RBG (2018)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 38 min.

Our content ratings (0-5): Violence 0; Language 0; Sex/Nudity  0.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue,

so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Deuteronomy 16:20

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;

maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.

Psalm 82:3

 

President Carter greets Ruth Bader Ginsberg. (c) Magnolia Pictures

Co-directors Julie Cohen and  Betsy West open document not only Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s great contributions to American law, but also present what could be called “one of the great love stories of the 20th century.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passions were the law, music, and the first man who loved and respected her for her brains, Martin Ginsberg. We see these three passions throughout the film, thanks to the skillful interweaving of interviews, archival footage and photographs. Included are Ginsburg’s children, life-long friends, colleagues, admirers and such famous folk as Gloria Steinem and former President Bill Clinton.

The film begins with shots of Washington DC accompanied by the voices of her detractors, aptly followed by her saying that she “asks no favors for my sex—I just ask that they take their feet off our necks.” To show her determined struggle against sexism we see the first of many sequences of the 85-year-old working out in a gym. One of her friends marvels that she still can do push-ups.

The historical bias against women is depicted in shots of feminist demonstrators and comments by Gloria Steinem. Ruth was not out front with the demonstrators but used her legal skills to knock down barriers. She argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, winning five of them. To some she became the Thurgood Marshall (a jurist she admired) of the feminist movement.

No doubt her championing gender equality was fueled by her own experience. She enrolled in Harvard Law Scholl where she was one of nine women in a class of five hundred. The dean demanded of the women why they should take the place of a man. Moving to NYC when her husband secured a job there, she transferred to and graduated from Columbia Law School (tying for first place in her class). Top of her class, yet no firm would hire her.

Her favorite Columbia professor secured a clerkship for her with Judge Edmund L. Palmieri of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York only by threatening never to recommend another student if he did not hire her. She served for two years and then went on to her history making career as a lawyer and professor of law (at less pay than her male colleagues!) advocating the equality of women. During this period, she worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to bring cases before the Supreme Court and also serves on its board.

It was Jimmy Carter who noted disapprovingly that most judges looked like him, and so appointed her to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1980. In 1993 when Pres. Bill Clinton was to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, she was not among his top considerations. Her husband Marty, deeply respecting her abilities, became one of her main advocates, pushing for an interview. Clinton reports that soon into their interview he was convinced by her brilliance that she would be his nominee. She is overwhelmingly voted onto the Court (96 to 3) by a Congress that at the time was willing to operate in a bi-partisan manner. The film goes on to show how she has been influential in such cases as The United States Vs. Virginia in which Virginia Military Institutes’ ban on the admission of female students was struck down.

A lover of opera, Ginsburg says, “The sound of the human voice is like an electrical current going through me.” Her passion for opera was part of her bi-partisan friendship with Judge Scalia, also an opera lover. Although always voting on opposite sides of many cases, the two respected each other and enjoyed sharing music. In one delightful sequence the two, dressed up in costumes, participate in an opera that had a brief scene with speaking parts. They appear to be having a delightful time. Many of her admirers took issue with her befriending such a conservative, but she insisted that a person could reach across divides when they shared a greater interest—and she loved the way Scalia could make her laugh.

Throughout the film she speaks of “Marty,” and we see him standing close by her in many photos and clips. He was the extrovert and she the reclusive workaholic. He was a tax lawyer willing to put his career second to hers, especially when it appeared that his wife might be considered to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. Some thought that at 60 she was too old for consideration, presidents usually favoring a candidate young enough to serve 30 years or more. Marty got busy using his connections so that President Clinton would be made aware of her vast accomplishments. As the former President says, it was but a short time into their conversation that he knew he had his nominee. Marty’s death in 2010 brought an end to a loving relationship that began when both were students at Cornell University in the early 1950s.

At 85 she is the oldest member of the Supreme Court at a time when it and the country and the Court are becoming increasingly conservative. To those liberal admirers who anxiously ask about her retiring, she replies that she hopes to last until another (Democratic) president can replace her. She utters a harsh criticism of candidate Donald trump, and then, made aware of its inappropriateness by critics, has to walk it back.

At one point she states, “The law is something I think I deal with well. … I don’t have the kind of talent to be an opera singer.” Some, who regard her with almost as much enthusiasm as fans bestow upon rock stars, will say “Amen” to that—though obviously not those whose voices we heard at the beginning of the film.

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

 

Red Dust (2004)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 50 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 4; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 0.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

No one who conceals transgressions will prosper,

but one who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.

