Donald Cried (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 25 min.

Our content ratings  (1-10): Violence 2; Language 7; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

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

Proverbs 14:10

AtticRoom

Donald (rt) talks about old times with Peter in his attic room still decorated with his old posters. (c) The Orchard

Writer-director-star Kris Avedisian’s dark comedy about two old high school chums reunited 20 years after graduation is a squirm producer. Of the many outsider films that I have seen, actor Kris Avedisian’s Donald is one of the most bizarre that I can remember, a great deal of resentment and shame underlying his puppy dog excitement at seeing his old friend again. Indeed, Donald is so weird that I think even the champion of outsiders, the Man from Nazareth, might find it difficult to include this loser in his circle of outsiders. The genius of Mr. Avedesian, the writer and actor, is that by the end of the film our sympathy is transferred from the successful Peter to the pathetic, almost pathological, Donald.

Peter (Jesse Wakeman), turning his back on the carousing lifestyle of his youth, left Warwick, R.I years earlier, becoming a successful banker in New York City. He has returned to the snow-laden village to wind up the affairs of his recently deceased grandmother. Things start going wrong the instant his taxi pulls up to her house and he realizes that he has left his wallet on the bus. The disgusted driver, refusing to take him back to the station, writes off the fare and drives away. When the real estate agent Kristen (Louisa Krause) shows up to talk about selling the house, she remembers him from high school, but he pretends not to recognize her.

Needing a ride to the funeral home and some cash, Donald goes across the street to see his old friend Peter (Jesse Wakeman), who still lives there with his mother. Donald almost turns summersaults of joy at seeing Peter again. Up in his attic room, still decorated with heavy-metal, wrestling, horror-movie, and Kiss posters (even a signed pinup of a porn star’s crotch), they, or rather, Donald, reminisce about their high school days. Apparently, Peter was anything but the solid-citizen banker back then, Donald saying that he expected him to roar back into town as a long-haired biker. If ever there was a case of arrested development, the scraggily bearded Donald is it! Later on, Donald even suggests that the two of them go down to his bank and hold it up—is he kidding or not?

Peter reveals his need for a ride and for some cash, and Donald readily agrees to help. But as the day progresses, we see that it is on his terms, namely that his friend agrees to hang out with him for the day. Eager to wind up his grandmother’s affairs and return to NYC, Peter tries several times to disengage, but each time, he has to yield because of his financial need. It becomes apparent during a forced pickup tackle football game that Donald harbors a measure of resentment against his friend. He enjoys tackling Peter and holding him down in the snow longer than would be normal. During a visit to a mutual friend, who is more interested in his TV program than his visitors, we learn from an offhand remark the meaning of the film’s title, and thus can understand the source of Donald’s ambivalent feelings of love and resentment toward his friend. Peter might have forgotten the terrible thing he did to his friend years ago, but Donald has not. And we also learn that the resentment has continued because of Peter’s neglect of the grandmother whom Donald had watched over through the years. I think that Peter had not even attended her funeral, because it is only when he visits the funeral home that he takes possession of her ashes. They share some weed and then visit an old abandoned train tunnel, the film threatening to plunge the pair deeper into darkness when Donald uncovers a gun he has hidden there and points it at the friend who has wronged him.

By the end of the film we see these two men in a very different light. Both are terribly flawed, but it is apparent which is the one who has reached out to others, and which is almost totally self-absorbed. I still would not want to spend more than an hour or two with Donald, but can understand why he cried. But far less would I want to spend any time with the more conventional Peter. This is a fascinating character study that moves from comedy to near-tragedy and back again. If you don’t mind feeling uncomfortable for a little over and hour, I highly recommend it. Oh yes, one more reason that I enjoyed the film is a delightful surprise near the end when we learn the identity of Donald’s harsh bowling alley boss who had humiliated him when he had gone

To ask for the day off and to pick up his salary check. If you’re looking for a comedy far above the lame humor of most of those playing at the cinemaplexes, check this one out at your local art house.

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

The Spitfire Grill (1996)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 57 min.

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

Our Star rating (1-5): 4.5

 Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?

Jeremiah 8:22

 The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.

Matt. 22:2

 Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.  Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

Luke 13:29-30.

