Gifted (2017)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 41 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

 Teach children how they should live, and they will remember it all their life.

Proverbs 22:6 (Good News Bible)

 He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket,

or under the bed, and not on the lampstand?

Mark 4:24

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Little Mary’s grandmother & her uncle who is raising her strongly disagree on how she should be schooled. (c) Fox Searchlight

Director Marc Webb and writer Tom Flynn have gifted us with a heart-wrencher that might remind you of Kramer-vs-Kramer. It is a film filled with drama and humor suitable for the whole family (though with the warning that a little girl says a word that parents of a first grader might not want them to say in front of company). Besides being very entertaining, the film deals with the real issue of how a gifted child should be raised.

Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is a single man dedicated to raising a child prodigy, his niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) whose mother, his sister, had died when Mary was but 6 months old. Once a professor of philosophy at a northern college, he has quit his job and moved to a coastal town in Florida to—well that reason will soon appear.

As the film begins, Mary is resisting going off on her first day of first grade at school. Their landlord, friend, and frequent babysitter Roberta (Octavia Spencer) drops by and lends support to Frank. At school Mary is clearly bored with Bonnie (Jenny Slate), the teacher leading the class in adding up small numbers. When Mary objects, the teacher gives her a harder problem, which Mary promptly answers, and then a difficult one requiring a 3-figure number being multiplied by another 3-figure number. Mary hesitates, and Bonnie turns away, confident she has put the child in her place. However, Mary gives an answer, and a quick check on her calculator reveals that the child is right.

Right after class she brings Mary to the principal, who in turn summons Frank, to whom she proposes that Mary be enrolled at a school for the gifted. Frank at first says that he does not have the money, to which the principal assures him she can arrange for a scholarship. Frank still says “No,” explaining that he had made a promise to his sister before her death that he would give her daughter a normal life, one in which, unlike the mother, she would enjoy a social life and have friends. He says that there is something more important than her pursuing her gift, that she become a decent human being. (At that point I was sold on this story, with its values in the right order!)

That she is already a decent human being we see on the school bus when one of her classmates climbs aboard carrying a beautifully laid out model landscape populated with a good many animals. A much older boy deliberately trips the boy, causing the carefully made display to crash to the floor. Mary objects, and the boy demands what she is going to do about her. She rushes to him, wielding a book (or is it her lunchbox?), which she smashes into his nose. The principal, with Bonnie looking on, confronts Frank and Mary her office, informing him that they boy’s nose has been broken. Frank says that his is unfortunate and will not happen again, but given that Mary was defending a friend against a much bigger and older bully, she ought not to be expelled. She isn’t, and in class she tells Bonnie and the class that she acted because her friend had made the best model of any in the class. The boy beams at such praise, especially given its source.

Bonnie helpfully supplies her brilliant pupil with special work, and also enters into a relationship with Frank. This is the part that gives the film its PG-13 rating, and makes it a questionable choice for family viewing, obviously another case of pandering to the desires of romantics in the audience.

The film’s crisis arises when Mary and Frank are returning home and spy an attractive but older woman standing at their front door. “That’s your grandmother,” he answers her query. Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) lives in Great Britain and has not been in contact with them, until now because she has learned of Mary’s great mathematical genius. She insists that Mary be separated from ordinary children, like the girl’s mother had been so she can develop her “one in a billion” gift of mathematical genius. Mary’s gift, she argues, ought not to be lost. She takes Mary to a university where she shows the girl a row of portraits of mathematical geniuses who had solved intensely difficult problems. She explains that Mary’s mother had been working on something called “The Millennium Problem,” and that had she lived, her picture would have been up there.

When Frank adamantly says that he had promised his sister that he would provide Mary with a regular upbringing, rather than closeting her with professors mentoring her so intensely that there would be no time for a social life, Evelyn sues in court for custody of the child. This portion is a bit of a stretch, with Frank’s record of caring for the girl for almost 7 years and the grandmother not having had any prior contact with the child. Nonetheless, Mary is taken away to foster parents, the scene being very emotional.

