Maudie (2016)

 

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly

Luke 1:52

Everett is not impressed by Maud’s cooking or cleaning, but he does come to appreciate the extra income her paintings bring in.

Maud (Sally Hawkins) would certainly qualify as “the lowly” in director Aisling Walsh’s modest film biography of Nova Scotian folk artist Maud Lewis. Born with a form of arthritis that has twisted one of her legs and a foot and deformed her fingers, she is bereft of parents and in 1938 foisted by her brother Charles Dowley (Zachary Bennet) upon an aunt when he unilaterally sells their family home. The judgmental Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) scorns her as a worthless imposition. Maud seeks solace by slipping out at night to pay a visit to the village dance hall. There, though almost totally ignored, she can enjoy the music and the people dancing together.

While shopping at the village of Digby’s general store Maud overhears an illiterate fishmonger named Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) ask the storekeeper to write and post a note advertising for a live-in housekeeper. He is scarcely out the door when Maud rushes over and tears it down, and she too is out the door.

Hobbling out to Everett’s small roadside shack, she knocks on the door. Obviously neither of them has either hired or applied for a job before: the interview is almost painful to watch. The bent-backed Maud with her twisted foot is obviously not the kind of help Everett had in mind. He rejects her at first, but she is so desperate to escape from her overly protective Aunt Ida, that she moves in her things anyway and starts cleaning. Does the filthy place ever need it!

Thus begins the new life of this “lowly one.” Cranky Everett himself is not much higher in status than she. He is little more than a brute in tattered clothing, speaking to her only to criticize or complain. As she feeds the chickens, he tells her that for him she comes after himself, his dog, and the chickens. Prone to angry outbursts, he even hits her one day. There is no room in the tiny downstairs room, so she sleeps in his bed up in the loft. For a while they lie facing in opposite directions, so there is no touching or talking at night.

One day, Maud, seeing a gallon-can of left-over green paint on the table, dips her finger in it and paints the stem of a plant on the wall. Then several more, and finding half-empty cans of other colors, she paints blossoms at the top of the stems. Everett, upon returning home from selling fish, is not pleased, telling her that she had not asked his permission to paint on the wall. However, he does not demand their erasure, so over the days when she has a moment amidst her cleaning, cooking, and feeding the chickens, she paints flowers on all the wars and even the windows. She also paints on small cardboard and postcards pictures of birds, blooming flowers, deer, yoked oxen, wide-eyed cats, Everett’s Model-T, and landscapes.  

No Rembarndt she, but still colorful enough to draw the attention of the New Yorker who comes up regularly to Digby for getaways from the city. Sandra (Kari Matchet) has been buying fish from Everett, and one day she barges into their house and spots the little paintings Maud has painted for her own amusement. The visitor asks to buy the cards. Her price of ten cents and then a quarter is ridiculously low, but Maud is delighted that she has created something valued by another. Soon she is painting discarded wood panels from some of the junk furniture that Everett brings home in his pushcart and chops into firewood. He says little about Maud’s paintings, other than to order her not to neglect her housework. However, he defensively replies to a shopkeeper who says that a five-year-old could have painted them, “Well a five-year-old did not paint these.”

Slowly Everett’s brown, shriveled soul begins to “green” (to use a term of Hildegard of Bingen) under Maud’s influence. We see this in a scene in which he pushes his handcart toward town. Hitherto Maud hobbled behind him, striving to keep up. This time she sits in the cart, facing forward, her feel dangling down. They are touching each other in bed now, and when she insists on marriage before sex, eventually they emerge from the chapel of the village orphanage where Everett was raised, now man and wife.

 

By now the walls, windows, and front door of the shack are cheerfully decorated, and Maud each day places a “Paintings for Sale” sign in front. She is getting the princely sum of $5 for a painting now, which is a welcome addition to Everett’s fishmonger income. A journalist and then a TV crew had come to interview her, so word of her child-like works has reached thousands of people. She is pleased that President Nixon has ordered a couple, though she insists on payment first before shipping them.

