LBJ (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 38 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.

Psalms 82:3

When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous, but dismay to evildoers.

Proverbs 21:15

LBJ soon proves that he can get things done in Washington.       (c) Castle Rock Pictures

Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Joey Hartstone’s LBJ vividly brings back to older viewers the tumultuous events of the early 1960s. And for younger viewers it is, as President Wilson declared about another film, “like writing history in lightning.”

Using as its framework President Kennedy’s tragic visit to Dallas on November 22, 1963, the film inserts flashbacks to the months before the 1960 Democratic Convention when Senator Kennedy was campaigning to be the Presidential nominee and Senator Johnson was less openly jockeying for the nomination. As Senate Majority Leader, Johnson felt his long-time service to the Party made him far more deserving than the relative newcomer from Massachusetts to the Senate.

That Kennedy would win and invite his bitter rival Johnson to be his running mate surprised everyone, especially the candidate’s brother Bobby. The film goes into the details of why the calculating JFK decided upon this bold choice—and also as to why the man who held the 2nd most powerful post in Washington was willing to give up such power to accept the post that one Veep declared was not worth “a bucket of spit.”

Between shots of the Kennedys’ arriving at Love Field and the motorcade making its way through the streets of Dallas, large crowds cheering from the sidewalks, are scenes of Vice President Johnson seeking to expand the power of his office—he assures an aide, “Power is where power goes.” At the same time Bobby works to curtail his rival.

Following the shooting, Johnson and his aides wait in a separate room for word about the President. When they are told that he has died, it takes a moment for the Vice President to realize what this means. Also for his aides, the camera lingering on him and several of them. The shock quickly wearing off, Johnson immediately begins issuing orders to one and all, deciding to return with the dead Kennedy’s body to Washington, talking with Bobby on the phone, and over the latter’s reluctance, deciding to take the oath of office before returning to the capital.

The later scenes all focus on Johnson’s intent to get Kennedy’s proposed Civil Rights Bill through Congress despite the strong resistance of the Southern block led by the racist Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. At first the staff of the former candidate debate about staying on in an administration headed by the man they had considered a vulgar Southerner, unsympathetic to Jack’s values. Most decided to swallow their scruples, but when he tells them he intends to see that the bill they had thought dead would become law, they ask if he really believes in it.

The staff’s challenge sets up what for me is the most touchingly dramatic scene of the film. Earlier we had caught brief glimpses of Mrs. Wright, the long-time servant of the Johnsons. Johnson tells the staff that back in Texas he had asked her if she would bring with her his little dog when she drives to Washington. She said “No,” he reveals, pointing out that bringing a pet along would make an already difficult trip all the more so. As a “Negro” she cannot eat at most restaurants, he says, cannot stop for a drink or rest, cannot stay overnight at motels. Speaking of her character and his hope for her future, Johnson reveals that the Civil Rights Bill is a very personal affair for him.

Also dramatic are scenes between the President and Senator Russell, the former at first trying to deal diplomatically with their differences before they openly break over the issue. At one point he bluntly tells Russell that he is a racist and that the South must change. The Senator warns that he will fight back hard against his former friend and ally.

The strong cast brings to life the pivotal events in Johnson’s life from 1960 and 1964. Woody Harrelson, despite the inept make-up job that detracts,  justly deserves the critics’ plaudits for his strong performance of a strong man, so there should be no surprise if next month there is Oscar talk associated with his name. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s part of Lady Bird is very much underwritten, but in one scene in which she comforts and inspires a discouraged husband to keep fighting, she shines. Jeffrey Donovan, as President Kennedy, is in just a few brief scenes, but is effective. Michael Stahl-David as Bobby Kennedy well displays the latter’s disdain for Johnson. The excellent character actor Richard Jenkins handles convincingly the thankless role of the racist Senator Richard Russell, leader of the unyielding block of Southerners who had, up until 1964, effectively blocked legislation designed to help African Americans. Margo Moorer’s is a cameo role as Johnson’s servant Mrs. Wright, but it is nonetheless an important one, underlying as it does Johnson’s monologue about his sincerity in backing the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. The film ably shows a Southerner who has come a long way in dealing with the way “Negroes” were treated. His vulgarity is also on display in several scenes, so the film is not a hagiography.

