The Dark Tower (2017)

By Dr. Markus Watson

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.

Our content ratings: Violence 8; Sex/Nudity 1; Language 4

Our star rating: (1-5): 1 star

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Matthew 5:43-45

 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath,

for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.  On the contrary:

‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:19-21

Jake & The Gunslinger in New York City, (c) Sony Pictures Entertainment

Let me just say up front that The Dark Tower is not a particularly good movie.  There is clearly a huge mythology behind the story—a mythology that is no doubt fully explained in the The Dark Tower book series by Stephen King, which serves as the source material for this movie.  As a fan of science fiction, I found The Dark Tower to be mildly entertaining, As a fan of science fiction, I found The Dark Tower to be mildly entertaining, but it left much to be desired.

You’d think that with blockbuster names like Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey leading the cast, it would be hard to make a bad movie.  But, sadly, even their talent can’t lift this movie out of the mediocrity it fell into.  The characters have so much potential.  The story has so much potential.  But the movie leaves the viewer thinking, “So what?”

Through most of the movie I had no idea why any of the characters were doing whatever they were doing.  Why was the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) wanting to wreak havoc on the universe?  Where did the Gunslinger (Idris Elba) come from and why was he trying to protect the universe?  Where did young Jake’s (Tom Taylor) psychic powers come from?  And why should I care about any of these characters or the worlds they inhabit?  The movie never gave me a reason to care.

Here’s the premise of the movie.  At the center of the universe there is a tower—a dark tower—that apparently generates a kind of protective force field around the universe.  On the other side of the force field are hordes of demons wanting to break in and rain destruction on the universe.

The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) is working to destroy the Dark Tower so that evil can reign in the universe.  A personification of pure evil, the Man in Black has power to make people do whatever he wants them to.  He tells several people in the movies, “Stop breathing.”  They stop breathing and they die.  He walks past a small girl speaking to her mother and whispers, “Hate.”  She turns back to her mother with a look of pure contempt.

The hero of the story is the Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba).  The Gunslingers seem to have been an order of knights and protectors who fought to keep the evil at bay and protect the Dark Tower.  Roland is apparently the last Gunslinger.  But Roland’s motivation has been tainted by a desire for revenge against the Man in Black for killing his father.

At the center of all this is a young boy from New York named Jake (Tom Taylor).  Jake has what the movie calls “the shine,” a psychic ability that could be harnessed by the Man in Black to destroy the Dark Tower.  As you might expect, Jake ends up partnering with the Gunslinger and they fight together to defeat the Man in Black.

Here’s the question for us. What is it that keeps evil at bay—at least for Christian viewers? This movie says there is a tower that somehow keeps evil from running amuck in the world.  But that’s a fantasy.

The reality is that there is and has always been great evil in the world.  There has been violence, oppression, slavery, torture, and betrayal throughout history.  Today we see religious radicals and rogue nations who terrorize and threaten lives.  But there is also the more hidden evil of greed, selfishness, unchecked profiteering, and exploitation.

So, what is it that keeps evil at bay?  The answer according to Jesus and the scriptures is counterintuitive.   The world says the way to defeat violence is through greater violence.  The way to achieve peace is through an imposed peace—also known as oppression.  The way to achieve justice is by hitting back twice as hard.

But Jesus said, “Do not resist an evil person.  If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also….  I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  And the apostle Paul says, “Do not repay evil for evil….  Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath….  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

This is the upside-down way of the kingdom of God.  It is a logic that, rather than perpetuating the cycle of evil, brings an end to it.  God is interested in getting at the root of evil, and that means capturing people’s hearts.  And how does God capture hearts?  Through his people as they live out the sacrificial love of God in the world.

There is no Dark Tower at the center of the universe keeping evil at bay.  But there are people of light who bring an end to evil by living out the love of God.

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

Short Term 12 (2013)

As I was reviewing director Destin Daniel Cretton’s newest film The Glass Castle, I discovered that his 2013 film that I love even more, had never been posted, so here it is. I cannot reccommend this too highly!

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 36 min.

Our Advisories (0-10): Violence -2; Language -4; Sex-Nudity -6.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

He heals the broken-hearted,
and binds up their wounds.

            Psalm 147.3

He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins,

we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.

