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.

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.

New! Visual Parables Journal for February 2018

LOVE MOVIES? Want to spark discussion with friends? Subscribe to Visual Parables Journal. The February 2018 issue is packed with complete study guides, including: The Post, Downsizing, Paddington 2, The Disaster Artist, 12 Strong, and many more. For Black History Month, Ed also shares a list of films that are great discussion starters about African-American history and the quest to end racism.Visit our Visual Parables store to subscribe.

12 STRONG: Interview with Spec. Ops Team Leader Mark Nutsch

On the afternoon of January 11 2018 I was privileged to interview by telephone Major Mark D. Nutsch.  A captain in 2001, he was the team leader and commander of ODA 595, one of the first Task Force Dagger combined Special Forces teams sent to Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban terrorist attack on New York City’s Twin Towers. The story of his team’s fantastic adventures is told in the film 12 Strong, reviewed elsewhere on this site.

After exchanging greetings, the following transpired:

Mark: In the film 12 Strong I was portrayed by Chris Hemsworth. In 2001 I was Southern Forces Detachment Commander of the Army’s Green Beret, with the rank of captain.

Ed: The film is based on a book called The Horse Soldiers. Were you interviewed by the author?

Mark: Yes, years ago members of my team, including myself, was interviewed very, very briefly, and the book was published a number of years later and eventually purchased for a film. And it took 5 or 6 years for that film to be developed, and here we are.

Ed: Yes, and I could hardly believe the film, it seemed so much like a novel, the 12 of you accomplishing so much in such a short time.

Mark: I’ll tell you, we were so inspired by the first responders. Most of America was watching the smoking pile of rubble in New York or that hole in the Pentagon or that field in Pennsylvania. We had in a very short time. By the 15th of September our team was alerted for a mission and in final preparations to deploy, knowing our mission was going to unfold in Afghanistan. Didn’t fully know the details yet. But by seeing the TV and seeing the first responders and what America was doing, rallying around them at those tragic locations where 3000 of our American citizens and international citizens were murdered, we were honored to be on the first team to be sent into Afghanistan.

Ed: It’s good to know that. How did it feel to see yourself in the film portrayed by an actor?

Mark: Well, my 2 daughters and 2 sons take a little humor in the fact that Chris Hemsworth is portraying their dad. I don’t think they fully grasp or realize yet what the mission entailed, the sacrifices and the commitment that our entire team had throughout the duration of that extended mission—that mission was several months long. It wasn’t just one of these fly in on helicopters, step off for a few hours, you know, and get up close and personal in discussions with the enemy, and get on the helicopter and be home for breakfast. We were living it day in and day out, 24-7 in that situation, just pushing each other and pushing ourselves. My resilience to bounce back in time, we learned lessons we took some lumps, no doubt.

Chris Hemsworth as Capt. Nutsch. Picture courtesy of Warner Bros.

Ed: In the film there was a deadline set while you were being briefed?

Mark: Yeah, we—the Command actually didn’t set the deadline. They didn’t expect us honestly to survive the mission. They expected us to winter in the mountains with our local partner force, build that army in capability, and come down out of the mountains in the spring, and help our U.S. military conventional forces, the Army and the Marines, that would try and come in, because it was going to take them months to build up the force that they needed. Our local allies, Gen. Dostum and others from three different ethnic factions that had been utterly brutalized by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, they didn’t want to wait either. None of us wanted to hole-up in the mountains past the winter. We did it within 21 days–we had liberated the key city of Mazar-e-Sharif and the surrounding six northern provinces of Afghanistan.

Ed: That was incredible. Were you really as confident as Chris Hemsworth said, “Well get it done before that time, and we’ll all come back”?

Mark: No, because as I said, the Command was not imposing that time-line on us. We were confident. We were confident that our team was the one to send. Very much the spirit of our team was, “Send me. Send us. We’re the team that is trained, mature, ready. We’ve been working so closely together that we are the right team to put into this unknown situation. Let us figure it out…

Hal Spencer was the pseudonym of the character portrayed by Michael Shannon. Some Special Forces teams do get ready for a mission, they have to go into an isolation that cuts them off from any distractions, and then they plan the mission. And they brief the Command on what they feel is the best course of action to that meeting. Once we briefed our plan, the task force commander, looked at it and said, “Hey, that’s a pretty good plan,” because really nothing was happening, there was not very much information out there. So, we thought we put together the best plan going.