Many have criticized the film for dealing only with Johnson and Civil Rights, omitting the Vietnam War and the War on Poverty entirely. Given the title, I would agree, but a subtitle such as “The First year” would rectify this. I believe the filmmakers were doing what the makers of Lincoln did, zeroing in on one issue that consumed the President, in the latter’s case, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (In my review of that film I suggested that a better title would have been “The 13th Amendment.”) There is mention of the Vietnam War, but just in passing. I hope that a future producer will make a film fully justifying the inclusive title LBJ, but hope it will be a TV miniseries, for Johnson’s story is too long and complicated to tell in just two hours. I remember being so upset with him when in 1964 he did all he could to block at the Democratic National Convention the seating of the integrated Mississippi delegation because of fear of a walkout by the other racist Southern delegates, and yet followed the next year by glowing admiration for him when he concluded his televised Civil Rights address with, “And we shall overcome.” Thus I have always had mixed feelings about this complex man. I would hope such an LBJ—and wouldn’t it be wonderful if Woody Harrelson were again chosen to portray him? —would be shown as the tragic figure he was, flawed, yet supportive of the prophet’s zeal for justice for the poor (hence his Anti-Poverty War), but trapped by an inherited war that grew to such size that it sidetracked his social justice agenda.

For those concerned for social justice, as well as history, this is a “must see” film.

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

 

Noel (2004)

We go back a few years to reprint this review of a good film for the Christmas Season. 

Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 36 min.

Our contents rating (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

Isaiah 7:14

 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way…

 1 Cor. 13:4-5

 God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

1 John 4:16b

 

Chazz Palminteri, who gave us the wonderful A Bronx Tale, a film about the tug of war between a father and a local gangster for the affections of a boy, directs this warm Holiday special about how the lives of five lonely, and in some cases tormented, city dwellers intersect during one Christmas Eve. If you are looking for another warm, sentimental film because you have already done It’s a Wonderful Life to death, this might be your film. It has a mysterious, perhaps even miraculous stranger; an affirmation of the importance of love; and the restoration of faith—what more could one ask for in a Holiday movie? Well, maybe more of an affirmation that Christmas is really more about Christ than generalized good will, but this film will do well until that film comes along—especially because it stars Susan Sarandon, who brings class to any film she is in. And there is a surprise, an uncredited star who plays more than a cameo role. I would love to say who it is, but don’t want to spoil your fun of discovering him (oops, that’s more than I should be saying).

Rose (Sarandon) is the first of the lonely people whom we see, walking by the giant Christmas tree in New York’s Rockefeller Center while a chorus of nun’s sing a lovely carol. Clad in her winter coat, Rose treads cautiously because of the snow and ice. She works in one of the office towers as an editor of children’s books. Long divorced, she has spent most of her adult life taking care of her parents, first her father until his death. Now she practically lives at the hospital where her mother is an Alzheimer patient.

Mike (Paul Walker) is a policeman who seems to be hitting on a beautiful pedestrian whom he addresses from his patrol car. We soon learn that his “pick-up” is Nina (Penelope Cruz), his fiancé whom he plans to marry next week. They hurry to his apartment so that they can make love during his lunch break. However, we quickly learn that he has a problem with jealousy. When he drops off Nina later and he sees her go inside and embrace another man, he lingers to see more of what transpires. As their story progresses, Nina becomes very anxious about whether she should continue with their relationship—would she be making a great mistake in marrying such a volatile, jealous man.

Jules (Marcus Thomas) is our fourth lonely person, a street hustler. So lonely on this Christmas Eve that he recalls the time when he was a boy in the hospital where he enjoyed so much the Christmas party shared by patients and medical staff. So desperate is he for fellowship that he persuades a friend to take him to a gangster whom he pays to smash his left hand. He then goes to the emergency room of the hospital, not really so much for treatment as for the expected Christmas party that evening. He is surprised to find bedlam there due to the arrival of the victims of a bus crash. No party this Christmas Eve–but maybe something better, something to do with his past estrangement from his family.

