Hell or High Water (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 42 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Thieves are not despised who steal only to satisfy their appetite when they are hungry.

Yet if they are caught, they will pay sevenfold; they will forfeit all the goods of their house.

Proverbs 6:30-31

 For the wages of sin is death

Romans 6:23


Tanner (lft) & his brother stay at their ranch between bank heists. (c) CBS Films

Scriptwriter Taylor Sheridan and director David Mackenzie grace us with one of the best modern Western thrillers to come along thus far this year. Dealing with a pair of bank robbers and two Texas Rangers on their trail, it is as much a study in character and the times and mood of our country as it is an adventure.

In a tiny town in West Texas two masked men barge into a Midlands branch bank as soon as a teller opens up. They have to wait until the manager shows up, and when he angers one of them, the robber slams his pistol across the victim’s face. They take only the money from the cashiers’ drawers, not attempting to get at the larger amounts of cash in the vault.

The two men are brothers, divorced father of two sons Toby (Chris Pine) and the ex-convict Tanner (Ben Foster). As the film unfolds we see it is Toby who persuaded Tanner to undertake the robberies so they can save the ranch, which their just-deceased mother has left them. Toby wants to provide for the two sons that he has neglected. When he goes to talk with them, we discover that it has been a year since his last visit. The bank, yes, one of the Midland Bank chain, is about to foreclose on the property, so Toby is racing the clock to meet the deadline. His desperation is especially heightened by the fact that an oil company wants to drill on their land because its survey indicates that they can pump over 2000 gallons a month out of the parched land. It is actually their lawyer, to whom they deliver their alleged casino winnings for negotiating with the bank holding their mortgage, who reminds them that they must raise the full amount by the date of foreclosing come hell or high water.

Toby is the brains of the pair, while Tanner is the exuberant one. Indeed, the latter seems to derive too much pleasure from the action of holding people at gunpoint and speeding away in an old dilapidated car. Can he be kept in check? What might their brandishing their guns about lead to? To avoid tracing their getaway car, Toby buries it in a large ditch he has dug behind the ranch house. He launders the money at the Native American casinos over in Oklahoma by buying large amounts of chips. While he drinks, Tanner uses some of the money to play poker, a game that he wins more often than he loses. By the end of their stay they cash in their chips, thus insuring that none of their bills can be traced to them.

Meanwhile Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his deputy Alberto (Gil Birmingham) are assigned to track the robbers down. The curmudgeonly Marcus, like the old lawman played by Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men, is on the cusp of retirement. He maight be old, but his mind is as keen as ever. And so, unfortunately is the inbred racism of his childhood, though it does become apparent that he actually likes his Native American-Mexican partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) whom he is constantly insulting with racial slurs.


Texas Rangers Marcus (rt) & Alberto are on their way to intercept the bank robbers. (c) CBS Films

With his slow drawl and flinty face, eyes half slits because they have taken in too much of the relentless Texas sunlight, it would be easy to underestimate the Ranger, much as everyone did with Detective Columbo. However, this old boy knows the thinking of the crooks he chases, correctly guessing that the robbers are probably gathering cash for a mortgage. He understands their modus operandi, entering a bank first thing in the morning so as to avoid customers, and stealing only the lower denomination bills that cannot be traced. He also notes that all of their banks are Midland Banks located in a small area together. He knows that they are bound to make a mistake, so he is confident they will soon catch them. Figuring which bank will be struck next, he rents a motel room, and the two wait for their prey to show up.

The brothers’ mistake comes when…well, here let’s just say that it is both a thrilling and a funny scene. Funny because while Toby is at a diner talking to a flirty waitress, Tanner goes across the street and robs the bank on his own. Yelling to his brother to start their car, he runs back with loose bills flying into the air as he tries to keep the ones he has stashed between his stomach and his shirt from falling out. Later, the film takes on a darker tinge because when you use guns to rob banks, sooner or later someone is going to shoot back. During a thrilling chase scene there are some very sudden, unexpected developments when Marcus and Alberto finally catch up with one of the brothers.

This is a film in which the countryside and the mood of the times are important. The wide open spaces with tiny, dilapidated towns and their small banks; the numerous bill boards with large words such as DEBT, CASH, and LOANS prominently displayed, indicating that in such a hound dog economy only the financial service industries are thriving.

