Gosford Park (2001)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 11 min.

Our content rating: Violence 2; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 5


Director Robert Altman returns to the screen in fine form with this engrossing tale that is part comedy of manners and social commentary and part whodunit. Set in a lavish English country estate in 1932, the huge ensemble cast consists, among others, of Maggie Smith, Alan Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Emily Watson, Kelly Macdonald, Stephen Fry, Helen Mirren, and Alan Bates. In dozens of ways we see the class disparity between the servants and their employers. The film opens with Kelly Macdonald’s Mary standing in the rain waiting for her crusty mistress Constance, Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith), to decide the moment when she will venture forth through the rain to her motor car. The Countess is protected by an umbrella, the drenched Mary is not. Enroute Mary has to leave the front seat of the car and come around through the heavy downpour to remove the cap of a flask which the Countess claims she is unable to twist off. The lady does not evidence the slightest concern for the comfort of her servant.

The assorted guests at Gosford Park have come at the invitation of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristine Scot Thomas) to partake in a shooting party. Adding to the mixture is Sir William’s cousin, English matinee idol Ivor Novello (this real-life movie star—also a composer, he wrote the popular WW1 song “Keep the Home Fires Burning” — is played by Jeremy Northam) and his American film producer friend Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban). The comments of the latter offer some enjoyable contrasts to the English mores and customs, as well as provide Altman with a means for poking fun at Hollywood through Weissman’s obsession with telephone calls to and from Hollywood associates. He also provides Maggie Smith, who has the lion’s share of wonderful lines, with the opportunity for a great put-down. He has come to do research for his next film “Charlie Chan in London.” While talking about it, he says that he does not want to give the plot away, to which the Countess replies, obviously meaning that no one in the room would stoop to such low-class entertainment, “Oh, don’t worry, we’ll never see it.”

The differences between the classes is shown by the contrasting pace of the two groups. The leisure class rise late and sit around in palatial rooms decked out in their finery, whereas below, the uniformed servants rush around even more quickly than in the American “The West Wing,” each attending to specific duties that must be performed at specific times. Also, there is a touching scene of contrast between the groups during the evening that Ivor Novello entertains the gathering by singing several of his songs at the piano (these were all chosen from the 250 songs written by the real Ivor). Although several of the younger ladies of the gentry enjoy and applaud his songs, most, led by the Countess, are bored, their applause very limp. During the last song, the Countess, trying to play a game of cards, surreptitiously discourages those around her so as not to encourage further singing. On the other hand, the servants can hardly believe their good fortune in hearing the great screen tenor in person. They hover outside doors and in the stairwells below in their eagerness to catch every note of the songs, no doubt feeding their fantasies of a better world in which they too could share in leisure and romance.

The murder does not take place until almost 90 minutes into the film, the victim being the one who most deserves it. Thus, there is little grief evoked among either those upstairs or those downstairs. Some of the servants soon reveal that they have great secrets to hide, several of them suffering from the murdered person’s long history of inflicting injustice upon the less powerful. Director Altman has fun poking fun at the old Scotland Yard mysteries by bringing in Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry), a detective who makes Peter Seller’s Inspector Clouseau seem like Sherlock Holmes. It is his associate Constable Dexter (Ron Webster) who has to continually remind the bumbling detective not to touch or move the evidence. Although we learn who did it, we know that this detective never will—and yet we come to understand that a greater justice than humanity’s has nevertheless been served. Do not miss this film!

Reprinted from the Feb. 2002 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

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

Alma becomes Woodcock’s model and muse.       (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. I can imagine Woodcock designing clothing for the wife of the rich young ruler but could never see him approaching the prophet from Nazareth inquiring about eternal life.

The title is intriguing, referring to the designer’s sewing phrases into the lining of a garment that only he knows about, as if he believed he is imparting some mystic aura or power. 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. His clients exist to feed his ego and enrich his coffers. Young women to whom he is sexually attracted are invited in to live with him if they do not disrupt his obsessively maintained regimen. He eats his breakfast in silence with Cyril sitting watchfully across from him while he reads the morning newspaper. When a current live-in mistress scrapes her toast too loudly, he erupts in anger and scorn, and soon she has been dispatched by Cyril from the premises.