The team of Irish director Aisling Walsh and Canadian scriptwriter Sherry White, joined by such a talented cast, have given us a film largely devoid of cheap sentiment—no trace of the “disease of the week” genre, the film being half over before we learn what is Maud’s physical affliction. Actress Sally Hawkins pulls off a Daniel Day Lewis performance (as in My Left Foot) as an arthritic-plagued woman by twisting one of her feet and limping along the road that leads from her tiny shack into town. We admire her perseverance and ability to see beauty amidst such privation. In one scene, she points to their window and says, “I love a window. The whole of life already framed., right there.” Late in the film Maud visits her aunt, who confesses to her, “You’re the only one in our family who ended up happy.” Maybe this is because she was the only one who saw art as the window for seeing beauty that abounds if we but look for it.

Though suffering pain throughout her life and eventually dying of pneumonia, she has left at least two hundred of her own little windows through which we can see the world as lovely place to be in. The little house she so gayly decorated has been restored and, along with 55 of her paintings, is on display in the Scotiabank Maud Lewis Gallery at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

All pictures courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing.

Note: Art lovers might want to take a look at the book by Lance Woolaver Maud Lewis: The Heart on the Door that paints a much darker picture of the artist and her husband.

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

Baby Driver (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 6; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 

Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days. (KJV)

or ‘Give generously, for your gifts will return to you later.’ (TLB)

Ecclesiastes 11: 1

Debra is drawn to Baby & the music on his iPod. (c) Sony Pictures

When I first saw the title, I thought that Edgar Wright’s film would be an animated one like Boss Baby. Not so, of course, the film turning out to be an unusual, fast-paced heist film with a romantic plot high-lighted by some of the most stunning car chases ever caught on camera. The “Baby” of the title is a code name for a troubled young getaway driver named Miles, played consummately by Ansel Elgort. Expect to see him as the lead in a lot more movies in the future.

Before the titles appear, Wright delivers up a getaway that would be the climax of a lesser film. Three crooks wearing Halloween masks and brandishing big guns dash out of a bank and jump into the red Subarus driven by Baby. Zig zagging through traffic, narrowly dodging cars at intersections, jumping up onto throughway ramps, often going the wrong way, he is chased by what looks like a third of Atlanta’s police cars. High above from the vantage point of a police helicopter his red car is a standout on the expressway—until he pulls between two identical Subarus. They enter a tunnel, and now hidden from view, Baby switches lanes, so that when they emerge the cops are not sure which car to pursue. On and on the sequence goes until at last, free from pursuit, the gang ditches the car and report to their boss. All the time Baby is listening to music through the earbuds of his iPod.

On his way to his apartment he rhythmically strolls along to the beat of his music, so that we almost expect him to start dancing and singing like Gene Kelly. Entering his apartment, he greets his deaf-mute foster father Joseph (CJ Jones) with sign language. He hides his share of the loot beneath a floorboard. Throughout the film Joseph shows his awareness that Baby’s money is not legitimate. Worried about him, he warns him that he (Baby) does not belong in that world. (Although their relationship leads to a beautiful moment later in the film, it could have been enhanced by an explanation of how a black man became the lad’s surrogate father. In the brief flashbacks to the boyhood tragedy that traumatized Baby both parents are white.)

Even while attending a planning session where Doc (Kevin Spacey) explains their next heist, Baby never removes the earbuds. The heisters this time include the brutal Buddy (Jon Hamm), his gun-loving girlfriend, Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and the ever-suspicious Bats (Jamie Foxx). When the latter takes a dislike to “the kid” because he has kept his earbuds on during Doc’s briefing, the other two crooks vouch for Baby’s driving skills. Not mollified, Bats demands that Baby take off the plugs and tell him what Doc had said, whereupon Baby responds as if his brain were equipped with a tape recorder. The crook’s skepticism is overcome, but not his hostility to the driver.

We learn that the tragic crash that robbed Baby of his parents left him with tinnitus – the “hum in the drum” as Doc calls it. The music overcomes the ever-present noise that plagues his ears every waking moment. Also, Baby is not a willing accomplice in the robberies. Because of something he has done, the lad is in debt to Doc, and when the crime boss discovered his driving talent, had been forced to drive for a specific number of bank jobs. The upcoming one is to be his last, much to the worried Joseph’s relief.