A little later, while Mike is in a café on a coffee break, the fifth lonely person enters the story. He is Artie (Alan Arkin), counterman at the restaurant, who keeps giving Mike such a look that even the policeman’s partner notices—and jumps to the wrong conclusion about the guy’s sex. Artie follows Mike to his apartment and reveals the reason for his disconcerting obsession with the cop. The alarmed Mike kicks Artie out, but discovers that he is a long way from being through with the man.

Screenwriter David Hubbard has skillfully woven together the stories of these five desperate people to create a mosaic of loneliness, guilt, jealousy, love, and forgiveness—and yes, we should add, miracle and mystery. The critics were not kind to the film when TNT presented it in 2004. I think it is a film that you will not soon forget.

 

Suburbicon (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 44 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

The Lord has made himself known, he has executed judgment;
the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands.

Psalm 9:16

Their feet run to evil,     and they rush to shed innocent blood;
their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity,
desolation and destruction are in their highways.
The way of peace they do not know,     and there is no justice in their paths.
Their roads they have made crooked;
no one who walks in them knows peace.

Isaiah 59:7-8

 

A satire set in the North with 2 side-by-side stories : one a film noir about murder; the other a social justice tale of white rage against a black family’ move into the neighborhood. (c) Paramount Pictures

Both in regard to authorship, themes, and genre this intriguing film is a hybrid. Director George Clooney, staying strictly behind the camera, has partnered with Grant Heslov to adapt an old script by Joel and Ethan Coen to produce a film that is satire, period piece, bloody film noir, and social justice commentary, set in 1959 at the dawn of the Civil Rights era. As might be expected from such mixing of genres, critics have both praised and damned the film.

The satire is evident at the beginning with a faux documentary about a new Levittown-like community patterned after the kind of promo piece that prospective home buyers would be shown after a promised free lunch and tour. The slightly faded colors look like the picture-ads appearing in Colliers or The Saturday Evening Post back then. “Suburbia,” the customers are told, is a safe place with complete services—lovely suburban homes and sidewalks, its own police and fire departments, a bus shuttle service, a stately church and a supermarket. It is truly a sanctuary from the outside world, a place where all the white-skinned residents look like they belong in a Norman Rockwell cover of the Saturday Evening Post. (Probably most of them are among its readership.)

However, in the next sequence the outside world intrudes. William (Leith M. Burke) and Daisy Mayers (Karimah Westbrook) have just moved into their dream house, causing everyone to stare in disbelief. The jolly mail man walks up to their door and can hardly speak when Mrs. Mayers greets him. She is a “Negro!” This place of refuge was designed for whites to escape from her kind. Apparently he thinks she is a servant, but quickly realizing that she LIVES there, in his confusion he starts to walk away, so that she has to ask him to leave her mail.

That very night the community hall is filled with angry white protestors, a scene played for its humor by having the bigots use the very language of the new-born Civil Rights Movement (remember, just 3 years earlier the Montgomery Bus Boycott ended with victory for the blacks). One white protestor claims they are fighting for their “civil rights” as home-owners, and another promises that “if we persist, we shall overcome!”

Next door is the residence of the Lodges–Gardner (Matt Damon), his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), her almost  twin sister Margaret (Rose is blond, whereas Margaret is brunette)), and son Nicky (Noah Jupe). Rose is confined to a wheelchair because of a car accident. As the two sisters and Nicky sit out behind their house, they can see the Mayer’s son Andy (Tony Espinosa) tending to a chore. At Rose’s insistence Nicky reluctantly goes over to the split-rail fence and cautiously asks if Andy wants to play ball. Thus begins the only friendship that a Mayer will enjoy during their tumultuous stay in Suburbicon.

