The Disaster Artist (2017)

 

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour  44 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 5; Sex 4/Nudity 2.

Our star rating: (1-5): 4

The wise have eyes in their head,
but fools walk in darkness.

Ecclesiastes 2:14

Greg (L) & Tommy make a pact to support each other in their quest for a career in film making. (c) A24

 

The familiar pursuit of the artistic dream is given the kind of twist that we haven’t seen since Ed Wood or Florence Foster Jenkins. Those interested in films that go behind the scenes of filmmaking will enjoy but scarcely believe this black comedy is a true story—but they will only have to go to IMDB.com to confirm that there really is a film called The Room made by a Tommy Wiseau. In the site’s Metacritic section it received a score of 9 out of a possible score of 100. Whether or not it deserves such a low rating, you can judge for yourself after seeing the bizarre story of how it was made.

Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is at an acting class in San Francisco when he is bowled over by the no-holds-barred performance of Stanley Kowalski by fellow student Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). The actor shouts and runs around the stage contorting his body. Greg introduces himself after class, confessing that he lacks the confidence he just witnessed and hopes to gain. They make a pact to support one another always, a pact that later on will prove difficult to keep.

Tommy’s sunglasses, long black hair, and accent suggesting an East European origin, set him off from the other students almost as much as his go for broke acting style. Even more surprising to Greg is the new friend’s wealth, enough for him to maintain a residence in Los Angeles as well as in San Francisco. The two decide to move south in their quest for careers in the film industry. Greg’s good looks quickly earn him an agent, but no work. Week follows week, but neither of them seems any closer to fulfilling his dream, although Greg has acquired a girlfriend who is resented by Tommy. When people tell Tommy that he’d make a good movie villain with his heavy accent, dramatic face and “malevolent presence,” he rejects their advice, “I hero, you all villain.… Yeah, you laugh at the hero. That what villain do.”

Then comes the inspiration to make their own film. Tommy has the funds, and soon they have a crew—the owner of the equipment is somewhat surprised that Tommy’s check does not bounce. Tommy writes a script featuring himself and Greg and several others. What happens on the set will keep you laughing and wondering, “Can this really be true?” One example being that a simple scene in which Tommy has just a couple of lines requires almost SEVENTY takes.

When at last the film is premiered at a theater hired for the occasion, your laughter might be tinged with a measure of discomfort. Should we be laughing with or at Tommy? Is he smart enough to know that the popularity of his film is due to his making it so bad that hip audiences are amused enough to watch it again and again to call out the dumb lines that they have memorized? Does he believe that this was his intention to begin with?

If you were amused by Ed Wood, you will enjoy this film. Or maybe not. With the recent sexual misconduct charges made against star and director James Franco, you now face the decision of whether or not to avoid supporting such a person’s work.

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

 

Five Came Back (2017)

Rated R. Running time: c. 3 hours.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you…

I John 2a

For those interested in film history and World War Two, Netflix has the perfect documentary, a rare one in that some critics have reversed their usual criticism and said they wished it were longer. Shown as a single feature in theaters to those lucky enough to live in some larger cities, it is being offered as a three-part series on Netflix. It is so good that this film alone justifies taking out a membership if you have not yet joined.

The series is based on Mark Harris’s book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, and though I loved reading it because it contains even more incidents in the lives and careers of the five filmmakers covered, it is while watching clips from their films that one feels especially the power and scope of what they achieved. The filmmakers who volunteered their skills for the war effort are from the top tier of successful Hollywood directors during the Thirties– John Ford, Frank Capra, George Stevens, William Wyler, and John Huston. There are clips and facts about their pre-War films, as there are also about the films they made after the war. And of course, there are excerpts from the short films they made for troop training and for interpreting to the public the meaning of the war, such as the Why We Fight series.

Veteran documentarian Laurent Bouzereau and writer Mark Harris have joined forces to produce a series that viewers will want to return again and again, so much information is crammed into it. And the great thing here is that Netflix members can easily click back on to do so. The producers made a brilliant decision by inviting five major current directors to comment on the war-time filmmakers and their work– Steven Spielberg talks about William Wyler; Guillermo Del Toro comments upon Frank Capra; Paul Greengrass deals with John Ford; Francis Ford Coppola discusses John Huston; and Lawrence Kasdan analyzes George Stevens.

We learn how they had to fight government and military bureaucracies that were suspicious of their motives and goals. Army Signal Corps filmmakers resented the Hollywood directors as “entertainers,” but the films that they had been making were so boring that audiences welcomed the training and propaganda films made by the newcomers. In fact, some were both so entertaining and informative that President Roosevelt and his staff allowed films intended for the training of troops to be shown to the public.