Baby wants to quit for two reasons, one of conscience, and one of romance. During the second heist, which involves not only a spectacular car chase but also a foot pursuit through streets and a mall, Baby is dismayed that an armored truck guard is killed when the three robbers rush from the bank. Romance enters the picture one night when a cute waitress at an all-night café bonds with him over the iPod music he shares with her during one of his visits. Debora (Lily James) is beautiful, not just because of her lithe body revealed by her short-skirted uniform, but also because she exudes honest concern and has a quick mind—and as we will soon see, loyalty. The scenes between them win us over to Baby’s side, if we had not already been there.

Of course, when the film’s second heist is successful, Doc refuses to call everything square with the driver. He tells the boy that he has become like a good-luck talisman, all the robberies for which he has been the driver having been successful. This heist will be the biggest of all, in that the target is a U.S. Post Office with a huge store of money orders that Doc plans to cash through an expert he knows. With such a talented team, can anything go wrong?

Well, for one thing, Baby has been secretly taping his comrades and using their looped voices for insertion into the special mixed music tapes he collects. What will they think if they discover them? And even worse, Bats’ nickname comes from his psychopathic behavior, which turns Doc’s night-time  deal to buy heavy duty weapons from a gang into a bloodbath. Events seem to be heading to a film noir-like conclusion, but…

Directing from his own smartly written script, Wright treats us to a film that is heart-felt as it is exciting. Those up on music and their bands of the past 40 years (which, alas, does not include this reviewer) will revel in the over 40 songs Baby listens to—songs by Lionel Ritchie, Isaac Hayes, the Vandellas, Martha Reeves, Young MC, Queen, and more. The writer/director has said that his is “a car film driven by music.” It certainly is, but it is much more than that—also a morality tale about inner goodness, love, and loyalty.

I see it as a visual parable based on the first verse of the 11th chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Several times Baby’s goodness shines forth—not just with his beloved foster father and with Debora, but with strangers as well, one example being that when he is fleeing the police and orders an old woman out of her car, he notices her purse on the seat, tossing it to her before driving away with screeching tires. That kind act, and others, will return to reward him later on, turning what I had feared would be a tragically ending film into one ending as happily as most other romantic films.

I think the conclusion would have satisfied even the promoters of the old Puritanical Hays Code—though I doubt they would have sat through the violence and foul language segments leading up to it. In essence, an epilogue, it is shot in black and white and prefaced briefly several times earlier in the film. If parents were notified of your intentions, Baby Driver, would make a great film for a youth group to see and discuss. (But be careful—years ago when I recommended such a film, a youth leader wrote in that he had been fired because he used the film in his program. However, when asked if he had alerted the parents to his plans, he had to admit that he had not.)

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

 

 

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (2017)

 

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 34 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

Genesis 1:26

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.

 Deuteronomy 30:19

Even in 3rd World countries Al Gore draws crowds during his visits. (c) Paramount Pictures

Over a decade ago Davis Guggenheim directed Al Gore’s elaborate ecological slide show which made climate change and global warming mainstream concerns. Before that many people saw environmentalists as eccentric tree huggers akin to street corner prophets brandishing “The End is Near” signs.  Passing the reins to directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, Guggenheim serves as an executive producer for this sequel. Whereas the first film was tasked with explaining the myriad details leading scientists to conclude that the planet is in great danger because of climate change, and thus the audience should be concerned, the sequel updates the science in the first section of the film, but spends more time on the politics of climate change, with the ex-vice president as a major actor on and off stage.

Before showing us Gore’s visit to Greenland where 11 years of melting ice can be vividly seen, we hear a stream of right wing critics decrying Gore and his first film. Some had charged him with exaggeration when he predicted that downtown Manhattan will face flooding. Later we see shots of Hurricane Sandy flooding streets and water pouring like small Niagaras over the edges of the recess of the 911 Memorial site. Gore walks in the flooded area of a Miami Beach street where the mayor is explaining that they are raising the pavement level, while admitting that as the polar ice continues to melt, this is but a temporary solution.

