The Maze Runner: The Death Cure (2017)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 21 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 3.5

Bring to an end the violence of the wicked and make the righteous secure— you, the righteous God who probes minds and hearts.

Psalm 7:9

Our band of heroes prepare for action.                (c) 20th Century Fox

Director Wes Ball and screenwriter T.S. Nowlin bring the Maze trilogy set in a post-apocalyptic world to an exciting close in a manner that should satisfy even those who were disappointed by the second film. Even newcomers will be taken by the thrilling rescue of some of our teenage heroes imprisoned on a speeding train, our main hero Thomas (O’Brien) descending on a sky hook suspended from a plane hovering over the train.

By way of a quick summary, James Dashner’s books are about a group of healthy teenagers used as lab rats by being sent into an area known as “The Glade,” which is surrounded by a huge concrete walled maze where they (calling themselves “Gladers”) must quickly adapt or be destroyed by the monsters residing in the huge labyrinth. The old civilization has been destroyed in the wake of a plague, called “The Flare,” that changes its victims into zombies, called “cranks.” The not yet infected have retreated into a walled city. A semi-governmental agency known as WCKD (World Catastrophe Killzone Department) have rounded up and imprisoned a number of teenagers who are immune to the disease so that they can experiment on them to find a cure—thus the subtitle of this concluding segment.

WCKD’s initials are an unsubtle hint that the methods used by the agency, which (pronounced “Wicked”) is headed by two scientists (Aidan Gillen, Patricia Clarkson) willing to use any means necessary to come up with a cure, is very questionable. In the second film Thomas’s love interest Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) betrayed him by going over to WCKD to offer her skills in the search for the cure. We wonder how their reunion will turn out when Thomas leads his ragtag band into the city of refuge and then into WCKD’s huge lab. There are lots of complicated events, mostly violent struggles, before Thomas and his fellow Gladers prevail—and along the way a number of heroes give up their lives, a couple of he scenes being specially moving.

Not as critically successful as The Hunger Games series, there are still plenty of excellent special effects and cliff-hanging events to keep our attention. The theme of friendship, loyalty, and betrayal are well handled, and even more so, the question of the ethics of scientific experimentalism—Patricia Clarkson’s Dr. Ava Page is so anxious for the cure to save what is left of humanity that she is willing to force her subjects to submit to her experiments, even when the process inflicts extreme pain on them. Does the end justify the means? Teresa comes to believe so, crossing over from Thomas’s side to join Page’s team. This part might remind you of some of the experiments the U.S. government has conducted on African Americans, and earlier on feeble-minded subjects, two chapters of American history of which no one today is proud.

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

Ferdinand (2017)

Rated. Running time: 1 hour 28 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 0

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

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.

Isaiah 11:6

And goodness is the harvest that is produced from the seeds the peacemakers plant in peace.

James 3:18 (Good News Translation)

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:2

Yes, there is a “bull in the china shop” scene in this delightful adaptation of the classic children’s story. (c) Twentieth Century Fox

It is a long way, both in length of time and length of film, from the 1938 Disney film Ferdinand the Bull and Twentieth Century Fox’s Ferdinand, both of them adaptations of Munro Leaf’s controversial 1936 children’s book The Story of Ferdinand. The Oscar-winning Disney film was just 8 minutes long, but the new version, directed by the Brazilian Carlos Sandanha, clocks in at 1 hour and 48 minutes! This huge difference led me to fear that this would be another example of bloating, as in the awful version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, a rare misfire by director Ron Howard.

There is a great deal of new material introduced by the 6-man writing team, but this does not spoil the original source, as was the case with the Grinch film. Ferdinand as a young calf on the Spanish ranch of Casa del Toro loves to smell flowers and thus is ridiculed by the other calves. When his father does not return from the bull fight for which he was picked, the little bull calf runs away, eventually winding up on a floral farm where the owner and his young daughter Nina adopt him, the girl and calf developing a strong bond between them.

Jump ahead several years and Ferdinand has grown up to be a big fierce-looking bull, but still preferring to smell flowers to fighting. He has a favorite spot atop a hill where he can sit in the shade of a tree and survey the lovely countryside. On the day of the annual festival of flowers, Nina and her father leave Ferdinand behind because of his huge size. Of course, he decides to follow them, and it is in the village that the bee sting from the original story is included. Added to the story, much to the delight of us viewers, is the proverbial “bull in a china shop” sequence, a beautifully choreographed series of shots which will make you draw in your breath and laugh during Ferdinand’s desperate attempts to avoid disaster.