Proverbs 28:13

 

Lawyer Sarah Barcant & Alex Mpondo join a demonstration in memory of his murdered friend.                   (c) HBO Home Video

This riveting courtroom drama, with its flashbacks to South Africa’s apartheid past, provides us with a good perspective on one of the most unique social experiments of the 20th Century. During the dark days, when the Afrikaner-dominated Nationalist Party came to power in 1948, the oppression of blacks by whites became so brutal and bloody that many resisters, including Nelson Mandela, gave up non-violence and turned to bombings and shootings to force change. The white resistance to those struggling for racial equality became so brutal that virtually everyone came to believe that when apartheid was conquered there would be bloody reprisals by the victorious blacks. One of the scenes from Alan Paton’s lyrical novel Cry the Beloved Country that impressed me years ago is that in which a black clergyman observes that he fears that when whites finally turn to love, “we will have turned to hate.” That this did not happen is credited to Nelson Mandela*, Archbishop Tutu, and others whose Christian faith taught the futility of vengeance and the necessity for reconciliation.

Those heady years of the 1990s produced what was often called “The Miracle of South Africa” and the implementation by Mandela and his African Nationalist Party’s program of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), headed by Archbishop Tutu. The new President knew that it was impossible to punish all the underlings of the officials, but that the victims deserved some measure of justice, hence the TRC hearings at which abusers met the victims (if they had survived) or their families. The officials at a TRC hearing could grant amnesty to those who had committed abuses during the apartheid era, providing that the abuser’s crime was politically motivated, full disclosure of the abuse was confessed, and the person was truly repentant.

The film’s fictional story chronicles such a hearing in a small town when former police officer Dirk Hendricks (Jamie Bartlett) seeks amnesty for the beatings of Alex Mpondo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Steve Sizela (Loyiso Gxwala) in 1986, both allegedly brutally beaten and tortured, with the fate of Sizela still unknown.

Years earlier Sarah Barcant (Hilary Swank) had fled the town because as a 16-year-old she had run afoul of the authorities due to her friendly relationship with blacks. Now a New York-based attorney, she has returned to represent Alex, a successful politician representing the area in Parliament. The parents of Sizela also have retained her to question Hendricks concerning what happened to their missing son.

Alex is forced to go through the trauma of his arrest and beating once more. Unable to remember the details of his ordeal, he worries that he might have betrayed his friend and their resistance comrades. Hendricks, pretending contrition before the Commission, uses a break in the trial to threaten Alex and thus destroy his burgeoning political career. Much depends upon finding the body of his deceased friend, so there is a great deal of suspense. One other former official also is involved Piet Müller (Ian Roberts), under who, Hendricks worked.

Director Tom Hooper is a gifted English director who helmed seven episodes of the ministries John Adams, and then The King’s Speech; Les Misérables; and The Danish Girl. Working from Troy Kennedy-Martin’s script (based on Gillian Slovo’s novel), he brings to life a complex situation faced by thousands of South Africans during the time of the TRC hearings. His cast is excellent, especially Jamie Bartlett who manages to humanize the loathsome torturer Dirk Hendricks. We see how some oppressors tried to take advantage of the procedure.  It is no surprise that both Hilary Swank and Chiwetel Ejiofor capture well the confusion and pain of two people, though from differing perspectives, the pain of a past filled with brutal suppression.  This story is fictional, but reflective of the truth—according to Wikipedia, only about 10% of those seeking amnesty received it. Those interested in social justice issues will find this well worth the effort to track it down.

* For the excellent film that shows to what lengths President Mandela went to bring reconciliation see Invictus.

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

 

 

POPE FRANCIS: A MAN OF HIS WORD (2018)

Documentary . Running time: 1 hour 36 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 

A cheerful look brings joy to the heart…

Proverbs 15:30

How happy are the humble-minded, for the kingdom of Heaven is theirs!

Matthew 5:3 (J.B. Phillips)

Pope Francis addresses the United Nations on a number of issues.        (c) Focus Features

Wim Wenders’ new documentary is not a biographical film, but in a sense, a road trip film in which we are companions of the man who heads the Roman Catholic Church. We are invited along to witness this amazing man’s journeys throughout the world. Equipped with a warm smile and arms outstretched to embrace everyone, Pope Francis travels to Buenos Aires; St. Peter’s Square, where on March 13th, 2013, a vast crowd cheers as the Cardinal of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, just elected as the 266th Pope of the Catholic Church, greets them in Spanish. In NYC he addresses the United Nations; in Philadelphia he reminds those at a men’s correctional facility that the first saint was a prisoner, whom Jesus promised a place in Paradise; after a devastating typhoon, Pope Francis brings hope to the throng of Filipino people; in Africa he comforts parents and children at a hospital; in Israel at the Holocaust Memorial he joins with those who say “Never again!” and he prays at the Jordan River; in Washington, DC he urges the members to stop the arms trade and to welcome refugees; on the coast of southern Italy he meets some of those fleeing from war and poverty; at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan he stands with leaders of many faiths against hatred, as he does later with a similar inter-religious group at Assisi, Italy.

