The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 44 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 4 (I’m giving it a 4 star rating because of its revisionist setting)

 In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.

For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart, those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord

Psalm 10:2-3

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.

Matthew 23:25

TarzJn&Gorllas

Tarzan, with Jane, back among his friends in the jungle. (c) Warner Brothers

When I was nine or ten my best friend and I began reading his father’s Tarzan collection, starting, of course, with Tarzan of the Apes. This was the first novel of any kind that I read all the way through. I was forever hooked on adventure tales! While reading all of the other “Lord of the Jungle” tales, we joined with neighborhood kids in buying every Tarzan comic book as soon as Dell published it; memorized the words of Tarzan’s ape language printed at the back of the comic; enjoyed venturing into the nearby woods, stripped down to our swimming trunks to climb trees and swing on wild grape vines while practicing our Tarzan yells; and, of course, we went to all of the Tarzan films. The various stars and athletes that I recall portraying the “ape man” ranged from Buster Crabbe to Johnny Weismuller to Gordon Scott to Lex Barker.

After Barker’s films my interest in Burroughs waned, due to what I increasingly realized was Burroughs bad writing style and underlying racism. However, because of past love for this character I have been looking forward to seeing the newest incarnation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s widely loved hero. Years ago I did review the 1984 Greystoke, and was especially impressed that the scriptwriter gave up the pigeon English of the earlier Tarzan films (my only criticism of the films when I was a kid). I am glad to see that co-screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer have also written Lord Greystoke’s dialogue in the proper English that Burroughs had intended.

Indeed, the film begins at massive The Greystoke estate in England where Greystoke is living in contentment with his beloved Jane (Margot Robbie). Several men, including the American George Washington Williams (Samuel Jackson), are trying to persuade John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke, aka Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård), to lead an investigative party back to his jungle homeland. Their mission is to discover the truth about the charges that the Congo’s present ruler King Leopold II of Belgium is mistreating the people. Greystoke at first refuses, but then is persuaded, so off he and Williams go. He tries to leave Jane at home for safety reasons, but of course, she insists on going with them.

Although the party has been invited by King Leopold’s agent in the Congo Capt. Rom (Christoph Waltz), they do not land at the expected port where Rom is waiting to personally welcome them. Instead, they enter the country at a different point. They decide to look around on their own because they do not trust him. Well they might, as the invitation is part of a plot by Rom to entice Tarzan back to Africa so he can kidnap him. Rom has made a deal in the lost city of Opar with Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) to deliver Tarzan to him in exchange for a chest of diamonds.

King Leopold is deeply in debt and needs money to pay for a mercenary army that will descend on the Congo and manage his rubber plantations and slave trade. The Chief is seeking vengeance because Tarzan killed his son after that warrior killed Tarzan’s ape mother Kala. (Scattered throughout the film are origin scenes showing the birth of Tarzan to his English mother, their deaths, and his being taken and raised by Kala despite the objections of Kerchak, the alpha ape, and of course the scene in which Kala is killed.)

There is a lot of action—tree swinging, Tarzan fighting a gorilla almost twice his size, seizure of a train full of soldiers, a confrontation with Chief Mbonga, and of course the necessary rescue of Jane when she is captured by Rom and taken aboard the paddleboat moving upriver. Skarsgård, with his mighty pecs, Jackson with his witty tongue, and Robbie with her great beauty and spunk (she and Jackson are the highlights of the film)–all provide plenty of entertainment, but what is most interesting to me is the revisionist take on the setting of the story.

Though at first oblivious to the racism and favorable attitude toward colonialism in Burroughs’ novels and the film versions, I did become aware of this as I grew older. The new film’s screenwriters deal with such unacceptable elements for a modern audience by setting the story in a real situation, the notorious “ownership” of the Congo by the Belgian King. Leopold II sought to personally enrich himself by using its people as his slaves, first in the ivory trade, then in the production of rubber. It is estimated that from 5 to 10 million people died horribly of maltreatment at the hands of his thuggish private army, and thousands of others were mutilated for infractions of rules. The King covered up the atrocities by various means, such as discrediting anyone who dared speak out and by bribing publishers, but rumors and partial reports, some by missionaries, leaked out.