            1 Peter 2.24

Mason & Grace, counselors at a youth treatment facility, are in love.         (c) Demarest Films

Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton has taken his 22-minute short, shown at Sundance in 2008, and expanded it into one of the best feature films of the year. He reportedly spent two years after college working in a mental treatment facility, and the many details of the movie show this. This film, centered on disturbed teenagers and their young caregivers, is light years away from the caricatures that populate One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest. Its small production budget is probably less than the advertising budget for the average summer blockbuster, so you might not have heard of this film: before going into details, I want to urge you right away to seek it out. It is certain to be on Visual Parables’ Top Ten list for the year.

The title comes from the name of the mental facility where the disturbed teenagers are expected to stay for just 12 months, the hope being that most will be taken in by foster parents or returned to their own families. It begins with line staff supervisor Grace (Brie Larson) and fellow staffer Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) talking with new volunteer Nate (Rami Malek) about what to expect. Mason is in the midst of telling a funny self-deprecating story when Sammy (Alex Calloway), a skinny kid always dressed in pajama bottoms and playing with dolls, runs out of the building. All three set out in chase, knowing that if Sammy reaches the street, they cannot restrain him. They succeed in catching up with him, and when the would-be runaway is returned to his room, Mason finishes his story. That he is able to share a tale that puts himself in a very unflattering light tells us a lot about this compassionate caregiver.

Grace is well named, she, as well as Mason, seeing her job as a calling—people of faith would call it a “ministry.” She is in her mid to late twenties with no degree in counseling, but her natural gifts, coupled with her own history of abuse, make her a far better counselor than her boss Jack (Frantz Turner), as we see in a later sequence.  She and Mason work well together, and they also live together in an apartment they keep secret—though later they learn that the patients all are aware of their relationship.

When 15 year-old Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives, she resists the staff and residents’ attempts to be friendly, telling them that she doesn’t want to talk with anyone because her father will soon have her out, and so she does not want to waste her time on short relationships. Grace sees much of herself in the new arrival, including her compulsive cutting of herself. Grace herself is an example of what writer Henri Nouwen called a “wounded healer.” She is pregnant with an unwanted child, and she receives a phone call informing her that the father who was sent to prison on the basis of her testimony about his abusing her will soon be out on parole. When she informs Mason of her condition, he wants her to open up and talk, but she says she cannot. This becomes a growing issue that threatens their relationship.

When Jayden manages to get away from the residence, Grace cannot restrain her to bring her back, so she insists on following her. Despite Jayden’s protests, Grace continues to stay with her. Through this act and a shared interest in drawing, the two grow closer together. Especially telling is the scene in which the girl shows Grace her story of the octopus and the shark, an indirect way of revealing the deep trouble she is in with her father. When Grace learns that Jayden has been released to spend time with her father, she pours out her fears for the girl to Jack, but he thinks she is reading too much into the situation and refuses to go and get the girl. Grace becomes so enraged that she smashes Jack’s favorite table lamp and decides upon a course that could be dangerous.

Woven into Grace and Jayden’s stories are episodes involving several of the other patients, such as the already mentioned Sammy, who continually tries to run away and then is devastated when his doll is stolen; and there’s Luis (Kevin Hernandez), who loves pulling off pranks; and African American Marcus (Keith Stanfield). The latter, at 18, is being prepared to leave, but is very much afraid that he cannot make it outside. He writes angry rap lyrics and often resists attempts to help him—and yet he becomes a fine conveyor of grace when Jayden, on her birthday waits fruitlessly for several hours for her father to come and pick her up. No telling what the despairing girl might have done if it weren’t for Marcus. The scene is a real throat lumping one. There is another memorable episode when the foster parents who had taken Mason in treat everyone to a party, and Mason pays tribute to them—but for their loving acceptance, he says, he would not be here today.

There are so many heart-felt scenes in the film, ones that could have been mawkish or syrupy in the hands of a less gifted director/writer, as well as an incredibly good cast. Some of the characters are a hair’s breadth from spinning out of control. Grace herself breaks Mason’s heart when she remains silent to his plea to open up and share with him her pain and fears. She is like the apostle Paul in his Letter to the Romans in that she knows what she should do, but cannot do it.