At the time most people either obtained their news from radio and newspapers, or they went outside the home and saw the weekly newsreels shown along with their movie fare. Some of the films shot during or right after bloody battles brought to the home front the awesomeness of the war and the importance of victory. Along with filmmaker George Stevens they were shocked and horrified by the footage he shot when American troops liberated the Nazi concentration camps.

The film’s various segments are well tied together by the narration written by Mark Harris and read by Meryl Streep. It does not spare some of the flaws of the men—the over indulgence in alcohol of some, the staging of combat scenes at times weeks after the actual battle, rivalries with one another or with a government overseer—but despite their personal flaws, the film instills in us an admiration for these men who gave up comfortable lives and put their careers on hold in order to contribute to the fight against the nation’s dangerous enemies. There were times when their lives were in danger, and several of the cameramen they had assembled did lose their lives during a battle.

Two instances in the series especially stand out for me:

  1. Frank Capra was devastated when he saw how great was the propaganda film made by Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. It was so beautifully made and effective in promoting the Nazi cause that Hitler was a god-like being that he wondered how we could possibly match it in the propaganda wars aimed at drawing the uncommitted to one side or the other. Then as he and the others filmed our men and women, he realized we do have the resources to compete. 2. George Stevens was so traumatized by the horror that he filmed at a Dachau extermination camp that after the war he was so haunted by it that he turned from the light material he had filmed before (Penny Serenade and Talk of the Town) to more serious works like Shane, Giant, and The Diary of Ann Frank.

Those interested in social justice will appreciate the concern of some filmmakers and government officials that the Japanese not be too dehumanized so as not to poison the air after the war. Some of the filmmakers were also concerned about the Jim Crow persecution of African American soldiers, and the hypocrisy of branding the enemy oppressive while mistreating our own minorities back home. Supervised by producer Frank Capra, director Stuart Heisler faced the daunting task in The Negro Soldier of convincing skeptical African American audiences that their men should join in the “fight for freedom,” even though theirs was limited in this country.

As an additional bonus Netflix offers most of the documentaries discussed in the series: John Ford’s The Battle of Midway; Frank Capra’s Prelude to War; William Wyler’s The Memphis Belle; John Huston’s San Pietro; and George Stevens’ Nazi Concentration Camps—and more. Watching these is a great way to see the work produced by these men. What a treasure trove Netflix offers. It’s like having the key to the vault of a film historical society. And so five came back, five of the greatest filmmakers ever to work in Hollywood. Five came back, changed by what they had experienced, and through their engaging films, changed the way we would see the war, and for years afterward, the world as well.

This review with a set of questions will be in the February. 2018 issue of VP.

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)

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.

 

Wonder Wheel (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): 4

But he who commits adultery has no sense;
he who does it destroys himself.
He will get wounds and dishonor,
and his disgrace will not be wiped away

Proverbs 6:32-33

So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

James 4:17

Ginny soon will regret that she has introduced her lover Mickey to the step-daughter who has just come to Cony Island. (c) Amazon Studios

Woody Allen’s newest film could have been a film noir, except for Vittorio Storaro’s glorious cinematography that captures the colorful hues of early 1950’s Cony Island so that some scenes seem to glow. Not so the characters, especially Kate Winslet’s waitress Ginny, who cannot get over her failure to succeed as an actress years before. She seems to be a female version of On the Waterfront’s failed boxer Terry Malloy (“I coulda been a contender”) when she regales her ten-year old son Richie (Jack Gore) with tales of her past as an aspiring actress while showing off her stage jewelry that she has saved. The boy almost totally ignores her. As we will see, he has his own problems, possibly triggered by his mother’s.

At various points the story is narrated by Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a wannabe playwright spending the summer as a Coney Island life guard. From his high perch he keeps an eye on the passing females more than on the swimmers. He notices both the newly arrived Carolina (Juno Temple), carrying a small suitcase as she arrives at her estranged father’s apartment close to the giant Ferris wheel that gives its name to the movie. He also had spotted Ginny and even though she was almost 20 years his senior, had been drawn to her. He may aspire to be a poet and a dramatist, but his moral depth is seen when, upon her revelation that she was married, he responds that it does not matter. The spaces beneath the wooden boardwalk offer lots of opportunity for them to fornicate. Considering their adulterous affair a passing incident before he returns to his Greenwich Village apartment and drama classes at New York University, Mickey fails to see how serious their trysts are for Ginny. She is very aware that she was to blame for the failure of her first marriage, but now bored with the insufferable Humpty (Jim Belushi) and approaching her 40th birthday, she repeats her past mistake. She escapes into the arms of her youthful lover, whose tales of having seen the world, and Bora Bora in particular when he was in the Navy, lure her into believing that he might take her to such a faraway place.