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Percy, Hannah, and Shelby run the Spitfire Grill.
(c) 1995 Columbia Pictures

Lee David Zlotoff’s simply told story of grace and healing was a hit with the audience when it debuted at the Sun Dance Film Festival. But then, when it was learned that a Catholic order in Mississippi had provided the financial backing, some reacted with hostility, fearing that they were being brainwashed with Christian “propaganda,” However, the writer/director of the film was a Jewish man whose script had won the contest set up by a Mississippi Catholic order.  Zlotoff went on record denying that there was anything spiritual about the film. After viewing this film, you will probably suspect that he “doth protest too much.” He might be more accurate if he had said “Christian” rather than “spiritual,” but…

Percy Talbot (Alison Elliott) comes to the small town of Gilead, Maine, straight from prison. With the help of Sheriff Gary Walsh (Gailard Sartain) she finds work at the Spitfire Grill. Crotchety Hannah (Ellen Burstyn) is reluctant to take on Percy but she does need the help. The townspeople are suspicious and unwelcoming to the newcomer — none more so than Hannah’s protective nephew Nahum (Will Patton). He is certain that Percy still harbors criminal intentions toward his aunt. But his wife Shelby (Marcia Gay Harden) is just the opposite. When it becomes obvious how inexperienced a cook Percy is, Shelby shows up at dawn with her youngest child and a playpen and soon takes over the cooking, with Percy handling the customers’ orders. Before long the two young women are friends, and we see a change taking place in Shelby, whose life up until now had been one long series of put-downs by her unappreciative husband.

We see a change taking place in Hannah also. She opens up more to Percy, especially after the young woman is such a great help the night she (Hannah) falls and breaks her ankle. She even entrusts Percy with $300 and her car to go shopping for supplies. All along, Nahum continues to voice his suspicions and begins to check into Percy’s background. Meanwhile, Percy takes over Hannah’s mysterious chore of setting out a sack of canned goods at night and placing an ax in a stump as a signal to whomever it is lurking in the forest. The next morning the bag is gone, and the ax is lying against the stump. Percy tries to make contact with the secretive woodsman, and, after numerous attempts, finally establishes a tentative, trusting relationship.

Upon learning that Hannah has been trying unsuccessfully for ten years to sell the grill through Nahum, Percy suggests to Shelby that they try a scheme she had come across while working for the Maine Tourist Office in prison — establish an essay contest, each applicant required to contribute an entrance fee of $100, with the writer of the one judged to be the winner receiving the deed to the Spitfire Grill. Shelby passes this on to Hannah.

In the last half of the film Nahum seeks to find out the secret of Percy’s imprisonment, and thus decides to destroy her reputation and driver her out of town. The fate of the man hiding in the woods becomes intertwined with Percy’s, and the letters and checks from the hopeful pour in in such numbers that virtually all of the customers are pressed into service for screening out the most promising applicants.

Events move quickly to a climax of sacrifice and transforming grace that leaves most viewers convinced that Mr. Zlotoff ‘s story is indeed more spiritual than he realizes. Knowingly or not, he has given us a female Christ Figure who frees and liberates those she encounters. She opens the eyes of the browbeaten Shelby to see the strong woman she can be. She opens the eyes of the young man Joe Sperling (Kieran Mulroney) who would like to court her to see the beauty of the trees and hills he had taken for granted. Will she ever be able to open the eyes of the suspicious Nathan who is blind to her worth and true nature of grace and love? We also see in one moving scene in which she tells Shelby about her past that she is also a wounded healer.

 

It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours, 10 min.

Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 8-; Language 8; Sex/Nudity 0.

Our star rating (1-5) 5

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never fail you nor forsake you.”

                                                        Hebrews 13:5

  ItsWondLife

This Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed film shows up on the small screen every December. And well it should, being such a sentimental classic that fits in perfectly with the Advent/Christmas season. Have you taken advantage of Frank Capra’s classic? (I ask this because one reader of sophisticated film tastes told me not so long ago that he had never watched the film because he feared that it would be too corny. I urged him to check it out for himself.) One year I looked through TV listings and found that one could view it over 30 times. Now we have it on DVD, with the possibility of showing it at any time and place.

Christmas is more the setting of the film than its theme, the story really being about a man finding that his true destiny is right where he is and what he is, a small town banker, rather than a traveler or adventurer in some distant and exotic place that he had dreamt of. Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey discovers that wealth is to be counted by the number of rich relationships one has, rather than by piles of money. Unfortunately his archenemy Potter, also a banker, but one who wants to control the life of Bedford Falls, never discovers this. The result is that Potter winds up all alone, whereas George is surrounded by family and friends, with his brother toasting him as “The richest man in town.”