It is during the courtroom battle that we learn that Frank had given up his own career as a philosophy teacher and moved south to escape from the mother who had given all her attention to his sister. The special treatment, which included making her spend all her time learning higher mathematics, had turned his sister into a stunted, emotional cripple unable to cope with the outside world, so after a short but bitter career in mathematics, she had committed suicide in her mid-twenties. By entrusting her daughter to her brother, she wanted to save Mary from a similar fate.

In a climactic confrontation between mother and son, Frank reveals a shocking secret that makes Evelyn face the reality of what she is. Evelyn herself had been a gifted mathematician in England, but had fallen in love with an American and moved to the States with him, thus giving up her academic career in order to raise their two children. She had determined that her daughter would not have to make the same sacrifice, but had failed to see the bitter consequences of her action.

The film is well served by its terrific cast, with young Mckenna Grace especially outstanding. It is with good reason that some critics call her a “scene stealer,” as she was also in the Eddie Murphy film Mr. Church. In fact, I wish the filmmakers had concentrated more on what must have been her struggle at school to be a part of the group despite her brilliant mind setting her apart from her normal peers. Near the end we do see her being dropped off at the school and joining her friends on the playground in a patty cake-like game, but this must have required a lot of effort to become accepted, kids so often singling out those who are different for some form of abuse. I know this would make the film more like the X-Man mutants whom society rejects, but it would have been more interesting than the contrived courtroom drama.

 Note: If you like this film, you might want to read Aldous Huxley’s classic short story about a gifted child, “Young Archimedes.”  https://jennre.wordpress.com/2012/04/07/young-archimedes-aldous-huxley-1924/

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

Christine (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Why did I not die at birth,
come forth from the womb and expire?

Why is light given to one in misery,
and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it does not come,
and dig for it more than for hidden treasures;
who rejoice exceedingly,
and are glad when they find the grave?

Job 3:11, 20-22

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Christine is constantly in conflict with station manager Michael. (c) The Orchard

Antonio Campos’ fact-based film is set in Sarasota, Florida in 1974, where Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) is a feature story reporter at the TV station WZRB. Like virtually all on-camera talent, Christine is ambitious, working at this backwater station after being dismissed for reasons not specified from a Boston station. She sets her sights on a possible Baltimore position when Bob Andersen (John Cullum, one of the owners of the two stations), spends time at the station observing staff while vacationing with his wife at their Florida cottage, Christine’s late night visit at his home to plead her case directly with him is one of the most embarrassing scenes in a film filled with such painfully inappropriate acts.

We first see Christine pretending to interview President Nixon. The camera pulls back to reveal two things—an opposite empty chair and behind her a large wooden box marked FRAGILE. And so, she proves to be, her inner turmoil covered up by a smile that fools no one. Concerned about her when colleagues ask her how she is, she always responds that she is fine. Of all the staff, her assistant Jean (Maria Dizzia) is especially concerned, but holds back in directly confronting her about her demeanor and behavior.

A perfectionist who closely edits the 16 mm excerpts (this is 1974 before the advent of videotape) of one of her interviews, on camera she is stiff, devoid of the warmth and spontaneity that make for a successful reporter. In her interview of a fruit seller, she cannot conceal her lack of interest. Her regular reviews of community people do bring her modest fame, but never enough to convince her boss, station manager Michael (Tracy Letts), to let her lead in the nightly news. He explains to her what was beginning to be the slogan of every Nightly News in the 70s, “If it bleeds, it leads.” However, they work in Sarasota, not Miami or Chicago, so even her visit to the local police fails to unearth anything sensational.

Christine has a crush on the well-coiffed news anchor George Ryan (Michael C. Hall), but makes no overt move to act on her feelings. She dreams of moving with him to the Baltimore station. When he does propose that they dine out, she almost puts him off so that he says, “You’re not always the most approachable person.”