The former Vice President travels the world—Philippines and India and Paris—on behalf of the cause. Starting with 50 trainees in the States a number of years ago, he now addresses mixed-nation audiences of 400 to 500 who are being trained to go out and become advocates for combatting global warming. At the global conference on climate change in Paris in 2015 he becomes the catalyst for India agreeing to use more solar power rather than just coal-fueled power stations when he gets on the phone and uses his clout to convince the CEO of a major solar power company to offer India a deal they cannot afford to turn down

We of course see Donald Trump denying climate change, and are told that the big energy and coal companies and other upholders of the status quo have bought the climate deniers and politicians presently in power.  Gore confesses it “would be lying” if he did not admit that he sometimes felt low due to slow progress on dealing with greenhouses gases. “In order to fix the climate crisis, we have to fix the democracy crisis,” he proclaims to an enthusiastic audience. Thus, Gore remains optimistic, declaring that if the Federal government will not lead in changing over to renewable energy sources, then states, cities, and the 159 countries remaining in the Climate Accord are committed to change. He celebrates the news that Chili’s use of solar power is growing exponentially each year so that it is on track to become a nation relying totally on renewable energy for its needs.

Near the end of the film there is a sequence blending a bit of humor with his optimism. Gore visits Georgetown, Texas, where the Mayor, affirming with a smile that he is a conservative Republican, shakes the visiting Gore’s hand and conducts him on a tour of the town that is moving toward using 100% renewable energy.  The mayor is enthusiastic for the plan not because he is a dyed in the wool environmentalist, but because he sees the science and the math proving that renewable energy sources can now produce the cheapest electricity for his townsfolk.

At this date, I suspect that Gore and his film are preaching to the choir, though when the film comes to town, the choir members might coax their climate change skeptical friends with the offer of free popcorn if they will accompany them. For some the film will contain too much adulation of Gore: certainly, the sequence shot in his home with him showing off pictures and a letter written years ago by his young daughter concerning his running for the Presidency distracts from the subject. The film would have been better served by an analysis of the science of climate deniers. What are the reasons they persist? Are all of them supported by grants from Big Oil, as some environmentalists claim?

I hope religious leaders, with their understanding that humanity are stewards of the earth, will be gathering people together to see and discuss the film when it comes to a theater nearby. I attended an advanced screening, not at an art house this time, but at a large multiscreen theater. This bodes well for a film that deserves as much exposure as possible.

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

A Ghost Story (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 32 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

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

Song of Solomon 8:6-7

Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. The wise have eyes in their head, but fools walk in darkness.

Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. Then I said to myself, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?” And I said to myself that this also is vanity. For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools?…

There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Ecclesiastes 2:14-16, 24-26

The grieving M leaves the house while the ghost of her husband watches.       (c) A24

Director/writer David Lowery knows that less is best in a story dealing with the supernatural, so in his first film after last year’s wonderful Pete’s Dragon he seems to be following the lead of the enigmatic director Terence Malik. His camera lingers and lingers on its subject, a single shot lasting from a minute to one that is almost five minutes long. Clearly Mr. Lowery’s film is not for those used to films like Fast and Furious, so be forewarned. Also, he does not explain much, so be prepared to be challenged and left at the end wondering what has just happened. Do not see this film by yourself, but watch it in company with others who enjoy the unconventional and the challenging in their film fare. This is a film that demands to be discussed.

Forget the usual ghost story set in an old towering Gothic mansion and lightning-streaked night with a bare-branched tree swaying in the wind. Most of this film is set in an ordinary low-roofed ranch house located outside a Texas city. A husband listed only as C (Casey Affleck) lives there with his wife M (Rooney Mara). About their only conversation we (half) hear is their quibbling about moving out of the lonely house. Then, with no warning, C is returning home when he is killed in a head-on car crash within sight of the house. We do not see the actual crash, just its aftermath.

Cut to a hospital where in a long shot of M is lifting the end of the sheet to identify C’s body. She quietly leaves the room, the white sheet again covering the whole body. The camera holds the shot, and holds it–for what seems like an eternity but probably is just a couple of minutes. The body is immobile, and then at last it sits up, still covered by the sheet. It gets up and walks out of the room. With two large eye-holes the ghost looks like one of those impromptu Halloween costumes that a mother desperate for ideas might make for her child.

The ghost walks back to the house to watch his grieving wife. Inside the house a panel of light appears in the wall in front of the ghost. I take it to be a portal leading to the next world, but the ghost does not enter it, which called to mind the genre’s device that ghosts hover around because of unfinished business. (In a film that I loved, The Lovely Bones, a murdered young girl refuses to follow a line of other murdered girls to heaven because the serial killer wants to kill her sister also.)