The myriad of bit characters are spot on—the table of good ole boys at the diner who banter with Marcus; the bank clerks and managers; a belligerent Commanche at a casino whom we expect to get into a row with Tanner; the driver at a gas station who threatens Tanner with his gun, severely beaten by Toby when he comes up from behind; and best of all, two waitresses at diners—the flirty one upset when Marcus demands that she hand over the $200 tip that Toby had left her. The second is an old gal at The T-Bone Diner who confuses Marcus and Alberto when she comes to their table and says, “What don’t you want ?” As she rants on, we see that apparently she has grown tired of Eastern tourists coming in and demanding vegetable dishes not on the menu, this being a steak and potatoes place. If there were Oscars for cameo roles, the actress playing her would be nominated!

All four actors in the major roles are terrific, with Bridges especially dominating almost every scene he is in. What a far cry from his glib tongued Jack, the radio talk host in The Fisher King! His aging lawman character who lives solely for the pursuit of the bad guys is well demonstrated in the last scene of the film that ends with a note of ambiguity.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster make us feel sympathy for their characters, even though we know what they are doing is wrong. We can understand why they venture outside the law due to their impoverished background. The billboards mentioned earlier are aimed at desperate people like the brothers, indicating that they are victims as well as predators, a theme harking back to older Westerns featuring characters like Jesse and Frank Jamses The intelligent Toby knows he is the bad guy: in a poignant scene with his older son, he emphasizes that he does not want the lad to be like him.

The film even places the current mortgage crisis in which so many people are losing their homes into an historical context, one going back a couple of centuries. In a scene wherein Marcus mocks Alberto’s heritage, the latter observes that 150 years ago his people ruled in the land, and that the grandparents of the present owners took it. Now it is the banks that are taking it from them.

With Nick Cave’s music ably enhancing the somber mood, this film for me is just about perfect. Due to be released to a limited number of theaters on August 12, and then on a wider basis, I would urge you to mark the date on your calendar. If you love well crafted films that make you feel for the characters and think about their lives and the times, this is a film not to be missed!


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

The Purge: Election Year (2016)


Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 45 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 7; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 3

Is this any way to run a country?  Is there an honest politician in the house?

Behind the scenes you brew cauldrons of evil,  behind closed doors you make deals with demons.

The wicked crawl from the wrong side of the cradle;  their first words out of the womb are lies. Poison, lethal rattlesnake poison, drips from their forked tongues— Deaf to threats, deaf to charm,

 decades of wax built up in their ears.

Psalm 58:1-4


Anarchy reigns for 12 hours in the nation’s capitol on Purge Night.                              (c) Universal

Having been less than enthusiastic about the original The Purge, I skipped the 2014 sequel, but decided to see this third installment because I wanted to see if there is any connection between the title and current politics. (Also because no other film worked into my schedule during my weekly visit to a nearby cinemaplex.)

Writer-director James DeMonaco’s third film is more of a sequel this time than was the 2014 film, with Frank Grillo’s police sergeant Leo Barnes having moved from Los Angeles to the nation’s capitol where he is head of security for Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell). She needs all the protection she can get because she is involved in the presidential campaign, the main point in her platform being the abolition of The Purge. She argues that it is the nations’ poor, especially the homeless, that are victimized by the Purge as part of the government’s policy of getting rid of those who are benefiting from government programs. Also her own family had been murdered, she being the sole survivor. The New Founding Fathers (NFF), who have ruled the country for 25 years, are determined to eliminate her during the upcoming 12 hour-period of murder and mayhem called The Purge. They have updated the rules by eliminating the law forbidding any attack on a politician. Now everyone is fair game, though the NFF members will be safe in their fortress bunker.

When I reviewed the original, I dismissed the story’s premises as being unlikely, but today, when we have a political candidate advocating the torture of terrorists and the killing of their families, and the crowds applaud and cheer him, the premise of the series doesn’t seem quite as ridiculous as I had once thought.

Also, in my earlier review I had mentioned that, like so many sci-fi tales, The Purge had ignored the presence of the church. Not this time, the New Founding Fathers seen to be embracing a weird blend of Christianity and pagan blood-sacrifice. Some of the bloodiest of the many shoot-outs in the film are set in a large Washington DC cathedral, the wooden pews punctured by hundreds of bullets and blood running in the aisles.