Now regarded as a truly fierce bull, Ferdinand is sent, to Nina’s distress, back to Casa del Toro where the other bulls who had ostracized him earlier continue to ridicule him. However, he is befriended by a crazy goat who tries to coach him in the ways of bullfighting, and by a trio of hedgehogs who come around to steal food from the ranch. I will leave it to you to find out how Ferdinand discovers the irony of the bulls seeking to be chosen to fight in the ring rather than to wind up at the slaughterhouse—he is alarmed to learn that the matador kills the bull at the end of their face-off. There is a thrilling escape from the slaughterhouse and then a climactic scene in which Ferdinand finds himself facing Spain’s greatest matador, a vain man who wants to retire from the ring after this triumph. Billed as a spectacular contest, as written by the adapters, it stays true to the original story, suggesting that the usual win/lose formula can be replaced if one’s will is strong enough, with a win/win solution. As with other animated films, the filmmakers teach something close to what the Scriptures proclaim, enhanced by glorious color animation and expressive voice talent.

When Monro Leaf wrote his little story (in less than an hour, we are told) so that his friend, budding artist Robert Lawson would have a subject to illustrate, the Spanish Civil War was looming on the horizon. Upon the book’s appearance 9 months before fighting broke out, supporters of the fascist General Franco soon dubbed it pacifist propaganda sponsored by Communists. The author and artist must have been surprised by the controversy over what they saw was just a story of non-conformism. The Cleveland Plain Dealer accused the book of “corrupting the youth of America,” but it became a best seller, one year even passing Gone With the Wind in sales. Translated into 60 languages, the little book was banned in Spain, burnt in Hitler’s Germany, and praised everywhere else, even in India by Gandhi. Certainly the staunch anti-Communist Walt Disney saw no leftist political message in it when he green-lighted his short animated adaptation.

As a visual parable, the film should appeal to young and older viewers. It captures well the ancient Isaiahan vision of God’s creatures overcoming their violent tendencies so they can live together in harmony—and Nina is a good stand-in for the child leading them. Those who love the now classic adaptation of Ted Hughes’s The Iron Giant will be happy to have another peacemaking film that says, “though you may be built for violence, you do not have to give in to it—there can be a more positive way of dealing with conflict.”

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

Phantom Thread (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 10 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?

Matthew 7:28-30

On his 1st date with Alma Reynolds makes a dress.          (c) Focus Features

World-renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) would scoff at the words of the Galilean carpenter, no doubt considering him as attacking their lucrative livelihood. It is doubtful even if they had lived in the same century and country that their paths would ever cross. They moved in very different circles. Brother and sister were accustomed to dressing royalty, society grand dames, and debutantes, whereas the people among whom Jesus moved could barely afford two garments, not the closet-full owned by patrons of The House of Woodcock.

As we see in the first part of the film, Reynolds is like a spider sitting at the center of its web, regarding everyone else as being there to serve his interests. He eats his breakfast in silence with Cyril sitting watchfully across from him. When a current live-in mistress scrapes her toast too loudly, he complains, and soon she has been dispatched from the premises.

Then comes the day when Reynolds’s tightly controlled life is upended. During his stay at a country inn he spies a comely waitress. Alma (Vicky Krieps) is a shy somewhat awkward woman with a German accent. When she is able to memorize his menue requests, he offers and she accepts his invitation to dinner. He does most of the talking, mainly about his mother and his dressmaking, and soon she is accompanying him to his multi-storied town house. But it is not for a sexual tryst—at least not yet. Reynolds has her remove her dress, not for sex but for measurements, he taking up needle and thread to create a dress for her—well, no, really it is for himself. Everything this man does is for himself.

Alma thereafter finds herself a part of The House of Reynolds, Reynolds’s muse and mistress at night, and during the day helping his extensive crew of dressmakers in any way she is bidden. Because of her beauty she also models his clothes for his fashion shows. Soon aware of his volatile temperament and dismissals of past lovers, Alma soon develops the strength of character to stand up to him during his stormy tantrums. Alma dares to ask what his other lovers had not, “Why are you not married?” to which he replies, “I make dresses.” She chuckles as she asks, “You cannot be married when you make dresses?” “I’m certain I was never meant to marry. I’m a confirmed bachelor. I’m incurable.”

