couldn’t make up this stuff!” This grand dame of New York society put on the most bizarre concert ever held in the venerable Carnegie Hall in 1944, despite the fact that she could not sing more than two notes in tune. Yet the great Mecca of classical music lovers was packed to the rafters. It is the almost unbelievable incidents lading up to this event with which the film deals.

The story easily lends itself to farce, but both Mr. Frears and Meryl Streep, who portrays her, obviously care too much about her to treat the would-be diva so cruelly. This film is a little like those Broadway and classical music tales of the 30s and 40s in which a plucky young woman follows her dream to wow conquer New York, and thus the world. The two differences in theirs and Florence’s story is that she lacks talent, and she is no longer a spritely young woman when she debuts at Carnegie.

Oh yes, and one other thing about Florence, a very important one—hers is no rags to riches tale. She has inherited a large fortune, so much that when the world famous Arturo Toscanini needs a thousand dollars for his NBC orchestra, he comes to her for it. Despite her awful singing, neither he nor her peers dared laugh out loud—reminding me of that old statement from The Wizard of Id about the Golden Rule: “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.” Florence certainly had the gold. (However, to save his ears, the Maestro makes sure that he has a planned vacation when she invites him to come and hear her.)

She loves music so much that she founded The Verdi Club, to which her many friends and associates would come periodically for performances. The film begins with the climax of one of these gatherings, though by this time she had given up singing. Instead she participates in the climax of a living tableaux about Stephen Foster in which the composer sits at his piano bereft of his muse. How is he to become inspired? By the descent of his heavenly Muse, of course. Backstage we see burly stage hands struggling with the ropes as they slowly lower Mrs. Jenkins decked out in a sparkly angel’s costume with feathery wings as the composer starts playing and singing “I Come From Alabama,” the audience joining in. The audience applauds approvingly. (Later, when she sings, I thought the applause was for her not singing!)

Florence is watched over, even guarded (from critics), by her second husband St Clair (Hugh Grant). He obviously adores her, even tucking her into bed at the end of the evening. We are shocked by two things—we discover that she is baldheaded when she takes off her wig; and that he does not turn in himself, but leaves their lavish resident hotel and travels to a less swank part of town where he maintains his girlfriend Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson) in style. Eventually we learn that Florence caught syphilis from her first husband, the treatment apparently leading to her baldness. Unable to engage in the intimacies of the marriage bed, Florence has been willing to look away while St. Clair indulges his sexual appetite. As he says at one point, he is spiritually married to Florence, and physically to Kathleen. (His courtship and early marriage would itself, I think, make for an interesting film.)

The third important figure in the story is Cosme McMoon (Simon Helbeg), to whom St. Clair had described his unusual matrimonial arrangement. The young, ambitious pianist had been hired to be Florence’s accompanist after a Lily Pons concert at Carnegie Hall had planted in Florence the dream to sing once more. The hiring sequence provides the set piece for comedy. He sits down at the piano while the voice coach talks abstemiously to his pupil. When the coach says that they will practice the famous coloratura piece, “The Bell Song” from Lakme, Cosme plays the introduction and then goes wide-eyed. The sound that erupts from the singer is like nothing he has ever heard. He looks with unbelief at the coach, who instead of looking equally upset, merely encourages her here and there as she murders the music. Needless to say, in the ensuing weeks it is the good pay that keeps him to his post, though as he gets to know his employer better, he becomes fond of her.

Cosme is so distressed with Florence’s decision to sing at Carnegie Hall that he tries to get out of the situation, but St. Clair prevails upon him. The latter has his hands full trying to keep critics and distractors from the Hall, but this will be impossible. The night of October 25, 1944 finds the Hall not just sold out, but some 2000 people turned away. In the film popular composer is in the audience along with many other notables. (Lily Pons is there with her husband, composer Andre Kostelanetz and opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti.)