The film begins with two parallel stories that converge about a fourth of the way into the film. There is African-American convenience owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) and his faithful employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), the latter a Mexican immigrant whom he has mentored. At 6 P.M. when the Purge begins, the well-armed Joe is atop his building vowing to protect his livelihood, especially since he has learned that his insurance premiums have been raised beyond his ability to afford them. Marcos joins him, despite Joe’s orders to go home. Sure enough, a van of grotesquely made up and masked people drive up, the occupants turning out to be the arrogant school girls that Joe had caught trying to shoplift that afternoon.

At Senator Roan’s residence Leo is supervising defensive preparations. She has refused to take shelter in a government bunker because she wanted to be like the voters to whom she was appealing. Despite Leo’s vigilance, one of the key staff members has been bribed to sabotage the system, allowing a rogue gang led by skinhead Earl Danzinger (Terry Serpico) to barge into the house. Leo and Charlie manage to escape, taking to the streets, and would have been killed by a gang but for the arrival of Joe and Marcos. There follows a harrowing night of hiding, fleeing, and fighting, which finds the band joining forces with a group that has long opposed The Purge.

As with most such thrillers, there are a lot of improbabilities, but due to all the suspense and action, most viewers will overlook them. As in the second of the films, there is a moral struggle when our heroes plead with one of their number not to wreak vengeance on one of the NFF politicians who has fallen into their hands. Although their appeal that killing the prisoner would lower them all to the level of their enemies, the filmmakers have shown so much violence in gory detail that this worthy moral argument is all but lost.

One of the villains is Minister Edwige Owens (Kyle Secor), Senator Roan’s opponent in the presidential campaign. At first I thought he seemed too far-fetched, a minister who twists Christianity into an affair of violence and hatred. And then I thought of “Christian” anti-abortionists who advocate and defend the killing of abortion doctors, and the Westboro Baptist minister who showed up at the funerals of gay persons with placards declaring that God hates abortionists, and of course, the granddaddy of Christianity distortionists, the KKK. As a character Owens is indeed a stereotype, and yet similar characters do exist in the real world.

When this film was in production its makers could not have known how bizarre the election campaign of 2016 would be. Although no candidate is calling for a Purge (yet), the extreme statements of one of them certainly points in that direction. Let’s hope that reality never catches up with Hollywood!

Most chilling image: In a movie filled with bizarre painted faces and masks, the image that brought a chill to me was a night shot of the iconic Lincoln memorial. We can see the Emancipator’s statue inside, and also painted in dripping blood-colored letters, the word P-U-R-G-E on the pillars. Strewn across the stairway are the bodies of victims, some of them on the right fueling a bond fire.

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

Now You See Me 2 (2016)

Rated. Running time: 2 hour 9 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 2.5


The world class magicians fighting crime call themselves The Horsemen. (c) Lionsgate

This adventure tale is a good excuse for taking out a loan to buy theater popcorn and then sitting in the dark to watch the improbable shenanigans. Director Jon M. Chu’s sequel, the ending of which promises another one, is about a group of magicians called The Horsemen operating just outside the law who fight against CEO Owen Case who is about to launch a smart phone tech program called Octa, which will end all privacy by enabling Case to steal his clients’ information.

The plot, which takes The Horseman from New York to Macao, is way too complicated to go into here, as are the magic tricks that each of the Horsemen (and a newly joined Horsewoman) employ. Some of them are delightfully deceptive, such as when persons dive into a tube atop a building in Manhattan, suddenly black out, and wake up on the other side of the world in Macao. “How did they do that?” we ask, and the eventual explanation is an enjoyable one. Unlike the scene in which the gang, having snuck into a computer room, throws around playing cards and a computer chip to one another, thus eluding the thugs searching their bodies, this geographical trick is possible, and very clever. Many of The Horseman’s quick illusionary tricks are clearly enhanced by C.G.I. enhancement. No human could pull off the tricks that flash before our eyes!

The cast– Lizzy Caplan, Jesse Eisenberg, Dave Franco, Morgan Freeman, and Mark Ruffalo–seem to be having fun, and so do we. However there is nothing in the flimsy story to take home, unless you didn’t eat all of your expensive popcorn.

