CRIMES and MISDEMEANORS (1989)

The Silence of God

This was one of the four films that I saw early in 1990 that inspired me to launch Visual Parables 25 years ago. That first review was just two short paragraphs. The film offers so many possibilities for a discussion of God, Good, and Evil that I now offer this greatly expanded review. It contains many spoilers, so if you have not yet seen either this film or the film that complements it, Broadway Danny Rose, I urge you to watch them first.

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

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people. Therefore pride is their necklace;  violence covers them like a garment. Their eyes swell out with fatness;  their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth.

Psalm 73:1-9

The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.

 Proverbs 15:3

His hand is heavy despite my groaning. /Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling!

Job 23:2a-3

JudhClff

Cliff and Judah do not meet until the end of the film. Judah and Cliff do not meet until the end of the film.             (c) 1989 Orion Pictures

In the old days the Hayes Office forced filmmakers to show that the good were always rewarded and the wicked punished. Even in movies of the Thirties that glorified gangsters and their stylish living, the bad guys played by James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart were required to meet a violent or incarcerated end. But then came the Sixties, and the old simplistic moral code was called into question, faced with a real world in which the rich got richer, by hook or crook, good guys often come in last, or like JFK and MLK, Jr., met untimely ends while evil dictators lived to a ripe old age, and the policeman was not always your friend, and U.S. Presidents lied to the people almost as much as Communist dictators.

Following in a line of iconoclastic filmmakers, Woody Allen, in what I consider to be his masterpiece, presents us with the dilemma of a world in which a murderer gets away with his crime, and a neurotic good guy loses the girl to an egotistical heel and finds his plans for a documentary film doomed to disappointment. This is a film worthy of serious study and discussion, especially in conjunction with a study of issues raised in such Biblical writings as Job, Psalm 37 and 73, and the little book of Habakkuk. After the film was released on VHS tape the theology professor at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, where I was working on my D. Min. degree borrowed my copy whenever he lectured on theodicy.

At the outset of the film we see that Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) is an outstanding man—he is being honored at a banquet for his service to the community. His loyal wife Miriam Rosenthal (Claire Bloom) listens attentively as he makes his acceptance speech. We soon see the ironic symbolism in his profession of ophthalmologist, because beneath that upright façade is a devious betrayer. For some time he has been secretly spending time with a flight attendant, Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston), leading her on with the age old promise of philanderers—that “some day” he will divorce his wife so they can marry.

His problem is that Dolores wants that “some day” to be soon, no not, “soon,” but now. She delivers an ultimatum. If he doesn’t tell Miriam about their affair, she will. She already has sent a letter to Miriam, which Judah barely intercepted. He is deeply troubled because he does not want to hurt his wife, nor does he want the scandal of an affair and a divorce to tarnish his highly polished public image. He speaks of his dilemma in general terms to one of his patients Ben (Sam Waterston), a rabbi who is slowly going blind. Ben suggests that Judah confess and seek Miriam’s forgiveness. “I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel with all my heart a moral structure with real meaning – and with forgiveness,” he says. “And some kind of Higher Power. Otherwise, there is no basis as to how to live. And I know that there’s a spark of that in you, too.” Judah, however, does not believe Miriam would forgive him. Ben is going blind, but he can see clearly right from wrong. Judah has good vision, indeed is an eye doctor, but is going blind spiritually.

There is what Ben called “a spark” in Judah, as we see in a flashback to the Rosenthalls’ Seder celebration when Judah and his brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) were children. They witnessed a debate at a Seder supper between their father and an uncle and aunt about the existence of God. The uncle claimed that the world was so bad that there could not be a God, and their father clinging to the Proverb (15:3) “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.” When Judah turns to Jack about his problem, the latter, with his underworld connections, says that Dolores could easily be disposed of. Judah shrinks from this suggestion, but after Dolores calls him away from his birthday party and informs him that she wants to tell Miriam everything, Judah later tells Jack to go ahead.