Ginny is also resentful that Humpty, who had written off his daughter because she had fallen in love and married a gangster despite his warnings, has reconciled and taken her in. The young woman has turned to him in desperation because she has squealed on her husband when the Feds put pressure upon her, and now the associates of her imprisoned spouse are searching for her—and it is not a marital reconciliation that they intend to pull off. Sure enough, two bulky-bodied goons show up at the merry go around that Humpty operates, but he is able to convince them that he is still estranged from her. They leave, but their menacing presence will be felt by all concerned.

Ginny is upset that Carolina has been hired at the same oyster bar where she works—and even more so when Mickey becomes attracted to Carolina upon being introduced to the girl. This and her troubles with her son Richie begins to unravel her. Drawn to fire, the young pyromaniac’s fires become increasingly dangerous. It was not so bad when he set beach debris ablaze, but when he sets a waste basket at the adjoining office of his therapist on fire, matters start to get out of hand. There is also the cost of the boy’s therapy, which Ginny pays for by stealing money from Humpty’s hidden cash box after he turns her request down. She knows full well that he intends to use the funds to pay for Carolina’s night classes, in the fond hope that she can become more than “just a waitress.”

Ginny’s fear that she is losing Mickey to Carolina keeps building, especially after she sees them together. The two thugs show up again, asking around the boardwalk about Carolina. They discover that their quarry will be meeting Mickey at a pizza place, and Ginny discovers their discovery. Now frantic, she knows she must telephone the parlor to warn the pair, or…

The film is not vintage Allen fare, but it comes close to the quality of his 2013 film Blue Jasmine. His character study gives Kate Winslet ample time to show off her acting ability, and the rest of the cast also deliver fine performances. The carnival-like setting of Coney Island, so different from the café society setting of many another Allen film, is beautifully recreated. The many bizarre, gaily painted banners and posters touting the various attractions match the tawdriness of Ginny’s situation and mindset. She is a mixed-up woman of failed dreams whose last great sin of omission is even greater than her sin of commission. Whether to condemn her or pity her, the director leaves up to his audience. Given his own past sins off screen, it might be the latter. However, once a fine moralist exploring metaphysical and moral issues, Woody Allen has long since, in the eyes of many viewers, lost any authority to teach about such matters. But even his detractors cannot deny that this octogenarian can still make interesting films worth watching.

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

The Greatest Showman (2017)

 

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour  45 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

The getting of treasures by a lying tongue
is a fleeting vapor and a snare of death.

Proverbs 21:6

Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—

with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them.

Ecclesiastes 4:1

The film places Barnum front & center, but for me it is his “oddities” who are central to the story. (c) 20th Century Fox

Was P.T. Barnum an exploiter of his “oddities,” or the benefactor and protector of those regarded by most of the public as freaks, hideous creatures that should return to their closets and shuttered houses where they had been hidden before the self-styled “Greatest Showman” came along. Australian director Michael Gracey, who hitherto had directed just commercials, advocates for the first interpretation (with a major qualification—more on that later). I thought this was going to be a biographical movie, but instead it is an original musical. The film might be akin to Barnum’s “humbug’ as history, but as a musical advocating for the acceptance and dignity of the outsider, it could be a delight for those concerned for social justice issues—as long as you lay aside the facts about the conniving man and the circus bearing his name.

After the New York City insurance company that employs him goes bankrupt, Barnum uses deceit to gain a bank loan to open a museum of oddities and curiosities. However, the exotic stuffed animals and such fail to draw a crowd, so the inventive entrepreneur visits and entices such odd people as Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), the Bearded Lady; a child dwarf whom he renames Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey); a hair-covered man called Dog Boy (Luciano Acuna, Jr.); the Lord of Leeds, a Russian weighing 500 pounds; and an eight-foot tall man. His chicanery is evident in his truth-stretching advertising—the man’s weight is billed as 750 ponds, and the Russian is dubbed The Irish Giant. The showman’s bamboozling works, the curious public flocking into the “Museum” in droves. Barnum dresses “Tom” up as Napoleon and has him ride on a large white horse. The Bearded Lady and other oddities sing and dance, and high above the crowd light-skinned black trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) dazzles the audience with her daring—all this beautifully summed up in their ensemble song “Come Alive.”