For a meditation based on the film see my book Praying the Movies II (No. 22 “The Richest Man in Town,” pp.165-170).  Below are some more Scripture passages and a few questions that a group could use in exploring its themes and issues:

Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death.
The LORD does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked.

Proverbs 10:2-3

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

Mark 8:34-37

1)     Why do you think this film, which failed at the box office, has become so popular? How do you think its naïve concept of goodness speak to our cynical age?

2)     What seems to be its view of God and the cosmos?

3)     What is George Bailey’s dream? What gets in the way each time he sets out to follow it? How is each of these a call to duty for George? Would you say he has been faithful to duty? How could we say that George has followed a “cruciform” life style? At what points in the film do you see a “cross” for him to take up?

4)     What motivates Potter? How is he a taker, rather than a giver? Does he seem satisfied or happy? Will he ever be?

5)     How does Potter tempt George? Why do you think George almost gives in? Have you been tempted to work for someone or do something you do not feel right about because the reward is attractive?

6)     What wears George down? Have you felt that way at times?

7)     What do you think of Clarence as an angel? Not your Christmas pageant variety? How can he be seen as carrying to George the message of Galatians 6:9? Have you ever thought what the world might be missing if you had not been born? (Or have you been engaged in church or neighborhood so little that you really would not be missed? Sobering thought?)

8)    How is George’s brother’s toast to “the richest man in town” true to Scripture?

 This is an edited version of a review from the Fall 2005 Visual Parables.

Nebraska (2013)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.

Our Advisories(1-10): Violence 2; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Exodus 20.12

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

 Ephesians 6.4

 Then Jesus* said, “There was a man who had two sons.”

Luke 15:11

Film Review Nebraska

Woody will not believe his son David that the prize money he expects in Nebraska is a scam.
(c) 2013) Paramount Vantage

How far will the love of a son for his father go? Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt, The Descendants), working with a script by someone else this time (Bob Nelson), shows us how far in this father-son road trip film—all the way from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska, some 850 miles. And that on a wild goose chase bound to end in disillusionment and frustration.

The disillusionment and frustration will be that of David Grant’s alcoholic father Woody (Bruce Dern), who has come to believe the letter from the magazine subscription service stating that he might be a winner of one million dollars. We first see the old man walking along a highway. His disheveled hair and grizzled face appears to be more that of a scarecrow than a human being’s, but there are no cornfields in this part of Montana. A policeman stops and tries to question him, but the one word responses offer little information other than his destination is Nebraska. David (Will Forte) picks him up at the police station. He tells his father that the paper is a scam, a come-on to get people to buy magazine subscriptions, but the old man remains convinced that he is a prizewinner.

When they arrive home, Woody’s acid tongued wife Kate (June Squibb) is anything but understanding of her husband. Both she and David try to dislodge Woody’s belief that he has won a million dollars. Woody, however, has the paper that says so, and so it must be true, he tells them, because it is in print. The old man keeps trying to get away. His license and truck have been taken from him because of his condition, worsened by his drinking. Thus each time he sets out on foot, determined to pick up his prize money in Nebraska.

Kate is at her wit’s end, calling the old man “useless.” Older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), news anchor at a local television station, would like to place their father in a nursing home. David, just broken up with his live-in girlfriend and working as a salesman at an electrical appliance store, is tired of being called to rescue his father. But he is the only one halfway sympathetic to the old man and his pipe dream. Seeing that his father will keep on trying, David calls in sick to work and tells Woody that he will drive him. He also apparently sees this as a last chance at getting to know this father who has kept him and his brother at arm’s length all through their lives together.

What follows is not the usual road story, ending in tearful reconciling embraces, but it is a trip in which at least one of the pair will emerge richer for the experience. No, actually, more than one. The miles fly by in silence, with the sight of the wide-open spaces especially suitable for the wide screen format of today’s theaters. It is a landscape in which the sky offers as much scenery as the scrubby fields. At David’s suggestion, the pair stop off to see Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, but Woody is unimpressed, observing that it doesn’t look “finished.” There is also a time consuming interlude when they search along a railroad track for the denture plate that had fallen out of the drunken Woody’s mouth the night before when he stumbled from the bar back to the motel.

Along the way David tries to get his father to open up about the past. He raises the subject of drinking, and the sharp reply is, “You’d drink too, if you were married to your mother.” At another time the son seeks information about his parent’s courtship, “You must have been in love, at least at first.” He seems to be seeking some hint of affection from the surly old man. “It never came up,” Woody replies.