During a talk with Ben, Judah had said, “God is a luxury I can’t afford,” and Ben observes, “Now you’re talking like Jack.” Now devoid of that “luxury,” Judah nonetheless exclaims when Jack telephones him that the deed is done, “God have mercy on us, Jack!” He sits in silence, and then moves to the bathroom to wash his hands. A very interesting bit of symbolism. Judah goes to check out Dolores’s apartment and to remove anything that might link them. As he sits staring at her body, he is upset that her sightless eyes look like a “black void.” He is reminded again of his father and the proverb—also of an aunt at the table, who observed that Hitler got away with murder without being struck down by God, so that anything is justified if there is no God.

The “Misdemeanor” part of the film involves the neurotic Cliff Stern (Woody Allen); the smug Lester (Alan Alda); Wendy (Joanna Gleason), who is the sister of both Ben and Lester; and Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), a PBS producer. Cliff is a struggling film documentarian, whereas Lester is a wealthy Hollywood producer of shallow TV comedies that are highly popular. Both are vying for the affections of Halley, even though Cliff is married to Wendy. Lester is given to such observations as “If it bends, it’s comedy; if it breaks, it isn’t comedy.” His whole approach to work and to women turns Cliff’s stomach, especially when Lester, through his sister’s influence, is hired to direct a documentary about his nemesis.  Cliff, wants to portray Lester as a fraud, and so plans to splice in a shot of Francis the Talking Mule. Halley, defends Lester, “He’s an American phenomenon,” “So is acid rain,” counters Cliff.

Even if you have not seen this tale, you can guess who gets the girl and who is left out in the cold, both of romance and show biz success. Cliff’s predicament is all the more poignant because of the choice his idol, Prof. Louis Levy. Cliff has made a documentary on this great thinker, so he has lots of footage of him. In one clip the wise man says, “We all need love in order to stay in life…. The universe is really a pretty cold place. It is we who invest it with our feelings. And under certain conditions we feel it isn’t worth it anymore.” Good as his word, the despairing teacher one day jumps out a window to his death, this act leaving Cliff devastated.

The two stories come together at the wedding party for Ben’s daughter. By now Ben is physically blind, but enjoying life nonetheless. Ben had protested that without God all is darkness, which Judah readily accepts. The latter observes that after time the pangs of conscience fall silent, and he is able to justify matters when a drifter is blamed for the murder, the man having killed other people. What a development, the blind man seeing God and the moral path, and the ophthalmologist becoming morally blind, dwelling in a “black void,” seemingly walking away free from his crime.

This well-crafted film is open to various interpretations, the most prominent being that the director/writer is expounding on his view of an empty universe devoid of anything resembling the God of his forebears. However, people of faith might interpret the film differently in the belief that the filmmaker is dealing with something far deeper than the shallow belief that “God is in his heaven and all’s right with the world.” By no means claiming that Mr. Allen is a crypto believer, I want to suggest that the filmmaker has created more than he actually knows–or believes.

The following interpretation is based on Scriptures, written by those who probed a little more deeply into human existence than the author of  “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.” (Proverbs 15:3) The writer(s) of the 37th and the 73rd Psalms raise(s) the question of the wicked getting away with their crimes while the good suffer. In the second of the two psalms the writer confesses that he “almost stumbled” because he was beginning to envy the success of the wicked. Then he was pulled back when he went to the temple where, immersed in worship and praise, his faith was renewed and he saw the ultimate fate of the wicked. The psalm suggests that when we as individuals are in danger of losing our faith, it is wise to join with fellow believers whose faith can nourish our faltering one. From start to finish the writers of the Scriptures see faith as a communal affair, and not just an individual one.

The author of Ecclesiastes (3:16-22) also saw injustice where justice should be dispensed, but in his case his almost fatalistic belief that death comes to the wicked as well as the just prevented him from dispensing with faith altogether. And the entire Book of Job was written to refute the belief that we can easily sort out the good from the wicked because in this life God always rewards the good and punishes the wicked. Jesus also rejected the belief that those who are suffering or poor are afflicted by God when he refused to accept his disciples’ inference that the blind man before them was being punished for his sins. (John 9:1-3).  Indeed, his whole understanding of his mission is that God uses the voluntary suffering of the innocent to overcome evil.