Then comes the day when Reynolds’s tightly controlled life is upended. During his stopover for breakfast 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 menu requests, the impressed customer 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 takes 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, refusing banishment, 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 was released. But as soon as the film was available for viewing, 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. He should have taken more notice of her warning during their first encounter—that in any staring contest she would win. Or maybe he did. Maybe those words belied her seemingly meek demeanor, perhaps reminding him of his deceased dominant mother.  From his talk about and his vision of his 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 from 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. What kind of a future awaits them? Certainly not that promised by the conclusion of the typical romantic film. This is not a tale of star crossed, but of star colliding lovers

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

A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 49 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 3


You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people,

but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Leviticus 19:18

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

John 15:12

Mrs. Which encourages the fearful Meg.             (c) Walt Disney Pictures

 Although it is fitting that Madeleine L’Engle’s spiritually themed classic is directed by a woman who has made her mark in Hollywood (see Selma and 13th), the new film that Ava DuVernay directs is less than I had expected, given its source, a controversial but beloved children’s classic. The quest of a bullied girl grieving over the loss of her father, the film jumps from episode to episode too quickly, with the music often overwhelming the dialogue—at least for me. It has been several decades since I have read the book, a favorite of one of my daughters, so my faded memory of the book’s plot was of little help in understanding what was transpiring on the huge screen. Despite my own confusion, however, I noticed that the attention of most (but not all) of the many children at the preview was rivetted on the giant screen.

Before airing my frustration and dealing with some of the plot, I do want to state that I agree with those praising the film—first for the studio entrusting such a costly production to a woman, a black woman at that. And second, that the script by Jennifer Lee and John Stockwell gamely tries to adapt the story to our time—Mr. & Mrs. Murry are an inter-racial couple (he is white, and she is African American), so daughter Meg is biracial, and they have adopted an orphan, who was about a year old when the scientists disappeared. Thus, it is good to see a biracial girl heroine who is not a super hero save the day while a handsome would-be boyfriend is the second banana.  But this still does not add up to a satisfyingly coherent film.

It has been four years since Meg Murry (Storm Reid) and her little adopted brother Charles Wallace’s (Deric McCabe) father Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine) disappeared into the void. A brilliant astrophysicist, Dr. Murry had decided to test his Quantum Tesseract Theorem, postulating that one could transverse the universe through “wrinkles in time” connecting planets separated by vast distances of light years. He called this process “tessering.” Their mother (Gugu M-batha Raw), a physicist herself, tries to keep the family’s hopes alive during the long period of his absence. It is on the fifth anniversary of his disappearance (which to the children is an Abandonment) that school bullies taunt Meg, prompting her to hurl a ball at the ring leader’s nose, a rebellious act that lands her in the principal’s office. Sadly, this is not the first such visit.

Charles lets into the house a strange astral being, Mrs. Whatsit, who tells the astonished family that Dr. Murry is still alive and that the children can free him. Soon both brother and sister are conversing with three mysterious beings—all garbed in bizarre, awful looking costumes, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). Joined by the one classmate who supports her, Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller), the three children embark by “tessering” on a quest to find Dr. Murry, one that will land them in all sorts of danger. Meg is wracked often by doubts, so Mrs. Which continually reassures her, telling her that she can do some difficult task set before her–“You can do this!” and “You are a warrior!”

After a series of CGI-enhanced adventures on two planets, the seekers land on the planet Camazotz. By now the three celestial beings have left them, apparently their reason being that Meg has to finish the journey relying on herself, and not outside help.

The planet is in the thrall of an evil force called It or “The Black Thing,” which seeks to bring darkness to the whole universe. All the in habitants are under its control like automatons. This condition is shown in the creepy sequence set in a modern suburban development where every house looks alike—older viewers might be reminded of the old anti-conformist song, “Little Boxes.” A child comes out from each home bouncing a large ball in perfect unison with everyone else, the booming sound almost shaking the screen. The scene then switches to a crowded sea side where all the beach umbrellas look alike.

It is on Camazotz that Dr. Murray is imprisoned, and it is here too where Charles Wallace falls under the control of It. The boy spews out powerful hatred. During this daunting struggle the uncertain Meg finds her inner strength and calls upon the power of love to save the day.