The film pays fitting tribute to St. Clair and McMoon for their loyal devotion to Florence. Ms. Streep again shows her incredible ability to blend into a character. Padded to make her midriff as thick as Florence’s, and dressed in costumes so outlandish that they become the epitome of bad taste, she becomes the woman dubbed by some as “the worst singer in the world.” Ms. Streep, actually a very good singer, deserves special acting kudos for learning to sing so off key, not doubt the result of long practices in the studio. Although self-deluded for most of her life, she must have come to accept reality at the end, as one of her statement suggests, “People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.” Give her an E for Effort. In this respect she reminds me of the film Eddie the Eagle, the Olympic skier from Britain whom some would call the world’s worst athlete. Both he and Florence dared “the impossible dream” and persevered despite what others thought and said.

If you want more on this unusual woman, you can see on You Tube the documentary about her, Florence Foster Jenkins: A World Of Her Own at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvcatZDdaIY.

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

If you have enjoyed and used this and other reviews, please consider subscribing to the Visual Parables journal, wherein you will find more help in exploring film and faith.

Infinitely Polar Bear (2014)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 30 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction, and my neighbors stand far off.

Psalm 38:11

 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.

Romans 7:19

This photo provided by Sony Pictures Classics shows, from left, Imogene Wolodarsky as Amelia Stuart, Mark Ruffalo as Cam Stuart, Zoe Saldana as Maggie Stuart and Ashley Aufderheide as Faith Stuart, in a scene from the film, "Infinitely Polar Bear." (Seacia Pavao/Sony Pictures Classics via AP)

This photo provided by Sony Pictures Classics shows, from left, Imogene Wolodarsky as Amelia Stuart, Mark Ruffalo as Cam Stuart, Zoe Saldana as Maggie Stuart and Ashley Aufderheide as Faith Stuart, in a scene from the film, “Infinitely Polar Bear.” (Seacia Pavao/Sony Pictures Classics via AP)

 

The apostle Paul is writing about sin in the above passage, but in director/writer Maya Forbes’s film, based on her childhood experience, it is the bi-polar condition of Cameron (Mark Ruffalo) that prevents him from doing the good and right thing. His mood swings are swift and extreme, making it impossible to hold a job. Suffering a mental breakdown, he emerges from treatment in 1978 when long suffering wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) comes up with a plan, one not at all conventional back in the 70s when feminism was struggling against long-held patriarchal views of the roles of men and women. She will move from Boston to New York to enter an 18 month MBA program at Columbia University while Cameron cares for the girls in their cramped rent-control apartment.

Cameron feels overwhelmed at the idea, and their daughters Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky, the filmmaker’s real life daughter) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide), though they adore their father, are afraid that he cannot cope—they have witnessed far too many episodes of his destructive mood swings. Maggie wins out, assuring them that she will return on weekends. Because the only hope for them as a family is for her to secure an above minimum wage job, all become reconciled to her plan.

Of course, there are ups and down in the following weeks, the girls sometimes screaming their defiance at their dad when he tries to get them to do his bidding. Complicating matters is the necessity for them to keep their address secret from the authorities at the posh public school he drives them to each morning. The public housing they live in is located in a poor district where the school is substandard, and Maggie has lied because of her determination to give her girls a better education than she had received as a child.

There is irony in the fact that Cameron is actually a blue blood, apparently regarded as the black sheep when he married the African American Maggie. In one embarrassing scene he tries to take the girls on a tour of the stately home he grew up in, only to be ordered from the premises by the unsympathetic present owner. He does visit an elderly grandmother who has been paying for their rent, but she aparently does not want to become involved in the life of his family. During a rare visit at her estate she offers him one of her fancy cars, but he has to reject the offer, knowing that he cannot maintain it. The girls chastise him, but he tells him that it would not be feasable to sell it. He has managed to trade their old clunker for a ghastly looking car with a better engine, but it has a large hole in the floor that frightens the girls. During his visit at Granny’s he talks the cook into giving him a couple of oven trays to cover the hole.

