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.

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.

Maudie (2016)

 

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly

Luke 1:52

Everett is not impressed by Maud’s cooking or cleaning, but he does come to appreciate the extra income her paintings bring in.

Maud (Sally Hawkins) would certainly qualify as “the lowly” in director Aisling Walsh’s modest film biography of Nova Scotian folk artist Maud Lewis. Born with a form of arthritis that has twisted one of her legs and a foot and deformed her fingers, she is bereft of parents and in 1938 foisted by her brother Charles Dowley (Zachary Bennet) upon an aunt when he unilaterally sells their family home. The judgmental Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) scorns her as a worthless imposition. Maud seeks solace by slipping out at night to pay a visit to the village dance hall. There, though almost totally ignored, she can enjoy the music and the people dancing together.

While shopping at the village of Digby’s general store Maud overhears an illiterate fishmonger named Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) ask the storekeeper to write and post a note advertising for a live-in housekeeper. He is scarcely out the door when Maud rushes over and tears it down, and she too is out the door.

Hobbling out to Everett’s small roadside shack, she knocks on the door. Obviously neither of them has either hired or applied for a job before: the interview is almost painful to watch. The bent-backed Maud with her twisted foot is obviously not the kind of help Everett had in mind. He rejects her at first, but she is so desperate to escape from her overly protective Aunt Ida, that she moves in her things anyway and starts cleaning. Does the filthy place ever need it!

Thus begins the new life of this “lowly one.” Cranky Everett himself is not much higher in status than she. He is little more than a brute in tattered clothing, speaking to her only to criticize or complain. As she feeds the chickens, he tells her that for him she comes after himself, his dog, and the chickens. Prone to angry outbursts, he even hits her one day. There is no room in the tiny downstairs room, so she sleeps in his bed up in the loft. For a while they lie facing in opposite directions, so there is no touching or talking at night.

One day, Maud, seeing a gallon-can of left-over green paint on the table, dips her finger in it and paints the stem of a plant on the wall. Then several more, and finding half-empty cans of other colors, she paints blossoms at the top of the stems. Everett, upon returning home from selling fish, is not pleased, telling her that she had not asked his permission to paint on the wall. However, he does not demand their erasure, so over the days when she has a moment amidst her cleaning, cooking, and feeding the chickens, she paints flowers on all the wars and even the windows. She also paints on small cardboard and postcards pictures of birds, blooming flowers, deer, yoked oxen, wide-eyed cats, Everett’s Model-T, and landscapes.  

No Rembarndt she, but still colorful enough to draw the attention of the New Yorker who comes up regularly to Digby for getaways from the city. Sandra (Kari Matchet) has been buying fish from Everett, and one day she barges into their house and spots the little paintings Maud has painted for her own amusement. The visitor asks to buy the cards. Her price of ten cents and then a quarter is ridiculously low, but Maud is delighted that she has created something valued by another. Soon she is painting discarded wood panels from some of the junk furniture that Everett brings home in his pushcart and chops into firewood. He says little about Maud’s paintings, other than to order her not to neglect her housework. However, he defensively replies to a shopkeeper who says that a five-year-old could have painted them, “Well a five-year-old did not paint these.”

Slowly Everett’s brown, shriveled soul begins to “green” (to use a term of Hildegard of Bingen) under Maud’s influence. We see this in a scene in which he pushes his handcart toward town. Hitherto Maud hobbled behind him, striving to keep up. This time she sits in the cart, facing forward, her feel dangling down. They are touching each other in bed now, and when she insists on marriage before sex, eventually they emerge from the chapel of the village orphanage where Everett was raised, now man and wife.

 

By now the walls, windows, and front door of the shack are cheerfully decorated, and Maud each day places a “Paintings for Sale” sign in front. She is getting the princely sum of $5 for a painting now, which is a welcome addition to Everett’s fishmonger income. A journalist and then a TV crew had come to interview her, so word of her child-like works has reached thousands of people. She is pleased that President Nixon has ordered a couple, though she insists on payment first before shipping them.

