Come Sunday (2018)

Available on Netflix on April 13, 2018

Not Rated. Running Time 2 hours 20 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

But what does it say?

“The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart”

(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.

Romans 10:8-10

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 2:1-2

Carlton Pearson once preached on Sunday’s to thousands in his church and over TV. (c) Netflix

Can a preacher credit God with having too much love? Director Joshua Marsto’s adaptation of a 2005 episode of NPR’s “This American Life” about Carlton Pearson (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a famous Church of God in Christ bishop, raises this and other perplexing theological questions that go to the heart of the Christian gospel. The struggle with these by him and the people in his church, and his subsequent fall in popularity, make for compelling drama. Mr. Ejiofor, one of the busiest actors in Hollywood these days, turns in an Oscar-worthy performance as the conflicted pastor (or, in Church of God in Christ parlance,” bishop”) in this Netflix drama.

By the early 1990s in Tulsa Carlton was at the height of his career as pastor of the city’s largest charismatic congregation, Higher Dimensions. A major reason for the attention it drew, aside from the size of his Sunday audience—6000 in church and hundreds of thousands in the TV audience– was that it was racially integrated. Several of the associate pastors were white, including his co-founder and manager Henry (Jason Segel). Black members of his staff included chief musician Reggie (Lakeith Stanfield), and senior staffer Nicky (Stacey Sargeant). A graduate of Oral Roberts University, Carlton was a favorite of founder Oral Roberts (Martin Sheen), who refers to him as “my black son.” His television broadcasts enhanced his fame, so he traveled frequently to speak around the country. His Azusa Street conferences drew thousands to the city to hear famous speakers.

Then Carlton hears a voice calling him to re-examine his belief that those who do not consciously accept Jesus as their savior will go to hell. He and his young daughter had been watching an account of the genocide unfolding in Rwanda, during which the question of the destiny of the millions killed arose—not having heard the gospel preached, would they be damned to hell by God? Thus, he re-examines the Scripture passages, such as the Romans passage that seem to teach “Yes.”

Looking at 1 John 2:1-2 from a fresh perspective, he interprets “the whole world,” which the writer had seen as separate from believers, to mean that Christ had saved everyone by dying on the cross, which means there is no hell. As we see, this does not go over well with many of his people when he preaches this the next Sunday.  His question “Are we more merciful than God?” is not really dealt with amidst the shouting and arguing that follows, and the last straw for many teetering on the brink of leaving is his declaration, “The God that we worship, from the parts of the Bible that we focus on, that God is a monster … worse than Hitler.”

Henry and the other pastors confront him in his home, declaring that they must leave and start their own congregation. He pleads with them, but to no avail. Along with the huge drop in attendance is the withdrawal of speaking invitations and his removal from the board of Oral Roberts University. His old mentor professes his love for him, again referring to him as “my black son,” but he must oppose him publicly because his position puts the souls of believers in peril. This private meeting with his mentor is one of the most moving scenes in the film, Roberts revealing his agony over the suicide of his oldest son. He tells Carton he still loves the son but must affirm that he is in hell nonetheless. (Although I have never been an admirer of the televangelist, this scene awakened in me a kinder feeling toward the tormented man.)

Carlton’s wife Gina (Condola Rashad) stands by him, but not most of his members, nor, in a powerful confrontation, the council of bishops that rule his denomination. Cast out, the low point of his spiritual journey is his witnessing the auctioning of his congregation’s church building and its furnishings.

The upward arc takes in the theme of Carlton’s recognizing the legitimacy of the faith of gay people, with him meeting with his former music director Reggie, to whom he could not minister when earlier the musician had revealed that he was a closeted homosexual. Carlton assures Reggie, now afflicted with AIDS, that he too is included in God’s love, and at the end of the film we see the bishop joining in a worship celebration at a church that accepts gay members.

The film can lead to a good discussion in which participants are challenged to examine their own beliefs about God, salvation, heaven and hell. I have always felt challenged by Frederick Faber’s great hymn, the first stanza being, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy/like the wideness of the sea;/there’s a kindness in God’s justice, /which is more than liberty.” Check out your hymn, and you’ll see that the other verses could easily lead one to adopt a universalist view of God and salvation, though Faber, as an Anglican convert to the Roman Catholic Church, never did.