The ghost observes the events in the house. A neighbor comes by and leaves a pie. Later M sits on the kitchen floor, her back against a cabinet, and joylessly starts to eat the pie. She of course cannot see the ghost watching her from across the room.This unedited shot lasts for around five minutes! Her grief is so great that she at last abandons the remains of it. He observes M sifting through and packing their belongings and then moving away.

The ghost is immaterial and yet can make mess with the electricity and lift things. He seems able to flit through time as well, observing a pair of future tenants who are hosting a party. A man called Prognosticator (Will Oldham) inflicts on the guests a monologue dealing with being remembered, “We build our legacy piece by piece and maybe the whole world will remember you or maybe just a couple of people, but you do what you can to make sure you’re still around after you’re gone.” But he goes on to explain this is futile, evoking Beethoven, philosophy, the winding down of the universe, and oblivion, much as the author of Ecclesiastes might were he alive today.

The ghost often looks out a window, sometimes seeing in a nearby house another ghost watching and signing to him. Another dead person with unresolved issues?  Bulldozers arrive and tear down the two houses A large building rises, with our ghost roving through it, at first through its empty halls, and then when it is occupied by office workers. He even moves back in time to a pioneer family who camp beside their covered wagon, presumably on the same spot.

There is also a scene of C and M conversing when they lived together.  She tells him, “When I was little and we used to move all the time, I’d write these notes and I would fold them up really small. And I would hide them.” “What’d they say?” he asks, and she replies, “They’re just things I wanted to remember so that if I ever wanted to go back, there’d be a piece of me there waiting.”

M, before she packs up and moves out of the house writes a note and stuffs it into a slit in the wall that is then covered over. At several points in the film the ghost tries to extricate her note. At the conclusion, he succeeds, and…

I found the ending very puzzling. What has happened to the ghost? And then, I remembered that they story began with a quote from Virginia Woolf’s short-short story “Haunted House.” Finding it on the Internet, I read it—the story of long dead lovers coming back and searching for a “treasure,” one far more precious than silver and gold—and had that “Aha” moment. I invite you to do the same. It is a love story and an existential meditation on our impermanence in the universe, one of those ethereal movies to which truly belongs the label “rewarding.”

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

 

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

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

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

Our rating (1-5): 4.5

‘Well done!’ said his master, ‘you’re a sound, reliable servant. You’ve been trustworthy over a few things,

now I’m going to put you in charge of much more. Come in and share your master’s rejoicing.’

Matthew 25:21 (Phillips)

Spider-Man, trying to hold together a ferry boat, is stretched into a cruciform, similar to the Spider-Man 2 film when he stopped a runaway subway train. (c)  20th Century Fox

I loved the 2002 Spider-Man, and thus was skeptical of this third version of the comic book character–until I attended the screening of director Marc Webb’s new version. Wow, the exuberance of Tom Holland’s Peter Parker as a 15-year-old geek thrilled to being given the high-tech suit created at Tony Stark’s lab! It was clever of Jonathan Goldstein and his committee of screenwriters to set up the teenaged crime fighter as an intern made to go through a training period with Tony (Robert Downey Jr) as his mentor before becoming a full-fledged member of the Avengers.

The film’s opening origin story is not about Peter being bitten by an “atomic spider,” but about the origin of the supervillain The Vulture. Following the destruction in Manhattan seen in Captain America: Civil War, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) is a New York foreman of a clean-up crew excited by some of the alien high tech gadgets he finds strewn about. Before he can collect all of it for salvage, he is run off by Department of Damage Control agents, who are beholden to Tony Stark. He still manages to pocket some of the alien objects, and through the years as he finds still more, creating some super weapons to sell to the underworld’s highest bidders. He also has developed a winged suit that allows him to soar high above Manhattan.

Meanwhile in Queens, 15-year-old Peter Parker (Holland) is reveling in the benefits that come from being an intern of Stark Enterprise. Apparently discovered by Tony when the boy pulled off some feats rescuing crime victims in his neighborhood, Peter is thrilled by the high-tech Spidey suit that replaces his crudely made uniform. (Aunt May [Marisa Tomei] has not yet discovered the alter-identity of her frequently absent nephew, so he had made his own bedraggled looking outfit.) Because he had performed well with the Avengers, Peter expects to be immediately inducted into their ranks, but Tony tells him he is not quite ready, and that he should be careful using his powers in his neighborhood. That the impulsive boy needs such advice we see in the sequence when his clash with some of The Vulture’s henchmen while they are robbing a bank wreaks havoc, resulting in his favorite deli being burnt up.