Not since the moving sequences between therapist and teen-aged patient in Ordinary People have I seen such an honest and frank approach to the mentally and emotionally disturbed—nor since the Spitfire Grill such a well-rounded portrait of a wounded healer. Grace is a natural counselor able to discern and compassionately reach out to those who are wounded. Were she religious, she might well become a compassionate minister. But in the third act of the film, it is she who must be healed, and how the process begins fills the viewer with renewed hope and a gladness that despite “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” life is good and full of promise for her, and possibly for some of the youth as well. This is a good visual parable revealing the social aspect of healing and that grace can emanate from unexpected sources.

This review with a set of 9 questions is in the Nov. 2013 issue of VP.

Detroit (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 23 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 7; Language 7; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

 

Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them.

Ecclesiastes 4:1

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Psalm 58:6

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.

From Episcopal Book of Common Prayer 1928

(c) Annapurna Distributtion

It has been 50 years since the death of 43 people during the violence that broke out on 12th Street in Detroit, and Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow teams again with screenwriter Mark Boal to offer a tribute to the victims. Detroit focuses upon three of the deaths, that of the murder of three black people trapped in a motel at the outbreak of the riot. Not only did a team of Detroit policemen kill the teenagers, they also tortured a group of other people (two of whom were white girls) that they held captive in what became known as the Algiers Motel incident. Sadly, this is not just a historical tribute to the victims, but also a reminder and a jeremiad against the current routine of black-killing cops being absolved of guilt for their crimes. For people of faith this also is a parable of the much-used Episcopal prayer of asking forgiveness for sins of omission as well as commission.

The destructive riot—many Detroiters today call it a rebellion—began on July 26, 1967, with at police night raid on an unlicensed bar located above a printing plant. The place was filled with friends of two black G.I.s just back from Vietnam when the cops launched their attack. Rounding up and herding the dozens of patrons in such a harsh and demeaning way, it would seem that the cops had been trained by those who had studied the tactics of the Nazi’s round-up of Jews. This is the 60s, so many of the policemen give full vent to their racist disdain for the black arrestees.

The commotion draws a crowd of onlookers, upset by what they are witnessing. The cries of some, “What did they do?” have been echoed down through the centuries of oppression. Soon someone is throwing a missile at the cops, and then the target becomes the windows of closed-up shops, followed by looting. Add a Molotov cocktail, and soon a riot is in full swing, the embattled original cops calling in reinforcements. In one of the numerous video clips inserted throughout the film we see Gov. George Romney ordering out the National Guard, complete with tanks, jeeps, and mounted machine guns. A war is on, a civil war of blacks against white enforcers of the Northern version of Jim Crow, with outbreaks also occurring that summer in Newark, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Cincinnati, and other cities.

By the next day the destruction covers several blocks, and trucks and tanks roll through the streets. The Guardsmen are so on edge that when a little girl peers out through her closed Venetians blinds, a Guardsman sees the motion and yells “Sniper” as he fires his machine gun at the window. From atop a car Congressman John Conyers (Laz Alonso) tries to calm the crowd, but they are too angry, their long pent-up resentment against their racist based treatment boiling over at last. (The film’s opening credits include an animated “history” of the great “Migration” of blacks from the South to the North and their subsequent segregation there also.)

Three patrolmen – Krauss (Will Poulter), Flynn (Ben O’Toole), and Demens (Jack Reynor) – drive through the streets amidst the burning and looting. They stop to arrest a man carrying two bags of groceries, but he runs away. Giving chase, Krauss fires his shotgun, hitting the man in the side. The fugitive gets away anyway, but bleeds to death later. When Krauss is reprimanded by a detective, he shows no remorse, even justifying his action. Surprisingly, the detective does not order the killer to stand down, but lets him go back onto the streets, which proves to be a terrible mistake, a sin of omission.