Many questioned Carlton’s trust in what he believed was the voice of God, including Oral Roberts. The bishop’s defense of the voice he heard, as well as his opponents’ suggestion that the voice might have been Satan’s, reminds me of scenes from the various Joan of Arc films, especially Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc. She was badgered by her captors to renounce her voices as emanating not from the saints or God, but from Satan. Like the French saint, Carlton refuses to renounce his one-time experience, especially when he re-examines the Bible and finds support there for his position. His life and struggle are part of Christianity’s long history stretching back to the ancient church and such theologians as Origen. It will be interesting how this Netflix film contributes to the never-ending debate. For some the film will be welcomed as a tract for tolerance during a time of great intolerance, but for others it will be considered an assault on accepted Christian teaching that will weaken the faith. This is clearly a film that goes way beyond the boundary entertainment.

 

This review with a set of questions will be in the April 2018 issue of Visual Parables.

 

 

You can hear the episode of  This American Life that the movie is based on ay https://www.thisamericanlife.org/304/heretics. There is even a link to the transcription.

The Death of Stalin (2017)

Rated R. Running Time 1 hour 47 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 5; Sex Nudity 1.

Our st ar rating (1-5): 6

King David was old and advanced in years…

Now Adonijah son of Haggith exalted himself, saying, “I will be king”; he prepared for himself chariots and horsemen, and fifty men to run before him.  His father had never at any time displeased him by asking, “Why have you done thus and so?” He was also a very handsome man, and he was born next after Absalom.  He conferred with Joab son of Zeruiah and with the priest Abiathar, and they supported Adonijah.  But the priest Zadok, and Benaiah son of Jehoiada, and the prophet Nathan, and Shimei, and Rei, and David’s own warriors did not side with Adonijah. Adonijah sacrificed sheep, oxen, and fatted cattle by the stone Zoheleth, which is beside En-rogel, and he invited all his brothers, the king’s sons, and all the royal officials of Judah,  but he did not invite the prophet Nathan or Benaiah or the warriors or his brother Solomon. Then Nathan said to Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, “Have you not heard that Adonijah son of Haggith has become king and our lord David does not know it?  Now therefore come, let me give you advice, so that you may save your own life and the life of your son Solomon. Go in at once to King David, and say to him, ‘Did you not, my lord the king, swear to your servant, saying: Your son Solomon shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit on my throne? Why then is Adonijah king?’

1 Kings 1:1, 5-13

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

It takes much discussion before Stalin’s cronies can decide how to move him to his bed! (c) IFC Films

As can be seen in the biblical books of Kings, the transition of state power often involves unseemly ambition, scheming, and blood. Satirist Armando Iannucci can find the humor in such power struggles, though not in Bible times but in a more recent time in which a few of his viewers will remember the names and places—the leaders of the Soviet Union in 1953. It is the director’s good fortune that his film comes out at a time when remains of that empire, ruled by a man as ruthless as Joseph Stalin, is very much in the headlines. This must account for a film that normally would be confined to our art house theaters popping up in our major cineplexes as well. So much the better, as more people will get to see it.

The long-time paranoia of Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror hangs over a Moscow Radio studio one night where an audience is enjoying a concert of classical music. The producer is very ill at ease when he receives a phone call from Stalin himself requesting a recording of the event. He does not dare say that it was not recorded because this might land him on one of the lists that Stalin and NKVD Head Lavrentiy Beria issue each day, resulting in security police rounding up victims for imprisonment or execution. So, he dashes out of the control room demanding that both audience and musicians return to their seats for a repeat performance. Half the audience has gone, and the applause must sound like the dictator had heard during the broadcast, so people are pulled in from the street to fill the vacant seats. Most are dressed in peasant garb, the producers observing, “I don’t think any of these people ever heard of Mozart.” When the conductor is indisposed, the police are sent out to drag in a pajamas-clad substitute. The piano soloist Maria Veniaminovna Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) at  first refuses to cooperate because the dictator has killed several members of her family, but agrees when a large bribe is promised. She also writes a note and slips it into the sleeve of the record.

Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) has been watching one of his beloved John Wayne Westerns with his cronies but is alone when a currier delivers the recording. The note falls out, unnoticed, to the floor. As he listens to the music, Stalin sees the folded note, bends down, and picks it up to read the following: “Josef Vissarionovich Stalin, you have betrayed our nation and destroyed its people. I pray for your end and ask the Lord to forgive you. Tyrant.” This so upsets the dictator that he has a stroke and falls to the floor. One of the guards outside hears a noise, but he dares not open the door. It is not until the next morning when a maid brings up a breakfast tray that the plight of the victim is discovered.