Alma manages to find the “cure,” but they do not settle into marital bliss, their inevitable conflicts increasing in ferocity. Alma becomes as deadly in her efforts to maintain her place in his life as any femme fatale in a film noir—beware of her mushroom meals!

Daniel Day Lewis initially received all the attention, due both to his great skill as an actor and his announcement that he would retire from acting after this film. But as soon as the film was available, critics picked up on what for most of us is a new face, Vicky Krieps, who easily stands up to Lewis in their scenes together. The film is as much about Alma, whose journey from quiet ingénue to fierce warrior for her rights, as it is about Reynolds. Indeed, Leslie Manville is also formidable as Cyril, who has been used to being the one woman constantly in her brother ‘s life, in the past able to get rid of any woman threatening to become a rival. The dynamics between her, Alma, and Reynolds are fascinating to watch

The film is a delightful mixture of the serious and the comic, an example of the latter being when a rich, portly matron gets drunk while wearing his dress at a wedding. Reynolds, considering himself as an artist faced with sacrilegious behavior, marches up to her hotel suite where she has flopped into bed, and with Alma’s help, strips the dress from her sleeping body, despite the protests of the woman’s servant.

As a study of characters engaged in a power struggle, this is a film well worth seeing. Reynolds Woodcock is a man who thinks he is the center of the universe—until he comes upon a woman who is as strong-willed as he. From his talk about and his vision of his deceased mother that he has during a fever brought on by his eating poisonous mushrooms, we see the huge influence she has had in shaping his life. Now it will be Alma, the only woman aside fro his sister Cyril able to stand up to him. We are left to ponder the future of the couple’s—no, the trio’s—unholy alliance.

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

Hostiles (2017) 

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 14 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 8; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 4.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?

If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.

Psalm 139:7-8 (KJV)

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

Ephesians 2:14

The Chief and the Captain move from hatred to respect. (c) Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

I wish I could have seen director/writer Scott Cooper’s elegiac Western a week sooner, because it would have been on my Top Ten List for 2017. Set during the closing years of the frontier (1892), it is one of the most thought-provoking Westerns that I’ve seen since Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Be warned that it is both violent and, in between battles, slow moving, the film makers being more concerned with character development than action.

The film opens with renegade Commanches slaughtering all the Quaids, a frontier family–except for the wife/mother who manages to run and hide while clutching to her breast her infant, who has been shot.

The film switches to nearby nearby Fort Berringer, New Mexico, where Colonel Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang) gives veteran Indian fighter Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) the unwelcome news that he has been chosen for a mission set up by the President of the United States. He is to take charge of the fort’s most notorious prisoner, Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), who is dying from cancer and escort the Chief and his family to their ancestral lands, hundreds of miles away in the Valley of the Bears, in Montana.

Hating Native Americans so much that he has matched them slaughter for slaughter (including women and children the Captain says at one point), Blocker refuses. However, he is about to retire, and the Colonel holds the trump card. Continue to say No, and he will be court martialed, which will result in the loss of his pension.

One of the soldiers making up the escorting party is the African American Corp. Henry Woodsen (Jonathan Majors). Another is Master Sergeant Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane), an old companion of many campaigns. The latter has seen so much killing that a deep “melancholia” has overtaken him. The prescribing doctor had recommended his guns to be taken from him.

To strip his captives of their dignity Blocker orders that the Indians be chained during the trip. Along with the chief and his wife, Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher); his son, Black Hawk (Adam Beach) and his wife; and their two younger children. The film is essentially a 19th century road trip during which the Captain travels as far inwardly as he does geographically.

Not long after leaving the fort, the party comes upon the blackened ruins of the Quaid house, where the dead bodies lie on the ground and the traumatized Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) is still clutching her dead baby. The Captain and soldiers treat her tenderly, taking over from her the task of digging the graves when she gives up clawing at the hard ground with her fingers. The Native Americans also regard the slaughter with horror, the women later on approaching the almost comatose mother and offering her their clothing to replace her stained garments.

The second stop is due to the attack of the same Comanche band, which is repulsed, but with the loss of a soldier and the wounding of Woodsen. Rosalie takes up a pistol and, striding over to the body of a slain Commanche, fires into it until all the bullets are gone.