Meanwhile in a packed theater a musical review is going on, with a nervous Fred (Jacob Latimore) late in joining up with his singing group The Dramatics due to difficulties in getting through the police cordon outside. The group is to follow Martha and the Vandals, but just as the emcee is introducing them, a cop arrives with the order to evacuate the theater due to the riot. Lead singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) is so disappointed at missing their big opportunity to gain notice, that he remains on stage after the audience has left. He sings part of their song, with only Fred to hear it. The two take a bus to the Algiers Motel to stay the night. At the motel pool they meet two white girls from Ohio, Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever). Flirting with them, they invite them to a room where they say they can obtain some food. The occupants— Carl (Jason Mitchell), Lee (Peyton Alex Smith), and Aubrey (Nathan Davis, Jr.) –are not very welcoming. As they talk about the riot and the cops handling of it, Carl takes out a small pistol, and during a scuffle “shoots” Lee. The two laugh at the reaction of the others, revealing that it was a toy gun that uses blanks. The visitors and girls go back to their own room

Across the street African American security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is one of two men guarding a store. Seeing a club-wielding cop abusing a black teenager, he walks out and rescues the boy, even though the kid ungratefully calls him an “Uncle Tom” because of his uniform and gun.

From his motel window Carl watches the police swarming outside and makes a stupid mistake by trying to scare them with the firing of his blank pistol. The cops panic, taking cover and then wracking the motel’s windows with gun fire. They rush into the building, and when Carl tries to flee, Kraus shoots him in the back, stopping to drop an open switchblade by the body. A moment later Dismukes runs in, he becoming the first person to whom Kraus lies that he had killed the dead teenager in self-defense.

The nervous cops are convinced someone in the motel fired at them. (c) Annapurna Distributtion

The cops round up Larry, Fred, Aubrey, Lee, Julie, Karen, and another unfortunate motel patron named Greene (Anthony Mackie). Forcing them to face the wall of a corridor, Krauss begins aggressively to question and threaten them. He refuses to accept their claim that none of them had guns, even though a search fails to turn up any. Dismukes tries to moderate the situation, even conducting a search of the room himself, but he is black and thus has no influence upon the racist Krauss and his two fellow cops. State troopers arrive, but as soon as they see that the captives are a mixed-race group, their leader decides he wants no part of the incident, and quickly drives away. The National Guardsman who has joined the group also seems helplessly to accept Krauss’s drastic measures of interrogation by terror. The cops accuse the girls of being prostitutes and one of the men their pimp. During one round of questioning, a cop rips off the top of the dress of one of the girls, and Krauss fondles the other’s crotch with his billie club. The cops’ cruel mind game involves taking one of the captives into a separate room and pretending to shoot him in an effort to scare the others into confessing. This game goes horribly awry when the dumber of the cops, unaware that his colleagues had only pretended to kill the victim, actually carries out the threat. The long, horrible night will result in the murder of one more of the teenagers before dawn arrives the next day and the survivors are set free.

Dead are Carl Cooper, 17; Aubrey Pollard, 19, and Fred Temple, 18, shot at close range. There is a trial of the three racist cops, and even Dismukes at first is suspected of participating, until it is proved that he was a witness rather than a participant. The trial in the film is a composite of several actual ones, but the outcome is true—the defendants were declared “Not Guilty” by the jury. It was in the late Sixties, and the attitude of so many of the whites in the area was so racist that the trial might as well have been held in Mississippi.

The filmmakers do include a scene designed to show that not every Detroit cop back then was a racist potential thug. When Larry Reed is able to run from the motel, he is taken by a cop who, seeing his blood and bruises, takes him into his car and drives him to a hospital. The film ends with end notes informing us what has happened after the trial. Larry was so traumatized that he left the successful Dramatics to become a church choir director.

I marveled at the way in which Krauss was able to get his fellow cops and the National Guardsman to go along with his extreme method of interrogation. This horrific sequence took me back to the 2015 docudrama The Stanford Prison Experiment in which a professor hired 24 students to pretend they were at a prison, with some serving as guards, and the others prisoners. Almost immediately the guards began to abuse their authority, and the “prisoners” meekly submitted. The make-believe guards became so abusive that the experiment had to be ended long before its scheduled time. If this could happen in a role play situation, it should be little wonder that real life wielders of power would succumb, especially when racism is present.

Although the filmmakers change many of the names and condense trial events, the script stays close to the facts, though no doubt speculating on certain details that were murky at the time. For source material, the filmmakers had John Hersey’s 1968 book The Algiers Motel Incident, and equally important, three of the victims, the white Julie Delaney, played by Hannah Murray, and the black security guard, Melvin Dismukes, portrayed by John Boyega, and would-be singer Larry Reed. They not only spent time with scriptwriter Mark Boal, but at director Kathryn Bigelow’s insistence, Ms. Delaney was on the set for consultation during much of the filming.