An admitted virgin with little dating experience, Christine is still living with her mother Peg (J. Smith-Cameron). Peg is happy to see her daughter prep for her night out because they have clashed constantly, most recently over Christine’s not accepting her mother’s new boyfriend. The dinner goes well, but the after-dinner event proves to be anything but the romantic affair she had hoped for. With a nervous introduction as to what is coming when they drive up to a building, George explains that they are going to a self-help event that had turned his life around. He assures her that she too will benefit from the experience.

Inside, they are split up as the members pair off, Christine drawing a woman who constantly raises questions about what she should do after she reveals her vocational ambition. None of the suggestions are of any value, coming from a woman who knows nothing of Christine’s situation. Christine is troubled not only by George’s deception and the embarrassment at talking over her situation with a stranger, but also by his revelation concerning the staff placement in Baltimore.

The film is a devastating look at a distraught woman breaking down before our eyes. Depressed by her lack of success in dating, she seeks help from a psychiatrist and talks about suicide. Also, the situation of women in the marketplace during the 70s was not good–it is well summed up in a reference to a female coworker by a man as “the little blonde number in Sports.”

The medium’s insatiable appetite for higher ratings is embodied in Michael’s frequent reminders to the staff, and especially to Christine, of their need to “climb out of the cellar.” Everything seems to converge upon the distraught woman, who, upon talking with a law officer about suicide, learns that a gun is the most certain way to do it. Thus, she buys one and stuffs it in her purse. She prepares her story—about suicide—and gains permission to lead off the broadcast of July 15, 1974, first on national news, and then her own. Her last words are, “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’, and in living color, you are going to see another first—attempted suicide.”

I agree with the reviewer who said he wanted to stop the action while calling out, “Don’t do it!” After reaction shots of the staff, the film concludes ironically with the theme song of a popular TV show about a female reporter in Minneapolis, Mary Tyler Moore’s Mary Richards, the irony concentrated in the line “You’re gonna make it after all.” The film is not for those who want an evening of light entertainment, but Rebecca Hall’s total identification with the character is worth watching, and maybe will lead to more discernment in relating to a depressed friend or colleague.

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

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 4 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 8; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah 40:28-31

 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely[b] on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:9-12

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Des drags the wounded to safety all through the night aft er his unit has retreated. (c) Lionsgate

This is the second film to tell the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a Medal of Honor-awarded WW 2 army medic who almost never got to serve because of a court martial trial. The first film about the hero was in 2004 when documentary filmmaker Terry Benedict’s the Conscientious Objector won a major award at the Heartland Film Festival. And now we have Mel Gibson’s film, taking its title from geography rather than the role or status of its hero—on Okinawa Hacksaw Ridge was the name of the top of a 350-foot cliff atop which Japanese troops fanatically defended themselves. Whatever you think of Mel Gibson’s past misdeeds, do NOT let them keep you from seeing this film that affirms the right of a US citizen to refuse to bear arms and which also celebrates his faith, love, and courage.

Divided into two major parts, the film reminds me of a reverse version of Sergeant York in which Gary Cooper portrayed the pacifist civilian who received the Medal of Honor when he turned into a super soldier, killing and capturing many German soldiers during WW 1. Oh, yes, also both were regarded as “hillbillies”—he was from Tennessee, and Doss from Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

Doss’s refusal to even touch a gun goes back to two incidents. The first was a boyhood fight with his brother during which he picked up a brick and struck Harold in the head. The brother is slowly regaining consciousness as Des stands in front of the family’s framed lithograph of The Lord’s Prayer, around which in smaller squares are the Ten Commandments. The boy focuses upon the Sixth Commandment, illustrated by Cain killing his brother Abel. The second incident takes place during a struggle with his father. The teenage Des intervenes in a fight between his alcoholic father Tom (Hugo Weaving) and his long-suffering mother Bertha (Rachel Griffiths). Tom has been damaged mentally and emotionally by the horror of seeing his two best friends die in WW 1, so he has taken out his feelings on his family. Also, we have seen him visiting the graves of his comrades. The son manages to snatch his father’s gun. Pointing it at the older man’s head, he struggles against his pent-up rage, finally casting the weapon aside and vowing never again to touch a gun. In a more peaceful scene we see the teenager repairing a window of his Seventh-day Adventist church while the women’s choir practices.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Harold (Nathaniel Buzolic) appears at the dinner table wearing an Army uniform. Upset, Tom describes the horror of his war experience and demands that Harold leave the table. He declares that he does not want to see either of his sons die so needlessly. A little later, Des pulls out a man injured when his jacked-up car falls on him, severing an artery in his leg. The quick-thinking Des uses his belt to stop the flow of blood, and then rushes him to the hospital in nearby Lynchburg. There, while waiting, he meets the young nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). He is smitten, and the story morphs into a tender love story, the modest young man able to overcome his shyness, thanks to his stated intention to marry her.