The team of Irish director Aisling Walsh and Canadian scriptwriter Sherry White, joined by such a talented cast, have given us a film largely devoid of cheap sentiment—no trace of the “disease of the week” genre, the film being half over before we learn what is Maud’s physical affliction. Actress Sally Hawkins pulls off a Daniel Day Lewis performance (as in My Left Foot) as an arthritic-plagued woman by twisting one of her feet and limping along the road that leads from her tiny shack into town. We admire her perseverance and ability to see beauty amidst such privation. In one scene, she points to their window and says, “I love a window. The whole of life already framed., right there.” Late in the film Maud visits her aunt, who confesses to her, “You’re the only one in our family who ended up happy.” Maybe this is because she was the only one who saw art as the window for seeing beauty that abounds if we but look for it.

Though suffering pain throughout her life and eventually dying of pneumonia, she has left at least two hundred of her own little windows through which we can see the world as lovely place to be in. The little house she so gayly decorated has been restored and, along with 55 of her paintings, is on display in the Scotiabank Maud Lewis Gallery at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

All pictures courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing.

Note: Art lovers might want to take a look at the book by Lance Woolaver Maud Lewis: The Heart on the Door that paints a much darker picture of the artist and her husband.

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

War for Planets of the Apes (2017)

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

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

Our star rating (1-5): 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

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

Hosea 6:6 (Referenced by Jesus in Matt. 9)

Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’

Matthew 9:13a

Let them pardon and overlook. Would you not love for Allah to forgive you? Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.

The Koran, Surah An-Nur 24:22*

Ape leader Caesar treats his captured enemies with mercy.              (c) 20th Century Fox

Director/co-writer Matt Reeves brings this rebooted trilogy of the Planet of the Apes to a thrilling conclusion that should partially please adherents to all three of the Abrahamic faiths. I inserted “partially” because only after the credits faded did I realize that I was led to applaud the disappearance of the human race, or at the least, a major part of it. By a combination of fine directing and acting, brilliant CGI work, an intriguing script paying homage to numerous films, and composer Michael Giacchino’ stirring music used sparingly amidst stretches of scenes largely silent, this film appeals to the imagination and soul as well as the desire for action-based entertainment. Even the dullest of viewers should come away pondering the question, “Which species is ‘humane’ and therefore deserving to survive?” And for people of faith, as well as lovers of Shakespeare, the film can serve as a visual meditation on “the quality of mercy.”

In 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes the chimp Caesar (Andy Serkin) was intent on maintaining peace between the humans and apes after (in the first film of the trilogy) a world-wide plague had killed off most humans and a scientist had changed the latter by enhancing their intelligence and ability to speak. However, Caesar’s onetime ally Koba (Toby Kebbell), ever distrustful of humans because of painful experiments conducted on him years earlier, along with an equally distrustful leader among the humans, had destroyed the uneasy truce between the two species. Now Caesar is centered on survival—and all too soon, vengeance.

The film opens with a contingent of human soldiers guided by an ape named Red (Ty Olsson), once a follower of the now dead Koba, stealthily creeping up on the apes’ camp deep in Muir Woods outside of San Francisco. After heavy casualties on both sides, Caesar’s side wins the battle, the three surviving soldiers and Red bound by ropes and kneeling before him. The captives expect execution, but Caesar instead orders them mounted on horses (still tied together), saying to them, “I have a message for your Colonel. Leave us the woods and the killing can stop.” When someone asks if he thinks they will deliver his message, the optimistic Caesar says, “They are the message.”

Unfortunately, Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), as mad and head-shaven as Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, believes that humans will be safe only when all apes are dead. (In the film’s poster, you can see written on a soldier’s helmet the slogan,” The only good ape is a dead ape.”) He and his rogue unit that is called Alpha-Omega are based at a walled mountain fortification where they rule over captured apes forced into manual labor. That the references to Francis Ford Coppola’s film are no accident, we see scrawled on a tunnel wall the graffiti “Ape-pocalypse Now.” The wall they are building is for defense against fellow humans who regard them as outlaws, as well as against apes.