Samuel Jackson’s George Washington Williams was a real person, a Civil War soldier, friend of Frederick Douglas and William Lloyd Garrison, Baptist minister (the first black man to graduate from Newton Theological Institution), member of the Ohio State Legislature, a pioneer African American historian, and a newspaper columnist. Commissioned by Pres. Benjamin Harrison, Williams did travel to Africa after first visiting King Leopold—the latter tried to dissuade him from going. He was so appalled by the atrocities that he saw in the Congo that he wrote an open letter to the King in which he called for an international commission*. He did not live to see the results because he died shortly afterward in England in 1890 at the age of 41. (This film, by the way, takes place in 1889 and 1890.) Movements in the U.S. and Britain arose to condemn the King’s treatment of the people, much like those that sprang up in the 20th Century to oppose apartheid in South Africa. Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle both added their accusing voices of protest.

With the above history in mind, it is not surprising that today some African Americans object to the pairing up of a real life African American hero with a white hero, given the Lord of the Jungle’s past racial baggage. Worse, perhaps, Williams is reduced to a sidekick role, although at least he is shown as persistent and as never showing the whites of his eyes in fear, as did black characters in older Hollywood movies. Still, the movie Williams is more like Rochester to Jack Benny, or Tonto to the Lone Ranger.

Capt. Rom is quite a suave looking villain, dressed in his white suite. He wears the suspect mustache, though it is too short for him to twirl while threatening the captive Jane. He apparently retains some trace of piety. We often catch sight of the rosary beads and tiny crucifix he carries in one hand. This outward symbol of Catholic piety mirrors that of his King, who actually argued that his harsh treatment of the Congolese was justified, and besides, he was bringing Christianity to them—his getting rich by oppressing them a bizarre twist of the saying that you can do well by doing good.

The simplistic solution to the thwarting of the King and his henchman Rom’s evil plans looks spectacular in the climatic scene. (Thousands of wild animals, rounded up by Tarzan, stampede through the port city where Rom plans to turn over a chest of diamonds to pay for the thousands of soldiers ready to disembark from their ships anchored in the harbor.) However in real life, it was not until 1909 that international outcries at last forced the Belgian Parliament to take over the Congo from the King and begin to initiate reforms.

This is probably more history than you expect or maybe want from a film review, but I hope it helps in understanding it. Director David Yates (remember him from the last half of the Harry Potter series?) gives us plenty of exciting scenes of Tarzan fighting or intermingling with the animals and friendly natives. And there is much natural beauty in the film, one of my favorites being the brief and quiet scene of Tarzan and Williams encountering in the jungle a herd of friendly elephants, whose eyes seem to express that they remember Tarzan from years ago. I find myself conflicted about recommending this film, and yet I have no doubt that a leader willing to do some research could lead an interesting exploration of race and colonialism as it has been portrayed in films and novels through the years.

*Here is a link to the full text of William’s long letter: http://www.blackpast.org/george-washington-williams-open-letter-king-leopold-congo-1890

This review with a set of discussion questions is in the July 2016 issue of VP.

 

Calvary (2014)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 5; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating: (0-5): 5

…Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”
John 21:17c

 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 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 12:14-19

WithWidow

Fr. James doing what he does best, channeling grace through the Sacrament. (c) 2014 Fox Searchlight Films

Writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s film, set in the fishing village of Easkey in County Sligo, Ireland, should have been released a week or two before Easter because it so resembles the last week in the life of Jesus. Thus its appropriate title, one of the names of the hill on which Jesus was crucified. The film’s Father James Lavelle, like Jesus, is an innocent man slated to die for the guilty. From the title, we know right away we are in for some serious viewing, introduced by the words of Saint Augustine that appear on the screen: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”

With the widespread abuse of boys by Irish priests as its dark backdrop, the film shows that there is a price to be paid for such violation of the innocents by those cloaked with the authority to speak for God. In the opening scene, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) sits in the darkness of the confessional booth as a man tells him that he was abused during his service as an altar boy for five years by a priest. That priest has died, so the man says the church will pay for the crime. “There’s no point in killing a bad priest,” he says matter of factly. “I’m going to kill you because you’re innocent.” He tells the priest he has a week to put his affairs in order before dying. He is to meet him on the beach the next Sunday.

Among those affairs not in order is Father James’ relationship with his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), born before James became a priest. She arrives in town with her own troubles, having recently attempted suicide. She pours her heart out to him about her feeling of being abandoned—first by her mother during her long illness, and then, after her mother’s death, by him because he was dealing with his vocation.