Tom is not happy when Des tells him that he is joining up to serve as a medic, but he does not reject his son. Dorothy reluctantly goes along with Des’s argument that he cannot stay safely behind while his brother and others are risking their lives for their country. However, at the training camp Des lands in trouble when he refuses to pick up his rifle for practice firing.

His drill instructor is one of those tough characters that such movies as Platoon we have come to expect. Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) insults one and all of the recruits, sneering at the lanky Dos and declaring that he has seen more muscle on a cornstalk, thus giving the lad his nickname. Remanded to Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) when he refuses to pick up his rifle, Des tries to explain that a mistake has been made, that he has signed on as a medic, not a combat soldier. The Captain says that the Army does not make mistakes and orders him to obey or else. When Des still refuses, the officer tells Howell to make life a hell for him, thus hoping to drive the boy out of the service. All his comrades, believing him a coward, join the campaign to break Des, especially Smitty (Luke Bracey). Deliberately hitting Des on one cheek, Smitty waits for a response in kind, but Des holds back. One night a group of them beat him so severely that his face is bruised and bloody, but the next morning he refuses to divulge the names of his attackers.

Matters come to a head when Colonel Stelzer (Richard Roxburgh) orders Des to stand trial at a court martial for insubordination. His arrest spoils his plans for marrying Dorothy. Forbidden to let her or his parents know what is befalling him, it seems to those waiting for him in church to join her that he has backed out of his commitment. It is during this trying period that Tom Doss, donning his WW 1 uniform and medals for bravery, redeems himself in a moment as dramatically rewarding as that in any courtroom tale.

And so, we at last get to Okinawa where Des is serving along with his not so friendly comrades. Their first glimpse of soldiers returning from combat is not reassuring. Many are bandaged, their faces filthy, and their eyes staring lifelessly as if seeing something beyond belief and endurance. At least they can see—truckload after truckload carry bloodied bodies of dead soldiers, many of them minus legs or arms. The men pause while the 16-inch guns of the warships pound the top of the ridge. After climbing up the rope netting to the top, they are soon in the thick of battle themselves. Within seconds many of them are cut down or blasted away, discovering that their enemy had survived the seemingly devastating bombardment thanks to their thick-walled bunkers and deep underground tunnel system.

The extensive combat scene is as realistic as those in saving Private Ryan, with blood spurting when a bullet hits its mark. Men scream as their legs or heads are blasted away. Japanese soldiers run in panic when the American armed with a flame thrower sets their bodies on fire. At times, when the two sides mix it up face to face, there is bayoneting, choking, and bashing with rifle butts. There is no John Wayne-like glorification of war here! Soon rats are gnawing away at corpses sprawled in ditches and foxholes. Des and the other medics keep their heads down, but taking little heed of their own safety, they drag and carry the wounded back to the edge of the cliff, applying tourniquets to the stumps of limbs and administering morphine along the way.