That the film is as relevant today in its depiction of racism among law enforcement officers is evident from Ms. Delaney’s comment, “It’s amazingly sad that things haven’t changed. I thought things would change in 50 years. I really did. I guess that’s my looking through rose-colored glasses.”*

At times the brutality, both physical and mental, is so strong that it is difficult to watch, but watch it we should. I write this despite the disturbing Huffington Post article “‘Detroit’ Is The Most Irresponsible and Dangerous Movie Of The Year.” The distinguished authors attack the filmmakers for omitting the historical background of the riot and treating the blacks as just victims without giving us any of their background. I agree that providing more context would have improved the film, but I do not accept their recommendation to skip the film. It might be flawed, but it nevertheless should be viewed and discussed by as many people as possible.

*For more see the article in Detroit Free Press “Eyewitness to horrific night depicted in ‘Detroit’ movie shares story” at http://www.freep.com/story/entertainment/2017/08/04/survivor-detroit-movie-kathryn-bigelow-algiers-motel/532497001/

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

The Women’s Balcony (2016)

Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 36 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 

Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds:

Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?

Ezekiel 34:2

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”

Matthew 7:15

On the way to a bar mitzvah at a Jerusalem synagogue.                                  (c) Menemsha Films

We see Etti (Evelin Hagoel) and Zion (Igal Naor), joined by various other women and their families carrying food through the streets of Jerusalem. They are on their way to their small Orthodox synagogue where their grandson’s bar mitzvah is scheduled. However, before the lad can read from the elaborate Torah scroll, there is a loud noise, and the women’s balcony caves in, with the elderly Rabbi Menasha’s wife injured so badly that she lies in a coma at the hospital.

With the synagogue dangerously unstable and their enfeebled Rabbi (Abraham Celektar) in a state of shock, Etti and the men find a substitute room so far away that they cannot secure ten men required for a minyan to hold the service—that is, until young Rabbi David (Aviv Alush) comes along. He agrees to the men’s plea to come and join them, but first hastens away and quickly returns with more than enough students from the seminary that he teaches. As the days pass and Rabbi David volunteers to lead them on a temporary basis, all seems well. Zion and a friend frequently visit their elderly rabbi, but the old man still sits immobile, cut off from the world. Thus they are grateful for the ministrations of their temporary rabbi.

Rabbi David is slick in his approach to the men, as well as a pleasing preacher (for the men). They raise no objection when he tells them that a woman is filled with inner beauty that needs to be covered, and that they should buy scarves for their wives’ heads. The women have not been accustomed to covering their heads, and Etti rejects Zion’s “present” that he brings home. Another meek husband begs his grouchy wife to wear the head-scarf, claiming, “It’ll help my income!” She fires back at him, “Try working. Maybe that’ll help your income.” None of these strong women agree to be their husband’s doormat!

Rabbi David promises to arrange for the restoration of their old synagogue, but the result is not at all to the liking of the women. There is no spacious balcony as before, just a small shed-like addition being provided for the women. So cramped that it seems like an afterthought, the shed’s window gives less than a satisfactory view of the service.

The women’s vow to raise money for a balcony is opposed by Rabbi David. He has even suggested that God allowed the old balcony to fall because of the sins of the congregation, the implication being that they were not strict enough in their following the Torah. There might be a slight basis to the charge, with Etta breaking the Sabbath stricture when a boy turns off her electric coffee pot, and she secretly flips the switch back on. And her grandson confesses to her that he had not learned to read the Scripture assigned to him for his bar mitzvah, and thus had prayed for something to happen that would stop the service, saving him from embarrassment. Clearly, in his eyes the balcony cave-in was his fault.

After some shrewd bargaining with a contractor, the women do raise money for their balcony and give it to the treasurer, but then Rabbi David insists that it should be used to purchase a replacement for the Torah scroll destroyed in the cave-in. The men have been so reluctant to challenge the authority of Rabbi David, that Etti and some of her friends leave their homes, rebelling against their men much as Lysistrata did in Aristophanes’ famous play. They stage a public demonstration outside Rabbi David’s seminary, an act that draws support from other women as well. The men may be cowed by Rabbi David, but Etti had early on been suspicious of him. Seeing her congregation split by the man’s ultraconservative teaching, she asks him, “Is that what a rabbi is supposed to do? Enter a community of good people and fill them with fear?”