I need to see the film again, perhaps with one of those text-based hearing aids because the loud, intrusive music drowned out so much of the dialogue. I am almost certain that the book’s invocation of the apostle Paul’s “the foolishness of God” (in 1st Cor. 1) was not included, though I do recall a touch of theology was included in Dr. Murray’s dialogue, “What if we are here for a reason. What if we are part of something truly divine?” Best of all, the power of love in overcoming the power of evil is at the center of Meg’s bringing her little brother back from under the power of It. This is a theme that runs throughout the teachings of Jesus and of the apostle Paul, as well as in such portions of the Hebrew Scriptures as Isaiah 52-53, some of the laws in Leviticus, and Proverbs 25.

If you have read thus far, you can perhaps understand my ambivalent feelings about the film—and thus my hesitation about recommending that you either “save your money and read the book,” or go see it for yourself. The film is neither as bad as some critics say (one on YouTube called it “dogs—t”!) nor as good as other state. I can understand how some conservative Christians would regard it as an expression of New Age religion, thanks to the ambiguous nature of the three astral females and their bland advice–“You can do this!” and “You are a warrior!”–which have been stripped of the novel’s explicitely Christian content. I doubt that this film will become another cinema classic like the Wizard of Oz, but for those who want a film that resembles Madelaine L’Engle’s beloved novel (happily combining a love of science and religion, regarding them as compatible and not at odds with each other) this will do. Just don’t expect the same thrill and stimulation of imagination as when you read the book.

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


Interview with Producer Hannah Leader

March 6, 2018


Hannah Leader, one of the producers of the PBS film Return to Grace: Luther’s and Legacy, responds to the questions I was invited to submit to her. Born in England, but now working in L.A., she has been a producer for two Robert Altman-directed films, Gosford Park and The Company; director Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead; The Christmas Candle; and the four films that use the texts of the  Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; plus many other films and TV programs.

 1. Your credits as a producer are impressive, going back to 1994 according to IMDb.com. How did you become involved in the film industry?

I was working in London as a lawyer – a barrister and my husband worked in Advertising – he was transferred to the LA office – and so I found myself working in Los Angeles – so I took the Californian bar exams and started working as a lawyer in LA where of course that meant film law!

2. The terms “producer,” “executive producer,” etc. are ambiguous: can you tell us what a producer does, perhaps using some of your own films as examples? It looks like you specialize in legal and negotiations.

As I said above I am a lawyer by background – as an executive producer I help to close ‘deals’ and to source financing and distribution for the film. When I work as a producer then I’m making more of a creative input – I choose the director and cast (together with the director) – hire the crew and put the team together – as well as the financing and distribution work – a lot of problem solving!

3. As a producer do you get to be present on the set or involved with the director? I see that you were a producer of a film that I have not seen, but should, because it is by one of my favorite directors, Sidney Lumet, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. If so, what was he like?

I work mostly with the team before they start shooting – but I do visit the set and I watched Lumet work – he was amazing – so organized – he always made his day – and got his shots – no drama or fuss – just professional from head to toe.

4. The list of your films is a mixture of genres, including the recent religious docudrama on PBS about Martin Luther and The Gospel of John on Netflix, both of which I’ve seen, as well as another film that I love, Gosford Park, directed by Robert Altman. How did you become involved in the four Gospel Films?

It was my idea – I wanted filmed material for my church – I led the children’s work and was having trouble finding filmed content that worked for their worship – hundreds of films and cartoons of Noahs Ark – or you had complete feature films that couldn’t be cut up to lesson sized chunks – nothing that would work for my children that depicted an historical Jesus in an authentic way – it grew from that – and I wanted to be able use a relevant bible translation – and then I thought of other countries – they don’t want a dubbed version of an American translation – they want to hear their own bible version – that’s how I conceived the idea of the voice over allowing the Gospels to be complete and unedited – but also allowing individual readings to be used stand alone. In other words a worship and educational resource rather than a feature film for entertainment.