No discussion questions for this piece of fluff.

The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 44 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 4 (I’m giving it a 4 star rating because of its revisionist setting)

 In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.

For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart, those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord

Psalm 10:2-3

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.

Matthew 23:25


Tarzan, with Jane, back among his friends in the jungle. (c) Warner Brothers

When I was nine or ten my best friend and I began reading his father’s Tarzan collection, starting, of course, with Tarzan of the Apes. This was the first novel of any kind that I read all the way through. I was forever hooked on adventure tales! While reading all of the other “Lord of the Jungle” tales, we joined with neighborhood kids in buying every Tarzan comic book as soon as Dell published it; memorized the words of Tarzan’s ape language printed at the back of the comic; enjoyed venturing into the nearby woods, stripped down to our swimming trunks to climb trees and swing on wild grape vines while practicing our Tarzan yells; and, of course, we went to all of the Tarzan films. The various stars and athletes that I recall portraying the “ape man” ranged from Buster Crabbe to Johnny Weismuller to Gordon Scott to Lex Barker.

After Barker’s films my interest in Burroughs waned, due to what I increasingly realized was Burroughs bad writing style and underlying racism. However, because of past love for this character I have been looking forward to seeing the newest incarnation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s widely loved hero. Years ago I did review the 1984 Greystoke, and was especially impressed that the scriptwriter gave up the pigeon English of the earlier Tarzan films (my only criticism of the films when I was a kid). I am glad to see that co-screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer have also written Lord Greystoke’s dialogue in the proper English that Burroughs had intended.

Indeed, the film begins at massive The Greystoke estate in England where Greystoke is living in contentment with his beloved Jane (Margot Robbie). Several men, including the American George Washington Williams (Samuel Jackson), are trying to persuade John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke, aka Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård), to lead an investigative party back to his jungle homeland. Their mission is to discover the truth about the charges that the Congo’s present ruler King Leopold II of Belgium is mistreating the people. Greystoke at first refuses, but then is persuaded, so off he and Williams go. He tries to leave Jane at home for safety reasons, but of course, she insists on going with them.

Although the party has been invited by King Leopold’s agent in the Congo Capt. Rom (Christoph Waltz), they do not land at the expected port where Rom is waiting to personally welcome them. Instead, they enter the country at a different point. They decide to look around on their own because they do not trust him. Well they might, as the invitation is part of a plot by Rom to entice Tarzan back to Africa so he can kidnap him. Rom has made a deal in the lost city of Opar with Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) to deliver Tarzan to him in exchange for a chest of diamonds.

King Leopold is deeply in debt and needs money to pay for a mercenary army that will descend on the Congo and manage his rubber plantations and slave trade. The Chief is seeking vengeance because Tarzan killed his son after that warrior killed Tarzan’s ape mother Kala. (Scattered throughout the film are origin scenes showing the birth of Tarzan to his English mother, their deaths, and his being taken and raised by Kala despite the objections of Kerchak, the alpha ape, and of course the scene in which Kala is killed.)

There is a lot of action—tree swinging, Tarzan fighting a gorilla almost twice his size, seizure of a train full of soldiers, a confrontation with Chief Mbonga, and of course the necessary rescue of Jane when she is captured by Rom and taken aboard the paddleboat moving upriver. Skarsgård, with his mighty pecs, Jackson with his witty tongue, and Robbie with her great beauty and spunk (she and Jackson are the highlights of the film)–all provide plenty of entertainment, but what is most interesting to me is the revisionist take on the setting of the story.

Though at first oblivious to the racism and favorable attitude toward colonialism in Burroughs’ novels and the film versions, I did become aware of this as I grew older. The new film’s screenwriters deal with such unacceptable elements for a modern audience by setting the story in a real situation, the notorious “ownership” of the Congo by the Belgian King. Leopold II sought to personally enrich himself by using its people as his slaves, first in the ivory trade, then in the production of rubber. It is estimated that from 5 to 10 million people died horribly of maltreatment at the hands of his thuggish private army, and thousands of others were mutilated for infractions of rules. The King covered up the atrocities by various means, such as discrediting anyone who dared speak out and by bribing publishers, but rumors and partial reports, some by missionaries, leaked out.