A subplot of the film, a growing romance between Yaffa (Yafìt Asulin), Etti and Zion’s niece, and Naphtali (Assaf Ben Shimon), Rabbi David’s assistant, eventually leads to a resolution of the conflict, and the film concludes as it began, with a festive procession, this time one for a wedding.

This is a wonderful celebration of the importance of women, even in a religious tradition that most people think downplays their importance. We see love very much on display—love of husband and wife; of the people for their rabbi; love of a people for one another. It is love that is threatened by a leader’s overly serious, indeed fanatical, emphasis upon rules.

On a lighter note, I also enjoyed how the filmmakers show that food is important to celebration. We first see the women carrying food to the bar mitzvah ceremony. There is a Passover meal and a Seder supper (one of the film’s many eye-catching shots is an overhead shot of the latter!), and there is a supper to raise money for the balcony, but to which no one comes—thus the non-eating of the food emphasizes the schism in the congregation. And there is the wedding feast at the end of the film. Also, it is a bowl of fruit salad that helps restore relations between Etti and Zion once again.

Director Emil Ben-Shimon and screenwriter Shlomit Nehama’s delightful tale is not a summer comedy of little substance, but bids us look at a serious struggle from a different angle. The battle for the soul of this synagogue is akin to that reportedly being fought in Israel itself. Tension between the Jewish Orthodox leaders and both the secular and liberal Jewish believers continues to rise in regard to numerous religious laws that affect everyone. And it is a struggle that Christians too are going through in our own country and around the world. We certainly see this in the Catholic Church as the old conservative wing of cardinals and bishops resist the efforts of Pope Francis to allow compassion to matter as much as rules in their church. This is one comedy that people of all faiths should be seeing and discussing!

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

Despicable Me 3 (2017)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 30 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.  Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.

Ephesians 4:25-28

Added to our familiar characters is the newly discovered twin brother of Gru, Dru.              (c) Universal Pictures

This third visit to the loony world of Gru and his Minions turns out to be a bubble gum movie, thanks to the new villain Balthazar Bratt (voice Trey Parker). The movie begins with a reporter recalling the child star of a once popular TV series called “Evil Bratt” in which Balthazar played a junior genius super villain. As he grew older, the show was cancelled, so the young man turned to real crime.

Aboard an ocean liner Balthazar seeks to steal the world’s largest diamond by raising the ship up in the air with his powerful super bubblegum, but Gru (voice Steve Carell) prevents the theft, but the wily would-be thief manages to escape. Despite Gru’s protecting the diamond, the new head of the Anti-Villain League fires him, and when Lucy (voice Kristen Wiig) tries to intervene, she is fired too. Back home the Minions suggest that Gru return to villainy, but when he refuses, they revolt and all but two walkout on him.

The next morning the girls are willing to sell their toys for the family’s upkeep. A stranger named Fritz (Steve Coogan) arrives with a message, but Gru does not want to be bothered. When the visitor persists, Gru sends him skyward in a rocket. The battered messenger returns, informing Gru that he has a twin brother living across the sea in Fredonia who wants to reunite with him.

Thus begins another round of crazy adventures that will bring all the above together again when Balthazar manages to steal the diamond from a Paris museum. Gru’s mother (a delightful Julie Andrews) reveals that he does indeed have a twin named Dru, she, adding that when she and her husband divorced and agreed to split up the boys, she was given second choice. Dru (also voiced by Steve Carell) turns out to be very wealthy and sporting a large tuft of yellow hair that would be the envy of Donald T Trump. His great desire, he announces, is for Gru to teach him how to become a super villain and pull off one last spectacular heist.

Directors Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin and their staff of writers, animators, and voice cast give us a fun-filled revisit to the daffy world of Gru and the Minions. There are crazy chases, including one in which the brothers are chased by cops riding on pigs! And there are several touching family moments, one of them in which Gru’s three adopted girls call Lucy their mom for the first time.