Rose is obviously very different from the other white residents who, as the film progresses, grow increasingly hostile toward the Mayers. Unfortunately, she is not on the scene for long, at which point the film turns into a film noir. We meet the Lodges in the midst of a home invasion. Gardner wakes up Nicky, telling him, “There are men in the house.”  Two thugs (Glenn Flesher and Alex Hassell) tie all the family to kitchen chairs and then place over their mouths a cloth doused with chloroform. When Nicky wakes up, he finds himself in a hospital bed, his father informing him that his mother, due to her weak heart, has died. At the funeral vulgar Uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) tries to comfort his nephew with some silly horseplay and the assurance he is there for the boy.

Margaret takes her sister’s place in the family, with very little mourning by Gardner, so we quickly become aware of their collusion with the home invaders. When the police call asking that they come down to the station to identify in a line-up possible suspects, Nicky is with Gardner and Rose. They tell him to wait in the hall while they go inside with the inspector. The curious boy sneaks in anyway, and is speechless when the pair declare that they do not recognize anyone in the line-up. On the end are both thugs that had terrorized them a few nights earlier!

The film moves quickly through its film noir mode, complete with a police detective often contacting Gardner, the two thugs seeking to eliminate Nicky because they fear he will give them away, and an insurance agent (Oscar Isaac) convinced that Gardner has contracted to have his wife killed for the death benefits. And threaded throughout are scenes of mobs loudly demonstrating outside the Mayers’ home in order to scare them out of the neighborhood. Both story lines conclude in violence. In the social justice segment, those involved seemed to have learned a little from the fiery incident they had caused, but for the wicked characters in the film noir story it is too late to learn anything—they are like those described by the prophet in Isaiah 58—and, as the Psalmist wrote, “the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands.”

It is unfortunate that the character of the Mayers are so sketchy, the parents, especially Mr. Mayers, shown only as cowering victims, and not as the racial pioneers they must have been to have made such a bold move in the later 50s—but then, this more of a satire or parody than a social justice film seriously looking at our racial past. In a social justice film also I am sure the NAACP or the Urban League would have been involved supporting the Mayers.

Film noir, popular from the 30s to the end of the 50s, is filled with cynical characters engaged in acts of illicit sex and brutality, and yet such films usually conclude with the evil characters getting their come-uppance. For example, in the classic The Postman Always Rings Twice, a drifter named Frank working at a diner owned by Nick enters into an adulterous affair with Nick’s wife Cora. After failing once, they manage to kill Nick so she can gain control of and improve the diner. The local D.A. suspects them of murder, but cannot prove it. Then Fate (or God) steps in, and one of them is killed and the other wrongly accused of murder, tried, sentenced and executed, the whole story being told by the about-to-die survivor. We see this in Suburbicon as well. As in the time of the Psalmist, “the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands.” Although the film is flawed, it is nonetheless worth seeing and discussing.

This review with a set of questions is  in the November 2017 issue of VP.

Wonderstruck (2017)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 57 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals] that you care for them?

Psalm 8:3-4

For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds,

and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened

Matthew 7:8

1. Rose arrives in NYC in 1927.                              2. Ben being shown the huge NYC model in 1977.                    (c) Amazon Studios

You too might feel wonderstruck when you watch Todd Haynes new film based on Brian Selznick’s 2011 novel, the engaging story of two deaf children separated by some 50 years yet bound closely together by a mysterious bond. Everything about this film is wondrous, the parallel plots of the two children, the artistry of the director and cast, and the adroit editing with delightful transitions from 1977 to the 1927. The film celebrates the longings of children and the wonders of museums crammed with curiosities on display linking us to persons and objects across the years.