Caesar and his band have heard of a beautiful valley some distance away where they hope to avoid contact with humans. However, one dark night a squad led by Colonel McCullough sneaks into the apes’ cave by the waterfall, intent on killing Caesar. During the ensuing fight the soldiers are killed, but not before McCullough shoots and kills Cornelia and Blue Eyes, Caesar’s wife and oldest son. Caesar lunges after the Colonel as he swings on a rope through the waterfall, but the latter escapes when he cuts the portion of the rope to which Caesar is clinging.

That morning Caesar, entrusting his surviving son, young Cornelius, to his daughter-in-law Lake, sends his people off toward the valley. Telling them he will join them later, he insists on going after the Colonel, the once pacific chimp now intent on vengeance. The film morphs into a Western journey of revenge like True Grit, and then at the Alpha-Omega Camp assumes the form of a concentration camp movie, similar to The Great Escape.

However, true to the Western format, Caesar does not set out alone, but is joined by good friends who refuse his commands to stay with the other apes. Rocket (Terry Notary), gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) and gentle orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) insist that they want to protect him. Along the way they pick up a mute little human girl whom they name Nova (Amiah Miller). She is frightened, so Luca hands her her cloth doll as a gesture that they mean her no harm. He overrides Caesar’s desire to leave her. Like so many humans, Nova cannot speak because she has been infected by the ape virus. The friendship that develops between gorilla and child is one of several tender incidents in the film, especially symbolized by the flower Lucas gives her for her hair, and which later she gives back to him as a sign of her love. Lucas’s act of kindness proves to pay off later, the girl becoming the agent of Caesar’s survival during a frigid night when, a captive of the Colonel’s, he is doused with water and thrown into a prison compound.

Another person they pick up on their journey is a small chimp calling himself Bad Ape (Steve Zahn). Like so many of the plague-exposed apes, he has gained the power of speech, telling them that his name was given to him at the Zoo where he had been kept. He provides numerous moments of levity during the last half of the film, as well as working with Nova to help bring release to Caesar and his fellow captives. As they proceed Maurice warns Caesar that he is becoming like the hate-filled Koba.

When at night the small party approaches the Colonel’s lair, Caesar moves on alone. He comes upon several of his clan tied to St. Andrew-type crosses, apparently left to die of exposure as a punishment. One of them tells him that they were all captured by the Colonel’s soldiers and are being forced to work on a wall. Suddenly Red appears behind Caesar and knocks him out with the butt of his rifle. When he regains consciousness, he sees Col. McCullough. Looks his enemy in the face the soldier exclaims, “My God! Look at your eyes. Almost human.”

This grim sequence is both depressing and inspiring. Depressing in that it reveals how cruel humans can be, the sight of cowering apes surrounded by high barbed-wire fences calling to mind the Nazis’ treatment of Jews. Serving as guards are numerous apes: instead of “Kapo,” they are have written on their backs “Donkey.” Inspiring in that we see the clan, in a pen across from the one in which the battered and beaten Caesar is held, raising their hands as a sign of their solidarity. Among the captives is little Cornelius, crying out for his father. And it is a human, little Nova, working with Bad Ape, who will become the means of their release. Inspiring too, is the moment in which Caesar has the opportunity to wreak vengeance upon the Colonel, and…

There is a bloody battle that involves both the escaping apes and an attack by a large human army arriving in helicopters, intent on bringing the rogue Colonel to justice. The tremors from the exploding bombs, rockers, and shells bring on an apocalyptic destruction of the humans by a huge avalanche of snow.