The sycophants who have surrounded Stalin are quick to arrive. Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) are uncertain what to do, their leader still being alive, though lying in a pool of urine. As others arrive their names and position appear on screen: Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), Foreign Minister; Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), dreaded head of the security agency; Nicolai Bulganin (Paul Chahidi); Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse); and others. They discuss sending for a doctor, but Beria has banished or killed the leading ones. “Any doctor still in Moscow is not a good doctor,” someone says. When they decide to pick up and move Stalin to his bedroom, they seem like Keystone Cops, each awkwardly positioning himself around the body, a couple complaining of a bad back. They attempt to place Stalin on his bed, two of them closest to the bed falling back onto it, penned down for a moment. This is a prelude of ludicrous things to come.

No one wants to mention the possibility of the dictator’s death for fear of being accused of wishing it. Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) is brought in, and much later her brother, Vasily (Rupert Friend) whose alcoholic-fueled antics cause all concerned much consternation. Doctors are rounded up, given white coats, and made to tend to the ailing dictator. He does rally for a moment, trying to point at something. All his toadies think he is trying to name his successor, but then they discern that he is pointing to a sentimental painting on the wall. A girl is feeding a bottle of milk to a little lamb. They immediately jump to symbolic political interpretations of the picture. Later, when the patient dies of a brain hemorrhage, the none of the doctors want to admit that he has passed away.

The aftermath of the death and the planning of the funeral are filled with comic details. The latter is darkened by numerous short sequences of people being rounded up, imprisoned, tortured, or shot, so we are never allowed to forget that the farcical characters, specially the loathsome Beria, are dangerous characters. During their meeting of the Central Committee a person may say one thing one moment, but then when it appears that the majority are moving in another direction, agree to just the opposite. Malenkov turns out to be more the inept buffoon, Khrushchev the reformer; and Berea the ruthless thug who often does his own torturing and execution of prisoners. As the characters scurry about, Lazar Kaganovich, who had helped Stalin murder millions of Ukrainians, asks Nikita Khrushchev, “How can you run and plot at the same time? “The great WW 2 hero Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) also shows up, thrusting forth his chest bedecked with medals to show off his glory. He turns out to be crucial in the final determination of who will rule—and who will die.

The funeral sequence involves impressive shots of the colorful buildings, inside and out, of Moscow and the thousands of people who paraded past his coffin, many of them having arrived in the capital by trains. The struggle for power continues, with the film now taking a grim and bloody turn.

Scottish director Armando Iannucci, whose TV series Veep I have yet to see, has adapted the film from French writers Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel, in collaboration with co-screenwriters David Schneider and Ian Martin). They have a keen eye for the absurdities of bureaucracies, akin to that of the anonymous authors whose Soviet era jokes poked fun at their world and made their lives a little more bearable. An example: “This is Armenian Radio; our listeners asked us: ‘What will be the results of the next elections?’ We’re answering: ‘Nobody can tell.’   Somebody has stolen yesterday the exact results of the next elections from the office of the Central Committee of the USSR.” * The film has been banned in Russia, and I doubt that it will be screened in the White House, but you probably can, and should, see it at a theater nearby.

*For 99 more such jokes go to http://johndclare.net/Russ12_Jokes.htm. Especially see in the Longer Jokes section #20 & #44.

This review with a set of questions is in the April 2018 issue of Visual Parables.

 

 

The Gospel and Humor

 With Easter falling on April Fools Day I thought this article,  reprinted from the April 2007 issue of Presbyterians Today, with a couple of resources updated and the note about Parable added, might be of interest.

 

EXIT LAUGHING

WHY THE LONG FACES IN CHURCH?

JESUS IS ALIVE!

THE GOSPEL

IS NOT A TRAGEDY.

When Thou Shalt Laugh, a DVD featuring a stage full of Christian comedians, was released last year, some critics were amused by what they considered an anomaly- the idea that Christians could be funny. Let’s face it: many regard Christians as humorless and church services as boring affairs for the seriously pious. But not only are humor and laughter indigenous to the Christian (and Jewish) faith, they are rooted in the very nature of the Bible. Smiles and celebration belong in church, especially at Easter, when we remember Christ’s victory over sin and death.