The first of the two children is 12-year-old Ben (Oakes Fegley) living in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota in 1977, who awakens from a nightmare of being chased by wolves. He is mourning the sudden loss of his librarian mother Elaine (Michelle Williams), who had never resolved his burning questions about the father he had never known. She had always turned down his questions with a “Not now” and “at the right time.” Unfortunately, her death in an auto accident came before that “right time.” Now living with his aunt and uncle, Ben returns to his old house where he finds in his mother’s bedroom an antique book, actually an exhibition catalog called Cabinets of Wonder, in which he finds a bookmark with the imprint and address of a NYC bookstore. What really arouses his interest is the note to his mother from a man that is written upon it. He dials a number on the telephone while a violent storm rages outside. A lightning bolt strikes the house, knocking him unconscious. When he awakens in a hospital he is deaf. Soon he is on a bus headed for NYC and the bookstore where he hopes he will discover more about his father. Being a child, it apparently does not occur to him that the bookstore might no longer be there.

Fifty years earlier in Hoboken, New Jersey, 12-year-old deaf Rose ((Millicent Simmonds) lives unhappily with her divorced, overly strict father. Her refuge from her life of harsh treatment is at the cinema and in her bedroom where she clips photos of famous movie star, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), and pastes them into a scrapbook. Her other hobby is folding magazine pages into small skyscrapers and creating a miniature city with them. At the local theater she watches, while an organist plays a musical accompaniment, her movie idol’s latest picture, Daughter of the Storm, which cinephiles will recognize as a tribute to Lillian Gish in The Wind. All of Rose’s scenes are shot in black and white with no dialogue, just like the films of the time. Ironically, as the girl exits the theater, we see workmen putting up a large marquee banner informing the public that the theater will be closed while it is being renovated to show “all talking” movies.

One day, Rose reads that the actress will be appearing in a play in the City, so she sneaks out of her bedroom window just before her father comes up the stairs with her dreaded sign-language teacher. She sets out on foot, reaching Manhattan via ferry boat. The city is a wonder to her, a jumble of people and vehicles amidst towering buildings. When she learns where the play is being rehearsed, she manages to sneak into the theater—and we are let in on a secret. Discovered by the staff, there ensues a chase scene that leads her just ahead of a policeman to the Museum of Natural History, where the large “cabinet of curiosities,” featured in the old book that Ben will discover and bring with him on his journey in 1977.

Ben arrives at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, sets off to find the bookstore, learns the hard way never to open your wallet on a NYC street to count your money, and, broke, arrives at the bookstore. A weather-beaten sign shows that Kincaid Bookstore once had occupied the dilapidated building. Fortunately, Ben had caught the eye of Jamie (Jaden Michael), a friendly African American boy walking with his father. He informs the visitor where the bookstore is now located. To make a complicated story short, the two become friends, Ben finding shelter in a storeroom at, yes, the American Museum of Natural History where Jamie’s father works.

The back and forth scenes of Ben and Rose exploring in wide-eyed wonder the dioramas, animal exhibits and curios of the vast place might take you back to your childhood visits to such a wonder-filled place. Ben is startled by the diorama featuring lunging wolves, recalling his nightmares, and he is highly intrigued by the small brass plate informing readers that the stuffed beasts are from Gunflint, Minnesota. We see the children are connected by the giant meteorite, around which, though 50 years apart, they run their fingers while circling about it. Each came to the Museum in search of a man, he boy for his father, and Rose for her older brother, and both quests will bring closure to their longings.

An even greater bond between the two I will leave for you to discover, except to reveal that it involves a marvelous, huge scale-model of New York City created for the 1964 World’s Fair. The vast display, filling a hall, had been so popular that it was saved and put on permanent display. Also, an important part of the climax is the famous 1977 New York Blackout, that permits the final scene of wonder so appreciated by three of the characters, as well as the author of Psalm 8. It really is an inspiring way to end the film! This is a delightful film for the family, as well as a good one for church groups (especially youth) to see and discuss.

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

Breathe (2017)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 1 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners…

Isaiah 61:1

 

Diana has fought to keep Robin’s will to live so that he & their nnew child will get to know each other.                     (c) Bleecker Street Media

There have been many films about astronauts. Here is a film about a “responaut,” a term coined by the British press in regard to the film’s protagonist many years ago. Actor Andy Serkis, best known for his performance-capture work in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey; and the two Planet of the Apes films, directs this true story film about a couple who transformed the way polio victims were treated decades ago. If you are looking for a feel-good film, this could be it, though you will have to search it out at an art house theater.