Samuel Jackson’s George Washington Williams was a real person, a Civil War soldier, friend of Frederick Douglas and William Lloyd Garrison, Baptist minister (the first black man to graduate from Newton Theological Institution), member of the Ohio State Legislature, a pioneer African American historian, and a newspaper columnist. Commissioned by Pres. Benjamin Harrison, Williams did travel to Africa after first visiting King Leopold—the latter tried to dissuade him from going. He was so appalled by the atrocities that he saw in the Congo that he wrote an open letter to the King in which he called for an international commission*. He did not live to see the results because he died shortly afterward in England in 1890 at the age of 41. (This film, by the way, takes place in 1889 and 1890.) Movements in the U.S. and Britain arose to condemn the King’s treatment of the people, much like those that sprang up in the 20th Century to oppose apartheid in South Africa. Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle both added their accusing voices of protest.

With the above history in mind, it is not surprising that today some African Americans object to the pairing up of a real life African American hero with a white hero, given the Lord of the Jungle’s past racial baggage. Worse, perhaps, Williams is reduced to a sidekick role, although at least he is shown as persistent and as never showing the whites of his eyes in fear, as did black characters in older Hollywood movies. Still, the movie Williams is more like Rochester to Jack Benny, or Tonto to the Lone Ranger.

Capt. Rom is quite a suave looking villain, dressed in his white suite. He wears the suspect mustache, though it is too short for him to twirl while threatening the captive Jane. He apparently retains some trace of piety. We often catch sight of the rosary beads and tiny crucifix he carries in one hand. This outward symbol of Catholic piety mirrors that of his King, who actually argued that his harsh treatment of the Congolese was justified, and besides, he was bringing Christianity to them—his getting rich by oppressing them a bizarre twist of the saying that you can do well by doing good.

The simplistic solution to the thwarting of the King and his henchman Rom’s evil plans looks spectacular in the climatic scene. (Thousands of wild animals, rounded up by Tarzan, stampede through the port city where Rom plans to turn over a chest of diamonds to pay for the thousands of soldiers ready to disembark from their ships anchored in the harbor.) However in real life, it was not until 1909 that international outcries at last forced the Belgian Parliament to take over the Congo from the King and begin to initiate reforms.

This is probably more history than you expect or maybe want from a film review, but I hope it helps in understanding it. Director David Yates (remember him from the last half of the Harry Potter series?) gives us plenty of exciting scenes of Tarzan fighting or intermingling with the animals and friendly natives. And there is much natural beauty in the film, one of my favorites being the brief and quiet scene of Tarzan and Williams encountering in the jungle a herd of friendly elephants, whose eyes seem to express that they remember Tarzan from years ago. I find myself conflicted about recommending this film, and yet I have no doubt that a leader willing to do some research could lead an interesting exploration of race and colonialism as it has been portrayed in films and novels through the years.

*Here is a link to the full text of William’s long letter: http://www.blackpast.org/george-washington-williams-open-letter-king-leopold-congo-1890

This review with a set of discussion questions is in the July 2016 issue of VP.


The Revenant (2015)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 7 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

 If mortals die, will they live again?  All the days of my service I would wait.

Job 14:14

They think that a deadly thing has fastened on me, that I will not rise again from where I lie.

Psalm 41:8

When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

John 11:43


Abandoned because it looks like he will die from a bear’s mauling, Hugh Glass struggles to recover while staving off the bitter cold of the mountains.       (c) 20th Century Fox

I admit it. I had to look up the meaning of the title—though in 21st century style, it was via Google rather than in my old print dictionary. In case it is not in your every day vocabulary, it is derived from a French word meaning “ghost,” and in English refers to one who, like Lazarus, returns from the dead. And just as filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu expects us to know (or look up) the meaning of his title, also he never spoon feeds us during the film as to the meaning of what is transpiring, no matter how confusing it is at first. Set in the wilderness of the Rockies in the early 19th century, the film about a party of fr trappers is filled with gut-wrenching violence. It is primarily a survival and vengeance tale (aren’t most Westerns as well?) with the subplot of a quest story. The major, truth-based, story is that of white frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), and the lesser one woven throughout is the search by a band of Arikara Indians. They are led by the old chief Elk Dog (Duane Howard), obsessively looking for his daughter.