The Japanese counter-attack is so furious that the Americans have to retreat back down the rope netting. Des stays behind, refusing to abandoning those who need him. All through the night he drags wounded G.I.s to the edge, ties a double bow knot around the victims and lowers them one-by-one down to the medics below. They are astonished when the first one arrives, but soon have ambulances awaiting new arrivals. Come daylight, and Des has to continually keep the Japanese soldiers who venture out to kill the wounded from killing him. In one sequence, he dodges his pursuers deep within an underground series of tunnels and chambers, during which he comes upon a badly injured Japanese soldier whom he bandages and injects with morphine. Caught in the open with a G.I., he urges the man to trust him, and covers him with dirt except for one of his eyeballs. He climbs atop him and pulls a corpse over his own body. The Japanese patrol passes them by. The next night the almost exhausted medic prays, “God, please help me get one more.” And so, he keeps going back and lowering more of the wounded down the side. Finally, with the enemy soldiers drawing close, he himself is wounded and taken down on a stretcher, the camera angle of the shot making it seem like a heavenly Ascension. (One of several indications that Gibson is no subtle filmmaker.) All in all, Des had rescued 75 comrades, ironically including his two officers, something even more striking than Sergeant York’s capture of over a hundred German soldiers, considering the circumstances of their almost miraculous feats. His arrival at the ward where the men he had rescued is deeply moving, especially when the once scornful Smitty acknowledges his bravery.

The film works thanks to Andrew Garfield, who is the epitome of the modest country boy whose simple faith is deeply held. The small Bible that Dorothy presses into his hand as the train is leaving the station becomes his most prized possession. He reads it at various times while off duty, and during his brief solitary confinement in his cell, it is his mainstay. The commandments about not killing and loving are not just words for Sunday, but literally have shaped his life. I should have written Saturday rather than Sunday, Des being a Seventh Day Adventist—and this too gets him in trouble because back in training camp he had refused to work on his Sabbath. Des is no doctrinaire pacifist, so he has no answers for those who argue with him about what would happen if everyone refused to fight against an enemy. Gandhi thought and wrote a great deal about this, but Des just sincerely believes that the Bible demands that he not take up arms. He has no alternative to war. He just knows that killing is not for him. And yet at the same time, he does want to serve his country.

This is one of those films in which we see little of the enemy, unlike Letters From Iwo Jima. Most of the time the Japanese are faceless fanatics charging into the Americans’ hail of bullets, or running trying to escape the flames consuming their bodies. We do see the fearful face of the wounded warrior in the bunker whose wounds Des tends to, and there are several interspersed shots of the commander who, knowing that the battle is lost, prepares to commit Hari Kari, as his bushido code demands for one’s failure. As he plunges the dagger into his stomach he remains calm, accepting his terrible fate in front of his subordinates. In another scene a group seem to be surrendering, but this is a suicidal trap to lure the Americans closer so they can toss their concealed grenades at them. The film depicts all the opponents as Japanese soldiers, not showing that many were native Okinawans forced into battle. They even forced middle school students into fighting or running errands during the battle.

Mel Gibson still seems obsessed with violence, but this time he holds up an alternative, the loving life-saving acts of Des standing in stark contrast to the shootings and stabbings of the hate-filled combatants. Some cynics might think Gibson is seeking to draw two audiences, those who love R -rated gory blood fests, whether of the war or horror genres, and those, largely from evangelical churches, who made his tortured Jesus film such a great box office success. I don’t know. Maybe I am being suckered by this canny filmmaker, but I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt. I prefer to see the film as one of the best true stories of a person of faith holding to his core beliefs and serving to make this world a better place. I think those of the 75 whom he rescued at the risk of his own life.

Note: I just discovered among the hundred or so of my yet to be viewed DVDs a copy of the above-mentioned documentary The Conscientious Objector. No time to watch it now, but when I do and can compare the two films, I’ll post a review on the site, so look for it soon.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Nov. 2016 issue of VP. If you found this review helpful, please consider supporting this site by purchasing an issue or taking out a year’s subscription.

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

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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.