You asked something earlier about confidence, and here’s how the confidence resonated throughout the team. One of the questions that was asked, “Can you make it to Mazar-e-Sharif in a good time frame?” And we told him, “Well, we’ll give it our best shot.  If we don’t, the storms that come in will push us up into the mountains, but we will continue to fight from the mountains, and we will conduct ambushes, raids, everything we need to whip up the Northern Alliance forces, advising and training them in those types of operations. The last question asked of me was by Col. H. He said, “That will work, and what do you think you will gain from that?” And I told him flat out, “Well win! We’ll win,” so we had the confidence going in.

(The press agent announced we had just a brief time left—and unknown to me I was also at the end of the cassette recording tape, so the following is what I can remember from Major Nutsch’s answers to my last questions.)

To my query about the his experience with Muslims, of the people being more than the stereotypical one held by some Americans, he replied that some Muslims did, of course, have a distorted form of the faith that led them to do terrible things. But that was not the way the people he dealt with were. He visited in the homes of many while deployed in the country and found them warm and hospitable. He has maintained contact with some, including Gen. Dostum, who now is Vice President of the country. The Major has done more than staying in contact with people in Afghanistan; he and his wife Amy have been supporting rural development and educational projects in the country as well. Our all too brief time concluded with my thanking him for his service to our country and the honor of talking directly with him.

Mark Nutsch himself has appeared in a documentary film, Greg Barker’s Legion of Brothers that was featured at the 2017 Sun Dance Film Festival and broadcast on CNN in October. It tells the story of Mark’s group in northern Afghanistan in October 2001 and a second group that infiltrated the southern part of the country. His bio sheet states,”Nutsch is now a research analyst for the Instiute and a reservist in special operations, working on aerial intelligence surveillance and emerging field technologies. He provides analytical support on Syria and the ISIS network. During his service he earned Bronze Stars and was awarded a Purple Heart.

Mudbound (2017)

Not Rated. Running time: 2 hours 14 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble.

He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not.

And doth thou open thine eyes upon such an one, and bringest me into judgment with thee?

Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one…

For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease.

Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground;

Yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant.

But man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he?

 As the waters fail from the sea, and the flood decayeth and drieth up:

So man lieth down, and riseth not: till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep.

Job 14:1-4;8-12 (KJV)

and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:2b

Love is the only force capable of turning an enemy into a friend.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jamie (L) & Ronsel begin their friendship on a town street. (c) Netflix

This powerful Netflix drama shows why Martin Luther King, Jr. was so necessary for our nation—and why we all, whites and blacks, should join together in celebrating “his day.” Though set in Mississippi during the early 1940’s, the film is very relevant today not only because of the resurgence of racism, but also because of its relevance to the #MeToo Movement—the film’s director is Dee Rees, black and female. Two of the film’s characters emerge as strong women pushing against a patriarchal system designed to force them to submit to the will of their husbands. (There is a scene in which the husband quotes a Scripture passage about husbands having authority over their wives, but the wife fires back with another passage in praise of women, “A good wife, who can find…”)

The director, working with Virgil Williams, whose script is adapted from Hillary Jordan’s novel, probes the dangerous relationships between members of a white and a black family in Mississippi’s Delta south of Greenville during and right after World War Two. Not since the Danny Glover film Freedom Song has the pre-Civil Rights Bill (1965) plight of ordinary African Americans been explored in such detail.

The metaphorical significance of the film’s title begins with a bookend sequence in which two brothers are digging a grave as a storm engulfs them. It is for their deceased father Pappy. The hole is so deep and filling up with rain and mud that the younger brother Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) needs the help of his brother Henry (Jason Clarke) to climb out of it. The next day the two men struggle with ropes to carry the heavy wooden coffin from the nearby house across the muddy yard to the grave. A mule-drawn wagon with the African American Jackson family is passing by. Henry calls over to the driver Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) to come and lend them a hand. It is not a request, but a command.

Hap does not reply, nor do his sullen looking family. In between this and its repetition at the climax of the film there is a series of flashbacks, narrated by several of the characters, that provide the reasons why Hap is so reluctant to comply.