Rather than with a bang, the film starts out with a swoosh. A band of Indians is attacking the large party of fur trappers intent on returning east with a large, valuable cargo of pelts. The trappers have come up the Missouri River on horses and a flatboat. The attack, made while most of the trappers are on land, is a surprise, with many of the men dying as an arrow penetrates their backs or their throats, blood gushing forth like geysers. Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), leader of the group orders the men back to the boat. The expedition’s guide Hugh Glass and his Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) rush back from their hunting mission in the woods. After the fight, during which 33 of the trappers are killed, Glass says that they must abandon the boat and bury their pelts if they are to escape safely from the Indians. One of the party, Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who obviously does not like Glass because of the guide’s marriage to an Indian, is upset by this, but Henry, trusting the seasoned frontiersman, agrees.

The next day Glass ventures into the woods alone. He spots a pair of grizzly bear cubs and realizes too late that he has ventured between them and their mother. She attacks him, and though he manages to fire and wound her, she closes on him, biting and tearing at him. In detail so vivid that it is hard to watch we see her tearing at his back and flipping him around as if he were a rag doll. He manages to kill the beast, but his throat is badly mauled, and the wounds to his body so great that he cannot stand up. When the others find him they are convinced that he is too injured to survive.

Fitzgerald argues that they should put an end to his life, but Captain Henry refuses. They drag him along on a travois, but this slows them down, and when they must climb over a mountain, they find the task impossible. At the urging of Fitzgerald Henry aims his pistol at the wounded man, but he cannot bring himself to shoot. Instead, he offers a bonus to any two men who will stay behind and tend to Glass until he passes away, after which they can catch up with the main party. Fitzgerald quickly agrees, as does young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). Hawk, unable to abandon his father also stays. Left by themselves with Glass, it is not long before Fitzgerald voices his desire to end the life of the guide, arguing that he will die no matter what they do. When Hawk struggles with him, the older, more powerful man manages to stab him, the helpless father watching in horror the murder of his cherished son. Bridger had been off in the woods, and when he returns, Fitzgerald says they will bury the almost dead Glass. Bridger is against this, but finally gives in, the two digging a shallow grave in which the almost comatose Glass will be buried alive. Fitzgerald heads out, leaving the younger man to finish covering up their victim. Unable to do so, Bridger leaves Glass his canteen.

Left behind to die, Glass’s struggle for survival includes tending his wounds, managing to build fires at night while using his outer garment as a shelter, fording cold streams, catching a fish that he eats raw, and more. It is memories (or visions) of his wife, who had been murdered by soldiers during a raid on the village, that sustain him during his days of suffering. Words from his wife that he had also shared with his son come back to him, “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe… keep breathing.” There is one beautifully photographed scene in an abandoned mission, its bell still in place. There, by a murals of the crucified Christ, he sees his son. They embrace warmly. Then he is brought back to his present state in which he is hugging a tree.

Interspersed in Glass’s ordeal are scenes of a rival French band of trappers and those of Elk Dog and his braves still seeking his kidnapped daughter. All of these figure into Glass’s survival, even the daughter. There also is a moment of grace when the now starving trapper sees a large herd of bison. With no weapon, the huge beasts whose flesh could save his life might as well be on the moon. However, he comes upon a lone Native American named Hikuc (Arthur Redcloud) cutting meat from a carcass. The brave not only tosses him a hunk of meat, but also then tends to his wounds. He even allows Glass to ride behind him on his mount. This interval of intercultural friendship and calmness provides the film’s only light moment: the two sit huddled up during a snowfall and the warrior sticks out his tongue to catch snowflakes. Smiling, Glass follows suit, the two enjoying the moment of companionship. Unfortunately this soon devolves into ironic tragedy.

The eventual return to the fort for a reunion with the amazed Captain Henry gives way to Glass’s search for Fitzgerald, who had recently departed. The final resolution is both tragic and uplifting, with Glass giving way to the wisdom of both Biblical and Native American concerning vengeance. Although difficult to watch at times because of its violence and bleakness, the film is one more testimonial to the greatness of filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. He sweeps away all romantic illusions about the early West, as well as raising issues of white prejudice that still haunt us today. He is well served by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar-worth performance, as well as by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, his camera showing us the beauty of the vast mountainous landscape, juxtaposed with the ugly savagery of its inhabitants, both human and animal. Definitely not for young children, this will be one of those films that will stay with you for a long time.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Jan. 2016 issue of VP.