While playing Cricket Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) spots Diana Blacker (Claire Foy) in the crowd. It is love at first sight for both. Their time spent in Kenya where Robin is sent as a tea broker reminds me of beautiful scenes in Out of Africa—dining on a veranda with a beautiful sunset as a backdrop; flying in a small plane amidst mountains and through verdant valleys. This happy period comes to a crashing halt when in 1958 the 28-year-old Robin contracts polio, which paralyzes him from the neck down and robs him of the ability to breathe on his own. The diagnosis is that he has just a short time to live. Giving in to suicidal despair, Robin would have given up his will to live, but Diana will not allow it. “You’re not dead, and that’s that,” she declares.

Back in England the head doctor informs Diana that her immobile husband must forever remain in bed, but still she will not give in to the “inevitable.” Robin wants to live and die away from the hospital, but the doctor, saying it’s never been done, refuses permission. With connivance of an assistant doctor, nurses, and her twin brothers Bloggs and David Blacker (both played by Tom Hollander), she sneaks him out of the hospital, his respirator powered temporarily by a hand bellows. The head doctor tries to stop them, declaring, “You will be dead in two weeks.” They press on, arriving at a dilapidated country house Diana has found, where he is reattached to the electric powered breathing machine.

Instead of dying in a few months as predicted by the arrogant doctor, Robin flourishes, his spirit buoyed by the countryside and more personal care, as well as the humor and support of Bloggs and David. He and Diana even become the parents of two children. His desire to leave the house is fulfilled by his inventive friend Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), who after a lot of tinkering, comes up with a wheelchair and a battery powered respirator. His mobility is increased by the conversion of a van, though at first this proves a problem because when placed in the rear, his head is touching the ceiling. This is remedied by removing the passenger seat and installing a hydraulic one into which Robin can be transferred. This enables them to travel even to Spain, though a near-catastrophe causes them to summon Teddy from England for repairs.

The breakdown of their van so far from home is treated lightly rather than as the real danger to Robin that it was. While waiting for Teddy to arrive the next day, the Brits are visited by residents of a near-by village who bring their guitars, food, and even their priest with them. That evening during what amounts to a small fiesta, the priest observes, “God makes jokes upon us so to bring us together to celebrate.”

A very harrowing scene is the one in which Robin and Diana go to Germany for a conference on the disabled. Beforehand they visit care facility where the doctors proudly show off their state of the art treatment. To their horror the couple sees the heads of dozens of polio victims protruding from iron lungs. Stacked in rows that reach all the way up to the ceiling, the victims look like something from a science fiction horror film. At the conference Robin makes an eloquent plea to the doctors, “You all have the power to open the gates and set them free.” Serving as the example of what that freedom could be, he and Teddy are soon in the business of producing wheelchairs equipped with respirators so that others can become untethered to hospital wall sockets. The scene in which Robin leads a procession of fellow patients from the hospital, all of them in their own wheelchairs is a delightful sight. Always accompanied by Diana, Robin travels extensively on behalf of the cause of the rights of the disabled. In a real sense he proclaimed, “liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” Millions of those who once were expected to simply lie in bed attached to machines until death released them are in the debt of this redoubtable couple.

Thus, it is good that the film honors this deserving couple. However, we might have appreciated them even more had the filmmakers inserted a few more darker moments into the script, as did the makers of I’ll Push You, another film about a paralyzed wheelchair-bound man. Surely Robin and Diana must have been frustrated often by the myriad snags and small barriers making it difficult to maneuver a bulky wheelchair, especially in those days when there was little public or government awareness of the needs of the handicapped. This is a minor complaint, in that film does turn somber at the end, raising the issue of euthanasia. Robin’s insistence that the handicapped have the right to be treated with dignity also extends to that of the hopelessly ill being able to choose to die with dignity.