Father James could have left town to save his life, but he is a priest, similar to the whiskey priest in Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory. Like that cleric, he also has a drinking problem that he has controlled, but as the week goes on, he turns to the bottle more and more. His parishioners are a hard lot that would try the soul of any pastor, even in ordinary times. Shown at times with touches of dark humor, they are:

  • The town butcher Jack (Chris O ‘Dowd), whose wife Veronica (Orla O’ Rourke) has betrayed him sexually;
  • Veronica who is unrepentant, flaunting her illicit relationship with her lover;
  • Simon, Veronica’s West African lover (Isaach De Bankole), who beats her and is hostile to the priest when he comes calling;
  • Police Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon) who seeks sex with a male prostitute;
  • Milo Herlihy (Killian Scott), a sexually deprived young man who talks about joining the army so he can legally vent his violent feelings;
  • Frank Harte a cynical doctor (Aidan Gillen) who is a militant atheist filled with contempt for priest and church;
  • Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), both the richest and most arrogant man in town, yet despairing because his wife and children have left him;
  • An elderly American writer (M. Emmet Walsh) who asks the priest to get him a gun so that when the time comes, he can leave the world on his terms;
  • Teresa (Marie-Josee Croze), the French tourist whom Father James meets at the hospital when he is called to give the last rites to her husband, fatally injured in an auto accident.

Father James seems to have good relationships with just the last two of the above. He has an assistant priest, Father Leary (Dennis Wilmot), but he is so ill suited for the priesthood that he is more of a liability than a help. (In their last exchange Fr. James tells him that he has no integrity, after which the man packs up and leaves.) Fr. James does talk with his bishop (David McSavage), even revealing that he thinks he knows who his prospective killer is, but he will not divulge the name. The bishop listens, but can offer no further help. Probably the most comfort is his old faithful dog who frequently accompanies him.

The days go by, and we wonder which of the motley crew of people is the man in the confessional booth. The counting down of days is similar in its effect to the countdown of hours in High Noon. The priest in reconciling with his daughter does not let on that he is under a death threat. He even visits a convicted child killer in prison. He drinks, misuses the gun that he has procured for the writer, and is beaten up (by the bar tender) for his offense of shooting up the bar.

Very aware of the shortcomings of the villagers, an of himself, Father James observes, “There’s too much talk about sins and not enough talk about virtues.”

Calvary resembles Robert Bresson’s 1951 masterpiece Diary of a Country Priest as re-imagined by Quentin Tarentino. Except for his mended relationship with Fionna and his genuine comforting of the grieving French widow, Father James seems to have little effect, very much like the young priest in Robert Bresson’s film. Father James is far tougher than Bresson’s “little priest,” but even Father James’s faith gives way for a moment when he comes upon the body of his dog, its throat cruelly slashed. Equally debilitating to his spirit is the late night burning of his church, seemingly a signal from his enemy that last Sunday’s words in the confessional were not an idle threat.

Indeed, the director said publicly that his new film is basically Bresson’s film “with a few gags thrown in.” There is dark humor, but no sentimentality, no touch of a Barry Fitzgerald or Bing Crosby in this stark drama. The ending is powerful, with a hint of forgiveness—though in that last scene there are no words, just two people looking at one another. I won’t reveal more, so as not to spoil the surprise, but it is a wonderful way to conclude such a dark story.

Brendan Gleeson has turned in many fine performances, but as the stoic priest he has reached the pinnacle of his career. Each one of the supporting actors is also perfect, given that some of them have little screen time. Most of their characters have been so buffeted about by life and their failings and lusts that they have little faith left. Indeed, several are very hostile to the church and its representative, partly perhaps because of the cruel treatment of boys by so many priests who were never punished for their abominations, but more so because they have found no solace for their pain in the church’s message and sacraments. Nonetheless their priest stays with them until the very end.

One scene that demonstrates the poisonous atmosphere that the Catholic Church’s mishandling of the child abuse scandal has wrought: Father James is strolling on a country road when he comes upon a little girl. Falling in with her shorter stride, he engages in a friendly conversation. Suddenly a car roars up, screeches to a stop, and the angry father orders the girl to get in. As he pulls away he yells at the priest to stay away from his daughter.

Look for this to be at or near the top of Visual Parables’ “Top Ten Films” list early next year. It is the kind of film that led me almost 25 years ago to name this publication “Visual Parables.”

This review with a set of 10 discussion questions will be in the September 2014 Visual Parables.

her (2013)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 6 min.

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

Our Star ratings (1-5): 5

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

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

Psalm 142:4

HER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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