The quiet conclusion, a Moses-views-the Promised-Land moment, neatly concluding this trilogy, but setting the stage for possible more to come. If there are, let’s hope the same filmmakers will be in charge. For an CGI-enhanced film, this one presents some moral issues of peace and justice seldom seen in this genre. I am really looking forward now to coming up with a set of questions exploring them. What a delightful film to engage a youth group in exploring issues of humanness, vengeance vs. reconciliation, friendship, and peacemaking.

*For more verses on this subject go to Islam.ru: http://islam.ru/en/content/story/forgiveness-quran-and-sunnah

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

 

 

Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 22 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—
let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.

For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart,
those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord.
In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, “God will not seek it out”;
all their thoughts are, “There is no God.”

Psalm 10:1-4

The dinner party begins amiably, but soon goes down hill.       (c) FilmNation Entertainment

Director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White finished their film before Donald Trump was elected president, but one of the characters couldn’t be more like him, except for two things—he is far more socially gracious, and has a lot less hair. Centering upon a Mexican-American masseuse/wholistic healer living in Southern California, the film’s fish out of water story shines a spotlight on the darker side of American business practices and the sometimes-disastrous ways that they affect those with no power. Salma Hayek’s Beatriz is so diminutive standing next to the others at the dinner party to which she is an unexpected guest that the story physically, as well as symbolically, becomes a David vs. Goliath affair.

At a ritzy Newport Beach mansion therapist Beatriz has just finished a session with Cathy (Connie Britton) when she discovers that her dilapidated VW will not start. Her wealthy client has become more of a friend than a patron because she is convinced that Beatriz’s nursing her sick daughter during a series of chemo treatments was as responsible for the girl’s recovery as were the doctors. Because Beatriz cannot secure a ride until later in the evening, she invites her to stay and join their small dinner party. Not suitably dressed, Beatriz tries to refuse, but Cathy will not take No for an answer—even when she informs her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) and he responds that he thinks this is not appropriate.

The catered dinner party is to celebrate Grant and his partner’s slightly shady business deal with the high-powered mover and shaker Doug Strutt. Thus, the guests include partner Alex (Jay Duplass) and his wife Shannon (Chloë Sevigny), and Doug (John Lithgow) and Jeana Strutt (Amy Landecker). As we will soon see, the project developer Doug has an appropriate last name. He is the kind who enters a room and expects all eyes to focus upon him. As the center of the conversation, he seems to think that everyone should be taking notes so they will remember his pearls of advice gleaned from his recounting his business exploits all over the world. Of course, at first, he thinks Beatriz, dressed as she is, is a servant, and asks her to fetch him a drink. Cathy ignores the scarcely concealed surprise of both couples as she introduces Beatriz, explaining to them how she brought their daughter back to health.

Beatriz at first sits demurely and quietly at the table as the other guests chatter back and forth, mostly about business dealings in Mexico and Panama. The tension begins when she recounts her family history beginning in Mexico, and Strutt interrupts to ask if they came into this country legally. When she describes her healing work, Strutt condescendingly says that this is good, she is contributing something.

The real fireworks begin later when Strutt, passing around his phone displaying a picture of a rhino he has shot, boasts about his exploit. We have seen earlier how much Beatriz loves animals, so her rising anger is no surprise. Calling it murder, the enraged Beatriz loses her cool, hurling the phone across the room at Strutt. She is even more upset later when she realizes that his Mexican hotel project that the others so admire was what disrupted her family and neighbors, destroying her community for the sake of wealthy American tourists.

Beatriz is so upset that she contemplates murder herself. The climax is shattering, and the end of the film is strange, almost enigmatic, which might leave you scratching your head. (I would love to hear what some of you think about it!)

For some this will be a parable comparing society’s predators to those exploited. I can imagine a Jeremiah doing more than throwing Strutt’s cell phone at him. He might have joined the later Galilean prophet who quoted him while turning over scores of another kind of table. When Beatriz leaves the group after her outburst, Cathy comes to see how she is faring. She exclaims to Beatriz, “I don’t even know you,” to which her guest replies, “You don’t.” Obviously during the years of massages and the difficult period when Beatriz nursed her sick daughter, Cathy had never enquired about the healer’s past, or the tragic reason why her family had left Mexico.