Laura McAllan tells us how in Memphis she had been resigned at the age of 31 to stay with her parents as a virgin spinster, but then she had met Henry. Theirs was not a passionate romance, but she married him anyway. Upon meeting his younger brother Jamie, it is apparent that there is more chemistry between the two of them, but with the outbreak of World War Two, temptation is removed when he joins the Army Air Force as a bomber pilot. Not very successful in Memphis, Henry decides to buy a 200-acre cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta. The deal had been completed before Laura learns about the change, so she is not pleased by the move. She is even less so when they arrive at the house he thought he had bought in the nearby town, only to discover the seller had cheated him by selling it to someone else—and his deal with Henry had been sealed by a handshake, not paperwork. They have to drive out into the country and make do with the rundown farm house, surrounded by a lawn of mud.

The Jackson family had once owned the land. But then a powerful white man had torn up the deed and taken over the land. Hap muses, “What good is a deed? My grandfathers and great uncles, grandmothers and great aunts, father and mother, broke, tilled, thawed, planted, plucked, raised, burned, broke again. Worked this land all they life, this land that never would be theirs. They worked until they sweated. They sweated until they bled. They bled until they died. Died with the dirt of this same 200 acres under their fingernails. Died clawing at the hard, brown back that would never be theirs. All their deeds undone. Yet this man, this place, this law… say you need a deed. Not deeds.”

Now making a living as a sharecropper, Hap and his family are eating dinner when there is a loud knock on his door. A tell-tale sign of the unknown dangers the family lives under is Hap’s picking up his machete on his way to opening the door. It is Henry, his family and furnishings still in the truck they have driven down in. Never even thinking of the inconvenience, the white man demands that Hap come and help them unload their furnishings. Hap can only say, “Yes sir.” This will be the first of many such interruptions and demands, including later one generated by Laura’s need during a bout of illness, when Florence Jackson’s (Mary J Blige) services as a midwife and healer are called for.

We go back and forth between the two families. At one point Laura says, “When I think of the farm, I think of mud. I dreamed in brown.” Only on Saturdays, bath day, does she feel clean. She reflects that “violence is part and parcel of country life,” with death everywhere—” Dead mice, dead rabbits, dead possums,” and more. Hap works for Henry during the week and is a lay preacher on Sundays at a tiny half-finished church. We see in the service that he is not one of the all too typical “pie in the sky” preachers, but one who looks for a change for the better in their own life time, thus refusing to accept things as they are. Breaking into song, with the congregation joining in, we see how music, as well as the Bible and preaching, sustain his oppressed people.

After the McAllan’s hear President Roosevelt’s reading the declaration of war, Jamie is soon flying his B-25 over Europe dropping bombs on German cities and undergoing attacks by Nazi fighter planes. The Jackson’s oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) also is in Europe, but not digging ditches or loading supplies like most “Negro” soldiers. Instead, he finds himself rising to the rank of Sergeant, in command of one of the tanks in a segregated corps under Gen. Patton’s command. Both soldiers see good friends killed by enemy fire, with Jamie especially traumatized. These combat episodes are skillfully interwoven with scenes of the two families on the home front. One sequence in which Hap falls and breaks his leg is paired with a violent one on the battlefield involving the death of some of Ronsel’s friends. We also see several scenes in which the black soldier, accepted on a basis of equality by Europeans, engaged in a love affair with a German woman.

After the war an unusual friendship develops between Jamie and Ronsel because each is still suffering from the trauma of battle. Ronsel carries the additional burden of racial hatred—before even getting back to his parents’ home, the uniformed black man stops by the general store to buy presents, and Pappy McAllan (Jonathan Banks) refuses to let the black men leave by the front door. Changed from the usual compliant black by his taste of equality in a Europe where he even had left a white lover, Ronsel gives way only because the soft-spoken Henry intervenes. Later, when he ducks to the street pavement because he mistakes an auto backfire for a gunshot, the bystanders stare, but Ronsel rushes and helps him pick up the items he had dropped. The black man shows by his own shaking hands that he too is afflicted by battle fatigue. Ronsel is as slow to accept a ride from his fellow vet as he is his friendship. He is worried about the public reaction to any sign of friendship between a white and a black, even if his self-assured friend is not. Nonetheless, when riding in the McAllan truck together, Jamie goes along with Ronsel’s ducking down to avoid being seen. Pappy does catch a glimpse of the passenger, and there is hell to pay for his grandson.

The friends share the white man’s whiskey flask, and as they grow closer, they exchange stories of their war-time experiences, something they could do with no one else. One day Jamie asks, “You ever miss it sometimes? Being over there. I don’t mean being shot at, but sometimes, I actually miss it.” Ronsel replies, “Yeah, me, too. Over there, I was a liberator. People lined up in the streets waiting for us. Throwing flowers and cheering. And here I’m just another nigger pushing a plow.”

