Dean (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 27 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,

    and my bones waste away.

Psalm 31:10

Dean and his father Robert visit the grave of their mother/wife.                         (c) CBS Films

It is a real joy to come across a comedy that really is for adults interested in real life issues rather than promoting alcohol and drug, penis and fart jokes! Written and directed by comedian Demitri Martin, it deals with death and loss, though not in as profound a way as the Emily Dickinson film A Quiet Passion. However, being a comedy, it is never morbid but there is a freshness to it thanks to the series of humorous simple cartoons, drawn by Dean, that are sprinkled throughout the film. I also enjoyed the film because it includes the wonderful Kevin Kline and Mary Steenburgen as a possible romantic pair.

Appropriately, the film begins in a cemetery where Dean (Martin) and his father Robert (Kline) are placing a bouquet of flowers on a grave. They are mourning the death of Dean’s mother, whose death nearly a year earlier has continued to plague them. Robert, an engineer, takes the practical route of his profession, coping with his loss by seeing a therapist and deciding to put their house up for sale. Dean, unfortunately, has been moping around, unable to finish his over-due second book of cartoons, and unwilling to talk about selling the house which contains so many happy memories.

He travels to L.A. for a job interview, but the way his two creepy would-be employers want to use his art proves so obnoxious that he walks out of their office without speaking a word. Throughout his sojourn in La La Land the film exhibits the same contrast between L.A. and New York as seen in Woody Allen’s films, all the former city’s denizens pictured as shallow and insincere flacks. He stays with longtime friend Eric (Rory Scovel), meets briefly Nicky (Gillian Jacobs) at a party in an embarrassing way, and, when he doesn’t hear from her for a while, boards a plane to return home. Suddenly seeing her text on his cell phone, he disembarks, setting out to join her. This leads to a road trip with Nicky, her friend Jill (who for a reason to become clear later disapproves of Eric pursing Nicky), and Eric, but…

Meanwhile, back in New York, his father Robert grows closer to the realtor listing and showing their house, Carol (Mary Steenburgen). He enjoys going out with her several times, but he is still not over his mourning. This is poignantly shown when, after an enjoyable night out, Carol asks him to come up. We can see by his face the conflicting emotions. He wants to, but something inside causes him to refuse. His emotions are still too entangled with the woman who had meant so much to him.

Dean returns to the East, and it is during this last portion that the film returns to its father and son thesis. The son grows a bit when his good friend tells him that his mother’s death is the “first big thing in your life you are never going to get over.” There are some things that cannot be changed and which must be accepted. Dean and Robert still have each other, each learning that the mourning period is more complicated and longer than expected—and it must be faced, not run from as in Dean’s case, before one can form a new romantic relationship and expect it to be stable. Neither filmmaker nor the characters seem to possess a mustard seed of faith, so they have little to console themselves with other than their own resources. As with so many of those viewing the film, this will have to do. The Psalmist, quoted above, because of his God, is assured that His “sorrow…sighing…and misery” are temporary. These three will pass for Dean and Robert too, but it will take longer for their power over them fade enough for them to bond with new lovers —well, in Robert’s case, maybe not so “new” a lover.

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

A Quiet Passion (2016)

 

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 5 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

One fate comes to all alike, and this is as wrong as anything that happens in this world. As long as people live, their minds are full of evil and madness, and suddenly they die. But anyone who is alive in the world of the living has some hope; a live dog is better off than a dead lion. Yes, the living know they are going to die, but the dead know nothing. They have no further reward; they are completely forgotten. Their loves, their hates, their passions, all died with them. They will never again take part in anything that happens in this world.

Ecclesiastes 9:3-6

The only family member not kneeling at their pastor’s command is Emily. (c) Music Box Films

British filmmaker/writer Terence Davies has given us a wonderful film to enhance our enjoyment of Emily Dickinson’s graceful poetry. He begins his film in 1848, when Emily would have been about. 18 years of age, a student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary where its founder Mary Lyon (Sara Vertongen), addresses the assembled classes. “You have now come to the end of your second semester. Some of you will remain here … Some of you will go out into the world…I put to you a question of the utmost importance, which concerns your spiritual well-being. Do you wish to come to God and be saved?”