Having seen the first two films and thinking not much could be added to the series, I had put off seeing this one due to so many other films awaiting review. I am glad to have at last caught up with it. The movie would have been okay on a small screen, but the scenery and cityscapes (set in Hollywood and L.A.) would not have been nearly as spectacular as on a large screen. (Hollywood and the surrounding city almost get bubble gummed out of existence by the new super villain. Spider-Man has his web strands, Balthazar wields his magic bubble gum.)

Just as the first film dwelt on the power of love for family to transform the villainous Gru, the third film continues this theme. Gru refuses the temptation, coming from his beloved Minions, to return to his life of crime, even though there is motive to do so by his unjust ouster from the Anti-Villain League. Paul’s advice to the church at Ephesus, which apparently included some former thieves like Gru, could easily be directed at him. His Minions, and then his new-found brother, would pull him back to his life of crime, but his love for Lucy and the girls is stronger. This little feature is no Wall-E or Up, but it can serve as an enjoyable visual parable.

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

 

Radio Dreams (2016)

In Farsi, English, Dari and Assyrian with subtitles.

Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 33 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together

Isaiah 11:6-7

The eccentric staff of Radio PARS-FM.  (c) Matson Films

What might be regarded as an Iranian version of WKRP in Cincinnati combined with Waiting for Godot has its share of laughs, but also many quieter moments. Iranian British director Babak Jalali, also the co-writer with Aida Ahadiany, sets his immigrants’ tale in San Francisco radio station PARS-FM, the staff of which is almost as amusing and eccentric as that of Mary Tyler Moore’s WJM. Much of the film’s droll humor is conveyed by having the various characters almost never smile despite a funny occurrence or statement.

Iranian singer-songwriter Mohsen Namjoo stars as the station’s program director Hamid Royin. Once a revered poet and writer who had to flee his beloved Iran, he struggles to maintain high standards at the station whose owner and daughter are stressed out by the problem of raising money to keep the tiny station afloat—how big can an audience for a Parsi language station be? Whereas the owner Mr. Afshar (Keyumars Hakim) in one weird sequence seems more interested in the sport of wrestling than broadcasting, his daughter Marla (Boshra Dastournezhad), holding the reins of management, is Hamid’s chief antagonist.

It is a big day at the station because Hamid has arranged for the American band Metallica to visit the station and jam with Kabul Dreams (a real-life Afghan rock band) that have traveled all the way from their name-sake city for this gig. However, except for saying “Yes” to his invitation, they have not set a time for showing up.

Anticipating a larger than usual audience, Marla has sold more than the usual ad space to locals, such as a dermatologist who removes unwanted hair from Iranian women and Baba Jaan Pizza. Despite this being a special day Hamid insists on speaking about the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton and reading a poem, such readings having been determined as dial-turners in the past. He tells an obscure story, and later, before he finishes a serious interview, the station’s musician breaks in with a terrible jingle. The high-minded Hamid sneers not only at such home-made commercials but also at the idea of having to interview Miss Iran USA.

As in Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guthman, the day progresses, and there is no Metillica. The inane programming continues. A dim-witted staff member is sent to find a guitar to replace one that is missing, in case it is needed when the American band does show up. The hours pass, and still no Metallica. The hopes and the energy level in the station drop lower and lower with each passing hour, and then each minute—unfortunately this is not a 24-hour station.

From Hamid we learn of his desire to bring peace to a world direly in need of it. He sees the hoped-for meet-up of Metallica and Kabul Dreams not as a ratings raiser designed to bring in more ad revenue, but as a way to bring East and West together. Though with his shaggy, straggly hair he seems to be a parody of Albert Einstein, his intentions are serious, indeed laudable. As he was sharing this I saw him as following in the wake of the great American dreamer for peace and reconciliation, MLK, as well as that of the Hebrew prophet.

Metallica’s drummer, Lars Ulrich playing himself, does shows up, but… As in real life, dreams do not always turn out in the way we had planned. The closing juxtaposition of scenes between the drummer and Kabul Dreams with that of the despondent Kumail is very poignant as a study in contrasts.

It is interesting that within a couple of weeks two immigrant films played here in the Cincinnati area, both comedies interspersed with some serious moments. I wish this one had the backing enjoyed by The Big Sick, because unlike that better-known film, it closed after a week. This is another of those little films you will have to track down, but it is worth the effort.