Most critics have called this a dark comedy. It is the kind that the jaded Qoheleth might have written could he have become a filmmaker. When Beatriz speaks of how her family and their neighbors had to move out of their homes when Strutt’s project took over their land, I thought of the first verse of Ecclesiastes, “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.” The filmmakers pay heart-felt tribute to the little people, while calling the Strutts of the world to account.

Note: There are two trailers on IMDB that provide a good idea of what this film is about.

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

New! Visual Parables Journal for July 2017

LOVE MOVIES? Want to spark discussion with friends? Subscribe to Visual Parables Journal. The July 2017 issue is packed with complete study guides, including: A Quiet Passion, The Beguiled, Megan Leavey, Wonder Woman, Cars 3, The Hero, The Lovers, Dean, Paris Can Wait, Churchill, and many more. Visit our Visual Parables store to subscribe.

 

A Quiet Passion (2016)

 

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 5 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

One fate comes to all alike, and this is as wrong as anything that happens in this world. As long as people live, their minds are full of evil and madness, and suddenly they die. But anyone who is alive in the world of the living has some hope; a live dog is better off than a dead lion. Yes, the living know they are going to die, but the dead know nothing. They have no further reward; they are completely forgotten. Their loves, their hates, their passions, all died with them. They will never again take part in anything that happens in this world.

Ecclesiastes 9:3-6

The only family member not kneeling at their pastor’s command is Emily. (c) Music Box Films

British filmmaker/writer Terence Davies has given us a wonderful film to enhance our enjoyment of Emily Dickinson’s graceful poetry. He begins his film in 1848, when Emily would have been about. 18 years of age, a student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary where its founder Mary Lyon (Sara Vertongen), addresses the assembled classes. “You have now come to the end of your second semester. Some of you will remain here … Some of you will go out into the world…I put to you a question of the utmost importance, which concerns your spiritual well-being. Do you wish to come to God and be saved?”

At her urging, those sure of their salvation move to one side of the room, while the not yet arrived, but still hopeful ones move to other side. One student remains in the center. Emily. Miss Lyons demands, “Have you said your prayers?” “Yes, though it can’t make much difference to the Creator.” Upset by this, her interrogator launches into a critical tirade, to which the unmoved Emily replies, “I wish I could feel as others do, but it is not possible.” “You are alone in your rebellion, Miss Dickinson. I fear that you are a no-hoper.” “Yes, Miss Lyon.”

The recalcitrant Emily is relieved that her brother Austin, has arrived to rescue her, taking her and her sister back to their home in Amherst. Throughout the film Emily is depicted as a lone rebel, standing against the stifling conventions of her time, eventually becoming the recluse who was the subject of so much talk in the town. Later when she is asked if she has an illness, she says that she had “an acute case of evangelism.”

Another example of the script’s many witticism’s is Emily’s response to her straight-laced Aunt Elizabeth (Annette Badland) comparing her rebellious acts to French Revolutionist Robespierre. The niece impudently says that she would prefer Charlotte Corday, the vengeful woman who was executed for assassinating the radical Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub.

At home Emily usually is the dutiful daughter, seeking her father Edward’s (Keith Carradine) permission to stay up late and write her poems. Liberal for his times, he agrees. He also accedes to her request that he contact his friend Dr. Holland, editor of the Springfield Republican, about publishing one of her poems. (Until the end of her life, this would be the only journal in which less than a dozen of her over 800 poems appeared in print.) Yet we also see the father as sharing his age’s patriarchal views when the family attends an operatic recital in Boston and he criticizes the female singer for appearing on a stage. Aunt Elizabeth is even more vehement in denouncing this crossing over the line of female propriety.