At her urging, those sure of their salvation move to one side of the room, while the not yet arrived, but still hopeful ones move to other side. One student remains in the center. Emily. Miss Lyons demands, “Have you said your prayers?” “Yes, though it can’t make much difference to the Creator.” Upset by this, her interrogator launches into a critical tirade, to which the unmoved Emily replies, “I wish I could feel as others do, but it is not possible.” “You are alone in your rebellion, Miss Dickinson. I fear that you are a no-hoper.” “Yes, Miss Lyon.”

The recalcitrant Emily is relieved that her brother Austin, has arrived to rescue her, taking her and her sister back to their home in Amherst. Throughout the film Emily is depicted as a lone rebel, standing against the stifling conventions of her time, eventually becoming the recluse who was the subject of so much talk in the town. Later when she is asked if she has an illness, she says that she had “an acute case of evangelism.”

Another example of the script’s many witticism’s is Emily’s response to her straight-laced Aunt Elizabeth (Annette Badland) comparing her rebellious acts to French Revolutionist Robespierre. The niece impudently says that she would prefer Charlotte Corday, the vengeful woman who was executed for assassinating the radical Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub.

At home Emily usually is the dutiful daughter, seeking her father Edward’s (Keith Carradine) permission to stay up late and write her poems. Liberal for his times, he agrees. He also accedes to her request that he contact his friend Dr. Holland, editor of the Springfield Republican, about publishing one of her poems. (Until the end of her life, this would be the only journal in which less than a dozen of her over 800 poems appeared in print.) Yet we also see the father as sharing his age’s patriarchal views when the family attends an operatic recital in Boston and he criticizes the female singer for appearing on a stage. Aunt Elizabeth is even more vehement in denouncing this crossing over the line of female propriety.

Throughout her life Emily will be the dutiful (to her father) outsider, even dissenting from the public’s taste in poetry. Whereas others profess their great admiration for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, especially his lengthy “Hiawatha,” she expresses disdain. She prefers poetry that is not so obvious, poetry that challenges the intellect as well as the senses. She pushes against the world even in the punctuation of her writing, in one scene angrily condemning the editor for “correcting” what he thought were mistakes without consulting her.

The film transitions from its short first portion dealing with the characters’ youth to its longer section, set years later, by a marvelous dissolve effect. The family members are having their portraits taken by a photographer. As the finished photo of each appears, it morphs from the faces of the younger actors into that of the older ones who take their places in the story. Rose Williams, playing Emily’s sister Vinnie, slowly changes into Jennifer Ehle; Benjamin Wainwright, as young Austin, melts into Duncan Duff; Emma Bell dissolves into Cynthia Nixon — and Keith Carradine’s hair becomes thinner.

Another admirable technical feat is a leisurely 360-degree camera shot in the family parlor that begins with Emily. The family members are entertaining themselves as slowly the camera focuses upon each of them–the austere Aunt Elizabeth (Annette Badland) is almost nodding off to sleep; Edward is reading; brother, Austin (Benjamin Wainwright), partly off in the shadows, also is reading, her adored sister, Lavinia (Rose Williams), known as Vinnie, sewing; and their mother, also named Emily (Joanna Bacon) stares at the fire. The camera passes over the flames in the fireplace and other objects in the semi-darkened room, at last coming to rest once more on young Emily, her serious face revealing some inner concern.

Never having read any of the Dickinson biographies, I do not know how much of the film’s dialogue is historical, and how much stems from the creative imagination of the filmmaker. Admirers of Mt. Holyoke College and its pioneering feminist founder Mary Lyon will be upset by the portrayal of Ms. Lyon as a narrow-minded, vindictive religious fanatic, but I suspect the writer would say that his intention is for this scene is to show the kind of religion the poet was up against all her life, rather than to show the real Miss Lyon. From what I have been able to find out, this scene is not recorded anywhere else. However, such rigid religious views did prevail in New England at the time, and sadly, still are wide-spread among Fundamentalists. This is but one of the theories as to why Dickinson left the school after just 10 months, another being that she was homesick, and another that the shy girl and her sister (yes, Vinnie enrolled at the same time) did not get along with her fellow students.