5. Through the years other groups have intended to film the Bible—such as the New Media Bible that released The Book of Genesis and the Gospel of Luke (which became the wildly popular Jesus), and more recently, The Visual Bible, which released 3 films, Matthew; John; an Acts. Like your 4 Gospels, these used a Bible translation as their scripts. The backs of these had to stop production because they ran out of money. Did these inspire or perhaps teach you something as you planned your series? Will there be more Bible films, and if so, which ones next?

I filmed Christmas and Easter first – because I knew they would always be used – I wanted to show funders how we would do it – I was then able to raise all of the money to do all 4 gospels – it makes no sense as a professional film maker – not to shoot all 4 Gospels at once – which is what we did – after all vthis was one set of events – just reported by 4 different writers. I would love to do the Acts of the Apostles – but it’s very expensive to do well – a lot of action – so we will see. Meanwhile I have just completed the story of St Paul in Philippi for the Lutheran Church which they will release in August.

6. Any particular problems with any of the films? I see a different actor from the one in The Gospel of John, Selva Rasalingam, plays Jesus in the 3 Synoptic Gospel films. What is your hope for what now constitutes a set?

No the same actor plays Jesus throughout – Selva Rasalingham – and I see all 4 Gospels as the ‘set’ – its 4 different accounts of the same events – we used a different editing style for each gospel to reflect this. John was the most challenging because of the lengthy passages of discourse – but then again its my favourite Gospel and the most beautifully written in my opinion, so a joy to do.

Thank you for this opportunity to learn more about you and your work.

Molly’s Game (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 20 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 3; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 4.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.

Psalm 15:1-5

“Player X,” a big movie star, proves to be a big draw for Molly’s game. (c) STX Entertainment

After scripting so many films and TV shows, Aaron Sorkin directs for the first time. Based on Molly Bloom’s 2014 memoir, Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker, I am thankful that the title was shortened for the film, even as some of the chronology was shifted around for dramatic effect. As a story about trying to preserve one’s integrity amidst sordid circumstances, this is a film worthy of your time and money, especially because Sorkin deals with a female protagonist this time. There is also a heart-warming scene of reconciliation, making this a good addition to my list of father-daughter films.

Had it not been for a small twig on a snow-covered hill, we might have known Molly Bloom as an Olympic-class skier, rather than the purveyor of an exclusive high-stakes poker game and FBI target. In a flashback serving as a prologue we see Molly in her ski gear with her father Larry Bloom (Kevin Costner) providing tough love. Small pieces of pine boughs had been placed near the bottom of the ski hill to protect against the icy conditions, but of them one tripped up Molly, her crash severely injuring her back and ending her promising skiing career. She then moves to Los Angeles where she works for a nasty promoter of illegal poker games open only to those who can plunk down the $10K admission fee. At first, she knows little about poker, but through Google learns very quickly.

In the present day, she is sitting in the posh New York office of defense attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), hoping to convince him to take her case, even though she is unable to pay his $250,000 retainer. When the FBI had raided her apartment in the middle of the night, they had seized all her assets, leaving her in a desperate financial plight.

The series of flashbacks, narrated at break-neck speed by Molly, reveal how she was able to break away from her slimy boss and, using his client list and her sexual charisma, set up her own series of high stakes games, eventually moving to New York City, a city filled with greedy financiers, bankers, and others eager to increase their wealth the fast way. Dressing provocatively, to please her clients, and hiring other “girls” to welcome and serve drinks and food, Molly draws a table-full of players eager for money and power, and some so ruthless that they enjoy destroying financially an opponent.

Michael Cera plays a movie star known only as Player X, said by some to represent Tobey Maguire–Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck were also have alleged to have played in one of the rooms of the palatial hotels Molly rented for the occasion. She even came up with monogrammed poker chips and cards.

Molly tried to keep things legal, but apparently crossed the line when she agreed to help a player unable to pay his debt and started to hold back some of the winnings so she could pay her bills. She also plunged into dangerous waters when she admitted some Russian oligarchs to the game, which apparently drew the attention of the FBI. (She denied knowing about their background.) Also, to cope with the tension and stress, Molly starts taking drugs, which often leaves her woozy at the end of a game session. She seemed to be at the height of her power when the FBI raid brought her life crashing down upon her head.