And so we ask, “Is Mr. Allen’s film just a tale of getting away with it – or can we regard Judah’s fate itself a punishment, his transformation into a moral monster, his conscience now blinded?” To recapitulate, the author of Psalm 73 confesses that he almost sank into despair because of the success of the wicked, but escaped thanks to his joining his community that shared an absolute faith in the goodness of God. Job also sinks into despair for a while, and who wouldn’t with those so-called friends constantly harassing him with their demands that he confess his sins, it being obvious to them and their shallow thinking that God has been punishing the patriarch. In the midst of his so-called comforters’ haranguing Job calls out, “His (God’s) hand is heavy despite my groaning. /Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling!” The patriarch does eventually find God, or rather, in the midst of his misery and crying God finds him, speaking out of the whirlwind, assuring the victim that his Creator is near—but never “explaining” the mysteriousness of the misery of the good and the ease of the wicked.

In the light of the Job passage above, where is God in Allen’s pair of Good Friday-like stories? Has Judah really gotten away with his crime, or, as suggested above, is the death of his beliefs and his conscience his punishment? He is so much like the Pharisees whose hypocrisy Jesus condemned when he charged, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” (Matt. 23:27) Although outwardly respectable, Judah is now joined with the debauched, described by the apostle Paul, “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” (Romans 1:28-31) Judah, unless he changes, will never know the results of faith and giving oneself in the service of God–the joy that envelopes all those who believe. The latter may never see the wicked caught and punished by the authorities, but then their universe extends beyond what can be seen, ruled by the Creator and Just One.

My wish for Cliff is that he might discover the tonic against despair offered by the prophet Habakkuk in his little book. In the first chapter the prophet cries out against the brutal treatment of the weak by the strong:

“Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous—therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”

This could be well the cry of Cliff; especially after his idol Prof. Levy gives up on life and jumps out a window. But like the psalmist, the prophet holds onto his belief that God and justice will prevail. In the next chapter he writes:

“I will stand at my watchpost,  and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,  and what he will answer concerning my complaint. Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision;  make it plain on tablets,  so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time;  it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it;     it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud!  Their spirit is not right in them,  but the righteous live by their faith. Moreover, wealth is treacherous; the arrogant do not endure. They open their throats wide as Sheol;  like Death they never have enough. They gather all nations for themselves, and collect all peoples as their own.”

Habakkuk 2:1-4

 Can Cliff, like the agonized prophet, hang on to see that “still the vision waits its time,” and that “the righteous shall live by faith”? How could Psalms 37 and 73 be of help to Cliff? Or the events of that Good Friday when wrong seemed to triumph over right? What signs of hope do you see at the end of the film? Do the words of the dead professor, which we hear at the end of the film as it reprises a number of scenes, seem ironical, or hopeful?

Prof. Levy: [voiceover] We are all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions. Moral choices. Some are on a grand scale. Most of these choices are on lesser points. But! We define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are in fact the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to have been included, in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying, and even to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.

I am suggesting that we view the film as a Midrash for Habakkuk 2:4. For an opposite tale I recommend that you watch Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose, in which a little man just the opposite of Judah, in fact considered by many to be a failure in life, follows the path set forth by psalmist and prophet alike, the way of sacrificial giving of oneself. I think that Ben would highly approve of Danny Rose, who says to Tina, a mobster’s girlfriend, You know what my philosophy of life is? That it’s important to have some laughs, but you gotta suffer a little too, because otherwise you miss the whole point to life.”

BDRDnny&Tina

Danny Rose shares his philosophy with the self-centered Tina. (c) 1984 Orion Pictures

Contrary to Judah’ fearful lack of belief, Danny Rose goes on to express his creed as “Acceptance. Forgiveness. Love.” What a time you could have with a group over several sessions watching and discussing these two films, each offering insights into how we should be treating one another, the one dealing with the shadow side, and the other the side of Light.