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

 

 

The Big Sick (2017)

 

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 0; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

 Honor your father and your mother,

so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Exodus 20:12

Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house,
it would be utterly scorned.

Song of Solomon 8:7

Kumail eats at least once a week with his Pakistani family.                           (c) Lionsgate

Last year comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani had a small part in director’s  Hello, My Name Is Doris. The director’s new film is based on the actor’s real-life actor’s courtship of his wife Emily. Both he and she, Emily V. Gordon wrote the screen play. Nanjiani plays himself, and Zoe Kazan plays Emily, the result being a dramedy that is as tender at times as it is funny, making this a welcome addition to the culture clash that immigrants to America experience.

Kumail (Nanjiani) has grown up in America and adapted to its ways, whereas his Pakistani mother Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff), father Azmat (Anupam Kher) insists on the old ways, wanting him to accept one of the women whom they keep having “drop in” when he joins them for a weekly dinner. His brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar), and sister-in-law Fatima (Shenaz Treasurywala) also pressure him. He has been doing stand-up comedy gigs while letting his parents think he will go into one of the professions that will guarantee a high standard of living.

All is fairly well (except for the fact of his deception of pretending to go off to pray in the basement, he not being sure what he believes) until he meets cute Emily (Kazan) during one of his gigs. They start going together, but she is wary at first because of her bad divorce. In her eyes they are just hanging out together. But as they grow closer and thus more serious, he still has not told his parents about her. He does confide in his brother, who warns him not to continue the relationship, that their parents might disown him.

Each time his parents introduce a new marriage prospect, Kumail receives another large glossy photo of her. Instead of discarding them, he drops them in a closed box resting on a table in his bedroom. When Emily discovers them, she jumps to the wrong conclusion and storms out of his apartment, ignoring his entreaty to explain himself. She refuses all of his phone calls. And then succumbs to a mysterious ailment that apparently began earlier when she had hurt her leg while out shopping with Kumail.

Emily had his name and address in her purse, so the hospital summons him, whereupon he claims to be her husband so that they legally can begin immediately to work on her. The procedure requires that the doctors put her into a coma. Her parents, Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter), arrive and keep Kumail at arm’s length because Emily has told them about her lover and their break-up. They try to dismiss Kumail, but he persists, sitting across the waiting room from them so that he can learn of Emily’s condition.

The doctors are at a loss to explain Emily’s strange malady. The anxious parents eventually motion in the cafeteria for Nanjiani to join them. They slowly warm to him, though later he disagrees with their decision to move Emily to a hospital whose doctor they have more trust in. Matters go in the opposite direction with Kumail and his parents, who once they learn of his deception no longer want to see him.

How all this works out is handled well, one of the reconciliations especially touching in an understated way. The story is laden with humor, some of it touching on our cultural misunderstanding or bias. An example is Terry’s fumbling attempt to reach out to the Muslim Kumail about the 9/11 tragedy in the hospital cafeteria. He says, “No I mean, I’ve always wanted to have a conversation with [gestures at Kumail] people.” Kumail replies, “You’ve never talked to people about 9/11?” No what’s your, what’s your stance?” and Kumail says, “What’s my stance on 9/11? Oh um, anti. It was a tragedy, I mean we lost 19 of our best guys.” The surprised Beth interjects, “Huh?” Kumail, “That was a joke, obviously. 9/11 was a terrible tragedy. And it’s not funny to joke about it.”

This delightful comedy, skirting close to tragedy, provides us with an enjoyable opportunity to enter the Asian immigrant experience. That it can be painful for both the older generation and their off-spring is well shown. It is impossible to follow the traditional ways in an open society such as ours, and yet the children must tread carefully if they want to maintain familial relationships. This is a problem or theme as old as talking movies, 1927’s The Jazz Singer dealing with the conflict of an Orthodox Jewish cantor at odds with his son who wants to sing jazz. As long as there is intercultural interchange there will be such conflicts, and it will be incumbent upon filmmakers such as Michael Showalter and Kumail Nanjiani to bring us understanding and empathy to newcomers to our shores.

This review with a set of questions is in the Aug. 2017 issue of VP.