The party stops at another army post where the commander’s wife, unaware of Rosalie’s experience, complains of the unjust treatment of Native Americans by settlers, the Army, and the corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs. Her husband, knowing of the Captain’s views, hushes her. He turns over an imprisoned soldier Philip Wills  (Ben Foster) for the party to deliver another town where the man is to be hanged because of his indiscriminate killing of Native Americans. (Later this man, who had served under Blocker, will observe that the Captain today would also have been convicted and sentenced to die. Times have changed!)

The Captain had intended to leave Rosalie at the fort, but circumstances make it necessary for her to continue on with his party. There is still more violence when fur trappers kidnap and rape the women. By now Blocker has taken the chains from his prisoners because they had helped fend off the Comanches, so the braves join the soldiers in winning back the captive women. Up in Montana there will be still more violence due to the bigotry of a white cattleman and his sons.

Although Capt. Blocker says, “I’ve killed everything that’s walked or crawled,” he is not depicted as an ignorant brute. He is a reader of books, his apparently favorite being Caesar’s Gallic Wars that he reads in the Latin by firelight when they make camp. He also, like the recovering Rosalie, is given to reflection. At one point when they sit together on the prairie, she speaks about the need to drive away thoughts of the finality of death. “You believe in the Lord, Joseph?” she asks, to which he replies, ‘Yes, I do, but I think he’s been blind to what’s going on out here.” She can only respond that she has faith. “If I did not have faith, what would I have?”

Throughout the film the Native Americans are given few lines. Instead of the spare lines in which Chief Yellow Hawk expresses his enmity for the Cheyenne and the need for the whites and his family to fight together against their attackers, it is through the acts of compassion toward Rosalie that we see that he and his family have moved beyond their past hatred of whites. The moment during the night when the guilt-ridden Sergeant Thomas Metz comes to the Chief seeking his forgiveness for past atrocities is a moving one, our gladness at his act of reconciliation being quickly overcome by the sorrow that follows soon after. Near the end, the exchange of respectful words between the Captain and the Chief also is deeply moving.

Aside from the brutal violence, my chief criticism of the film is that the story is told almost entirely from the White perspective, the Native American actors given very few lines. Fortunately, veteran actors Wes Studi and Adam Beach are able to convey their suffering and dignity through their expressions as well as their brief lines. By the end of the story we understand and accept the truth in the tag line seen in the film’s trailer, “We are all hostiles.” And so we still are, the film being as relevant to 2018 as to 1892. That mutual hostility is well captured in the brief shot near the beginning of the film when Blocker enters the prison cell to stare at Chief Yellow Hawk. We see the Chief in profile, defiantly looking ahead rather than at his visitor, and through the bars, the Captain, the bars thus embodying “the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us”  that the apostle Paul wrote about.  The film makers offer a ray of hope, both in the mended relationship between the two warriors, and again in the decision that the Captain makes at the end of the film. The future of the Chief’s young grandson will no doubt be fraught with difficulty, but that, as they say, “is another story.”

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

For Lenten material see the author’s book Jesus Christ Movie Star in the Store.

Meet Patrick Walsh, Creator of the CBS TV series LIVING BIBLICALLY

Interviewed by Edward McNulty at 3 P.M. Jan. 25, 2018

Patrick Walsh was born in Missouri and studied film production at Webster University in that state. He moved to NYC where as an NBC page he worked on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and “Saturday Night Live. “In 2006 he participated in NBC’s “Writers on the Verge” program in Los Angeles. Some of the programs he has been associated with are “Outsourced,” “2 Broke Girls,” “Rob & Big” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” He also was an actor in the latter series. Last year he wrote for the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, hosted by Hasan Minaj.

After preliminary greetings during which I mentioned that I had been able to preview three episodes, the following took place. There are a couple of places on the tape where a word or phrase is unintelligible, so I have summarized that portion, the over-all meaning not impaired.)

Ed: How did you become involved in this project?

Patrick: I was looking for something to do, a new project, was sitting in the library, and there was just the same ole same ole stuff (on the screen). People frantic, living in L.A., or whatever, and I was bored. I saw this book by A.J. Jacobs, I had never read it. Took it home and read it in a night. I got all excited about it, and I felt excited about the prospect of adding a show based on it, because I don’t think there’s anything quite like this on the TV right now.