Godspell got it right

John-Michael Tebelak saw the potential for humor in the gospel story when, joining with composer Stephen Schwartz, he conceived his Broadway musical Godspell. He daringly depicted Christ as a clown, who calls men and women from their humdrum world to form a troupe of comic performers. Through mime, song, dance and vaudeville skits, they sing the good news. Tebelak was very much in tune with theologian Harvey Cox, whose book The Feast of Fools (1969) called the church to rediscover the joyful spirit of the Gospels.

 

When I wrote this article in 2007 I did not recall that my favorite short film PARABLE inspired GODSPELL.

 

Another popular 1970s musical, Jesus Christ:  Superstar, presents the story of Jesus as a tragedy. It’s the tale of a good Jewish boy who becomes a hapless victim. Lamenting the situation, narrator Judas wonders (to Jesus) “why you let the things you did get so out of hand?” The show closes with the soft music of “John Nineteen Forty-One,” referring to the verse in John’s Gospel about the tomb where the body of Jesus was laid. No resurrection here.

In contrast, Godspell presents the story of Jesus as a comedy, filled with exuberant music, clever sketches interpreting Jesus’ parables, funny pratfalls, soft-shoe dance routines and outrageous comments uttered by Jesus and his disciples. True, the scenes of the Last Supper, Gethsemane and the crucifixion are serious and moving: the disciples sing a dirge-like song, “Long Live God,” as they carry the dead body of Jesus on their shoulders. But then the film version concludes with the disciples breaking into the raucous “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” Jesus’ body is gone, and his risen presence seems mystically embodied in the disciples who are skipping and dancing again as they did earlier in the show.

A resurrection outlook

Tragic elements certainly exist in the story of Jesus. But even the grimmest passages recounting events leading up to Jesus’ death offer hints that the impending tragedy will ultimately be swallowed up in God’s “divine comedy.”

For example, Jesus’ appearance before Pilate, as depicted in John 19:10-11, is a serious confrontation. Pilate challenges Jesus: “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?”
But Jesus answers, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” His reply brings to mind the child’s response to the naked potentate in Hans Christian Anderson’s the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” “Look,” the youngster blurts out, “the Emperor doesn’t have any clothes on!”

Jesus’ faith in God enables him to see through the humiliation and pain to the reality that Pilate is not as mighty as he thinks he is. Suffering must be endured; but Easter will reveal that God’s power not only surpasses that of any political leader, it is greater even than sin and death.

Followers of Jesus today view the tragedy of the cross through the lens of resurrection. How much more inviting would Christian worship services be to outsiders, if they embodied this resurrection outlook. The Lord’s Supper, for example, ought to be more like a celebration than a funeral service. Instead of the preacher solemnly intoning the
familiar words of the liturgy against a background of muted organ chords, why not sing a joyful hymn such as “Lord of the Dance” while preparing to share the bread and wine?

A Sunday for laughter

A pie in the pastor’s face during worship is not standard fare in most churches, but it’s no longer unexpected at First Presbyterian Church in Winter Haven, Fla.

Nine years ago the church joined the Holy Humor Sunday movement, and attendance has been climbing steadily for its Sunday-after-Easter service. Associate pastor C. Alan Harvey says church leaders got the idea for the service from an
article in The Joyful Noiseletter (see “Humor helps,” opposite page). They read that early Greek Orthodox Church leaders called the Sunday after Easter “Bright Sunday,” emphasizing the joy and laughter engendered by Jesus’ resurrection.

Last year’s Bright Sunday service at First Church will be hard to top. At the climax of the children’s sermon, pastor Steven D. Negley pushed a pie in Harvey’s face.

It was one of those “guess you had to be there” moments, but the pastors say the stunt somehow related to a telling of the Bible story. The church has adopted the butterfly as a symbol for Bright Sunday. Thanks to Florida’s warm climate, worshipers are able to go outside and release butterflies given to them at the beginning of the service.

 Clowns and comedians

Even outside the church, a resurrection outlook informs the performances of classic comedians such as Charlie Chaplin. For Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, life is a dangerous and humiliating waltz among the slippery banana peels of life. He suffers many falls and disappointments, but each time he stands up again, retrieves his cane and dusts off his fallen hat. Then, after doing a little hop/dance step (I like to call this his resurrection dance), he heads down the road into a new day.