Thus, while Peter struggles to become accepted as an Avenger, most of the film is set at his Midtown High School where he and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) are geeky outsiders. He is a member of the Academic Decathlon Team, but proves less than helpful when his duties as Spider-Man lures him away during a tournament in Washington, DC. By this time Ned has discovered his friend’s identity and keeps after his friend to tell and show him more about his secret life. Peter longs not only to become an Avenger, but also to become the boyfriend of the popular Liz (Laura Harrier). He eventually does date her for the Homecoming Prom, but then has his socks almost knocked off when he discovers something about her that he never could have imagined.

We never hear Uncle Ben’s famous dictum “With great power comes great responsibility,” but most of the film is about Peter maturing enough to understand this. That he does in the last scene proves to be both a satisfying moment, and a funny one in that Tony Stark must rearrange his plans for a public presentation of his newest Avenger due to Peter’s unusual answer to his invitation.

I was disappointed that there was no Uncle Ben to keep company with Aunt May. (I loved that one of my favorite actors Cliff Robertson played Uncle Ben in the 2002 version.) Maybe he and his heroic demise will be included in a sequel. The teen-enthusiasm and sense of wonder this film engenders in Peter justifies this reboot, with Tom Holland being a perfect fit for the character and the suit. The special effects are awe-inspiring, especially the sequence in which a NYC ferryboat is split in two by the Vulture and Spidey vainly tries to pull it back together with his web material. (There is a series of shots in which our hero, trying to pull the two halves of the ferryboat together, is stretched out crucifix-like, just like the scene impressive scene in Spider-Man 2 when he stops with his web a subway train from crashing off the tracks.) Good thing the Avengers are close at hand! As long as they keep producing Spider-Man films I will have to qualify my complaints about impossible to believe, over-stuffed super hero movies.

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

Dunkirk (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 6; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 0.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

He reached down from on high, he took me;
he drew me out of mighty waters.

 He delivered me from my strong enemy,
and from those who hated me;
for they were too mighty for me.

Psalm 18:16-17

Soldiers have a long & dangerous wait before their rescue.                (c) Warner Brothers

For the British, French, and Belgian troops stranded on Dunkirk’s beach from May 26- June 04, 1940, the period covered by writer/director Christopher Nolan’s film, the Nazis were indeed “my strong enemy.” Hitler’s blitzkrieg, quickly conquering Holland, Belgium, and most of France, seemed unstoppable. The British Expeditionary Force, along with thousands of soldiers of its allies, had been pushed back into the tiny pocket around the port of Dunkirk—over 400,000 troops seemed on the verge of death or capture. If this happened, the British Isles themselves would become easy prey for Hitler’s army. The encircled port had but one quay to service deep-water ships, and the Brits had just a few Spitfires and Hurricanes to fight against the massive German fleet of planes and U-Boats, and so the situation looked hopeless.

Nolan divides the coverage of his film into three parts, Land, Sea, and Air. On land, we follow Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young British soldier fleeing gunfire through the besieged village and out onto the beach, where he teams up with two other men among the thousands of other soldiers standing in long lines. We also see the Royal Navy Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) in charge of the evacuation. Staring across the English Channel, he mutters longingly, “You can practically see it.” “It” is “home.” So close, yet so far away,

In the air a pair of Royal Air Force pilots, Collins and Farrier (Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy) duel with a number of Nazi fighters and bombers, downing several, to the relief and cheers of the trapped men below. The time of this segment reads “One hour” because that is the length of time that their gasoline allows them to stay aloft.

On the sea, a yachtsman named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) sets off with his teenage son George and the latter’s friend toward the distant shore. His is part of a flotilla of over 700 civilian boats called forth to join the war ships. The smaller boats can more easily sail close to the beach than the large ships. The Germans sank many of the boats, and it is a survivor from one such that Dawson rescues. The fearful, shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) tries to make Dawson turn back, resulting in tragedy, but not preventing the skipper from sailing on to complete his rescue mission.