Wenders offers us almost nothing on the early life of Jorge Mario Bergoglio or of his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, his concern being on what his subject says and does now.* He does, however, in black and white sequences that appear to be from a vintage Life of St. Francis, shows us the great saint who inspires his every word and deed, the film opening with lovely shots of the hill city of Assisi, its glorious Basilicas with Giotto’s famous murals of the Saint, followed by the scene of the call of Francis while he is praying in the small church just outside the walls of Assisi. There are several other B&W sequences scattered throughout the film.

Social justice advocates will want to see and reference this film because of this pope’s strong advocacy of issues such as helping the poor, welcoming of refugees, and protecting the environment. He strongly denounces “the plunder of the earth,” and in his encyclical on ecology “Laudato si” he quotes St. Francis’s “Canticle of the Sun.”

When it is available on DVD, short clips from this film can be used to start or conclude a sermon, so many of them being quote-worthy. Here are a few memorable ones:

“Tenderness makes us use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other.”

“Tenderness is not weakness, it is strength.”

“God does not see with his eyes. God sees with his heart.”

“The future has a name, and its name is hope.”

“In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good.”

“Never let the day end without making peace.”

“In the world today, we have so much to do, and we must do it together.”

Perhaps thinking of his church’s history, Pope Francis declares, “As long as the church puts hope in wealth, Jesus is not there.” As the film’s title indicates, Pope Francis is a man of his word. He gave up the luxurious art-decorated papal quarters to live in a guest room. When the Vatican sent him a first-class air ticket to fly to Rome for the conclave of cardinals, he traded it for a coach class seat. And he traveled by public transport from the airport to the Vatican rather than send for a limousine. In these and other ways (such as his remark that he is not the judge of gay Christians) this pope has, as Pope John XXIII said, let fresh air into the church. Many of us believers still have disagreements (women as priests) with him, but our admiration for him far outweighs these. This pope is indeed one we can all look up to for guidance and hope in dealing with the formidable issues of poverty, hunger, the welcoming of refugees, and saving the environment.

Note: To encourage viewership, the studio is offering group tickets. For information, go to http://focusfeatures.com/pope-francis-a-man-of-his-word/groupsales

*In 2016 The National Geographic Channel aired an hour-long drama/documentary, Rebel Pope, that dealt with the Pope’s earlier life. (Reviewed in the April 2016 VP.). Also, there is a 4-part series on Netflix called Call Me Francis which does deal with his early life: I will report on in a future issue.

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

 

Rebel Pope (2016)

For some reason this review was not posted separately when it ran in the April 2016 VP. 

Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour.

Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 0.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

If you missed the first showing of this fascinating short bio-picture, National Geographic offers a second viewing on April 10 at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. I caught it only because it was being advertised during the showing of The Story of God.

This might be called a drama-documentary in that in between the acted-out portions of the Argentine Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s life various authorities that have written on him add their comments. As a young man Bergoglio studied to be a doctor, but then felt called to be a priest, much to the objection of his mother. Because of his brilliance he rose quickly in the ranks of the Jesuit order.

It was a time of turmoil in his country, with the military taking over from the inept Peronist government, and the poor suffering great privation. The conservative young head of the order refused at first to support the various Jesuit working with the poor, even going to the extent of seeking a letter from the Vatican to remove the “slum priests,” as they were called, from the priesthood. How he changed and became a champion of the poor reminded me greatly of the arc of the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador.

My main criticism is that the film is too short, the jump midway from the young priest to the head of the church in Argentina leaving out too much of the life of this bishop who used public transportation to get to work. Still, this will tell most viewers a great many details of the life of this influential Pope that will make them appreciate him even more.

This review, without discussion questions is in the April 2016 VP.

Annihilation (2018)

Rated R. Running time: 1hours 55 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 5; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

My heart is in anguish within me,
the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me.
And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest;
truly, I would flee far away

Psalm 55:4-7

All members of the team of soldiers are women, but not all will return from their expedition. (c) Paramount Pictures

Director Alex Garland and his co-writer Jeff VanderMeer’s sci-fi film is not a faith-based work, so the team facing the unknown would not have thought of turning to the Psalms in their extreme distress. However, they probably would have identified with the psalmist’s feelings and his desire for flight. You will too if you watch it.

Combining sci-fi and horror, this tale of an American team sent into a contaminated area of Florida swampland to find out what happened to an earlier military expedition that did not return will remind some viewers of Alien, in regard to what happens inside the bodies of the victims of a mysterious alien menace that crashed in an area dominated by a light house three years earlier, creating a zone called “the shimmer.” Inside this zone native plants and animals mutate into dangerous species that prove deadly to any human crossing paths with them.