Resurrection-centered faith is the basis for clown ministry, a movement that sprang up around the country in the 1970s. Inspired by Paul’s words about “the foolishness of God” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31), chaplains at retirement homes and hospitals have donned clown make-up to lift the spirits of patients and demonstrate the healing effects of humor. As
Lutheran minister Floyd Schaffer put it in his 1984 book If I Were a Clown, “a clown is someone who lowers himself, in order to lift someone else up.” (Not a bad description of Jesus’ ministry.)

Comedy in Scripture

Many of us approach. the Bible with such seriousness that we miss the comic element in some of its stories, But readers looking for humor will not be disappointed. For example:

Gospel guffaws

In his ground-breaking book The Humor of Christ (1964) theologian Elton Trueblood pointed out examples of the under-appreciated humor of the Gospels: Jesus accuses show-off hypocrites of blowing horns before giving alms. He warns that when blind (leaders) lead the blind, both will wind up in a ditch. And he compares a money-obsessed person seeking to enter the kingdom of heaven to a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle. Some humorless scholars have attempted to “explain” Jesus’ hyperbolic joke about the needle’s eye by suggesting that there must have been a low gate
in the Jerusalem wall through which a heavily laden camel could pass only by kneeling and inching its way through.

Mirthful birth

Genesis 21:17-21
God chooses a childless couple in their 90s to begin the family of “chosen people.” Ludicrous! No wonder Sarah and Abraham laugh when God tells them they will become parents. When Sarah finally does bear a son, the parents name him Isaac, which translates as “Laughter.” Sarah declares, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”

Sibling rivalry run amok

Genesis 25-29

Hebrew storytellers must have chuckled over the saga of the contentious twins, Esau and Jacob. They begin competing against each other while still in the womb, each trying to position himself to emerge first and thus have the rightful claim
to the family inheritance. Second-born Jacob enters the world holding onto Esau’s heel, trying to pull his brother back into the birth canal. Jacob manages to trick Esau out of his birthright, but the trickster gets a taste of his own medicine when he finds himself tricked by Laban into marrying the wrong woman.

Wise ass

Numbers 22

It’s hard to miss the humor when Balaam’s donkey is depicted as having more sense than its owner.

Designer gods

Isaiah 44:9-17
Satirical passages like this one in the book of Isaiah show the absurdity of making and worshiping idols.

Fish tale

Jonah

The delightful story of Jonah could be subtitled, “Your legs are too short to run from God.” Don’t get hung up on the question of whether or not a person can survive in the belly of a whale, or you’ll miss both the humor and the point of this fisherman’s tall tale.

Humor Resources

The books mentioned in the article, by Cox, Trueblood and Shaffer, are out of print but are available through Amazon.corn. Go to the “Book” section and type in the title to find used book dealers that sell them. Other books
related to humor and the gospel: • The Gospel According to Peanuts, by Robert Short (Westminster John Knox Press, 1964; reprinted often)

  • The Joyful Christ: The Healing Power of Humor, by Cal Samra (Harper & Row, 1985; also out of print but available
    from Amazon .corn)
  • Reaching for Rainbows, by Ann Weems (Westminster John Knox Press, 1980)
  • Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale, by Frederick Buechner (HarperSanFrancisco, 1977)
  • Thou Shalt Laugh (Warner Home Video, 2006), a DVD featuring 90 minutes of Christian stand-up comedians, hosted by Patricia Heaton (Everybody Loves Raymond).
  • The Gospel and Comedy Retreat Kit provides humorous Scripture passages, movie references and sample skits for a group
    to explore this topic in depth. Contact Visual Parables, 4337 Napa Valley Dr., Bellbrook, OH 45305 or edsvisualparables@twc.com

Especially for children

  • The Clown of God, by Tomie dePaola (hardcover: Harcourt Chidren’s Book, 1978; paper: Voyager Books, 1989)

Ready Player One (2018)

Rated PG-13. Running Time: 2 hours 20 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
when it is in your power to do it.

Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again,
tomorrow I will give it”—when you have it with you.
Do not plan harm against your neighbor
who lives trustingly beside you.
Do not quarrel with anyone without cause,
when no harm has been done to you.