Although I usually prefer historical accuracy, I find this scene helpful in showing the poet’s courage and forthrightness in refusing to bow down to religious tyranny—and she literally refuses to bow down when the dour pastor of her family’s church visits their home and demands that they all kneel and pray for God’s forgiveness. Emily’s refusal is based on her lack of feeling any guilt, her father angrily chastising her later and demanding that she apologize.

That she does respect compassionate religious leaders we see later in her relationship to other ministers, and, of course, in her poems, several of whom are read throughout the film. I am looking forward to seeing the film on DVD when I can use the subtitles to better catch the words of the numerous poems read by Cynthia Nixon. (I wish that IMDB included a list of them.) Of course, as the film approaches the time of the poet’s death, we do hear the words of her beloved, “Because I could not stop for Death— / He kindly stopped for me.”

Mary Lyon might have branded Dickinson as a “no-hoper,” but the poet was merely a questioner of dull, unimaginative orthodoxy. She would go on to write, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” The poet might have withdrawn from the world, but not from the universe. She continued to explore the latter regarding Nature, God, time, and death.

The film portrays Emily Dickinson as living completely in her own time (hence her obeying her father) yet also pushing against it, moving toward our own wherein a woman need not seek anyone’s permission to write after hours (or any other time). Her character, or role in life, is well summed up by the woman closest to her, except for her sister Vinnie, Miss Buffam (Catherine Bailey): “You are a strange creature, with more depth than any of us. You don’t demonstrate, you reveal.” I had intended to close this review with this, but then recalled the poem quoted in the film, perhaps more fitting in that it is autobiographical:

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me —
The simple News that Nature told —
With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see —
For love of Her — Sweet — countrymen —
Judge tenderly — of Me

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

Land of Mine (2015)

Rated R. Running Time: 1 hour 40 min.

Our content rating: Violence 5; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 0.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Matthew 5:43-45

 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:17-21

Serg&boys

In his Oscar-nominated film, Danish director/writer Martin Zandvliet gives us a new slant on WW 2, as well as an always needed lesson on human decency. It is May, 1945, and though there is much fighting still ahead in Germany, the five-year-long nightmare of Nazi occupation is over for the people of Denmark. But as we will see, there are two lingering effects of that Nazi occupation—a deeply embedded hatred for their conquerors, and the dangerous land mines that the Germans had planted along the long western coast of the country just in case the Allies might try to come ashore there. Indeed, there are from a little over one million to two million of them.

Just before the title the film begins, we see a long column of German prisoners being marched along a country road. Danish Army Sgt. Rassmussen (Roland Moller) is heading in the opposite direction when he spots a prisoner carrying a Danish flag, obviously intending it as a souvenir. Stopping, he springs out and starts beating and kicking the man. He even hits another German who protests the cruel beating as he cries out that they must, “Get lost!” They do not belong, nor are they welcome here. “This my land,” he says. Thus, the film’s title takes on a double meaning.

Jump to a group of a group of German teenage boys who ae members of the Volkssturm, a German national militia created by the desperate Hitler because there were no more adult men available for fighting.  The gruff-voiced Lt. Ebbe (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) is telling them that since Germans planted the mines, it will be Germans who will clear them. He informs them, “Denmark is not your friend. No one wants to see you here.” Their brief training period of defusing the mines ends with each of them entering an enclosed area to defuse a live mine. As each boy nervously unscrews the cap and slowly removes the fuse, tension mounts. The exceeding nervous boy is the one whom we expect to fail, but—.

The remaining boys are given over to the care of Sgt. Rassmussen, who harbors the same hateful hostility toward them exhibited by Ebbe. He harshly addresses them on the section of the beach they are assigned to clear. They must clear 45,000 before they will be allowed to go home. Among the dozen and a half boys are twins Ernst and Werner (Emil and Oskar Belton), bricklayers who are looking forward to returning to their homeland because there will be so much work for them in restoring its bombed-out buildings. Helmut (Joel Basman) is the cynical malcontent, always seeing the worst side of things. The opposite of Helmut is Wilhelm (Leon Seidel), always looking on the bright side. Emerging as the group’s natural leader is Sebastian (Louis Hofmann), and even he looks like he should be attending high school classes rather dressed in a German uniform.