Woody injures his head so that stitches are required at a hospital. This diversion has cost them time, so, because they cannot possibly make it to Lincoln before the weekend office closure, they decide to drive down to Hawthorne, Nebraska. It is Woody and Kate’s hometown where his brothers still live with their families.

This segment is a hoot, with Aunt Martha (Mary Louise Wilson) delighted to host the pair. The several other brothers, however, are as undemonstrative as Woody. While the women are in the kitchen talking and cooking, all the men sit stolidly looking at the TV set, the only subject of conversation being what year and make of a car one of them had been driving. Added to the family reunion are Kate and Ross, hastening down to make it a full family reunion. David advises Woody not to say anything about his supposed winnings, but the old man blurts out the reason for the trip anyway. He becomes an instant celebrity, the other family members suddenly interested in his future, especially as it pertains to money. David tries to explain the true situation, but the Hawthorne contingent is certain he is denying the winnings lest he has to share it with them. As we will see, Aunt Martha’s two obnoxious, pudgy sons, still sponging off their parents, make a drastic play for the money later on.

News of Woody’s good fortune spreads around the hangdog-looking town, the citizens also very interested in what Woody will do with his winnings. He answers that he will buy a new truck and also an air compressor to replace the one that was never returned to him by the borrower 40 years ago. One of the townsfolk is more sinister, Ed (Stacy Keach), Woody’s former senior partner in the local garage, claims that Woody owes him a great deal of money. He demands payment, or else there will be a legal battle.

Thus the past hangs heavy over the characters in this film. Woody’s life has not added up to much, nor have those of the rest of the family and neighbors. Hawthorne itself, with it’s rundown stores, some of them vacant, has more of a past than a future, most of its inhabitants being old people left behind by their children needing to go elsewhere for work. During their stay in Hawthorne David learns far more about his father from some of the townspeople than he had ever learned from his parents. The charming elderly editor of the weekly newspaper Peg Nagy (Angela McEwan) reveals that she had been Woody’s girlfriend.

Whether Woody’s withdrawal and mental confusion are due to his lifelong alcoholism or to approaching dementia we do not know. His singular determination to go to Nebraska bares a faint resemblance to the old man in The Straight Story, who set out on a John Deere riding mower to drive the over 200 miles to reunite with an estranged brother (Woody’s motives, of course, are not as pure). Or maybe, we should compare him to the old man in one of director Payne’s own films, Warren Schmidt in About Schmidt, which is about a man retiring from the insurance industry and needing to find a new reason for living beyond the shallow relationship with his wife. Woody, so devoid of an internal life, seems to have no religious faith, and so his only solace comes from the undeserved love of his youngest son. There is grace in this love that will put up with such a negative father and go the distance—some 850 miles—for his sake.

As the end credits rolled, the thought arose that I had witnessed a prodigal son story in reverse: as in Luke’s gospel, this is the story of “a man who had two sons.” But it is the younger son who is the person of love and mercy, and it is the father who is the prodigal. Woody through his drinking has runaway to “a far country,” one not of geography, but of the inner self. David even manages to bring about the best possible result from Woody’s finally learning and accepting the truth in the magazine office–that he has been entertaining a pipe dream. Besides the prize of a cap emblazoned with “Prize Winner,” David gives Woody something else that he has been wanting—actually two something elses, given by a son who, whether a person of faith or not, embodies much of the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13. It is one of the rare heart-warming moments in this appropriately black and white film.

I should mention also one other scene of grace. It takes place in the second hospital to which Woody is taken. Kate, joining David at Woody’s bedside, gently brushes back the old man’s hair, tenderly kisses him, and says something like “Crazy old man.” Listen carefully when you watch this scene. What is the tone of her voice this time? As abrasive as before, or has something that has long been submerged by putting up with Woody’s drinking bouts, finally arisen?

Supported by some spare but lovely music by Mark Orton, this slow moving film, tinged with satiric humor, will stay with you for a long time. June Squibb will make you laugh by her unfettered tongue demeaning not only her husband, but their dead relatives as well. She is no doubt a scene stealer, but it will be Bruce Dern’s career-capping performance that will no doubt be included in “Best Actor” buzz in the weeks leading up to the next Oscars presentation.

The full review with a set of questions for reflection or discussion will appear in the January issue of Visual Parables, which will be available early in January. If you are not a subscriber, go to The Store to find out how you can become one. A subscription gives you access to several years of journals that contain many program and preaching ideas for the church seasons.