I love Jamie’s reply to Ronsel’s question of why he does not share the prejudice of his family and townsfolk. We see the conclusion of an earlier flashback in which Jamie’s co-pilot and gunners are killed by attacking Nazi Messerschmitts. He thinks he will be next, but then the attacks suddenly stop. He sees a squadron of P-51s driving the Germans away. One of them flies alongside his B-25 for a moment. The first thing he notices is the fighter plane’s tail is a bright red. The second he can hardly believe—the pilot is black! He sees the pilot salute him, and just as the smaller plane turns and flies away, Jamie returns it. (This, of course, is one more of the hundreds of incidents in which the famous African American squad, trained at Tuskegee, came to the rescue of Allied bombers. Their story is well told in two films, The Tuskegee Airmen and Red Tails.)

There are many other incidents involving Laura and Florence, each suffering and growing as the film progresses, the two getting to know each other when Florence reluctantly goe to work for the McAllans. However, these are overshadowed by what happens to the two sons and their doomed inter-racial friendship.

The story moves forward with a sense of dread, much like a Greek tragedy, with the inevitable coming of the Klan seizing and trussing up Ronsel cruciform-like in a barn. Pappy is one of the ring leaders, forcing Jamie to make a soul-wrenching decision about the fate of his friend. The racists at first are just angry over the friendship, but after discovering the letter that Ronsel has received from his German bride and the enclosed photograph of their little son, their anger morphs into rage. The horrible, tragic deed that follows makes this a film not fit for most children younger than teenagers—and yet, despite this, the story ends on a note of hope. Indeed “love” is one of the last words that we hear spoken at the happy conclusion. Prejudice and hatred have their way for a time, but not the last word.

There is also a second tragedy that might escape some viewers because they will think the man deserves his fate—that of the grandfather Pappy. This vicious racist is depicted with no redeeming features, his twisted values and mean spirit alienating even his two sons. His sudden death stains Jamie’s soul, a burden the young man will carry to his grave. At Pappy’s grave Hap recites the above words from Job. Note that they are of despair, written long ago by a man when the Hebrews believed that death has the final word, very unlike the words of resurrection from the Gospel of John that we usually hear in a movie funeral. Pappy lived in hatred, died in hatred, and will remain dead in his hatred. Hap seems to be saying this when he uses only this quotation. I doubt that older son Henry understood this at the time, but maybe someday he will.

I cannot recommend this film enough, especially as I finish this review less than a week before the celebration of the life and work Martin Luther King, Jr. Because the intent of the filmmakers is in agreement with him, I will let Dr. King have the last word here: “Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.”

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

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

Rated PG. Running time: 2 hours  2 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 

he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering[a] and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account…

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.

Isaiah 53:2a-3; 5.

Two Very different lawyers: Roman (l) dedicated to justice; George interested in profits. (c) Columbia Pictures

In writer/director Dan Gilroy’s film Denzel Washington steps out of his comfort zone to play a socially awkward lawyer very different from the smooth, confident characters he has often played. His Roman J. Israel is a savant, able to remember long stretches of the law and precedents, but unable to relate to peers or be concerned about his outdated clothing and hair style. He is fixated on justice and civil rights, not fees or prestige, and his courtly manners toward women are misunderstood and resented by female activists of the next generation. In character, and in his effect on another lawyer, however, Roman J. Israel is the embodiment of the suffering servant described by the prophet of ancient Israel—and it is for this reason that I ask that you not join the crowd that has forsaken this fine movie, relegating it so swiftly to the cheap seats theaters.

Israel has been the behind the scenes partner in a two-lawyer firm dedicated to civil rights cases and those in which the law had been used to oppress rather than to help a person. Israel had done all the research and helped hone the strategy, but had never argued a case in court. His legal philosophy is well summed up in his statement, “Each of us is greater than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” He hates the practice of white prosecutors who pile on charges against a young black man so that in the plea-bargaining process, the harried public defender will accept a few lesser charges and forego a trial. The result, a guilty plea, is the same as if the youth had gone to trial: youth who in a courtroom might have been found innocent for lack of solid evidence are saddled with years of prison confinement, their lives forever ruined.

Deeply concerned how the legal system is stacked against black men, Israel has spent a great amount of time working on a brief that he believes will change the whole system, restoring impartial justice to its rightful place. He is so obsessed with this project that he carries the large brief case stuffed with the papers wherever he goes. He lives alone in an apartment filled with books, LP albums, and posters of Angela Davis and Bayard Rustin, icons of activists of the 60’s.