The boys are set to work, toiling fearfully as they unscrew the mine caps and slowly remove the fuses. The Sergeant drives them relentlessly, herding them before sundown into a shed that he locks by dropping a bar across the door. About a hundred or so yards away a woman (Laura Bro) whose beach side farmstead they’re quartered on often gazes at them with disdain. Her little daughter Elizabeth (Zoe Zandvliet) is too young to know to hate them, so when one of the boys approaches her to talk and bandages the damaged leg of her doll, the girl is all smiles. Their friendly exchange ends abruptly when the mother storms over to them, sternly warning her daughter to stay away from the Germans.

As the days pass, hunger grips the boys. Neither when they arise, nor when they are penned in at night is there any food. At first there are just complaints among the boys about their lack of meals, but as the days go by, they become faint, even sick, with hunger. The latter effect comes about after one of them sneaks out at night and brings back some grain from the woman’s shed. The next day the boys are vomiting. When the angry Rassmussen investigates, the woman explains that there were animal droppings amidst the grain. Sebastian tries to apologize that he did not prevent the boy from sneaking out, but Rassmussen wants no talking from him.

At last, concerned for the slow progress of their work, rather than for the boys’ welfare, Rassmussen takes it upon himself to go and appropriate some food. The next morning the first boy out the door is pleasantly surprised to find loaves of bread and a small pile of vegetables awaiting them. Slowly as the boys make progress Rassmussen’s attitude begins to change toward Sebastian as they begin to talk together.  One night as he is putting the cross bar in place, he drops it, leaving the door unbarred. No doubt an incident from another night hastened him on a new course. He had witnessed Epp and a couple of his men viciously humiliate one of the boys and had hastened to stop the abuse.  Also, Epp had criticized him for sneaking food out for the boys. When the hands of one of the boys are blown off, the Sergeant especially softens. He even joins the group in a spirited game of soccer and cheers them on when they set up foot races on the beach. During a conversation with Sebastian he almost becomes fatherly toward the boy. The film seems to be following the usual path of the curmudgeon coming over to the side of the despised, but then something terrible happens that revives Rassmussen hatred of all things German, and the boys are abruptly worst off than before. By now we have become to care deeply for these boys, so that when one of them breaks under the intolerable strain with tragic consequences, we feel their hurt and despair. What transpires in the last act of the film  lifts our spirits again, reviving our hope in humanity.

This is a film that could not have been produced during the years following the war when everything pointed to the bestiality of the Germans and the nobility of the Allies. Only with the passage of years have filmmakers shown that there is a dark side to all humans, that the Danes, who so nobly saved the lives of so many Jews, were also capable of cruelty toward the enemy. It helps that the filmmaker chose boys as the prisoners rather than hardened older soldiers. It would be almost impossible to arouse in the audience compassion for Nazis guilty of so many atrocities toward peasants and Jews alike. There is no talk of politics among the boys, no indication that any of them had been fanatical members of the Hitler Youth pouring out with uplifted arms their adoration for their  Führer. Only boys expressing their hopes and dreams of returning to their homes. When Epp betrays them (the remnant, that is, who survive a horrendous accident) by sending them to another beach encampment to remove still more mines, instead of to their homeland as promised, we see that he is little better than the Nazis who had driven him so deeply into hatred and prejudice. (As I write this, the end scene of the animated version of Orwell’s Animal Farm comes to mind in which the farm animals, once enslaved to a human, watch their leader, the pig named Napoleon, in the house playing cards with a human and they cannot tell the difference between the two.) Powerless to counter the orders of his superior, Rassmussen is left to decide what he should do in the face of such injustice.

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

 

Collateral Beauty (2016)

 

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 37 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 3.5

Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?