Proverbs 3:27-30

Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Romans 12:16-18

In search of the ultimate Easter Egg. (c) Warner Brothers

Director Steven Spielberg seems to be reverting to his youthful days in his new film that is the equivalent of a cinematic roller coaster ride. Eschewing the gravitas of The Post or The Bridge of Spies, he proves that he can make as an exciting CGI movie as any other director. So, as they say, “Fasten your seat belt and enjoy the ride.”

The setting is the year 2045 in “the fastest-growing city in the world: Columbus, Ohio.” Societal problems have become so severe that, we are told, “people have stopped trying to fix them.” The story is of the 99%, most of whom live in trailer courts called “the stacks” because dilapidated trailers are stacked vertically atop platforms that tower as tall as skyscrapers. One of these is occupied by our hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an orphaned teenager now living apart from his aunt and her drunken boyfriend. Like most other denizens of his dystopian world, Wade spends most of his time in the online virtual universe called the OASIS, where through his avatar he calls Parzival he runs, dodges and shoots at hordes of enemies, often teamed up with others. For hours at a time you can forget your troubles and hellish living conditions. OASIS is far better than drugs, though its effect of banishing reality temporarily is the same.

In OASIS one can don garish costumes and drive fantastic cars, even a Batmobile, and dance with a gorgeous partner in zero gravity. With a name like Parzival we know immediately that Wade’s will soon become a quest story. And so it does when the genius creator of OASIS James Halliday (Mark Rylance) dies. Even in death he will dominate the world because he has taped an announcement describing his last game—a contest the winner of which will inherit his huge fortune and gain control over OASIS. He has hidden an Easter Egg so well that only the one who finds three keys will have enough clues to find the prize. Parzival and his best friend Aech, a mechanical expert whose avatar is a giant black man with a midsection consisting of machine parts, of course set out to find the keys. They and the other egg hunters are called “gunters.”

The first part of the contest is a high-speed race through city streets, with Wade on a virtual racetrack in a DeLorean time machine (Robert Zemeckis is but one of many action film directors the film pays tribute to). His chief competition turns out to be a daredevil woman atop a motorcycle Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and a pair of Japanese players, Daito (Win Morisaki) and Shoto (Philip Zhao). The urban track is constantly changing, with giant wrecking balls and a mechanical T-Rex attacking the racers. King Kong leaves his perch atop the Empire State Building to stand at the end of the track where he blocks all comers. Guess who eventually figures out how to get around the huge beast. You’re right, the guy driving the DeLorean time machine.

By winning the first key Parzival/Wade becomes a superstar, lauded wherever he goes. Well, almost wherever. Scheming to find the Egg is Halliday’s former intern Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who now leads IOI, a company set up for the sole purpose of finding Halliday’s keys. He sends out employees into every game in the hope of grabbing the keys. Of course, he will do anything to thwart the young man whom he realizes is his main obstacle to achieving untold wealth and power.

It is the coming together of friends and foes in the real world that we see that winning Halliday’s Easter Egg will have great consequences. Sorrento is an exploiter who will add to the misery of both the real world and the virtual reality world. Although not developed as much as it could have been, the film does become concerned with class warfare. And once Wade meets Samantha, the alternate ego of Art3mis, romance blossoms.

This might not be a great film, but it is an engrossing one, and viewers hipper than I will have a field day spotting all the references to once popular video games, comic book characters, and action and horror films. The best of the latter is an extended sequence based on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining–though I loved more the inclusion of The Iron Giant (one of my favorite animated movies). Spielberg handles the CGI effects effectively so that they do not completely overwhelm the depiction of the human characters—though they come close. Wade does choose “reality” over the artificial world of virtual reality. His choosing reality, of course, means that he will interact with real people and not electronic images, the only way that the advice of the author of Proverbs and the Letter to the Romans can be of use. He has chosen to engage the world and its troublesome people rather than flee from it into an imaginary world of his own making. However, the exciting way that VR is depicted makes me doubt that he will convince video game addicts to lay aside their goggles and controls and shorten their immersion time. Regardless, this is a film young and old can enjoy just for the ride, although it will be the young, and those who joined the video game revolution of the Eighties, who will appreciate it the most.

This review with a set of questions will be in the April 2018 issue of Visual Parables.

Summer in the Forest (2017)

Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 48 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.

Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

John 13:34

Jean Vanier pays tribute to L’Arche residents Celestine & Fred.        (c) Abramorama Film

As Randall Wright’s leisurely paced documentary unfolds we hear the words, “The big human problem is just to accept all people as they are.” This might sound like something Fred Rogers would say, but it is actually the Canadian philosopher/humanitarian Jean Vanier speaking. Fifty-four years ago, when in a psychiatric hospital in France he saw how terribly developmentally handicapped people were being treated, he decided to do something—he invited two such men to come and live with him in a house in Trosly-Breuil, a village at the edge of a beautiful forest. There he could offer them the love and acceptance he thought they deserved. From this small beginning grew what became a series of 147 L’Arche Communities located in 35 countries.

The Forest in the title refers to the forest north of Paris where Vanier established the first L’Arche community and which the octogenarian still calls home. We see him interacting in loving ways with the residents, setting the example for the young staff who also treat those in their care with patience and love. Wheel chair-confined Sebastian is so disabled that he can do almost nothing for himself. Right after a medical exam Vanier tells him, “Dearest Sebastian, you are beautiful, very, very beautiful.” Sebastian’s face beams.

We spend time with several others who more mobile, so that they can either walk or ride to visit others. Michel, haunted by memories of World War II and beaten at the institution where he once lived, observes, “Jean Vanier is a man who loves us very much. He loves me very much. He taught me about calm.” Andre wants a date; David, imagining himself a superhero, thwarts a pretend attack on his friends; and Patrick, practices to be an artist. Once labeled “idiots” and “retards,” Vanier observes that they can also give, “These are people at the bottom of the ladder of social status. They have taught me about what it means to be a human person – to learn to love and let the barriers down.”

We also visit the L’Arche community in Bethlehem where the group is singing a song as Vanier walks in. Instantly they are applauding and gathering around him for “Welcomes” and hugs. Though living in France, he obviously has paid many such visits to these people. The final sequence consists of the engagement party for two residents, Celestine and Fred, for whom it appears that Vanier has played Cupid. Standing between them as he holds their hands, he pays loving tribute to each of them, telling them they will be committed to each other for life when they marry.

This is a good film to watch between all those fast-paced action films playing on screens next to it. John Harle’s quiet music is as beautiful as the forest around the community. At a time when our news media are full of stories of political folly and corruption, this film can help keep alive faith in humanity and a hopeful future.

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

Red Sparrow (2018)

Rated R. Running Time 2 hours 20 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 6; Language 2; Sex 5/ Nudity 4.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

See how they conceive evil,
and are pregnant with mischief,
and bring forth lies.

Psalm 7:14

Dominika will later call her spy academy a “whore school.” (c) 20th Century Fox

This spy thriller, much of it set in Russia, will keep you on the edge of your seat, providing you can deal with some of the torture scenes. It gives star Jennifer Lawrence ample opportunity to prove she is an actress capable of expressing a wide range of emotions.

Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) lives a comfortable life with her invalid mother Nina (Joely Richardson), thanks to her ballet career with the Bolshoi Company in Moscow. One fateful night her lead dancer crashes into her leg, breaking it in their fall. Her career crushed as well as her leg, she worries that they will soon have to leave their comfortable quarters. Her uncle, Ivan Egorova (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking intelligence officer, extends her an offer he thinks she cannot refuse. Her apartment and mother’s medical bills will be met if she agrees to work for him, her first assignment being to lure his enemy Dimitri Ustinov (Kristof Konrad) into a hotel room. When she does, the oligarch begins to rape her, but then a stranger creeps up behind him and strangles him to death. Later she will learn the killer’s name is Simyonov (Sergej Onopko).
Now totally enmeshed in her uncle’s schemes, he makes her agree to enroll in a secret intelligence school, the members of which are known as Sparrows. It is this or face death for being an eyewitness to the murder. She reluctantly travels to the academy situated in the countryside where the ruthless Matron (Charlotte Rampling) teaches espionage skills. The art of seduction is regarded as important as coding or martial arts.
Her training period is cut short when she is dispatched by her uncle and General Vladimir Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) to meet and seduce the American CIA operative, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton). She is to find out the name of his Russian contact, a mole high up in the government. There follows a series of twists and turns in the labyrinthine plot that involves her and the American falling in love, she agreeing to become a double agent, and more, with a steady rise in the body count.