There are bright moments of hilarity when Cameron is able to charm and relate to the girls, but there are also episodes of meltdown when he cannot cope. Maggie’s weekends vary also from pleasant to impossible, and she is frequently interrupted during the week by Cameron’s phone calls seeking help. The role of the responsible adult shifts back and forth between father, daughters, and on weekends, with Maggie. The girls plead with him not to talk so much because it puts people off, but he cannot control himself, so there are many embarrassing incidents. One of these is when, returning to their building, they see a woman opening the trunk of her car where she has a half dozen bags of groceries. Not only does their father talk her into letting them all help carry up the bags, but also at her apartment door he offers to unpack and put the groceries away. By now fully put off by him, she declines, quickly closing the door. The girls describe this as slamming the door in his face.

At one point there is a reflection on the times, as when a female neighbor tells Cameron that she admires him for staying home and caring for the girls. He is pleased by the first part of her observation, but when she adds, so that the wife can be the breadwinner, he feels a bit deflated. Fortunately she is standing behind him in the apartment’s elevator, so she cannot see his face.

Covering the four seasons, the film seems at times episodic, but it never lags in interest. All four, adults and children, are so excellent in their roles that we tend to overlook some of the implausibility. If there were an Oscar for Best Child Performance Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide would deserve to share it, so skillfully do they navigate all the mood swings and interaction with their co-stars. They are lively, even precocious, but never TV kids-cute. Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana, always enjoyable to watch, are at their finest, with the former, of course, given the most dramatic scenes. No doubt there is some sugar coating of the serious ailment Cameron is afflicted with, but there are many truthful moments when we see just what it means to be “afflicted.” As with Trainwreck, Maya Forbes’s debut film as director is head and shoulders above most summer comedies.

 This review with a set of discussion questions is in the August issue of Visual Parables.

 

 

Iris (2014)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 23 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

Matthew 6:28-29

 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.

Mark 10:15.

With Husb

Iris & Carl Alfert, still in love with each other & with life.    (c) 2014 Magnolia Pictures

Albert Maysles’s documentary about New York fashion icon Iris Afert ought to be a tonic for all sad souls feeling the blues over their age. At 93 Iris is still going strong, giving speeches and accepting awards, and still shopping in upscale stores and flea markets for more gewgaws to store in her apartment that looks like an overstocked clothing and gift shop.

Furthermore, Carl, her beloved husband of more than 60 years is also in relatively good health, celebrating his 100th birthday during the course of the filming of the documentary. He has been his wife’s number one fan and supporter, organizing their numerous trips to the far corners of the world during which she buys trunk loads of clothing, jewelry, hats, and trinkets that fill their apartments back home. (The plural is not a mistake. If I heard right, the couple owns so much “stuff” that it requires a house and three apartments to contain it all.) The filmmaker uses lots of photographs and 16 mm footage shot by Carl during their travels.

The filmmaker obviously loves his subjects, with Iris often bantering with him as she shows off various items or models for him various assortments of clothing. Her eclectic tastes are at times way too much for me at times, but nonetheless I admire her creativity and sense of adventure in finding new combinations. So do the people at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. When they mounted a show around her in 2005, people flocked to it, spreading her already considerable fame even further. (As an interior decorator expert in fabrics she has worked at the White House several times.

She has even managed to acquire numerous variations of her trademark over-sized round glasses with lens almost as thick as the bottom of a coke bottle. Some of the frames are decorated with tiny beads. There is no doubt that wherever she goes she is the center of attention. But she does not come across as a totally self-centered person. We see several of her many encounters with young women, passing on to them some of her knowledge and experience. Her obvious affection for them is returned, no one regarding her as “a nice little old lady.”

Although I think Christ might question her obsession with clothing and jewelry, I believe he would applaud her child-like enthusiasm for life and beauty. This is an elderly person not content to let the world glide by, but one who still seeks to enjoy it to the full—and to share that joy with others. It is ironic that now, with the film’s subject well into her 90s, and with a husband over 100, it was the filmmaker who died—last March at the relatively young age of 89.