The film is obviously close to the heart of director Serkis in that his mother taught disabled children, and his sister is afflicted with multiple sclerosis. Even more, he is a friend of Robin and Diana’s grown son Jonathan Cavendish, played as a young man in the film by Dean-Charles Chapman. Jonathan one of the film’s producers (he also produced the two Bridget Jones films and Elizabeth I: The Golden Age.

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

 

Same Kind of Difference as Me (2017)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 59 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

1 Corinthians 13:5-7

 

Denver offers no thanks to Deborah or Ron for his food. (c) Pure Flix Entertainment/Paramount Pictures

First-time director Michael Carney’s race-relations film is a bit simplistic, but it easily beats out most faith-based films—meaning, for this reviewer, it shows rather than preaches. The screenplay, by Carney, Alexander Foard, and Ron Hall, is based on the best-selling nonfiction book with the unwieldy title of Same Kind of Different as Me: A Modern-Day Slave, an International Art Dealer, and the Unlikely Woman Who Bound Them Together. It chronicles the real-life story of wealthy white Texan art dealer Ron Hall and Denver Moore, a Louisiana-born African-American homeless man. Ron’s wife Deborah was the catalyst that brought the two together.

The film begins with Deborah (Renée Zellweger) confronting Ron (Greg Kinnear) with his infidelity and demanding that he choose either to split up or to accept her forgiveness—with the proviso that he does what she asks in the years ahead. He accepts, and reluctantly accompanies her to the Gospel Union Mission when she volunteers to work in its soup kitchen. His first encounter with Denver Moore (Djimon Hounsou) is not an auspicious one, the angry black man striding into the hall holding a baseball bat in a threatening position. The bat is constantly with him, and during one of his visits he uses it to smash a glass window, on which ironically are engraved a portion of 1 Corinthians 13.

Love is what Deborah embodies, so she continues to respond calmly to the angry black man when he comes through the serving line. Ron is upset that Denver never thanks them for the food, but at the urging of his wife, he does go over to the area where the homeless man ekes out his living with other homeless people. Deborah’s reason for reaching out to Denver is a dream that she had about meeting a wise man on the road who would change her life. Despite his anger, she believed Denver to be that man. Suspicious of their motives, Denver rebuffs them continuously. Later, after they have become friends, he reveals that his past had made him believe that all whites were racists ready to break into violence the moment he stepped across a line. Son of share croppers, as a boy he had been good friends with a white boy. One day the two had discovered in a shed KKK regalia owned by the white boy’s father. They tried on the robes, and when the boy’s mother caught them, Denver was beaten. As a young man he had also suffered a beating when he tried to help a white woman with her broke-down car, and a group of white toughs came along.

Ron finds himself enjoying Denver’s company, but suffering disapproval of wealthy white friends when he treats Denver to lunch at his club. At about this point I began to have some misgivings about the film becoming one more tale of Noble Whites Rescuing Deserving Blacks, this being almost a subgenre of films exploring race relations. The real Ron Hall must have worried about this as well, for in an interview the author has said that his story is not about a wealthy “art dealer millionaire that saved this poor, African-American homeless man. Nothing could be further from the truth. This man saved me from myself.” And we might add, it is about a woman of faith whose love reached out to an unfaithful husband and then a suspicious homeless black man.

Renée Zellweger and Greg Kinnear are both excellent as the philanthropists, but it is Djimon Hounsou whose performance you probably will remember the longest. As he opens up to Ron more, the once anger-consumed man becomes the wise man Deborah had seen in her dream. In an art museum to which Ron takes him he offers an interesting observation on a Picasso painting, and at the end of the film it is he who provides the name of the film in his eulogy honoring Deborah.

Inside, Denver says, we are all the same, despite our outward differences. That racial relations could be improved by whites acting kindly toward blacks is no doubt true. But this personal approach to racism, favored by most conservative Christian is far short of solving the problem. It too often ignores the systematic, built-in racism that needs changing. It suggests too that the problem of homelessness can be solved by the generosity of two wealthy whites who live in a 15,000-square foot house rather than making changes in the attitude of the general public and in government programs (or lack of the latter). It is encouraging that Ron gave up his lucrative art dealership to join with Denver as advocates for the homeless (Denver even moved into his friend’s home to live with him), but I hope that in their many travels on behalf of their cause they moved beyond a narrow personal approach to deal with the many, complex reasons why persons become homeless.