When his partner suffers a stroke and dies, the man’s heir Lynn (Amanda Warren) tells Israel that the family will be closing the unprofitable firm and that he should delay the remaining cases and leave the handling of them to the lawyer accompanying her, George Pierce (Colin Farrell). Unfortunately, Israel decides to go to court with a client where his stubbornness at accepting an unfair ruling leads to an argument with the judge, who slaps a $5000 fine on him for contempt of court. Out of a job, he visits Maya (Carmen Ejogo), head of a non-profit advocacy organization. She has no funds to hire him, but impressed with his activist record, she invites him to speak at the next meeting of her group. This goes so poorly that he walks out in frustration. Maya chases after him, and the way that he handles a situation on the darkened street with a seemingly dead man and the police so impresses her that she later sets up a dinner date so that she can thank him for restoring her commitment to her work for outcasts. (To the filmmaker’s credit, there is no spring/autumn romance between the two.)

Israel has a similar effect on the slick lawyer brought in to close Israel’s old firm. He had rejected George Pierce’s first offer to come work for his prestigious multi-lawyer firm, but accepts a second one because there are no other prospects. Israel’s out of fashion clothing and awkward manners ruffles the feathers of virtually all the other lawyers, but George values his vast knowledge of the law, so he keeps him on.

In dealing with a black murderer Israel succumbs to temptation, calling the victim’s relative and telling him he will give out his privileged information in exchange for the large reward being offered. For a brief time Israel enjoys purchasing and wearing fancy suits, taking a few days off to spend money at Santa Monica, and leasing an expensive high-rise apartment with a spectacular view of Los Angeles—a sad decision that none of his activist idols would have made.

The film affirms that this is a moral universe, despite the inequalities of the U.S. legal system, so Israel pays a steep price for his terrible straying from the right path, even though he repents and tries to right his wrong. That he is very self-aware is seen in his statement, “The real enemies aren’t the ones on the outside, they’re on the inside.”

Despite his sad fate, Israel’s effect on George Pierce is beneficial, perhaps even transformational. Not only does the once unfeeling lawyer set up a special unit in his firm to deal with the kind of pro bona cases that Israel’s old firm had specialized in, he also is the last lawyer we see in the film intent on a mission. He is doing something with Israel’s 1000-page brief that the latter had always wanted to do, but never had possessed the means to do so. It is an exhilarating conclusion to a film that is more of a character study than a courtroom thriller.

I wish I could say that writer/director Dan Gilroy was aware of the Jewish/Christian Scriptures enough that the hero’s last name was intentionally symbolic, but I don’t know this. Be that as it may, in this visual parable the lawyer is a good stand in for the nation that the book of Genesis asserts was called into being by God to become a blessing for all the families of the earth. (See Genesis 12:1-3) After a long history of faithfulness alternating with unfaithfulness, that nation consisting of Abraham’s descendants, known as Israel (he who wrestles with God), is represented in the last portion of the book of Isaiah as the Suffering servant. It was this passage that came to mind when I was reflecting on this lawyer, unattractive in so many ways to his peers (“he had no form or majesty that we should look at him” Isa 53:2a). George Pierce is brought out of his selfish shell (“by his bruises we are healed” Isa. 53:5b) by the man “despised and rejected by others” (Isa 53:3a), even the savant Roman J. Israel, Esq.  Is this reading too much into a film with some plot flaws yet with moral/ethical insights? Maybe—but go and see for yourself. And have fun talking it over with some companions.

This review with a set of discussion questions is in the January issue of Visual Parables.

 

The Shape of Water (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 3 min.

Our content ratings (1-10):Violence 5; Language 4; Sex 3/Nudity

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house,
it would be utterly scorned.

Song of Solomon 8:6-7

The oppressed shall speedily be released;
they shall not die and go down to the Pit,
nor shall they lack bread.

Isaiah 51: 14

Strickland doesn’t think Elisa & Zelda are smart enough to have spirited away the creature.  (c) Fox Searchlight Pictures

Romantics ought to love this genre-combining film directed by the creative Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Set mainly in a Baltimore government research facility in 1962 when the Cold War was at its dangerous peak, the filmmaker combines fantasy, Cold War spy adventure, romance, cultural satire, and even the classic Hollywood musical in a blend that enchants and thrills. It is also an outsider’s tale, one in which the oppressed rise up and snatch love and liberty from those who have been grinding them down. And what a vile villain to hiss at, a maskless Darth Vader or a Snoke in a business suit!