The film is noteworthy, not just for its creative special effects, but also in that the team is exclusively female and mixed racially, consisting of biology professor Lena (Natalie Portman) and four others expert in their fields. Lena’s husband Kane is the only member of the lost team that had managed to return alive, so she has a special stake in the second expedition. His life is threatened by whatever happened to him in the shimmer, so she hopes to be able to figure out the cause and save his life. What transpires during the women’s journey and eventual arrival (for some of them) at the lighthouse will send her into such a traumatic state of mind that will keep you riveted to the screen.

Not for the faint-hearted, the mostly female cast ought not to put off adventure-loving young men, who will come to admire the courage and resourcefulness of the women and the nonstop action and suspense. The director of Ex Machina has given us a film that, like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey will challenge us to find its meaning and thus haunt us enough to return to the screen to watch it again. I am still uncertain about its meaning.

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

 

Peter Rabbit (2017)

Rated PG. Running Time 1 hour 35 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 3.5

 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

Isaiah 11:6

Bea lives next door to the cottage & its garden that Peter loves to raid. (c) Columbia Pictures

The prophet, in reference to Will Gluck’s animated film, might have written “The gardener shall live with the rabbit, and a nature-loving maiden shall lead them.” Based on the books by Beatrix Potter, the film’s main characters are Peter Rabbit (James Corden;) his three sisters: Flopsy (Margot Robbie,) Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki) and Cotton Tail (Daisy Ridley) and their cousin Benjamin (Colin Moody). They spend their days harassing Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill) in his vegetable garden. Until one day he dies, and no one can stop them roaming across his house and lands. However, when one of Mr. McGregor’s great-nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson) inherits the house and leaves London to check it out, he finds much more than he bargained for. What ensues, is a battle of wills between the new Mr. McGregor and the rabbits. But when he starts to fall in love with Bea (Rose Byrne,) a real lover of all nature, his feelings towards them begin to change. He might even change his plan to sell the house when he has repaired it, but then…

As animated films go, this is a beautifully crafted one, but handicapped by a rather silly plot centering on a long and protracted battle between Thomas and the animals, of which Bea is unaware because her suitor pretends to like Peter. However, I suspect that children will enjoy the silly antics as the animals and Thomas pull trick after trick on each other, until at last there is a reconciliation between him and the animals that allow him to win back Bea. The one part that I enjoyed is the depiction of Bea as an artist who sketches and paints pictures of her animal friends. Guess whose art they used.

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

 

The Leisure Seeker (2017)

Rated R. Running Time 1 hour 52 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 21; Language 0; Sex Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun,

because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 9:9

Elsa & John enjoy neighbors at a trailer court. (c) Sony Picture Classics

Fans of Helen Mirren will be delighted by Italian director Paolo Virzì’s first English language film—she sports a Southern accent this time. Based on Michael Zadoorian’s novel about an elderly Detroit couple, the movie makers move the story to Wellesley, MA, where Ella (Helen Mirren) and John (Donald Sutherland) have been married for some 50 years. She is taking medicine for the intense pain she has been afflicted with, and he, a victim of Alzheimer’s, flits back and forth between forgetfulness and normalcy—the latter includes his being able to recite long passages from Ernest Hemingway, he having been a college professor of literature

Their grown-up daughter (Janel Moloney) and son (Christian McKay) are overly protective, so the parents impulsively decide to escape their close supervision for a while by piling into their mid-70s Winnebago camper for one last adventure together. The RV’s name provides the title for the film. Their destination is the Hemingway House in Key West, Florida, a place that John has always wanted to visit but had never gotten around to it.

Of course, this will be a road trip fraught with many obstacles and bizarre occurrences. A flat tire leads to a near robbery that is thwarted only when Elsa grabs their shotgun from the RV. Later she holds onto the back of a motorcyclist who chases down the RV when the forgetful John leaves a gas station without her. Least believable is the incident in which the jealous John enters a retirement home with that shotgun hidden in his pants leg to confront Elsa’s past boyfriend, who turns out to be… Most poignant is John, forgetting the identity of his life-long companion, thinks she is their next-door neighbor with whom he had some kind of an affair several years ago—he tells her that Elsa is the “love of my life” and that they must end their relationship. Elsa is so enraged by this that she ignores his declaration of love and drops him off at a nearby nursing home, despite the objections of the mystified staff.

The film is a mixed-bag of an affair, though the many little touches in which the couple show their affection, save it. The film’s descent into the darkness in the last half, after John asks Elsa to help him shoot himself with the shotgun at some point in the future when it becomes apparent that his disease has obliterated his personality.  This plea provides an opportunity to reflect upon and discuss the plight of so many who are now living far longer than our ancestors. This scene makes us aware of why John might have been so fascinated with Hemingway, whose final act he seeks to emulate. No matter how you feel about Elsa’s act of love, this film, which could have become another one of those cutesy geriatric tales, is one you will remember for a long time.

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