Not being a fan of fashion, I attended this film only because the one I wanted to see had to be canceled due to disk failure, and Iris was the only other film at the theater I had not seen. As it turns out, this was a happy accident. Iris is an ebullient person well worth the time getting to know, as lovely in her unique way as the flower after which she is named.

 

Annie (2014)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 58 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh

Ezekiel 11:19

 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust[consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:19-21

FostMomKids

Miss Hannigan again lectures & threatens Annie and her friends living under her care.        (c) 2014 Sony Pictures

 

As a child our newspaper’s Sunday Funnies was my favorite section, but I seldom read Harold Gray’s “Little Orphan Annie.”   When the 1977 Broadway musical was adapted for the screen in 1982 and again in the 1990s, I skipped them. Now we have still another Annie film. There were two reasons I decided to take in the new version—first, I loved the little actress Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild and was curious how she would fare in a musical; and second, I was curious also how the story would play out, transferred from the Depression era to 2014 and the race of two of the main characters changed.

Many critics have panned the new film, but I thoroughly enjoyed what director Will Gluck and his co-writers Will Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna have come up with. Although the voice of Quvenzhané Wallis singing of “Tomorrow” would scarcely carry up to a stage theater’s balcony, she does well with the other songs, and as an actress she certainly holds her own in scenes with the rest of the excellent cast—the delightful Cameron Diaz as the stuck in the past Ms. Hannigan; Jamie Foxx as the Daddy Warbucks stand-in, billionaire Will Stacks; Rose Byrne as Stack’s loyal personal assistant, Grace; and Bobby Cannavale as the conniving business aide Guy.

In contemporary New York Annie and her friends live in a group foster home, rather than an orphanage. It is managed by Miss Hannigan who makes life rough for her charges because she is embittered by her lost chance to make it big with a singing group. Annie, still in possession of a note written on a restaurant slip by the mother who gave her up, sits on a curb opposite the restaurant on Friday nights in the hope that she will return. When she fails to show up each night, the sympathetic owner gives the waif a box of cannolis to take home. Whenever someone calls her an orphan, Annie replies, “Not an orphan. I’m a foster kid!” And of course, she cheers her despondent friends with ”Tomorrow.”

Will Stacks has grown super rich building his cell phone company and sees running for Mayor as a means to increase his wealth from contacts with government and business leaders. There is not a trace of altruism in him. The public apparently sees this, because in the polls he is way behind his opponent Harold Gray (note the tribute to the strip’s originator). Gray pulls even further ahead when Michael J. Fox endorses him.

As Stacks is walking down a street Annie bumps into him while chasing two boys tormenting a dog. She falls in front of a van, but Stacks pulls her away just in time. He goes on with no further thought of the incident, until he returns to his office and Guy points out that someone has made a video of the rescue and posted it on line where it has gone viral.

Guy, seeing this as a golden opportunity to score political points, tells Stacks that he must find the girl and spend time with her. This leads to inviting her to stay at his sumptuous penthouse, one corner of which could contain the rundown flat into which Miss Hannigan stuffs Annie and her friends. Stacks objects that he does not care for children, but Guy assures him that once the campaign is over, they can dump the girl Grace is troubled by the scheme, but goes along with it. You know, of course, how well that nefarious plan will turn out.

The film adroitly combines two genres, that of a hard-hearted adult softened up by a child (think About a Boy, Kolya, The Kid—2000 version), and that of the character transformation story (On the Waterfront, The Doctor, A Civil Case). In Annie both Miss Hannigan and Will Stacks are badly in need of improvement in their values and morals. It is a bit difficult which of them needs changing the most, although my vote goes for the foster care mom who sees the kids as just the means of obtaining monthly checks from Child Welfare while treating her charges like slaves—after all Annie has already been under her care for some time when the film begins, and the woman has remained impervious to the girl’s charms.