The central character is Elisa Esposito, a mute woman brilliantly played by Sally Hawkins, an orphan whose throat scars are the visible sign of the abuse which cost her her voice long ago. She works the night shift as a cleaning lady at the Occam Aerospace Research Center where her superior, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), treats her like a piece of his lab equipment. She has two friends, co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and next-door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an artist working on an ad painting touting the virtues of Jello. Elisa’s and Giles’ apartments are in the building housing a once lavish movie palace, but which now attracts just a few patrons who enjoy old Biblical, historical films, and musical films.

It is the Giles’ voice whom we first hear in the narration, setting us up for the fantastical by

mentioning the story of a princess, the one she loved, and the monster that threatened to tear them apart. He enjoys taking Elisa to a local diner where he is attracted as much to the young male clerk as he is to its sweet pies. When we see him dealing with the manager of the ad agency, we suspect that it was his gayness that prompted his dismissal from the regular staff and present very tentative status as a contract artist—his boss will not meet him at the office to look over his work, but out of doors instead.

Elisa is working the night when Strickland brings in a large vessel containing what he calls a “valuable asset.” Sometime later she and Zelda are cleaning the Men’s Room and then the hallway when they hear a scream, and Strickland rushes from the lab, bleeding from the loss of two fingers. Mopping up the blood in the room, she discovers the missing fingers and sends them to the hospital along with her boss. Learning that the “Asset” is an amphibious humanoid creature captured in the Amazon, she immediately becomes interested in it. Once she sees that it (Doug Jones) enjoys her favorite snack, hard boiled eggs, she becomes obsessed with its welfare, sneaking into the room where it is kept in a pod joined to a large pool and bringing her portable record player to play jazz and romantic music while teaching it her sign language.

It pains her to see the cruel way in which Strickland treats the creature during his experiments using an electric cattle prod. His calling it his “Alabama how-de-do” reflects the newscasts we see on occasion of cops using firehoses and cattle prods on “Negroes” Civil Rights demonstrators. (The filmmakers even work in a scene in which Giles’ romantic gesture is rejected in the diner followed by the clerk’s refusal to serve a black couple who have just come in.) From a home sequence, shot in the color scheme of the glossy ads of the times, we see that Strickland leads a double life in the suburbs, kind (though paternalistic) toward his adoring wife and children, but unfeeling, no cruel, at work. He would have made a good Nazi.

There is one other important character to introduce, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a marine biologist who winces at Strickland’s ill treatment of their asset. He has a deep, dark secret—he is a Soviet agent sent to spy on the experiment. He has told his two handlers that it is intelligent, so they have charged him to sabotage it. They give him poison to kill the creature, lest the Americans learn more from it to enhance their space program.

Elisa sneaks into the pod room to be with the Creature as often as possible.  (c) Fox Searchlight Pictures

By now Elisa has fallen in love with the creature. At one point the mute signs to her friend, “When he looks at me, he doesn’t know I am incomplete. He sees me as I am.” Pushed by Strickland’s cruel treatment, she decides she cannot stand by and watch her lover die from his abuse. Zelda, Giles, and even Hoffstetler, the latter undergoing a change of heart, team up with her to sneak the creature out of the facility and hide him in her bathtub. (The spy says, “I don’t want an intricate, beautiful thing destroyed!” indicating that unlike Strickland, he has a conscience.) There follows a love scene between Elisa and the creature and a somewhat funny sequence when the bathtub water overflows, leaking down into the movie theater below. There are also some brutal, bloody encounters, and even a song and dance that could have come out of La La Land or old Hollywood musical in which Elisa sings “You’ll Never Know How Much I Love You.” Oh yes, we do, and by the surrealistic ending that will cheer every romantic hart in the audience, we know that so does Guillermo del Toro. He loves these four oppressed outsiders—mute Elisa, black Zelda, gay Giles, and the captive Asset—and therefore will not let them go down in defeat.

The film definitely is not for children, but will be a delight for young adults to discuss. However, the brief female nude shots and the lyrical sex scene of the lovers probably will be a problem for religious groups. For a tale of the oppressed going free, this film cannot be beat. The filmmaker might seem a long way from Amos or Isaiah, but for me Guillermo del Toro belongs in the company of socially conscious directors whom I call “prophets with a camera.”

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