Ed: There certainly is not. The closest would be many years ago when ABC ran the wonderful series NOTHING SACRED, which took a more serious approach.

Patrick: I don’t know that one. I’ll have to look it up.

Ed: There’s been a campaign to get ABC to release it on video, so I think a lot of my readers will be interested in your series. You wrote the first script, and now you have others writing, apparently.

Patrick: Yes, the three you saw are not in order. I think you got one, two, and seven. I have more down the road.

Ed: I appreciate the balanced approach you took in the episode in which the atheistic mother-in-law comes to visit. In their arguing neither one is put down or made fun of. They both have their valid points and are allowed to make them.

Patrick: Yes, that was very important.

Ed: It is, for I was very turned off by a faith-based film called GOD IS NOT DEAD because the part of the atheist was written so poorly. Naturally, the Christian won in that film. I like your approach, because neither wins—it’s that they just try to understand each other.

Patrick: Well that’s the goal of the show. I have a writing staff that’s made up of atheists, devout Christians, Baptists, your people. We’d have discussions every day. No one ever won in the discussions, but we all walked away, you know, I would say as better people, a more understanding people. That was the thrill of the job, to have them, to have discussions every day in the writers’ room, because that’s usually not discussed, I’m certain, in the writers’ room. That’s the point of the show, “Let’s try to understand each other here in America, I hope, even for such in a brief period.” It’s a rough time.

Ed: It is. We seem to be screaming at each other, rather than talking with each other.

Patrick: That’s correct.

Ed: Now, you’ve dealt with the issue of science and faith, and even—what else did I see—yes, adultery. I love the stoning scene. I wondered how you were going to handle that issue. (We both laugh.)

Patrick: Yeah, we filmed that in front of an audience, and right before it happened, I was like, “Boy, I hope this works, I hope this works!” It was exciting to see.

Ed: OK, you’ve answered a question I had. This is filmed in front of an audience, so you don’t have one of those phony laugh tracks.

Patrick: It was filmed 100% in front of an audience, and I actually would not allow them to doctor the laughter in any way. So, if a joke didn’t work, we changed the joke, until they laughed. The only thing we did was to cut them for time.

Ed: So, you had some try-outs, in other words.

Patrick: Yes, that’s fairly standard for a multi-camera sitcom like this with a live audience. If a joke bombs, which is always going to happen, then the writers huddle up and find a way to beat it. When you write ahead of time, that’s a great thing about having an audience. You know, a concern, when you’re going to do comedy, is how you’re going to affect people, and you can hear right away if the line went too far–you’ve heard from the audience right away. You’d address that as well. Then also, you can see the subject that really gets their interest, like the prayer in the scene that you watched. I was there with a Baptist, and it worked for Tom. We were kind of exploring faith and prayer and all this stuff—and we could see if the audience was really invested in it.

Ed: What are some other hot issues you might be dealing with—episodes that I’ve not seen, or that you are planning?

Patrick: Well, I would say the fundamental issue we had this year was a show called “Submit to Thy Husband,” which was about the misogyny of the Bible.

Ed: I wondered if you were going to deal with that.

Patrick: Yes, that’s something that, you know, that modern women have a lot of issues with the Bible, and I understand those issues. We discussed them at length. You know, basically there’s Leslie his wife, who was not raised religious—we discussed this at length. There are all these verses (about husbands and wives), so that this is “the tip of the iceberg.” Leslie is terrified that her husband is now living 100% by the Bible, and will start acting this way, start thinking this way in their marriage. They have it out, and at the end of this, that’s the one instance where at the end of the episode I want to go for a more modern interpretation of this verse. I think it pertains to each other as a husband and wife. I think there was a time when the man was the head of the household, then they were the same, then the change, “Let’s commit to each other, let’s be there for each other,” and, that is a controversial point of view.    I will say that the audience that we had really loved that moment—still, I think it didn’t change anybody’s mind on the subject, but I hope that it makes people think about the topic. There are also certain aspects about the Bible that don’t seem to fit into the modern world, and that’s one where there still is, trying to figure out what you can do as a modern-day person and what you can’t. That was the sorest subject matter that we addressed, though we’re certainly not opposed to the point of view expressed because I think it makes for really interesting television.

Ed: Yes, especially now with the #MeToo Movement becoming so popular.

Patrick: That’s right.

Ed: You’re very relevant.