Jeremiah 20:18

…for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Matthew 5:45b

blocks

Howard escapes his grief by playing with blocks, thus neglecting his ad agency. (c) Warner Brothers

Director David Frankel’s film, like Manchester by the Sea, deals with the unmitigated sorrow of a father over the tragic loss of a young daughter. Howard (Will Smith) has been a highly successful advertising executive. Called the “resident poet-philosopher of product,” he dispenses such motivational bromides as “Find your why!” That is, what is your basic motivation for getting up in the morning. Now he has lost his “why,” coming to the swank Soho headquarters and spending several days building an elaborate construction of towers and walls with domino-like building blocks, which he then knocks down in about 5 minutes by pushing over the last block, which falls into the next, and so on. He then starts over again, Sisyphus-like, arranging the blocks in a new construction. Spending just a few hours a day, he ignores the questions and pleas of his three partners, and leaves for points unknown.

His partners, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Pena) are worried for him and for the firm. Clients, who are being ignored, are continually calling. The firm is headed toward ruin unless they can bring him back to sanity—or have him declared mentally unfit so they can gain control of the firm. (He is the majority shareholder.)

In desperation Whit hires private investigator Sally Price (Ann Dowd), who begins following Howard when he leaves the office. She learns that he sits alone on a bench at a Brooklyn dog park, even though he has no pet. He stands outside the window of a counseling center to watch a therapy group, but he never goes in. At home he sits alone, never using the phone or internet. He often writes three letters and drops them in the same postal drop box. Through her connections Sally is able to obtain a key, and so right after he deposits his letters, she quickly unlocks the box and retrieves the letters.

If you have seen the trailer, you know that the letters are addressed to Love, Time and Death. Like one of the sorrowing characters from the Bible, Howard pours out his anguish to the three. Whit, in a roundabout way comes up with a plan to use three actors he has encountered to pose as the three, appear to Howard, and capture his responses on videotape, doctor the tape by digitally removing the actors from the scene, and thereby convince Howard and the firm’s Board of Directors that he is too mentally disturbed to head the business. At first Claire and Simon raise ethical objections to Whit’s plan, but, aced with financial ruin if they do not do something, they agree to it.

If this sounds far-fetched in the telling, it did not while viewing the sequence in which the actors Brigitte (Helen Mirren) as Death, Raffi (Jacob Latimore) as Time, and Amy (Keira Knightley) as Love. Howard is too smart to be convinced right away that the three are what they claim to be, but he is certainly unsettled. He even eventually enters the room where the support group is being conducted by the beautiful Madeline (Naomie Harris), herself a grieving mother, she confesses after another member shares her own story. As the complicated plot unfolds there are a couple of twists that are very surprising.

My son who accompanied me was as moved as I was, stating that the film was better than he had expected. The film’s time setting of the Christmas season enhanced the mood of the merriment of the season set over against Howard’s almost suicidal depression. Indeed, the three personages bring to mind Dickens’ A Christmas Carol’s Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Many of the scenes were deeply moving, but then, as I thought about the film, the artificiality of Allan Loeb’s screenplay arose—made especially apparent because I had just written my review of Manchester by the Sea. The latter is such a simple straight-forward story in comparison. The unlikeliness that the three actors could pop in and out of Howard’s life at precisely the right second, or that the expensive process of digitally removing the actors from the tape within such a short time—just too unbelievable, though this great cast convinces you while watching them.

This film, which years ago would have been dubbed a “Three Hankie flick,” manipulates our feelings shamelessly. I should also mention that there are some subplots involving the three partners, the one in which Simon must learn to share his own upcoming crisis with his family (rather than shielding them) is the most moving. The film is far from being the Christmas classic that it is intended to be. Still, if you want a good cry and some surprising plot twists that lead to a happy ending, this film delivers. Just do not think much about it afterward.

Good Scene: Howard’s monologue in which he bitterly rejects all the lame attempts by which believers try to “explain” tragedy and sorrow. This would be good to bring up when discussing the film Jackie with its many scenes between Mrs. Kennedy and her priest, the latter refusing the facile “explanations.”

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

 

Manchester By the Sea (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 17 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 4.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance,

but by sorrow of heart the spirit is broken.

Proverbs 15:13

Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?