The cross-cutting between the many scenes add to the feeling of chaos and suspense, and the huge Imax screen engulfs us so that at times we feel as if we are participants. (This is definitely NOT a film to watch on an iPhone or computer screen!) The suspense is very great—besides the struggle on the yacht with the deranged soldier there is a scene in which a Spitfire pilot ditches into the sea but cannot get his cockpit to open as the water rises. In another, Tommy and some fellow soldiers find refuge in an abandoned boat further up the coast but apparently are spotted by German soldiers (whom we never see), the latter firing random bullets into the hull. This causes so many large holes that when high tide rushes in, the trapped soldiers are in danger of drowning. In still another, German Stukas dive-bomb and strafe the beach, hitting a clearly-marked hospital ship.

Nolan provides just a hint of the evacuation’s big picture, with just a few lines introducing the film reporting the number of men trapped and their danger. By concentrating on the experiences of individuals, Nolan intensifies the feelings of terror and exhilaration felt by the participants. Rescuing over 330,000 soldiers to fight on was very much a “miracle” when considering the array of forces seeking to crush them. One article I’ve read said that this was several times more than the British leaders had dared hope to bring back.

Concluding with one of the Brits reading a newspaper account of PM Churchill’s June 4th “We will fight” speech, the film provides a visual parable of courage and pluck. Although Bob Dylan’s anti-Vietnam War song “With God on Our Side” cautions us not to claim too much during wartime, I think it is safe to say that God was indeed in 1940 on the side of those brave men waiting on the beach. Often called “The Miracle of Dunkirk,” the evacuation of so many troops could be seen as the British 20th century equivalent to the miracle recorded in Exodus, the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea just ahead of Pharaoh’s army bent on their annihilation. The Brits just got their feet wetter.

 

Note: The recently reviewed Their Finest Hour is worth watching, the fictional film being about a British war-time crew making a propaganda film about the evacuation.

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

War for Planets of the Apes (2017)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 20 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 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

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

Hosea 6:6 (Referenced by Jesus in Matt. 9)

Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’

Matthew 9:13a

Let them pardon and overlook. Would you not love for Allah to forgive you? Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.

The Koran, Surah An-Nur 24:22*

Ape leader Caesar treats his captured enemies with mercy.              (c) 20th Century Fox

Director/co-writer Matt Reeves brings this rebooted trilogy of the Planet of the Apes to a thrilling conclusion that should partially please adherents to all three of the Abrahamic faiths. I inserted “partially” because only after the credits faded did I realize that I was led to applaud the disappearance of the human race, or at the least, a major part of it. By a combination of fine directing and acting, brilliant CGI work, an intriguing script paying homage to numerous films, and composer Michael Giacchino’ stirring music used sparingly amidst stretches of scenes largely silent, this film appeals to the imagination and soul as well as the desire for action-based entertainment. Even the dullest of viewers should come away pondering the question, “Which species is ‘humane’ and therefore deserving to survive?” And for people of faith, as well as lovers of Shakespeare, the film can serve as a visual meditation on “the quality of mercy.”

In 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes the chimp Caesar (Andy Serkin) was intent on maintaining peace between the humans and apes after (in the first film of the trilogy) a world-wide plague had killed off most humans and a scientist had changed the latter by enhancing their intelligence and ability to speak. However, Caesar’s onetime ally Koba (Toby Kebbell), ever distrustful of humans because of painful experiments conducted on him years earlier, along with an equally distrustful leader among the humans, had destroyed the uneasy truce between the two species. Now Caesar is centered on survival—and all too soon, vengeance.

The film opens with a contingent of human soldiers guided by an ape named Red (Ty Olsson), once a follower of the now dead Koba, stealthily creeping up on the apes’ camp deep in Muir Woods outside of San Francisco. After heavy casualties on both sides, Caesar’s side wins the battle, the three surviving soldiers and Red bound by ropes and kneeling before him. The captives expect execution, but Caesar instead orders them mounted on horses (still tied together), saying to them, “I have a message for your Colonel. Leave us the woods and the killing can stop.” When someone asks if he thinks they will deliver his message, the optimistic Caesar says, “They are the message.”

Unfortunately, Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), as mad and head-shaven as Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, believes that humans will be safe only when all apes are dead. (In the film’s poster, you can see written on a soldier’s helmet the slogan,” The only good ape is a dead ape.”) He and his rogue unit that is called Alpha-Omega are based at a walled mountain fortification where they rule over captured apes forced into manual labor. That the references to Francis Ford Coppola’s film are no accident, we see scrawled on a tunnel wall the graffiti “Ape-pocalypse Now.” The wall they are building is for defense against fellow humans who regard them as outlaws, as well as against apes.