Patrick: I hope so.

Ed: I love it that you bring in the interfaith aspect with the rabbi character, who’s very important for interpreting the Old Testament. Will he bring in some interfaith type issues?

Patrick:  Yeah, though they’ll take a back seat. I want to focus on Rabbi Gil and Father Gene as characters. That was really important to me. I was raised Catholic, and that’s what I know. It was very important to me to have a religious group that was very diverse, and that a (real) priest and a rabbi read every draft of the script. They would tell us when–I think they were versed with a better ear– “I don’t think a priest would say this,” or “I don’t know that a rabbi would say this,” etc. “You’re just flat out wrong about this, that’s not true…” When they came in, they didn’t know each other, our priest consultant and our rabbi consultant, we had allotted a half hour, but it wound up to being two or three. It was so cool to see these guys riff off each other. They had so much respect for each other. They were making each other laugh, they were cracking jokes. It was just really fun…When we taped the episode, members of the audience said they didn’t know that a priest and a rabbi could be friends. That’s cool if people take that from it, then that’s great. It’s about the importance of tolerance and understanding of people in terms of religion and in terms of everything.

Ed: Have you thought of introducing a Muslim character in some way?

Patrick: We’ve thought about it I certainly think we would do that, and the reason we did not this year is because we do not have a Muslim writer on the staff. I don’t know enough to take that slant on my own, but we would love to.  We did go to a Baptist church this season to see them– and we would love to see Chip go to a bunch of different faiths and explore and learn about them all.

Ed: Good. Now, I see in a sense you are dealing with racism by having Vince, who is an African American. Will you be dealing with the latent racism that is within our country? Does his being black become an issue at any time?

Patrick: Well…there are a few instances, but not a full episode or anything like that. I think the important thing is that the script has to be kind of subtle. I wanted a priest and a rabbi that could be friends. I think this could send a powerful message…they are making connections and getting along, though they come from different places. I think we’ll accomplish a lot more.”

I expressed my appreciation that there also is an Indian character in a few episodes. Patrick observed that the show is set in New York, and “we want the show to be a melting pot and represent America.” I mentioned my reservation about the over-acting of the actress playing Vince’s girlfriend (see my review of the series on this site), to which he did not react defensively. We discussed briefly the comedic approach to religion and the risk of some viewers being upset by this, as happened years ago when the film OH, God! upset a lot of people. Then there was a comedian who was the son of a rabbi retold Biblical stories in a very funny way on a late-night talk show. Patrick, obviously recognizing the danger of his comedic approach, replied that our hearts are in the right place, his staff wanting to show the positive effects of faith in a person’s life. Our all too brief conversation ended with each of us wishing the other much success.

I, Tonya (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 8; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift,

nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise,

nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful;

but time and chance happen to them all.

Ecclesiastes 9:11

Tonya’s mother examines her ice skates. (c) 30West

Director Craig Gillespie’s film biography of what is probably America’s most notorious ice skater abounds in dark humorous scenes, partly due to his having clips of the main characters in lone interviews scattered throughout the dramatic action. The interviews are shot and projected in a square format, whereas the dramatic portions are full-screen. The interviewees are: Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie); LaVona, Tonya’s mother (Allison Janney); Jeff Gillooly, Tonya’s husband (Sebastian Stan); Shawn, Jeff’s somewhat sleazy friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser); and Hard Copy reporter Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale).

In between the commentaries we see that little Tonya was raised by an oppressive mother who embodies all the bad qualities associated with a “stage mother.” She compels the girl to practice long hours and allows her no friends—when Tonya stands next to another little skater at the rink, LaVona orders her to stop talking with her, stating that she is not her friend, but an enemy. When her daughter does not perform to her expectations, she yells profanity at her, prompting from another mother “Do not swear in front of the kids.” LaVona retorts, “I didn’t swear, you cunt.” The mother’s verbal abuse spills over into physical abuse as well, her cuffs sometimes becoming blows that leave bruises that make-up barely conceals.

LaVona is rightly opposed to her daughter’s romance with Jeff Gillooly, but the pair fall so deeply in love that Tonya pays no attention to her mother’s warnings. The couple’s honeymoon does not last long, Tonya discovering that she now has two abusers. She and Jeff quarrel frequently and make up until…

Out in public view on the ice rink Tonya’s hard work and great athletic ability attract fans, especially when she becomes the first female able to pull off a triple axel. However, her judges continually give her less points than her performance deserves. At times she loses her temper, making a scene as she expresses her frustration before the judges’ stand.