Francis Lawrence, director of the last three “Hunger Games” films, working from a script by Justin Haythe based on former C.I.A. operative Jason Matthews’ novel, keeps things moving along at a swift pace. Just as a strong female was at the center of his past films, so is Dominika’s story the center of his newest work. Her interior journey is that from victim—it seems that her stage “accident” had been planned—and pawn to that of queen, determined to gain some measure of control for her life. In and out of Russia she has to play her role carefully out of concern for her mother’s welfare. Her ruthless Uncle Ivan and General Vladimir Korchnoi thus far have dominated her life because of their overwhelming political power, so she must use her cleverness and seductive skills to not only survive but thrive. Uncle Ivan should have listened more closely when she accusingly told him, “You sent me to whore school!” He might have discerned the hard edge of one determined to even matters between them.

This review with a set of questions will be in the April 2018 issue of Visual Parables.

A Fantastic Woman (2017)

Rated R. Running Time 1 hour 40 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex Nudity 4.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

My beloved is mine and I am his;
he pastures his flock among the lilies.

Until the day breathes
and the shadows flee,
turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle
or a young stag on the cleft mountains

Song of Solomon 2:16-17

Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life?

For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

James 4:14

 

Oliver & Marina are deeply in love. (c) Sony Pictures Classics 

This year’s “Best Foreign Language” Oscar winner, Chili’s Sebastian Lelio’s film is also the first such winner to feature a transgender star in the lead role, Daniela Vega. Another outsider film, the script and star capture the disoriented, anguished feeling of society’s exclusion during a painful period of grief.

Marina Vidal and Orlando (Francisco Reyes) are deeply in love despite their difference in age and her change of sex preference. She is a waitress and nightclub singer in her late twenties, whereas he is the divorced owner of a textile company in his mid-fifties. One night after engaging in sex he becomes sick and falls down the stairway, bruising himself badly. Marina rushes him to the hospital, but he dies of an aneurysm. She calls his brother about the sad incident.

Her feeling of exclusion begins at the hospital, with the doctor refusing to regard her as related to the dead man—and he keeps referring to her as a male, not accepting her change. Because of the bruises, the police have been called. The first policeman, suspicious of her, treats her coldly, and the female detective from the Sexual Offenses Investigation Unit (Amparo Noguera) is even worse. Assuming that prostitution and a lovers’ quarrel are involved, she forces Marina to undergo a degrading physical examination that includes stripping down so that the evidence of her transgenderism is exposed. (The camera spares us this, stopping its downward tilt at waist level.)

This hostile treatment pales before the cruel indifference that Orlando’s family exhibit toward her. His son Bruno (Nicolas Saavedra) keeps forgetting Marina’s name, and when he sees her unpacked luggage in the apartment, the couple having just decided to live together, he demands that she move out as soon as possible. Orlando’s ex-wife Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim) barely manages to conceal her contempt when she offers Marina money to stay away –and that includes from the wake and the funeral. The only member with a shred of compassion for how the grieving lover feels is the brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco). However, his offer to give her some of Orlando’s ashes is accompanied by the request that she stay away from the ceremonies.

One of the brilliant touches in this film is the use of Aretha Franklin’s song “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” on the soundtrack. Having seen enough of the loving relationship between Marina and Orlando, we gain a fresh perspective on the song, its lyrics perfectly expressing Marina’s feelings. The world, as represented by the hospital doctor, the disapproving police, and Orlando’s disgusted family, may not accept their relationship, but for Marina it is genuine, giving her a sense of purpose, or as the song puts it:

“When my soul was in the lost and found
You came along to claim it
I didn’t know just what was wrong with me
Till your kiss helped me name it…”

Intriguing also is the conversation between Marina and her music teacher/coach, Profesor de Canto. He tells the troubled woman, “Love isn’t something you search for,” and goes on to say, “Saint Francis says, ‘Make me an instrument of your love, make me a channel of your peace.’”

Although Marina does not undergo the same fate as Hilary Swank’s murdered Brandon Teena in the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, her fate is nonetheless heart-rending. The film is not political but given the controversy over the American president’s attempt to ban transgenders from serving in the military, it certainly has political implications. The film’s searing portrayal of an outsider’s vulnerability, of her being excluded from ceremonies by which she could say goodbye to her loved one and thus relive somewhat the sorrow over her loss, helps us understand those whom we regard as “different.” Even viewers whose religious beliefs lead them to condemn the transgender lifestyle ought to gain a measure of sympathetic insight into the plight of “the other.”

This review with a set of questions will be in the April 2018 issue of Visual Parables.