Film Capsules September 2013

Each month, I post a series of very short film reviews—focusing mainly on films that will be fully reviewed in Visual Parables Journal. This capsule-sized feature was started several years ago as a service for clergy, newsletter editors and teachers to alert them to films worth seeing (or, in some cases, as a warning of ones to avoid). Readers are encouraged to reprint any or all of these capsules—as long as your republication includes the line:
(c) Ed McNulty’s www.VisualParables.org

The Attack

(Arabic with English subtitles)

Rated R. Jeremiah 17:9

This is one of those rare films that immerses you in an alien culture, leaving you at the end with a little more awareness of why someone unexpectedly does the inexplicable. Co-written and directed by Ziad Doueiri, this is a dark and troubling film about a dark and troubling situation–the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Dr. Amin Jaafari, a Muslim surgeon who has chosen to live and work in Tel Aviv where he receives its highest honor for a doctor, is devastated when his wife, killed by a suicide bomber at a café, is accused of being that bomber. After the suspicious police confirm that he was not involved, the rest of the film is his parallel spiritual and physical journeys back to his and his wife’s hometowns of Nablus and Nazareth in Palestine where he confronts a truth so terrible that it will scar him forever, making him an outsider to both Israelis and to his Arab family. One of the most spiritually challenging films of the year, Lebanese-born Ziad Doueiri’s film is as helpful for understanding the Palestinian viewpoint as was the 2005 film about two friends preparing to become suicide bombers, Paradise Now. (Note that star Ali Suliman was a co-star in the earlier film.)

 

Lee Daniel’s the Butler

Rated PG-13.  Psalm 42.9; Luke 12:49-53; Luke 15:17a

How propitious that this powerful drama, based on an article in the Washington Post, was released during the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech! The film’s black butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) may be a fictionalized version of the real Eugene Allen, but the events he witnessed, inside and outside the White House, are true, indeed historic, including Pres. Eisenhower’s sending in troops to protect the students integrating the Little Rock High School; the Kennedys and the Freedom Riders; the Selma March and Pres. Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech; the Mississippi Summer Feedom Project; the urban riots following the murder of Dr. King; and much, much more. Every person of faith should see this film and discuss it with others. White and African American pastors should seek each other out and see if their congregations are willing to meet together and talk about the issues raised. Some of the conversations the black characters have among themselves will surprise many whites about their assumptions and views, one example being how acclaimed actor Sidney Poittier is perceived. It is so good to see a film in which the story of blacks is told without bringing in on an equal basis a white character to share the star credits. Oh yes, the constellation of famous whites playing the supporting roles has garnered lots of attention, but essentially this is an African American story told by African Americans! (A longer review with discussion questions is available at http://visualparables.blogspot.com/.)

 

Blue Jasmine

Rated PG-13. Luke 6:24-25

Reflecting the current controversy over the 1% wealthy versus the rest of us, this is Woody Allen’s best film in a long while. You are sure to hear Cate Blanchett’s name mentioned when Oscar fever strikes later this year. Her portrayal of the once wealthy Jasmine is unforgettable, perhaps the only other portrayal of a Narcissistic woman that compares being that of Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara. The” blue” in the title describes Jasmine’s mood as, having lost all of her money and assets when her fraudulent financier husband is sent to prison, she has to leave the glitter of New York Society for the shabby San Francisco apartment of her estranged sister located in a run-down district. Even worse is her sister’s boyfriend, whom Jasmine considers just a step above a cockroach. She attempts to start her life over, but can such a person do so while keeping her shady past a secret? This is a fascinating, detailed study of a woman whose worst enemy is herself. Not to be missed!

 

Closed Circuit

Rated R. Proverbs 15:3; Psalm 10:8.

In this world where surveillance cameras are placed virtually everywhere to counter terrorism, who is watching the watchers? Set in London, two defense lawyers assigned to defend a Muslim bomber find themselves up against England’s M15, and these ruthless agents definitely are not Smiley’s People. With all of the debate about the US government’s intelligence gathering this is both a timely and an engrossing thriller, the plot of which follows a different arc than such similar films as Three Days of the Condor. This is a thinking person’s thriller way beyond the likes of such shallow male fantasies as Mission Impossible, and Die Hard.

 

Despicable Me 2

Rated PG. Ezekiel 11:19

It’s the summer movie desert time of year when all the boom-boom, chase-chase blockbusters are dominating the screens, so it should come as no surprise that at this moment two of the best films are two children’s animated films. The once villainous Gru has become the doting foster father of three little girls when he is recruited by a curvaceous agent of a spy agency to investigate a super villain who has a serum that can change the loveable little minions that serve Gru and others into vicious little monsters. Lots of fun and laughter here.