The Federal agents pressure her to cooperate with them, but she refuses. First, she states that she did not know that some players were Russian gangsters, a claim the Feds do not believe. Secondly, she did not want to harm any of the clients who had trusted her. Had she talked, their reputations or careers might have been ruined.

Molly’s story can be regarded as what happens to a woman when she “encroaches” on male turf—old patriarchies do not give up, or share, power readily. Or, instead of being a victim, she can be seen as a principled person standing up to a stacked system designed to cut her down. Certainly, the FBI comes off looking bad—who would send seventeen heavily armed agents in the middle of the night to arrest a woman with no record of using a gun? As already mentioned, the conditions among which Molly tried to run her game were sordid—the secrecy and the players’ greed, their misuse of power and desire to destroy their opponents. Not a pretty tale, save for the reuniting with her father at the end of te film, the film provides a glimpse into the lives of high rollers and those who aspired to their status.

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


Parable (1964)

Not Rated. Running time: 22 min. 12 sec. Our content ratings: Violence 3;

Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
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 53:4-5

But ye have not so learned Christ; if so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus: that ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts;  and be renewed in the spirit of your mind; and that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.

Ephesians 4:20-24 (KJV)

Parable is Rolf Forsberg’s nonverbal film about Christ that was almost too far ahead of its time—1964—so different that it stirred up almost as much controversy as the 1988 release of The Last Temptation of Christ. Commissioned by the New York City Protestant Council of Churches for their New York World’s Fair pavilion in 1964, Forsberg knew that the usual, formulaic short films used by churches would never attract a crowd. While at a consultative retreat in Wisconsin he came across the Baraboo World Circus Museum and was inspired to set his story in a traveling circus that represented the world and featured a white-faced mime drawing both disciples and enemies from among the circus denizens.

The film starts out in darkness, and a narrator speaks the only words we will hear, explaining that Christ taught in parables, and that a parable today might be like a circus in which a man dared to be different…As the front titles come on we see it is dawn. The camera moves in on a circus wagon and then inside, revealing a man stirring in bed. On the walls are posters with large photos of his face, announcing that he is Magnus the Great. Cut to the outside where, to the accompaniment of ponderous music, the horse-drawn circus wagons parade down a country road. Many of the towering wagons represent the nations of the earth, France, Great Britain, America, their elaborately carved sides painted in bright colors. Marching along are two elephants and a baby. Some Native Americans wearing ceremonial war bonnets ride by, and a South American one on foot leads a llama. A woman plays a small pipe organ; a Roman charioteer proudly holds the reins of his horses. Then as the last large wagon rolls by we see the white mime astride a humble donkey.

The first episode of helping involves an elephant caretaker, bored with his task of fetching water for the elephants; the second a black man sitting on a seat suspended over a large tub of water while, separated by an iron latticed fence, a scowling white man gathers up and throws baseballs at a round target, the purpose obviously to hit it and plunge the black man into the water. The third episode is at a side show where a barker, accompanied by staccato music imitating his spiel, implores the pretend crowd to buy one of his tickets to the attraction featuring a sinister-looking man piercing a large box with a sword, Inside the container hunkers a scantily clad Indian woman. The camera cuts to the mime, wincing at the possibility of the woman’s endangerment.

Each of the above incidents involves the mime taking the place of the oppressed person. The coming of the Mime is announced by a piercing brass theme, the tempo becoming spritely as the Mime goes about his mission of helping. The freed persons follow in his wake. But so do the exploiters.

Magnus emerges from his home wagon, fully attired in his militaristic-style costume, heading toward the big top. On the side of his wagon is a picture poster of “Magnus and His Living Marionettes.” While Magnus makes his way to the arena, three performers are in a dressing room donning their make-up and costumes as the Living Marionettes. There is no smiling or sense of joy, either as they prepare nor in their performance high above the heads of the on-lookers.

The audience consists of children, all dressed in multicolored hooded sweatshirts. Magnus manipulates the three marionettes who are held aloft by their harnesses. As he pulls on various strings, the three gyrate in grotesque, jerky motions. The Mime enters the large tent, gazes up at the marionettes, and then takes a whiskbroom and starts to sweep the feet of the children. They giggle as he moves about cleaning their feet, and soon the three people whom he has set free follow, also taking up small brooms. The children also join in, now totally distracted from Magnus’s act.