Now a wealthy man, Barnum can afford the mansion that he had long wanted for his upper-class wife Charity (Michelle Williams) and their two daughters Caroline and Helen (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely). Earlier we are shown that they had met as children when Barnum had accompanied his tailor father to fit a suit for her father Mr. Hallett (Fred Lehne). Seeing the children’s mutual attraction, Mr. Hallett had forbidden the boy to have any further contact with Charity. The film skips over their long courtship, jumping too quickly ahead to the day that a grown-up Barnum walks out of the Hallett mansion with his beloved. Somehow the two had been able to keep in touch and bring their romance to full blossom.

Barnum has acquired wealth, but not respect. He can afford to send one of his daughters to ballet school, but the other girls mock her because of her father’s lowbrow show. At the Museum a gang of rowdies continually express their disdain for the “freaks,” and their anger finds expression in the writing of newspaper critic James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks) who always derides Barnum’s show in print. In turn, Barnum adopted what the reporter wrote as an insult to be the name of his establishment, “P.T. Barnum’s Circus.”

To gain entry into upper-crust society Barnum cajoles well-respected playwright, Phillip Caryle (Zac Efron) into forming a 10% partnership (in song “The Other Side”), and takes his troupe to England where the latter uses his connections to obtain an audience at Queen Victoria’s court. The court retinue gasps at first as the circus troupe marches down the long aisle to stand before the monarch, but Her Majesty is highly amused by a remark made by the now “General” Tom Thumb, and Barnum and company are “in.” He also meets popular singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), and realizing that he would rise in status by sponsoring her, offers to bring her to America for a series of concerts. Not shown is his offer of $1000 per concert and the Swedish Nightingale’s shrewdness that she be paid up front before leaving England. (No doubt she had heard reports of the showman’s deviousness!) The film also does not reveal that she gave most of her huge tour profits to charities in her native Sweden and the U.S.

Much of the rest of the film is hokum, such as the rift between Charity and her husband because he leaves her to accompany Jenny Lind on her tour, during which the singer develops more than a business interest in him—the real Lind was a very pious person not at all disposed to such a temptation. The film is at least honest enough to show that though Barnum gathered the “oddities” together, he was by no means their champion. When he holds a gala reception for Miss Lind, the troupe dresses up in their best finery and attempt to enter the ball room, but Barnum bars their way, telling them they are not welcome. It is a shattering moment for the outcasts, making them all aware that despite talent and new-found fame, they will always be considered outsiders, even by their boss. Hugh Jackson makes Barnum as likeable as Robert Preston’s con artist Harold Hill in The Music Man, but not even the film’s Hollywood treatment can effectively redeem him.

The outcasts’ feelings are beautifully expressed in the anthem-like song “This Is Me,” which begins with the Bearded Lady singing, “I am not a stranger to the dark/Hide away they say/Cause we don’t want your broken parts/I’ve learned to be/ashamed of all my scars/Run away, they say/No one will love you/as you are…” Her description of her outcast situation morphs into defiance, and soon the other oddities join her in a rousing refusal to accept their oppression, “Won’t let them break me//down to dust/I know there’s/a place for us/For we are glorious…” This spirited resistance by the oppressed is probably an anachronism—in my research I haven’t found evidence of it, only of Barnum’s exploitation of them for profit—but for me, at least, it is a redeeming factor in a production that might have presented Barnum as the white savior. And what a song, one that therapists might consider piping into their waiting rooms or using with their dispirited clients! *

An interesting subplot that leads to a dance-duet that literally takes flight, La La Land-like, is the romance between playwright Phillip Caryle and aerialist Anne Wheeler seen in their song “Rewrite the Stars,” which they sing while twirling on ropes and a trapeze. The two are drawn to each other, but his resolve to marry melts when he notes the disapproval of his racist parents. This sad episode, hauntingly reprised in their song, “Everything Keeps Us Apart,” reminds me of South Pacific in which U.S. Marine Lt. Cable falls in love with the Polynesian Liat, but breaks away from her because of his prejudiced parents in his native South.

Besides such social justice concerns, the stirring music is another reason to take in this film. John Debney and Joseph Trapanese’s music and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s songs are delightful, the words lifted on high by their tunes and driving beat. (Available on-line, I’ve enjoyed listening to them several times while writing this review!) There is plenty to criticize in this film–indeed, its treatment of history could qualify it as a fantasy film–but also much to revel in and to remember, and even to celebrate.

*Hear and see the lyrics of “This Is me” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRIrJFQBb00

To see a montage of colorful clips from the film see the YouTube “Light it Up” at

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzvxbGDgGlk

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

All the Money in the World (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour   23 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 

 The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain.

This also is vanity.

Ecclesiastes 5:10

What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?