Jeremiah 8:22

gravsid

Lee & Patrick (rt) are joined by family friends George & his wife at the graveside of Joe, the boy’s father & Lee’s brother. (c) Roadside Attractions

 Lee’s (Casey Affleck) spirit might not be “broken,” but, as we get to know him through flashbacks, he is certainly contending with “sorrow of heart.” That is why he has left the village that gives the film its name and puts up with a thankless (almost) job as a janitor in a Boston apartment complex. He is constantly replacing a light bulb for an elderly tenant or repairing a leaky pipe or toilet. Only occasionally does he receive a thank you (from a woman, we see). During his off-hours, he drinks alone in a bar, where he sometimes gets into a fight because he does not like the way a man is looking at him. For Lee is no “glad heart” or “cheerful countenance.”

At the beginning of the film, some eight years earlier, he is standing on the stern of his brother Joe’s (Kyle Chandler) fishing trawler coaching his young nephew Patrick in fishing. They were very close then, but now that Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is a 16-year-old, the old closeness is gone. Lee has returned to the village upon receipt of the news that Joe has suddenly dropped dead from heart failure. Joe has been divorced from his alcoholic wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), so the hospital has called Lee as closest relative. Joe’s death was not unexpected, because in a flashback to a hospital bed scene a doctor has diagnosed him with congestive heart disease, news so hard to take that the distraught Elise stalked out of the room.

When Lee attends the reading of the will, he is shocked to learn that he is named Patrick’s guardian, and so is the lawyer by Joe’s not having talked over the matter with his brother. Lee has a host of reasons as to why he is not the proper guardian for his nephew. However, if he is to be in charge, he tells the boy they will have to live in Boston.

Patrick does not want to leave his school friends, hockey team, or garage band—also, the lecherous boy has been grooming two different girls (unknown to each other) as partners to shed their virginity. Over the course of numerous conversations Lee suggests the possibility of the boy staying with another uncle in Minnesota; of Patrick living with his now sober mother whose married to man in a neighboring village; or of staying with the close family friend George (C.J. Wilson), who has been employing the boy part time on the wharf and partners with him in maintaining Joe’s boat.

The film demands close attention because of its numerous, unannounced flashbacks that slowly add to our understanding of the characters. Just as in real life something will suddenly bring back an incident or person we had not thought of in years, so is Lee, while coping with watching over his rebellious nephew, constantly thrust back into his troubled past. He sees that it is not he who controls memory, but that it controls him. And for Lee, these are memories he would like to put behind him. We learn why villagers cast dark looks or whisper about him on the street and why he cannot find a job in the village. There was a tragedy that led to his divorce from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and what amounted to a flight from the town. Guilt and remorse follow him like a dark cloud hovering over his head, shutting out the sunlight.

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s somber, beautifully crafted film is good tonic for those chirpy Hallmark-type films that teach that a new romance or adventure will sweep away grief and guilt. You will find that a word-search for “sorrow” or “grief” turns up so many passages in the Hebrew/Christian Scriptures, the hurt being so great for one prophet that he cries out, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” The Scriptural answer is always tied to a right relationship with God (or making it right if the connection is broken, as was the case with the prophet’s nation). However, we see little evidence of faith in Lee, or in his nephew. And when Patrick has lunch with his reformed alcoholic mother and her new husband, their “born again” faith holds little attraction.

And yet the film does conclude with as positive note as could be expected, even a tentative note of hope. Lee proves to be a wise and caring guardian for Patrick after all. But just before that, we see how wounded Lee still is when he encounters ex-wife Randi and a friend on the street. Pushing a pram with her new baby in it, she is eager to talk with him, so her friend leaves to go fetch their car. Her voice a bit choked up, Randi apologizes for the way she had treated him during their crisis. He relies haltingly, and when she suggests that they meet for lunch to heal their breach, he turns her down. This is the most poignant scene of the film, the two actors deserving the Oscar nods predicted by critics.

I want to give this film 5 stars, but one aspect of it seems either unrealistic and/or deplorable, namely the parenting of the mothers of the two girls that Patrick is desperately trying to make his first sexual conquests. The parents are so permissive, pretending to believe that their daughters are “doing homework” while alone with Patrick, and behind closed doors, no less. They might just as well have given him an invitation, “Welcome to my daughter.” Granted, the boy is smooth and manipulative, using the grief from his father’s death to his advantage, but these women are supposedly adults. Lee also is implicated in his nephew’s plans, though we can understand he is feeling his way in his unfamiliar role of serving as the boy’s guardian, and so does not want to seem too strict. Parents of teenagers, as well as youth leaders, should be wary—there are no good role models for youthful viewers of this film, with the possible exception of George. Having said this, Manchester By the Sea is still a powerful study of grief and the struggle to find a way out of its morass, well worthy of the praise it has garnered.