Magnus is upset that he has lost his audience. The music grows more frantic and then ominous as he jerks about his marionettes in a vain effort to recapture the attention of the giggling children. What follows is one of the most memorable “crucifixion” scenes ever filmed, the loud, agonized cry of the tortured mime piercing earth and sky, perfectly expressing Mark 15:34. Then a quiet Easter sequence that the groups with whom I’ve worked, sometimes a bit puzzled, always enjoy discussing.

When I first rented the film around 1966 or 67 in North Dakota, I was so taken with it that I convinced 9 other church pastors to pool $30 each (the cost of one-time rental) so we could buy a 16mm print and share it—for youth groups, men’s and women’s fellowships, church school, and especially for confirmation classes. I did this also in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, the film proving such a valuable resource for exploring the role of Christ.

I didn’t know then that the powerful New York City-based politico Robert Moses had tried to ban the film from the World’s Fair when he first heard about it. Fortunately, the New York City Council of Churches had the courage to resist, even when Billy Graham denounced the film (without having seen it). The film proved so successful in drawing enthusiastic crowds that the media picked up on it, touting its virtues so much that it became possibly the most watched short film in thousands of churches during the 70s and 80s, eventually distributed on VHS tape, making it both cheaper and easier to show. When DVDs pushed out VHS tapes, there was a period when it was unavailable, and then EcuFilm came to the rescue with their DVD release, much to the relief of the film’s fans.

As the years passed, Parable, slowly faded from public consciousness as a new generation of pastors and educators arose. EcuFilm, the only source that I knew for the film, almost folded, and thus was not able to promote its small catalogue of films. (Indeed, it did close in 2011.) Thus, when film producer Bob Campbell called me recently to tell me about the various projects he has been involved in under the umbrella of Gospel Films Archives, I was delighted to learn of the film’s new lease on life. And as a fantastic bonus, three other Forsberg films are included, one of which I had seen and used—The Antkeeper; and in addition, Ark; and One Friday. (I will be reporting on these memorable films in future issues.)

Mr. Campbell reports that during the last few years of filmmaker Rolf Forsberg’s life his group worked with him to produce short introductions to each of the four films on this DVD, making the disk even more valuable. I loved watching the filmmaker discuss how and why he made Parable, one tidbit being that through a mask system Forsberg’s original was a widescreen film, and not the standard 16mm screen size (3by4) seen by all of us who used the 16mm version. Now the images fill your computer or phone screen.

I cannot recommend this film enough. See for yourself why the film was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

More information available at the Rolf Forsberg website: http://www.lostandrare.com/rolfhome.htm. Price is $19.99 + postage or $9.99 for digital down load at http://www.lostandrare.com/order.htm

Do you subscribe to Amazon Prime? The film is free for you to stream, along with other Fosberg films.


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

Black Panther (2018)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 14 min.

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

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus 23:22

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.

No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.

Matthew 5:14-15

…From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required;

and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.

Luke 12:48b

(c) Marvel Studios/Walt Disney

It is a long way from director Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station to the spectacular Black Panther. His first film cost an estimated $900,000, and his Marvel film about $200,000,000! But they still have much in common: both include Michael B. Jordan in the cast, and both his fact-based film and this fantasy one are deeply concerned with the role of blacks in a white-dominated world. Therefore, though I have always been a bit troubled by the massive amount of money and publicity given to super hero films, I eagerly looked forward to this one. Of all the Marvel films that I have seen, I think this one most deserves the attention given it. Did you see the extra-long article in a recent issue of TIME Magazine?

T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), better known as The Black Panther, and his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani) had appeared briefly in Captain America: Civil War. Indeed, it was in that film that the King died midst a massive explosion. You might also remember that the famous shield of Captain America was made of a metal called vibranium, though it is never revealed how he came by the substance.