A key scene for understanding Tonya, at least according to this film, is set in an underground garage where the disappointed skater, seeing a judge get into his car, rushes over and taps on his window. Reluctantly lowering it only partway, he responds to her pleas as to why the panel gives her lower marks than her performance deserves: she lacks the wholesome image his skating organization desires. She tearfully asks why she cannot be judged just on her performance and not an image, to which there is no answer.

Tonya thus is presented as the classic outsider, always looking in on the more privileged. She smokes; chooses rock ’n roll rather than classical music for her performances; and is forced by her waitress mother’s lack of money to sew her own costumes, which cannot stand the comparison with the designer costumes of her competitors. She seethes that her fiercest competitor Nancy Kerrigan faces none of these, that indeed the judges seem to favor her.

Unfortunately for all concerned Jeff picks up on his wife’s angry frustration and through his friend Shawn brings about what they call “The Incident,” the kneecapping of Nancy, depicted like an incident from a Keystone Cops tale. There follows a media storm, with reporters camping outside Tanya’s house and following her around while thrusting microphone at her wherever she goes. She denies knowing of or ordering the attack, so the public becomes deeply divided concerning her. The legal trials resulted in Tanya’s agreeing to a plea bargain of guilty. This kept her out of jail, but her banishment from figure skating forced her into less savory enterprises, including women’s boxing.

Although the film favor’s Tonya’s claim that she did not instigate the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, it does show her faults, even as it portrays her as the outsider. Perhaps the only likeable major character in the film is Tonya’s long-suffering first coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), whom we see at first refusing LaVona’s request to coach her daughter because at three-years she was too young. But when the undeterred mother sends her little girl out onto the ice, the coach perceives her great talent and changes her mind. She puts up with a lot of grief from her charge, breaks with her at one point, and then agrees to return and coach her again when the skater has a good chance of entering the Olympics. During the dark period following the attack on Kerrigan she defends her.

I, Tonya is not an uplifting story, but then real life often is not either. No matter how they try, filmmakers cannot clear away the suspicion that the abrasive skater was guilty as charged. She began as an outsider, and will end her life as an outsider, with people continually disagreeing as to whether or not she deserves to be one. What do you think—is she more of sinner or sinned against?

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

 LIVING BIBLICALLY (2018)

New CBS Series

 

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness

2 Timothy 3:16

The new CBS series Living Biblically, premiering Monday, Feb. 26 (9:30-10:00PM, ET/PT), shows great promise, judging by the three episodes I have seen. Combining humorous rifts with the serious theme of taking the ancient Bible seriously in the 21st Century is a bold move, but so was the non-fiction book which inspired series creator Patrick Walsh–A.J. Jacobs’ New York Times best seller The Year of Living Biblically.

The fictionalized TV series follows the misadventures of Chip Curry (Jay R. Ferguson), a critic at a New York newspaper married to a pregnant medical technician. Book author A.J. Jacobs is a writer at Esquire Magazine, and also married to a woman who becomes pregnant during the writing of his book. Beyond these similarities (and no doubt some amusing incidents from the book), the two story arcs follow their own patterns.

In the pilot episode, following a series of setbacks that includes the death of his best friend, Chip decides to set his life straight. Part of this decision is occasioned by the dead friend’s mother after the funeral telling Chip and his wife Leslie (Lindsey Kraft) that her wayward son is not in “a better place,” that because he stopped going to church, “his area code is 666”—and, when Chip says he too no longer attends, she says she is sure he (Chip) will see him again. This launches Chip into a funk, from which he is extracted when his wife returns from the medical clinic where she works to tell him she needs him now more than ever—she is pregnant. He promises her he will improve so as to become a worthy father. At a book store he adds to his tall stack of self-improvement books a Bible that he has pulled from the shelves. He almost puts it back but decides to buy it anyway—a decision that will change his life.

The next day Leslie is somewhat surprised by his announcement that after reading in the Bible the previous night, he has decided to live it literally for the 9 months of her pregnancy. The daughter of a flaming atheistic mother, she raises some mild objections, but agrees, as long as it does not spoil her fun. He assures her that it will improve their marriage.