 

Elysium

Rated R. Psalm 10:17-18; Luke 4:18

At last, a summer blockbuster that doesn’t insult the intelligence! South Africa-born director/writer Neill Blomkamp, who gave us District 9, sets his dystopian epic 140 years in the future where current social and economic trends have resulted in the very wealthy and the very poor. The 1% live in luxury and good health on a giant space station named Elysium, while the 99% toil on the polluted Earth, kept in subjugation by ruthless robot cops. Matt Damon is the everyman born to “to let the oppressed go free.” The simplistic ending does not detract too much from one’s enjoyment of the film.

 

Fruitvale Station

Rated R. Psalm 40:9

Based on the true story of 22 year-old black man Oscar Grant, inexplicably shot by the transit police of the San Francisco subway system, this is a gripping story even though we know how the plot turns out. Killed just right after News Year 2009, the film’s relevance is underlined by the more recent killing of Trayvon Martin. Both cases chillingly teach that young black men are in mortal danger when confronted by representatives of the law. This is another film that moves beyond entertainment into the realm of social justice. Every person of faith concerned for social justice should see this film!

 

The Getaway

Rated PG-13. Psalm 140:5

Ethan Hawke plays an ex-race car driver forced by an unseen master criminal to endure a series of trials if he is to save his kidnapped wife. The tests involve a lot of fleeing in a fancy stolen car from a fleet of police cars in this thriller set in Sofia, Bulgaria. He is soon joined by the teenaged owner, who against her will becomes a key operator in the complicated events. Though it could do with a lot less of the car chases—these soon become repetitive—the thriller will get your heart to pumping, but the ending will be disappointing, the scriptwriter definitely not sharing the psalmist’s faith in a God of justice.

 

Jobs

Rated PG-13. Matthew 9:17.

Ashton Kutcher’s performance as Steve Jobs is the main reason to see this first of two films about the co-founder of Apple. (Aaron Sorkin is adapting from Walter Isaacson’s exhaustive 2011 biography a film not yet scheduled for release.) Although this film is not too deep, Kutcher looks like, walks like, and sounds a little like the real Jobs. The story follows the entrepreneur’s life from his brief attendance at Reed College and races through his trip to India and assorted other ventures, including his work at Atari where his genius was evident, but his lack of social skills earned him the title of “a—h—“ This warts and all film could have benefited from more details about his Zen Buddhist beliefs as well as some more about his friend and partner Steve Wozniak.

 

The Lone Ranger

Rated PG-13. Psalm 34:16

This rebooting of the once popular franchise is definitely not the Lone Ranger that my father and I eagerly listened to at 6:30 PM on our old Philco radio. Part camp, and more Pirates of the Caribbean (or should we say Texas) this remake is such a mess of anachronisms (toy electric train in 1869!) and CGI enhanced action scenes that are both too long and too unbelievable, that it is no wonder that it came in third to Despicable Me 2 on its opening week. The cartoon is actually far more realistic! The humor, with Johnny Depp’s Tonto given the best lines, does make this fun to watch, but I recommend that you wait and catch this at a cheap seats cinema—as they say on TV, “Don’t waste your money!”

 

Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

Rated PG-13. Psalm 92:5-8.

Here is one more fantasy akin to Harry Potter and the Twilight series aimed at young girls. Based on Cassandra Clare’s series of fantasies, we follow the exploits of teenaged Clary living with her mother in a Brooklyn apartment until the latter is kidnapped and her daughter learns that she is a shadow hunter, half human and half angel. Lots of special effects and so many complications of plot that Tolstoy’s War and Peace seems like a simple short story. Parents will want to be wary (definitely not for girls below the age of 12 due to violent images) because of the tattoos sported by the characters, and one person’s burning a design onto her skin—far too similar to the problem of cutting their skin that some teens are addicted to. And yes, darn it, there will be sequel. Also, one character speaks of the battle between Good and Evil which can never be won. This flies against a Christian view that there will indeed be a victor in this battle. The ancient struggle between Manichaeism and Christianity continues. If you can go to just one fantasy, then make it to the Percy Jackson one.