Swiss Army Man (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 47 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 3.5

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone…

Genesis 2:18a

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

Proverbs 4:9-12

SWISS ARMY MAN (2016) Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano

SWISS ARMY MAN (2016) Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano

Tom Hanks’ Chuck Noland in Cast Away transformed a volleyball into “Wilson” for companionship, but Paul Dano’s Hank imagines an even better companion, a corpse that he calls “Manny,” washed up on the beach of the island on which he is stranded. The two brother/directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, calling themselves “The Daniels,” have unleashed one of the most bizarre, surreal films you are likely to see this year. It is perhaps the ultimate Fart Film, and until The Big Friendly Giant mellowed me on such questionable juvenile joys, I would have walked out on it—as reportedly did a lot of the audience at its Sun Dance world premier.

Hank is literally at the end of his tether after a period of time spent alone on a small island when his ship went down. He has tied a makeshift rope around his neck and is about to step off a stool made from debris when he spots a human form lying on the sand. He still almost kills himself, but finally managing to extricate himself from the noose, runs over to the body and tries to resuscitate it. There is no response. He gives up, but them the gasses inside the body twitches it and brings on a semblance of life. Not only that, but the stream of gasses become so powerful that Hank is able to ride the body through the waters as if on a jet ski. (This recalled my junior high days: every guy but me envied a friend because he could summon at will a powerful blast of noxious air, calling himself “jet propelled!)

They land on a distant beach bordered by a large forest, mostly pines. Calling his companion Manny, Hank sets up a camp using discarded items he finds strewn through the area. Manny proves as useful in as many ways as the famous Swiss Army Knife. Besides companionship he provides fountains of water from his mouth. He is of help with hunting food and finding shelter. The corpse has an erection, and the penis, Hank discovers, points due north, so he now has a compass.

Are you still with me? Hank converses with the seemingly naïve Manny, explaining the joys and setbacks of love and sex. We see, in flashback, his attraction to a woman he sees on a bus, Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), whose picture is on his cell phone. When Manny falls in love with her, Hank dons the remains of a found dress and make-shift wig and plays her in various situations. Later there is a meet-up with Sarah that is not the culmination of Hank’s or Manny’s expectations. She is freaked out when she sees her image on Hank’s cell phone.

From what I have read, watching this film is like a Rorschach test. Those who walked out on it obviously saw it as a disgusting juvenile attempt to be funny (and it is!). Others have seen it as a free spirited visual meditation on modern life, on loneliness. Friendship, and living in and enjoying the moment, or an exploration of human fantasy and imagination. One reviewer even saw it as a spoof of recycling, Hank at the beginning using debris from the tiny island to send out notes for rescue, and then using the ultimate “garbage, a dead body for a new use. Also there is in the forest, his use of an old dress, and such for his wig and crude hut. I’ll leave it up to you to decide what it is. It certainly is the strangest role that Daniel Radcliffe has played, or ever will. The one thing I can promise is that there is no other film out there like it!

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

A24

Phoenix (2014)

German with English subtitles

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 38 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek;

you will strengthen their heart,

you will incline your ear to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed,

so that those from earth may strike terror no more.

Psalm 10:17-18

Phoenix Ronald Zehrfeld Nina Hoss

Johnny & his wife Nelly, who with her new face he does not recognize, leave the Phoenix Café.          (c) 2014 Sundance Selects

Director Christian Petzold’s devastating film Phoenix is like a Post Holocaust film noir. As we will see, the title takes on a double meaning as the stark story of two survivors unfolds. The film begins in 1945 just after the end of WW 2, with two women traveling at night from the Auschwitz death camp to Berlin. Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf), a survivor working as a clerk in the Hall of Jewish Records, is bringing back to the city her just liberated friend Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss). She explains to a curious G.I. guard at a bridge checkpoint that her injured companion, is a concentration camp survivor. He still demands that Nelly unfold the blood-stained bandages around her head so he can see her face. Taken aback by the damage that he sees inflicted by a Nazi bullet, he quickly passes them on.