Caesar and his band have heard of a beautiful valley some distance away where they hope to avoid contact with humans. However, one dark night a squad led by Colonel McCullough sneaks into the apes’ cave by the waterfall, intent on killing Caesar. During the ensuing fight the soldiers are killed, but not before McCullough shoots and kills Cornelia and Blue Eyes, Caesar’s wife and oldest son. Caesar lunges after the Colonel as he swings on a rope through the waterfall, but the latter escapes when he cuts the portion of the rope to which Caesar is clinging.

That morning Caesar, entrusting his surviving son, young Cornelius, to his daughter-in-law Lake, sends his people off toward the valley. Telling them he will join them later, he insists on going after the Colonel, the once pacific chimp now intent on vengeance. The film morphs into a Western journey of revenge like True Grit, and then at the Alpha-Omega Camp assumes the form of a concentration camp movie, similar to The Great Escape.

However, true to the Western format, Caesar does not set out alone, but is joined by good friends who refuse his commands to stay with the other apes. Rocket (Terry Notary), gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) and gentle orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) insist that they want to protect him. Along the way they pick up a mute little human girl whom they name Nova (Amiah Miller). She is frightened, so Luca hands her her cloth doll as a gesture that they mean her no harm. He overrides Caesar’s desire to leave her. Like so many humans, Nova cannot speak because she has been infected by the ape virus. The friendship that develops between gorilla and child is one of several tender incidents in the film, especially symbolized by the flower Lucas gives her for her hair, and which later she gives back to him as a sign of her love. Lucas’s act of kindness proves to pay off later, the girl becoming the agent of Caesar’s survival during a frigid night when, a captive of the Colonel’s, he is doused with water and thrown into a prison compound.

Another person they pick up on their journey is a small chimp calling himself Bad Ape (Steve Zahn). Like so many of the plague-exposed apes, he has gained the power of speech, telling them that his name was given to him at the Zoo where he had been kept. He provides numerous moments of levity during the last half of the film, as well as working with Nova to help bring release to Caesar and his fellow captives. As they proceed Maurice warns Caesar that he is becoming like the hate-filled Koba.

When at night the small party approaches the Colonel’s lair, Caesar moves on alone. He comes upon several of his clan tied to St. Andrew-type crosses, apparently left to die of exposure as a punishment. One of them tells him that they were all captured by the Colonel’s soldiers and are being forced to work on a wall. Suddenly Red appears behind Caesar and knocks him out with the butt of his rifle. When he regains consciousness, he sees Col. McCullough. Looks his enemy in the face the soldier exclaims, “My God! Look at your eyes. Almost human.”

This grim sequence is both depressing and inspiring. Depressing in that it reveals how cruel humans can be, the sight of cowering apes surrounded by high barbed-wire fences calling to mind the Nazis’ treatment of Jews. Serving as guards are numerous apes: instead of “Kapo,” they are have written on their backs “Donkey.” Inspiring in that we see the clan, in a pen across from the one in which the battered and beaten Caesar is held, raising their hands as a sign of their solidarity. Among the captives is little Cornelius, crying out for his father. And it is a human, little Nova, working with Bad Ape, who will become the means of their release. Inspiring too, is the moment in which Caesar has the opportunity to wreak vengeance upon the Colonel, and…

There is a bloody battle that involves both the escaping apes and an attack by a large human army arriving in helicopters, intent on bringing the rogue Colonel to justice. The tremors from the exploding bombs, rockers, and shells bring on an apocalyptic destruction of the humans by a huge avalanche of snow.

The quiet conclusion, a Moses-views-the Promised-Land moment, neatly concluding this trilogy, but setting the stage for possible more to come. If there are, let’s hope the same filmmakers will be in charge. For an CGI-enhanced film, this one presents some moral issues of peace and justice seldom seen in this genre. I am really looking forward now to coming up with a set of questions exploring them. What a delightful film to engage a youth group in exploring issues of humanness, vengeance vs. reconciliation, friendship, and peacemaking.

*For more verses on this subject go to Islam.ru: http://islam.ru/en/content/story/forgiveness-quran-and-sunnah

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