Despite the above, this is a film worth seeing.

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

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 44 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 2; Sex 2/Nudity 3.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;

what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

Psalm 8:3-4

Deckart & Agent K meet up at last in a ruined Las Vegas casino.         (c) Warner Bros.

Director Denis Villeneuve certainly faced a big challenge when he agreed to make a sequel to the 1982 film that has an almost cult following. It helps that the original scriptwriter Hampton Fancher was on hand to join Michael Green in producing a script that rises close to the level of the original—and also, of course, that Harrison Ford was available to assume again the role of Rick Deckard. We will not see Deckard until late in the film, but he will prove crucial for the climax, which becomes a mixture of the triumphant and the tragic.

The original film was set in a dystopia 37 years in the future (2019, which seemed in 1982 a long way off) when a scientist had been able to create androids called Replicants, that are difficult to detect from humans. They have been used as slaves on off-world colonies because, being human-created, they are not considered to have a soul. Because of their dangerous tendency toward violence, Replicants have been banned from Earth, but some have made it through, passing themselves off as humans. A special cop called a Blade Runner is devoted to running them down and retiring (killing) them. Rick Deckard had been a Blade Runner, a very successful one until he had fallen in love with a Replicant named Rachel and with her had dropped out of sight.

Thirty years later Earth has suffered from ecosystem collapse and wars so that it has become a ruined planet whose inhabitants seek to escape their harsh situation through hedonistic pleasures. Los Angeles’ towering buildings are on the brink of ruin, and sunlight never penetrates its smog. A new corporate tycoon (the old one went bankrupt) has developed an even more advanced model Replicant, the Nexus-9, with such “improvements” as a built-in termination date and artificial memory implants. A Replicant named Agent K (Ryan Gosling) is sent out to retire a newly discovered older model replicant named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) who has been hiding out in the desert. Before K fights and kills him, Morton speaks of a “miracle” that would make it impossible for anyone to kill a Replicant. After the fight, K discovers a chest buried beneath the lone dead tree outside the house. It contains a female human skeleton and lock of hair. Lab technicians discover that the woman had given birth, but then a serial number etched onto a bone reveals that the woman had been a Replicant, even though this was supposedly impossible.

K will set forth to solve this mystery, and then on learning facts that his superiors fear will bring chaos to society, the searcher will become the sought after. In the abandoned ruins of Las Vegas K will at last meet up with Deckard and discover the miracle about which Morton had told him. It is a long and complicated tale, but one that raises the question posed almost 2500 years ago by the Psalmist.

Gosling and Ford are supported by a fine cast that includes Robin Wright as K’s department superior, Lieutenant Joshi; Sylvia Hoeks as a Replicant woman named Luv, first a helper for K and then a deadly foe; Ana de Armas as Joi, K’s holographic lover; Jared Leto as Niander Wallace, the blind and ruthless head of the company named after him that manufactures the Replicants;   Mackenzie Davis as Mariette, one of three Replicants who try to seduce K; Sean Young as Rachel, repeating her role from the original film; Edward James Olmos, also from the original as Gaff, a cop who had befriended Deckard;  Carla Juri as Dr. Ana Stelline, a scientist who designs and implants memories—and who will prove to be a surprise later on; and Hiam Abbass as Freysa, leader of the Replicant freedom movement who was present when Rachel gave birth. If you are like me, you might have trouble remembering all the names, so seeing this with a friend is highly recommended.

This film, with its new characters and old ones based on characters from Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, will provide an opportunity to discuss where science is taking us. This is a good one to add to such films as A.I.; Bicentennial Man; the Star War series; and a host of others—even the so-called children’s film, The Iron Giant.

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