Luke 9:25

J. Paul Getty in his huge English mansion. (c) TriStar Pictures

Set during the 70’s when oil magnate J. Paul Getty was the richest man in the world, director Ridley Scott’s film is based on the 1995 book by John Pearson, originally titled Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortune and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty. That was a good title, as the numerous scenes in the film following the kidnapping of Getty’s 16-year-old grandson Paul (Charlie Plummer) in Rome will make excruciatingly clear. While demonstrating the vanity of the old man’s worship of Mammon, the dark film’s brighter side focuses upon the fierce love and determination of young Paul’s mother Abigail (Michelle Williams).

Gail, as she is usually called, had lived in seeming contentment with Getty’s son John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan) in San Francisco until he was hired by his father to work in the firm. Proving useless in business, the hapless man had retreated into alcohol and drugs, his behavior leading to bitter divorce negotiations in which father and grandfather used custody of the boy (he was seven in the flashback sequence) as a bargaining chip. Gail eschewed the usual vast sum of alimony money in exchange for the son, even though the father could not, nor wanted to, care for him.

Getty is so wrapped up in his money that he at first turns away the messenger bearing news of the kidnapping. He does not want to be interrupted while reading the ticker tapes of his stock transactions. At a press conference on the steps of his palatial English estate, reporters ask how much he would pay for the safe return of Paul. With a slight shrug of his shoulders he replies, “Nothing,” a heart-chilling answer that does not make up for his later explanation that his paying ransom would only encourage other kidnappers to snatch one of his other grandchildren. He claims to love his grandson, but his actions indicate that he loves money more.

Gail determines not to just sit by in America while the kidnappers contact her, but sets forth to negotiate both with the criminals and with her former father-in-law. She is aided by Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg), the Getty family’s head of security, appointed to that position because he had worked for the CIA and thus knew well the ins and outs of protection and high-stakes negotiations. Their relationship is tense at first until she gradually learns he can be trusted—to the scriptwriters’ credit, there is no attempt to follow the usual Hollywood romantic arc.

There are numerous suspenseful scenes of the teenager and his kidnappers, including an almost successful rescue attempt by the Italian police. Also, in a separate incident the lad manages to escape for a brief time before being recaptured. There are two groups of kidnappers, the first, less powerful gang, sells Paul to a wealthier and more ruthless group whose head can afford to wait for the months-long negotiations to play out. Thus, when the police raid the hideout of the first criminals Paul is gone.

It is difficult to say which is the more wedded to the god of money, J. Paul Getty or the ruthless mafioso who orders his captive’s ear cut off and sent to the billionaire to make him aware of the seriousness of the boy’s plight. Probably the businessman, as suggested by several scenes. At a lavish hotel in which Getty is staying he does not try to hide the socks and underwear hanging to dry in the bathroom, telling his visitors that he refuses to pay someone to do his laundry. At his English country estate fit for a monarch, he has installed an iconic red pay telephone booth, rather than allow his guests to make calls from the houseline. And during a visit by schoolboy Paul he instructs the boy, “A Getty is special, a Getty is nobody’s friend.” During the kidnapping Getty often refuses to even let Gail in to see him, and when she does talk with him, he seems deaf to her pleas. Thus, during one of her phone contacts with the kidnappers, she plaintively says, “You have to give me some time here. I’m fighting an empire here.” Indeed, as days turn into weeks, and weeks into months, the kidnapper caring directly for Paul, known as Cinquanta (Romain Duris), seems to be more concerned for his charge’s welfare than the grandfather.

Much has been written of Christopher Plummer’s last-minute filling in for the disgraced Kevin Spacey. Mr. Plummer is so effective that I cannot imagine anyone else in the role. The English actor, who can also be seen on the screen as J. Paul Getty’s forerunner, Ebenezer Scrooge in The Man Who Invented Christmas, effectively conveys the cold isolation of the kind of man described by Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes and Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. I went home and reread the little book that the portrayal of Getty called to mind, The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. In this fantasy Lewis describes Hell in terms of the isolation between its denizens—Hell is a vast suburb in which no one wants to live next to another, so it keeps expanding as people keep pushing each other away.

How Gail’s persistence is rewarded at last makes for tense viewing, with the filmmakers adding a fictional denouement that really is not necessary, other than to add one last measure of excitement. When the elderly J. Paul Getty goes the way of all flesh, we see the huge mansion that he left behind is filled with art treasures—sculptures, paintings, tapestries, and carpets, forcibly reminding me of the final scene of another worshipper of money and its power, Citizen Kane. Sadly, Ridley Scott’s film is a true story, a finely wrought visual parable of greed. We must add that a mother’s love and persistence are also well portrayed, but it is the tragic portrait of the kind of man condemned in above two scripture passages that dominates the film.

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