Huckleberry Finn (1975)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 18 min.

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

Our star rating (0-5): 2 1/2

 But on the second day, the day after the new moon, David’s place was empty. And Saul said to his son Jonathan, “Why has the son of Jesse not come to the feast, either yesterday or today?” Jonathan answered Saul, “David earnestly asked leave of me to go to Bethlehem; he said, ‘Let me go; for our family is holding a sacrifice in the city, and my brother has commanded me to be there. So now, if I have found favor in your sight, let me get away, and see my brothers.’ For this reason he has not come to the king’s table.”

1 Samuel 27-29

Pray for us; we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things.

Hebrews 13:18


I came across this DVD right after having seen The Good Lie, the film about Sudanese refugees in America in which Mark Twain’s novel is discussed in a literature class. And so I offer this take on it for those who might not want to go back to the lengthy book itself, this film version being but 78 minutes.

In this just fair version of ABC TV’s production of Mark Twain’s classic, Ron Howard and Donny Most star as Huck and Tom. This raises an immediate problem of credibility. Instead of the school age lads of the novel, the strapping two actors look like they are ready to shave, and in his struggle with Pap, Huck looks far more powerful than the smaller actor playing the father. The filmmakers obviously chose the two lead actors, especially Ron Howard of Opie Taylor fame, for their star power rather than their age appropriateness. This said, the film still could provide some enjoyable family viewing.

After the unnecessary introduction by Royal Danoas Mark Twain, the story begins with Huck overhearing his guardian the widow Douglas negotiating the sale of their slave, Jim (Antonio Fargas). Although a kindly lady intending to “civilize” her wild charge, the cash-strapped Mrs. Douglas needs the $800 Jim’s sale would bring. Right after that, on his way to church choir practice, his drunken father abducts Huck. He eventually manages to escape via a raft on the Mississippi River, but not before he joins up with Jim (Antonio Fargas), who has runaway because of the impending sale. During a fireside conversation Huck admits that he is torn between his duty as a white person to report Jim and their past friendship. He is put to the test when slave catchers arrive and question Huck about the runaway. The boy could have given in to his racist upbringing by pointing to Jim’s hiding place, but he tells the pursuers that he has not seen him. This is the incident that the students and teacher discuss in the movie The Good Lie, and which gives the later film its title. Some ethicists might question whether there can be a “good” lie. And yet as we see in the above passage from 1 Samuel, Saul’s son Jonathan lies to his father as part of his scheme to save the life of his best friend from his father’s jealous wrath.

During his subsequent conversation with Jim Huck ruthfully admits that now he must be an “abolitionist,” a hateful label among his kin. The novel goes into this far more, with Huck convinced that he is now doomed to hell for his lie because that is what he had heard in church where the preacher had condemned abolitionists. I also recall that this is well handled in the Broadway musical adaptation of the novel, The Big River. (The actors in that show also were also much older than their characters, but this was more acceptable in the play where we see them only at a distance.)

The DVD story continues with Huck and Jim meeting up with and forced to join the comical but dangerous con men King and the Duke, delightfully played by Jack Elam and Merle Haggard, in their scheme. The grifters pose as the uncles of two girls whose parents have died, and Huck and Jim are said to be their servants. And of course, later on when Jim is captured, Tom shows up and belatedly saves the day, with Jim then heading North (earlier they had at night sailed by the mouth of the Ohio River) for freedom and Huck deciding to go west to start a new life.

The film originally was released as a single feature, but the disc I bought recently also includes David O. Selznick’s 1938 Tom Sawyer. Unseen by me is a 1939 release starring Mickey Rooney as Huck, but as I saw no listing in the cast for Tom Sawyer, I presume he was written out of the script. Made at a time when the Southern dominated Hollywood still was spreading racist stereotypes, I wonder how Huck’s struggle with his conscience was handled. This version is rentable at Amazon.com. Given the dramatic tension within Huck and between him and Jim, it is surprising that there has not been a more recent, better production of this great story. Until it comes along, this older TV version will have to do.