Throughout her life Emily will be the dutiful (to her father) outsider, even dissenting from the public’s taste in poetry. Whereas others profess their great admiration for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, especially his lengthy “Hiawatha,” she expresses disdain. She prefers poetry that is not so obvious, poetry that challenges the intellect as well as the senses. She pushes against the world even in the punctuation of her writing, in one scene angrily condemning the editor for “correcting” what he thought were mistakes without consulting her.

The film transitions from its short first portion dealing with the characters’ youth to its longer section, set years later, by a marvelous dissolve effect. The family members are having their portraits taken by a photographer. As the finished photo of each appears, it morphs from the faces of the younger actors into that of the older ones who take their places in the story. Rose Williams, playing Emily’s sister Vinnie, slowly changes into Jennifer Ehle; Benjamin Wainwright, as young Austin, melts into Duncan Duff; Emma Bell dissolves into Cynthia Nixon — and Keith Carradine’s hair becomes thinner.

Another admirable technical feat is a leisurely 360-degree camera shot in the family parlor that begins with Emily. The family members are entertaining themselves as slowly the camera focuses upon each of them–the austere Aunt Elizabeth (Annette Badland) is almost nodding off to sleep; Edward is reading; brother, Austin (Benjamin Wainwright), partly off in the shadows, also is reading, her adored sister, Lavinia (Rose Williams), known as Vinnie, sewing; and their mother, also named Emily (Joanna Bacon) stares at the fire. The camera passes over the flames in the fireplace and other objects in the semi-darkened room, at last coming to rest once more on young Emily, her serious face revealing some inner concern.

Never having read any of the Dickinson biographies, I do not know how much of the film’s dialogue is historical, and how much stems from the creative imagination of the filmmaker. Admirers of Mt. Holyoke College and its pioneering feminist founder Mary Lyon will be upset by the portrayal of Ms. Lyon as a narrow-minded, vindictive religious fanatic, but I suspect the writer would say that his intention is for this scene is to show the kind of religion the poet was up against all her life, rather than to show the real Miss Lyon. From what I have been able to find out, this scene is not recorded anywhere else. However, such rigid religious views did prevail in New England at the time, and sadly, still are wide-spread among Fundamentalists. This is but one of the theories as to why Dickinson left the school after just 10 months, another being that she was homesick, and another that the shy girl and her sister (yes, Vinnie enrolled at the same time) did not get along with her fellow students.

Although I usually prefer historical accuracy, I find this scene helpful in showing the poet’s courage and forthrightness in refusing to bow down to religious tyranny—and she literally refuses to bow down when the dour pastor of her family’s church visits their home and demands that they all kneel and pray for God’s forgiveness. Emily’s refusal is based on her lack of feeling any guilt, her father angrily chastising her later and demanding that she apologize.

That she does respect compassionate religious leaders we see later in her relationship to other ministers, and, of course, in her poems, several of whom are read throughout the film. I am looking forward to seeing the film on DVD when I can use the subtitles to better catch the words of the numerous poems read by Cynthia Nixon. (I wish that IMDB included a list of them.) Of course, as the film approaches the time of the poet’s death, we do hear the words of her beloved, “Because I could not stop for Death— / He kindly stopped for me.”

Mary Lyon might have branded Dickinson as a “no-hoper,” but the poet was merely a questioner of dull, unimaginative orthodoxy. She would go on to write, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” The poet might have withdrawn from the world, but not from the universe. She continued to explore the latter regarding Nature, God, time, and death.

The film portrays Emily Dickinson as living completely in her own time (hence her obeying her father) yet also pushing against it, moving toward our own wherein a woman need not seek anyone’s permission to write after hours (or any other time). Her character, or role in life, is well summed up by the woman closest to her, except for her sister Vinnie, Miss Buffam (Catherine Bailey): “You are a strange creature, with more depth than any of us. You don’t demonstrate, you reveal.” I had intended to close this review with this, but then recalled the poem quoted in the film, perhaps more fitting in that it is autobiographical:

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me —
The simple News that Nature told —
With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see —
For love of Her — Sweet — countrymen —
Judge tenderly — of Me

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