Safe in a lake-side apartment where a middle-aged German woman cares for them and the apartment, Lene, with some degree of hesitation, informs Nelly that her German husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) has survived the war—but that he might be the one who betrayed her. He was arrested and tortured the day before she was found, and then he was released afterward, so he might have given away her hiding place—a compartment in a boat docked at their lake home. Nelly enters a clinic where the plastic surgeon says he can give her a new face. Being a German, he refers to the faces of two movie stars popular during the Hitler regime. Nelly insists on being restored to her former features. This will be “difficult,” he informs her due to the intense damage inflicted by the bullet. What results from his labor is a face still marred by huge black patches around her eyes, but apparently very different from her original countenance.

Lene has her heart set on escaping the horrible memories of the camps by the two of them going to Israel. Lene believes that as survivors they have a legacy of supporting a place safe for Jews where such things can never happen again. She has some funds on which they are now living, and Nelly will have even more when she can claim her family inheritance. However, Nelly determines to search for Johnny, the best clue given her being to go to the clubs in the American sector of the occupied city. She had been a singer and he a pianist before the war. The city is still filled with rubble, the house where she and Johnny had lived being a brick-strewn vacant lot between its undestroyed neighboring buildings. It is at the club with the emblazoned name of PHOENIX that Nelly catches her first sight of Johnny. Instead of playing music as in the past, he is now a unkempt looking bus boy, clearing away dishes while a pair of naughty frauleins on the small stage entertain the guests. He does not recognize Nelly the first time.

But then, seeing some resemblance to his dead wife, he proposes to Nelly that she assume the role of Nelly so that together they can put in a claim for the inheritance. He offers to split it, she receiving $20 K, with him coaching her. Nelly holds back revealing her identity, instead accompanying him to the dingy basement apartment where he lives. Alternating between lodgings, she spends her waking hours supposedly practicing Nelly’s handwriting and physical moves. During part of this time the dissatisfied Lene is out of town on business. Johnny talks a lot about his wife, but does not go into the details of the arrests. He tries to have Nelly stay indoors all the time because he fears that former friends might spot her—though how they would recognize her when he didn’t, he does not explain. His plan is to take her east, out of the city and then to have her re-enter Berlin by train, where at the station he and a gathering of surviving friends would greet her and go to a welcome home party.

Like all film noirs, there are surprises as the characters become entwined in their plans. One development explains why Johnny needs a live Nelly to claim the family fortune, rather than just show up as the surviving husband. And another, even more shocking surprise, brings out into the open the cloud of despair that clung to so many Holocaust survivors. As Lene says, she can see their past, but not the future.

The filmmakers provide an ambiguous climax that leaves it to the audience to draw its own conclusion as to Nelly and Johnny’s future. It involves her calculated singing the haunting song for the guests, Kurt Weil and Ogden Nash’s “Speak Low.” With Johnny seated at the piano, Nelly starts out with sort of a raspy whisper, bursting forth into the full melody by the time she has reached “When you speak love/Our moment is swift/like ships adrift,/We’re swept apart/Too soon/Speak low/Darling speak low.” It is the perfectly chosen song for what has happened to her and Johnny during the war. With his face showing dawning recognition, he stops playing midway through the performance, staring at her. What she does when she finishes the song will leave you troubled, maybe, but also perhaps hopeful. (I strongly recommend that after you see the film, you Google the title to see the lyrics and listen to them. Tony Bennett’s version is at http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/tonybennett/speaklow.html.The second, mythological meaning of phoenix comes to mind as we think of the ashes of Berlin and of the lives lost in the ovens. Lene hopes for a rebirth of them both in Palestine where more and more Jews are settling every day. Contrarily, Nelly sees a possible rebirth of her marriage to Johnny, but then…Whatever rebirth she is able to enter into, it will be a different sort of phoenix for her, one as different as her present face is from the one of her past.

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

 

The End of the Tour (2015)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 0; Language 4; Sex /Nudity 1.

 Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

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

Proverbs 14:10

 …a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…

Ecclesiastes 3:4

TalkNCafe

Whether in cars, living & hotel rooms, or at cafes, the talk between the two Davids is interesting.      (c) 2015 A24

If you are going to retain the interest of an audience with a film 90% of which consists of two men talking with each other—no car chases, guns or fist fights, or steamy bedroom scenes–you better have a good script and two competent actors. Director James Ponsoldt has all of this, his script mainly by Pulitzer Prize winning Donald Margulies, and two actors, Jason Segel and Jesse Adam Eisenberg beautifully playing off each other. The story, based on Rolling Stone’s writer David Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, takes place over the five days that Lipsky (Eisenberg) spent interviewing essayist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) during what turned out to be his last book tour in Minneapolis over a five-day period in 1996.

Wallace’s complex novel Infinite Jest, weighing in at over 3 lbs (1000+ pages, plus 388 endnotes), had been well received by most critics. According to the film it is Lipsky himself, apparently impressed by the work, who convinces his reluctant editor to send him to snow-covered Bloomington, Illinois for the interview. Wallace, looking like a big Teddy bear wearing a bandana over his scraggly hair and slouching around in rumpled sweats, is wary at first, but something about the younger writer apparently attracts him because he tells him he doesn’t want to stay at the motel, that he has a room for him.

The “guest room” turns out to be where the author stores stacks of his books, bed a mattress on the floor, and breakfast the next day turns out to be coffee and half a Pop Part. Noticing that his two dogs take to Lipsky, the novelist says that he enjoys being with dogs rather than a girlfriend because he fears hurting other people’s feelings, and that he avoids dating because “I wouldn’t know what to say.” This from a man who has written a 1,079-page novel!

Lipsky’s editor has asked him to find out if there is any truth to the rumor about the novelist having used heroin, but Wallace avoids this. “Television,” he says is his most damaging addiction, hence there is no TV set in his home. Throughout their exchanges Wallace is concerned with how he will be conceived by those who read the published article. He notes that there are many, very different ways it could turn out. It all depends on how an interviewer decides to arrange his notes. Lipsky writes down a great many, and also secures permission to record their sessions on his pocket cassette recorder. The two talk a lot about pop culture and writing. And at times some personal matters, Wallace at one time revealing his insecurity, “The more people say you’re really great, the more the fear of being a fraud is.”

Following the flight to Minneapolis, where they are met by professional greeter Patty (Joan Cusack), the two spar back and forth. The book reading/signing goes well, and at dinner Wallace introduces Lipsky to two friends living in the area, good friend Julie (Mamie Gummer) and Betsy (Mickey Sumner), a lover back in his college days. Afterward he accuses the interviewer of flirting with one of the girls, possibly because he has heard Lipsky talking over the phone with his lover (or wife?) Sarah (Anna Chlumsky). Relationships cool for a while, but soon they are talking back and forth again. At a later time they again almost reach a breaking point, especially with Lipsky trying to find out more about the rumored heroin addiction, even though he has found no sign of such in Wallace’s house. (He even looks through the medicine cabinet in the bathroom.) What turns out to be an awkward return to Wallace’s home and a parting ends warmly. Both realize that Wallace has arrived at the point in his career that Lipsky yearns for, the latter having published one novel that apparently went nowhere. Wallace, who fights against depression, is all too aware that success is not all that we think it will be.

Lipsky has packed a copy of his book in his bag, and as he prepares to leave hesitates, and then gives it to his host, who promises to read and give his thoughts on the book. We don’t know whether or not he did during the twelve years between this and his suicide in 2008, but we do know that the interview did not make it into the pages of The Rolling Stone—it would have been interesting if the film had revealed why. Nonetheless the five days were certainly worth Lipsky’s time, his book based on them appearing two years after the novelist’s death, and faring far better than his first novel. He has written, “Books are a social substitute; you read people who, at one level, you’d like to hang out with.” This movie also serves that function for us viewers, making us glad that we can hang out with two such interesting people.

There is great last image to add to my article “Celebration of Dance in Cinema” published in this June 2015 issue of VP. Toward the end of their time together Wallace says that he relaxes each week dancing. “Where?” Lipsky asks. “At the Baptist Church,” is the answer. I love it, the Baptist Church! And there, before the screen goes black, we see Wallace and a mixed group of adults having a great time dancing joyfully.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September 2015 issue of VP.