 

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

Rated PG. Joshua 1.9; 1 Corinthians 10.24

The second in the series based on Rick Riord’s books, this updating of the Greek mythic hero Perseus, offers lots of excitement as Percy and his band of heroes travel from the relative safety of Camp Halfblood to secure the Golden Fleece, located somewhere in the Sea of Monsters, better known to us as The Bermuda Triangle. There is a pleasing mix of humor, daring deeds and sacrificial service to hold the attention of both adults and older children. I write “older” because a minimal knowledge of Greek mythology is needed to appreciate all the allusions to myth, and, more importantly, some of the monsters and adventure violence might frighten young children.

 

Planes

Rated PG. Proverbs 17.17

As in Cars the planes, trucks and other mobile machines are given distinct human personalities in this animated tale about a global airplane race. Our hero Dusty, tired of flying back and forth over farm fields, longs to enter the world race. His friends encourage him to do so, but Dusty harbors a secret—he is afraid of heights. How he overcomes this, as well as the disdain of the bigger airplanes who resent what they regard as his intrusion into their elite circle, makes for enjoyable viewing for young and old. As in Cars, in this under dog tale there are good life lessons about friendship, self-sacrifice, courage, and the need for perseverance.

 

Red 2

Rated PG-13.

Even the elderly get their due in this action sequel about a gathering of retired super spies. “RED” means “Retired, Extremely Dangerous,” and so they are as they come out of retirement (again) to track down a missing nuclear device, and thus, of course, save the world. The bomb was somehow smuggled piece by piece into the Kremlin, so out versatile band must penetrate one of the most heavily guarded complexes on the planet. The main reason to see (preferably at a cheap seat theater) this violence-affirming thing is Helen Mirren, whose presence enhances even mindless, unbelievable schlock as this.

 

The Spectacular Now

Rated R. Luke 15:17; Philippians 2:4.

Based on the novel by Tim Tharp, this is an engrossing coming of age story worthy of John Hughes (remember The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles?). Under achiever high school student Sutter, in a series of flashbacks, recalls his relationships with classmates as he struggles at his computer answering the question on his college entrance exam about what hardship he has faced and overcome. Neither a jock nor academically gifted, Sutter has become popular by being the goofy life of the party—and imbibing from his silver flask. When, after waking up from an all night binge, he decides to help the socially overlooked Aimee, his life begins to change. Actors, excellent script and direction combine to make this a memorable film exploring youth about to become adults. It is unfortunate that coarse language and a love scene earned this an R rating, barring the very members of its potential audience from seeing it on their own, those under 17. If church leaders carefully explain (after seeing the film themselves, of course!) the R rating to parents and secure their permission, this would be a good film for a high school youth group to watch and discuss.

 

2 Guns

Rated R. Psalm 52:3-4.

Lots of action in this undercover crime thriller that Denzil Washington and Mark Wahlberg must have made either for the money or the fun of playing two buddies who, during the course of the movie, wind up shooting each other—not to kill, just to make a point. They seem to be bank robbers when we first encounter them, but when their haul turns out to be $43 million instead of the expected $3 million, they realize they are in deep doo-doo–with a Mexican drug lord, and with the CIA and Naval Intelligence. Each is surprised to learn that the other has gone into deep undercover—one for the DEA and the other for Naval Intelligence. The easy acceptance of violence and unbelievable stunts make this of questionable value: best see it in a cheap seats theater, or better, when on a boring evening you can catch it for free on cable or TV.

 

Unfinished Song (Song for Marion)

Rated PG-13. Psalm 96.12

Stephen Sondheim is quoted as saying, “If I cannot fly, let me sing.” That is certainly Marion’s view in Paul Andrew William’s London-set film about an elderly couple devoted to each other. Even though she has terminal cancer, Marion refuses to stop going to the eccentric choir made up of seniors and led by the perky young Elizabeth. Marion is still filled with the joy of life even though death is just around the corner. Husband Arthur, however, somehow, for reasons unspecified, checked out of life years ago, so he refuses to sit in on the choir practices, preferring to sulk outside while smoking a cigarette. The crux of the story is the slow, painful transformation he undergoes after Marion passes away in her sleep, a process that might well get you also to sing about the possibilities of life. The three principal actors Vanessa Redgrave, Terrence Stamp, and Gemma Arterton, backed up by a fabulous group of senior singers, make the film memorable.