It is no spoiler to reveal that eventually both heels rediscover their humanity, and this inner process is movingly depicted in the song written for this film, one that I much prefer to the overdone “Tomorrow,” “Who Am I?” The music of this is haunting and goes perfectly with the words. As I recall it is Miss Hannigan who begins the song,

“Who am I, what have I become?
Do I stand for something, or for money?
Who am I, where’s my good girl gone?
You know I had a good heart once, you see.”

Then Will Stacks sings his verse, and last of all, Annie joins in. Each of them expresses their own need, the song closing with all three singing:

“ I will trust in it (8x)
But today, I’ve got to make,
The best I can of it.
‘Cause yesterday is dead and gone
And me along with it
I want to start again (spoken and sung)”

There are, of course, many other songs such as the amusing “It’s the Hard-Knock Life;” the one to which Grace and Annie sing as they dance together around Stacks’ lavish penthouse, “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here;” the Annie-Stacks duet, “I Don’t Need Anything But You,” and others, but none are as insightful and memorable as this new song.

There is more to like in the film, but in order not to make this review even longer, I just want to mention the race-blind casting. Annie and Will Stacks are African American, and Grace is white, the three of them at the end heading to form an interracial family. Looking around the audience when Will and Grace finally kiss, I saw only looks of approval on the faces of the mixed race audience. As one who can remember when African American stars such as Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier were not allowed an on-screen kiss with their white costars, this film reflects some real racial progress in our nation. So, ignore the critics who have panned this family-friendly film. There is much to like in this version. I might even go back some day and watch the earlier ones…Nah, this one s good enough.

For the full lyricsgo to http://www.metrolyrics.com/who-am-i-lyrics-annie.html

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

A Patch of Blue (1965)

Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 45 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 1; Language 2; Sex 8/Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

 Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’

Mark 10:51

Patch_blue

In A Patch of Blue Sidney Poitier’s Gordon Ralfe is a good stand-in for Christ in the way he helps the blind teenaged girl Selina D’Arcey, beautifully played by the young actress Elizabeth Hartman. Daughter of the prostitute Rose-Ann (Shelly Winters), she lives in anew York City apartment along with her alcoholic grandfather as well as her mother

Selina strings beads for a neighbor to add to the family income, the only kind of work available to her. After convincing her employer to bring her to a park to work, Selina is befriended by Gordon who is passing through the park.

A gentle man working the night shift in an office, he soon learns the stark details of her life—abused by her mother who blinded her at the age of five when she threw chemicals at her husband and hit the girl instead, and then years later was raped by one of the mother’s “boy friends.” Rose-Ann has kept the girl out of school, using her as a house slave. Thus she has not learned to read by braille or been taught much of anything to make her employable. The title of the film refers to what Selina can remember of the sky before she lost her sight. There follows a series of meetings in the park during which Gordon teaches her about the world around her.

In this story there is no cure for the girl, but Gordon does contact a school for the blind where Selina can learn how to live a full life on her own. However, Rose-Ann learns of the relationship, and the prejudiced woman is especially upset that Gordon is African American. She tries to break them up, even planning with a friend to leave Grandpa in the apartment and set up shop in a new one where they will turn Selina into a prostitute.

Gordon is faced with quite a task, one that becomes complicated even more because Selina has fallen in love with him. Being a realist, he knows that in 1965’s America such a romance would face too many obstacles—his own brother warns him about the relationship. Selina may be blind, but she can be persistent, though Gordon continues to reason with her. The film ends on a high note, albeit an ambiguous one concerning the future of the two—although I have read that this is more optimistic than the darker ending of the novel the film was based on, Elizabeth Kata’s novel  Be Ready with Bells and Drums

The film made quite a statement against racism, coming out as it did during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It did show in the South, but only after the scene in which the two stars kiss was cut out. Fortunately the DVD version includes this.