Note: For those wanting more about The Big River there is a wonderful site that includes the song lyrics and You Tube videos of corresponding scenes from a presentation of the play. Click onto the title or go to http://www.stlyrics.com/b/bigriver.htm.

The Maze Runner (2014)

Reviewed by Markus Watson

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 53 min.

Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 7; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (0-5): 4

 He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Mark 9:36-37

 People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.

Mark 10:13-16


Thomas & the community stand at the entrance of the path through the maze. (c) 2014 20th Century Fox

When I was a youth pastor, I did my best to stay current on the latest youth trends. Now that I don’t work directly with youth anymore, I’m not quite as on top of things when it comes to youth culture. But when I watched The Maze Runner, I felt like I was right back in my youth ministry days watching kids who felt powerless in a world run by someone else.

The movie begins with Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) locked inside a cage ascending an elevator shaft. When the cage reaches the top and opens, he finds himself surrounded by a gaggle of boys reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. Thomas is completely disoriented and tries to escape, only to discover that he is trapped in a glade surrounded by massive walls.

Soon he discovers what is on the other side of those walls: a giant maze. Even worse, the maze changes every night. That night, when he falls asleep, he has a strange dream about being in a laboratory where a woman tells him, “Wicked is good.”

Some of the boys living in the glade have been assigned the task of being “maze runners.” Their job is to run through the maze each day trying to map the maze, working out the patterns of the changes in the maze each night, so that they might eventually find a way out.

But the maze isn’t the worst of their problems. At night, the maze is trolled by horrific creatures that the boys call Grievers. And there’s no surviving the Grievers for anyone who gets trapped in the maze after dark.

One night, Thomas does get trapped in the maze with Minho (Ki Hong Lee) and the group’s leader, Alby (Ami Ameen). Amazingly, under Thomas’ guidance, the trio survives the night and even kill one of the Grievers.

That changes things. Now, the boys have hope that there may be a chance of escape from the maze. But now, whoever controls the maze raises the stakes, allowing the Grievers to attack during the day and within the Glade.

In the meantime, a girl named Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) has been sent to the glade in the elevator cage. In her hand is a note that says, “She’s the last one… ever.”

At this point the community of boys divides into two camps: those led by Thomas who want to escape the maze and those led by Gally (Will Poulter) who want to keep things the way they are.

By this time, Thomas has remembered who he is and where he came from. Both he and Teresa were working for an organization called WCKD (the World Catastrophe Killzone Department) that was doing experiments on these boys. When he confesses this, Gally is furious and ties Thomas and Teresa up at the mouth of the maze as a sacrifice to the Grievers and whoever is doing this to them. But Thomas has enough friends and supporters that they don’t let Gally go through with this.

Half the group leaves the glade and ends up escaping the maze, only to find out that the world outside the maze is all but destroyed due to something called the Flare and that they were subjects in some kind of experiment designed to help save the world from the Flare.

As I watched this movie, I was reminded of a book by Chap Clark called Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers. In the book, Clark states, “By the time adolescents enter high school, nearly every one has been subjected to a decade or more of adult-driven and adult-controlled programs, systems, and institutions that are primarily concerned with adults’ agendas, needs, and dreams.” He goes on to describe how kids are pressured to perform in school, in children’s dance competitions, and in “competitive t-ball.”

Clark refers to this condition as “abandonment.” Kids today feel abandoned by the adults who are supposed to care for them. Adults have chosen to focus on their own agendas rather than care for the children who need them.

In a sense, The Maze Runner is a parable. It portrays in story form what kids today feel. They feel stuck in a maze from which they can’t escape. Kids feel like they’re left to fend for themselves.   They are attempting to navigate the maze of adolescence without much guidance from parents and other adults.

The issue of abandonment needs to be a major concern for the church today. In most of our churches, our kids have been relegated to a youth ministry that takes place only in the youth room, or over in the Christian Education building, or that is recognized only on a special day called “Youth Sunday.” It’s time for Christian adults to make a commitment to the next generation, developing relationships with the kids in our churches—not just youth group leaders, but all adults.

It’s a challenge, no doubt. But it’s critical for the well-being of our kids—and for the future of the church.

 This review with a set of questions is in the Oct. 2014 issue of Visual Parables.