In the confessional booth of the local Roman Catholic church we know right away that Chip has sought out the right priest for counsel. Father Gene (Ian Gomez) answers Chip’s knock and query, “Hey, man, are you open?” with, “We’re always open, like a 7 to 11.” After confessing a few minor sins, Chip reveals that he wants to live out the Bible literally. Fr. Gene breaks into a long belly laugh. He tells Chip that it is not possible, such acts as stoning would land him in trouble today—and he has already broken a commandment by wearing clothing made of two different fabrics. Using the letters comprising the word “Bible,” the priest calls the holy book “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” Chip is not discouraged.

The next day Chip shows up in his office dressed all in white cotton fabric to the astonishment of his friend Vince (Tony Rock). Accused earlier by co-worker Cheryl of always eating the last donut but never bringing any, he holds forth two boxes of the goodies. He even refuses to join his friend in running down the obnoxious co-worker Gary, whom they both despise, because this would violate Biblical commandments. (I love it that in A.J. Jacob’s delightful book, which as of now I am half through, counts down the number of days he is in his program, each day beginning with one of the 600+ Biblical commandments.)

Later, Chip talks with the priest at the bar of the restaurant where he is to meet Leslie and is introduced to the priests bearded friend who reveals that he is not just Gil, but Rabbi Gil (David Krumholtz), who turns out to be every bit as wisecracking as Fr. Gene. When Leslie shows up and is introduced to the clergymen, she dubs them “The God Squad.” Later, as husband and wife finish their dinner, Chip shoves over to her side a big piece of chocolate cake, saying he is resisting the sin of gluttony. Then Gary, Chip’s insufferable co-worker, walks into the dining room with a younger woman in a dress two sizes too small. Leslie, a good friend of Gary’s wife, is so incensed that she gets up and stalks over to their table, Chip anxiously following close behind her. He becomes upset by Gary’s awkward attempt to claim the mistress is his assistant, so he picks up a stone from the nearby potted plant and enforces Deuteronomy 20:10 in the funniest manner every filmed. The next day at the office, where his attempt to live Biblically has been the talk of everyone, his rash act of the night before bears unexpected fruit—with both Gary and their hard as nails boss Ms. Meadows (Camryn Manheim), sort of a female Lou Grant reacting to Chip in unexpected ways.

Some of the acting of minor characters is a bit broad at times, though the principals, Jay R. Ferguson and Lindsey Kraft, work well together, and if the series catches on, should become another of our favorite TV couples. I was at  first bothered by the laugh track, until I learned from series creator Patrick Wash (my interview with him will soon be up on my blog) that it was not phony; the episodes were all filmed before live audiences. In the two following episodes that I watched, “Episode 4, False Idols” and “Episode 7, Let Us Pray,” the issues of our obsessions that constitute idols; prayer and miracles; and science and religion are dealt with in a humorous but meaningful way.

In “False Idols”, after Chip accuses Leslie of idolizing the singer Beyoncé’, the clergy point out that Chip’s preoccupation with his cell phone is his idol, which he at first tries to deny. When he looks around the bar/restaurant, he quickly notices that almost every patron is involved with their mobile phones.

In “Let Us Pray” the issue of praying and miracles are lightly treated when Chip and others are trapped in a stalled elevator and they are rescued after he prays—coincidence or miracle? Handled even better is the science vs. religion debate when Leslie’s flaming atheist mother visits them and accuses Chip of giving up on science. Chip retorts that he still believes in a 4 billion-year-old Earth, and not a 6000 year or so old one, that science and faith are not enemies. The two go back and forth, neither “winning,” but coming away with a mutual respect for the other’s position, instead of their negative prejudgment held before.

I found myself astonished that so much good material was packed into each, seemingly brief, 22-minute episode. Creator Patrick Wash told me that a later episode will hit close to Chip’s home, the title revealing the subject, “Submit to Thy Husband.” Other topics will include stealing, honoring our father, loyalty, giving and receiving, and a series closer with the intriguing title of “David and Goliath.” I can hardly wait to see these. Along with amusement and laughter, the series offers religious leaders a great opportunity to induce their people to watch by promising to comment upon them in their sermons or classes. This is a series worth supporting, so watch my blog in February for updates and comments.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the February issue of Visual Parables. If you find this review helpful, please help us out by ordering an issue or a year’s subscription at The Store section of this site.