Ryan Coogler and cowriter Joe Robert Cole’s story begins with what I presume is an invented African myth of the founding of the nation of Wakanda millennia ago when a meteorite made of vibranium crashes into a mountainous region of Africa, where it affected the plant life. Eons later five tribes settled there. Constantly at war, a man ate a heart-shaped plant affected by the metal, thus acquiring super powers. Assuming the guise of Black Panther, he set up the kingdom of Wakanda, consisting of four tribes, the fifth staying put in its mountain redoubt. With vibranium Wakandans developed an advanced civilization with towering buildings, hover ships, and speeding bullet trains beyond anything in the outside world. The Wakandans kept this secret because of the chaos and evil of the forces of the outside world. They wanted no part in the constant alliances and wars in Europe and Asia and the Americas, so they posed as a backward third world nation that preferred to live in isolation. (Although not convinced by the explanation given for pulling off such a huge deception, I nonetheless accept this premise in order to enjoy the rest of the film.)

The new King T’Challa must defend his kingship twice in a ritualistic trial by combat, as well as combat the vicious black-market arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (a delightful Andy Serkis) eager to steal and sell the priceless metal to the highest bidder. However, T’Challa’s most formidable opponent is his cousin Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), left orphaned and very, very embittered in Oakland, California in an early scene in the film when…well, it’s a long story, as are many of the other episodes in the complicated plot, which I will leave for you to discover.

Like all Marvel films, this one is full of action, awesome CGI effects, and impressive costume and sets. Production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth E. Carter designs blend traditional African patterns with futuristic, leading us to believe we are looking in on a real and vibrant culture. The hidden capital city might bring to the minds of those who know African history the ancient cities of Benin, Niger, Mali and other countries, long forgotten by whites whose image of Africa is that it has always been the land of grass huts inhabited by “savages.”

So much time, effort, and money obviously were put into the production that these might have taken over a movie written by a less talented team. The quality of the story is equal to that of the production. In his epic struggle Black Panther is supported by his mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), assuring her unsure son that he has a good heart and prepared to rule; his scientist sister Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) who has created many of the gadgets that will aid him; royal counselor Zuri (Forest Whitaker), the most loyal of his followers; his compassionate lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o); and Okoye, the skilled leader of the Dora Milaje, a squad of royal female guards clad in colorful armor. Also, in a segment featuring a thrilling car chase in South Korea, we have CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), who will prove to be a worthy ally in the climactic battle scene.

T’Challa’s character is beautifully developed, first by his discovering that his beloved father had feet of clay, due to his involvement in the death of Erik Killmonger’s father Prince N’Jobu (King T’Chaka’s own brother!) back on Oakland. T’Challa is deeply disturbed by this discovery, but fortunately his ex-lover Nakia is on hand to remind him, “You cannot let your father’s actions define your life. You get to decide what kind of king you want to be.”

Her words could have helped Killmonger also. He has ample reason to be upset and wanting to take over the throne.  As a victim of a policy disagreement between the two brothers, Killmonger is far more complex than most comic book villains. Having grown up poor on the fringes of America’s white society, he returns to his Wakandan homeland eager to use its vibranium to arm the exploited black masses of Africa so they can overthrow the tyrants who misuse them. His last words to T’Challa, evoking the decision of many captives during the evil days of the slave trade, are truly moving, lending an almost nobility to his character.

T’Challa also finds himself growing in breadth of outlook as the film progresses. At first, he sides with the traditional policy of keeping secret Wakanda’s life-enhancing, vibranium-based technology. It had been a quarrel over this had led his father to kill his brother years earlier. It is Nakia who suggests that the benefits of vibranium should be shared with the world, but T’Challa rejects this out of hand. However, by the end of the film he appears before a meeting of the United Nations and says:

“Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows. We cannot. We must not. We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”

This speech was probably written before the 2016 election radically changed our national government from one looking outward to one looking out only for its own interests, thus downsizing programs of international aid and withdrawing from cooperative ventures, so we might say the scriptwriters were prescient, as well as insightful. The story might be part of the Marvel universe, but it raises questions very pertinent to our own: should a wealthy nation turn its back on its poor neighbors, or should it reach out to the needy? Are its resources only for its own use, or are they to be shared? In what ways does T’Challa’s speech echo the above Scriptures? Pretty good for a comic book story, isn’t it?

Oh yes, in case you are wondering, Stan Lee makes another of his coveted cameo appearances: keep alert during the South Korean segment.

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