 

The Way Way Back

Rated PG-13. Matthew 10:31

Poor Duncan, a 14 year-old boy with an unfriendly older teenaged sister and a newly divorced mother (Pam) who is so enamored with her snarky boyfriend Trent that she cannot see the hurt in her son, is dragged along to a beachside cabin to spend the summer together. He would much rather be with his dad, but the latter claims his circumstances do not allow this. On the way Trent tells the morose boy that on a scale of 1 to 10 he rates Duncan as a “3.” Real paternal skills here! Fortunately at the cabin Duncan meets a friendly girl slightly older than he and, best of all, Owen, a crazy-talking guy who works at the Water Wizz Park and takes a shine to the lonely boy. This is one of the best coming-of-age films that I have seen, certainly one of the best of any kind of film of the summer. It is devoid of the juvenile humor of the usual Holly wood film about teens. There are adults who are jerks, but also some who have the wisdom of experience to impart, and the compassion to pass it on. Treat yourself and any teenagers you know by taking this one in.

 The Wolverine

John 11:25-26; Revelation 21:1-4

Marvel Comics has made a fortune from its popular movie versions of its many X-Men team members. In case you are not into comics (for Marvel, this label is a real misnomer!), X-Men are mutants blessed/cursed with super powers, such as the title character of this film who has retractable steel claws and an immortality that brings him more anguish than pleasure. Although escapist fare, the Marvel Comics films are interesting because they explore the cost to the character’s humanity of the possession of great powers, as well as the theme of a gifted person forced by society to be an outsider. Lots of soulful angst in their films.

 On DVD

The Hunt

Rated PG-13. Isaiah 53:3; James 3.5.

This fine Danish film packs such a wallop that you soon forget that it is subtitled. A former schoolteacher now working at a kindergarten thinks his bickering with his ex-wife over whom their teenaged son should live finds this problem dwarfed with a new problem that hits him like an atom bomb. Lucas is popular with all the children, and with little Klara, daughter of his best friend, in particular. But when he upsets her and she picks up from her older brothers iPod the word penis, she gives the head teacher the notion that Lucas has molested her. Without fully checking this out, she unwittingly unleashes a torrent of abuse on him. Unfolding from November through Christmas, a late scene at the church’s Christmas Eve Service combines the Nativity with crucifixion in an unforgettable way. If you’re looking for a different kind of film with an underlying Christmas theme, this is it!

 

To the Wonder

Rated R. Song of Solomon 8:6-7; Mark 9.24; Psalm 42:1-2; Matthew 5:43-44.

Terrence Malick’s films are hard for most people to stay with because they do not follow the usual 3-act narrative of the typical film. Like his Tree of Life, this film that explores two kinds of love—eros or human, and agape or spiritual–will be confusing at times, the scenes, beautifully photographed, but seeming far too random. (They made far more sense when I viewed the film a second time.) The stories, such as they are, deal with a young couple falling in and out of love and a compassionate priest going through what the ancient fathers called “the desert of the soul” as he struggles to feel the presence of God. There is very little dialogue among the characters, most of the words that we hear being the inner monologue of the characters as they wonder about existence and meaning. Best parts are the insights on love and commitment that we hear in snatches of the priest’s sermons, as well as in a creative use of St. Patrick’s Breastplate hymn near the climax of the film.

Blue Jasmine

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V -0; L -4; S/N-5 .

Running time: 1 hour 38 min.

 Jasmine with husband and son (far left) lived a lavish life style in the Hamptons before fall into the impoverished class.  (c) 2013 Sony Pictures Classics

Jasmine with husband and son lived a lavish life
style in the Hamptons before fall into the impoverished class.
(c) 2013 Sony Pictures Classics

‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

Luke 6:24-25

 We hear much in op eds and political debates about America’s class warfare, about how the 1% of Americans who allegedly control as much wealth as the bottom 90% are imbued with a sense of entitlement and superiority. I can think of no better illustration of this than Woody Allen’s new film Blue Jasmine, in which Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of a once wealthy wife is bound to earn her a Best Actress nomination.

Flower lovers will know that the title does not refer to the plant, the flower of which is usually white or blue, but to the mood of the character named after it. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) and Ginger (Sally Hawkins) were raised together as adopted children from different sets of biological parents. Their parents showered more attention on beautiful Jasmine over the plain Ginger, so the latter left home as soon as she could to make her own way. She married working class Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), the two of them producing two boys, both of whom are destined to have weight problems. Then comes the day that they hit the California Lottery big time, winning $200,000. Intending to start his own business, Augie sees this as their way out of their life of living from paycheck to paycheck.

Meanwhile Jasmine has dropped out of college to marry the handsome and wealthy Hal (Alec Baldwin), a rich Wall Street schemer who is always using other people’s money to fund dubious new ventures. As evidence of her upward mobility drive she has changed her name from Janette to the more upscale name of the flower. They have one grown son Danny. Jasmine’s life of conspicuous consumption in the Hamptons is filled with Manhattan shopping sprees, lunches at elegant restaurants, and hosting parties and lavish charity events. They feel put upon when Ginger and Augie pay them a visit during their trip to New York City, but when they learn that the pair have just won a big sum of money, smooth-talking Hal seduces Augie into investing it in what turns out to be a Ponzi scheme. Ginger, who was not enthusiastic about this, becomes even more worried when she spies Hal lunching with and kissing a woman who is not her sister.

All the above is told in a series in intermittent flashbacks as Jasmine, now popping pills and taking frequent sips of vodka from her flask or glass, tries to cope with her new distasteful circumstances. Not only has she finally caught her philandering husband in one of his numerous affairs, but also she precipitates the series of events that leads to Hal’s arrest, conviction, and imprisonment. Unable to cope he has committed suicide. Jasmine’s survival plan involves her moving in with her sister, whose marriage had ended with divorce after they had lost their money. None of this may seem funny, but Allen’s wit is scattered throughout the film.

As has been pointed out by several reviewers, the plot is very much like that of A Streetcar Named Desire, with Ginger’s fiancé Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a lowly (to Jasmine) garage mechanic, quickly developing a passionate hatred for the one he calls “A phony!” Chili is upset that his plans to move in with Ginger have to be put on hold now that Jasmine is there. Ginger feels caught in the middle, her sister loyalty strong despite the way Jasmine has always looked down upon her.

Jasmine wants to start life anew by finishing college and taking a computer course so she can obtain an interior decorator’s license, but has to find work to fund this, reluctantly following Chili’s tip to obtain a receptionist’s job at a dental office. However, this soon ends when Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg) tries to follow through on his lust for her. Then she meets the man who could restore her to the status she feels she deserves, the well-heeled wealthy diplomat Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard). He has long range plans to enter politics and needs a trophy wife like Jasmine. But will her less than wholesome past marriage and tendency to dodge reality and deceive herself and others get in the way?

Every member of the ensemble cast performs well, but Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the once wealthy Jasmine is unforgettable, perhaps the only other portrayal of a Narcissistic neurotic     woman that compares being that of Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara (she also played Blanche!). Her character is so fully defined—nervous tics, almost incessant drinking, tendency to talk out loud inappropriately in public places, disdainful expressions, and elegant dress—that she emerges as a real person. And even though we see what a despicable person she is, we are still drawn to her and, if not root for her, wish that she might achieve a measure of self-understanding. This is a fascinating, detailed study of a woman whose worst enemy is herself. Her fate seems to bear out what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in a far different situation, but which applies to Jasmine’s fate, “The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, but It Bends Toward Justice” Although not intended as a social justice film, Mr. Allen’s revelation of the hollow lifestyle of “the rich and famous” as seen in Jasmine could be a midrash of Jesus’ denunciation of the uncaring rich, or of the equally harsh denunciation of the wealthy by the prophet Amos. One of Mr. Allen’s best films in years, this must not to be missed!

The full version with 7 discussion question appears in the Sept/Oct issue of Visual Parables