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

 

Miss You Already (2015)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 58 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 0; Language 4; Sex 5/Nudity 1.

Our star rating: (1-5): 4

A friend loves at all times, and kinsfolk are born to share adversity.

Proverbs 17:17

Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and the pleasantness of a friend springs from their heartfelt advice.

Proverbs  27:9 (NIV)

The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

1 Corinthians 15:26

Frnds

Jess & Milly have been BFF since grade school days. (c) Roadside Attractions & Lions Gate

Do not let any male friends put down director Catherine Hardwicke’s new London-set film as a “chick flick.” Only a troglodyte would come away from this sensitive and beautifully acted movie and call it a “weepie.” Tears there are aplenty, on and in front of the screen, but the story of Jess (Drew Barrymore) and Milly (Toni Collette), best of friends since grade school, is a celebration of friendship—thus it is not another TV “disease of the month” story. Illness and death permeate the film, but friendship, female friendship in particular, is the theme. As a guy I felt privileged to be able to peek in at their intimate moments, both when they laugh out loud, and when they cry together—thanks to Morwenna Banks’ fine script.

The two women are different in many ways. Milly, the more vain and bold one, lives in a stylish townhouse with her two rambunctious children and an adoring husband. Her mini-skirted mother Miranda (Jacqueline Bisset) is frequently hovering about, apparently making up for the time when she paid more attention to a glamorous career than to her young daughter. Jess, comfortable playing second to Milly, lives with her husband in a houseboat moored to the side of a canal. The two have been striving to produce a child, going to clinics and submitting to intrusive procedures. Then, when they finally succeed, Jess has to play second fiddle again. When Milly reveals she has breast cancer it would be cruel of Jess to share her joy at being pregnant. It is ironic that as she secretly rejoices at the beginning of a new life, her dearest friend faces a threat that might end hers.

The story explores the many ups and downs of their friendship, differing from other sickness films by going into far more detail of cancer treatment, first of chemotherapy, and then of the surgical procedure of and recovery from a mastectomy. During the nausea-producing procedure of the first round of treatment Milly notices at various moments small tufts of her hair coming out. At the hospital the patient wigmaker Jill (Frances de la Tour) patiently helps Milly try on a wide variety of wigs, some of which induce laughter among the three—yes, Jess is there, as she is almost always on hand to support her friend.) Miranda might have been too, but I do not recall.) Quietly suggesting that it is time to shave off the thinning hair so the wigs will fit better, she uses the shears while Milly stoically watches in the mirror. With the hair on the floor, Jill gently rubs Milly’s shorn head. There is little dialogue during this operation, but none is needed.

The two husbands are sometimes perplexed as Milly’s cancer impinges on their lives. Her husband Kit (Dominic Cooper), unable to engage in sex with her, watches helplessly her mood swings and outbursts. Feeling no longer physically attractive, Milly turns what starts out as a wonderful. Impromptu night trip to the moors made famous in their favorite novel, Wuthering Heights, into a tryst with the bar tender she had known back in London. Jess is so shocked by her friend’s indiscretion that the two break off for a while. Jess herself is concerned that husband Jago (Paddy Considine)’s job requires him to work at an oil rig platform far out at sea, this during the crucial months leading up to her delivery.

The reconciliation and birth scenes are incredibly touching, the latter even amusing because Jago has to watch it via Skype, with his workmates helping the unsteady reception by climbing up on a bunk to hold the wireless router higher. By this time Milly and Jess have reconciled and the former lives in a hospice. Despite her condition she insists on leaving to join her friend in the delivery room. Mother Miranda is a big help in this, donning a white coat and pretending to be a doctor as she wheels her daughter past the security guard and receptionist.

The filmmakers and their characters are thoroughly secularized, so no one speaks of God or turns to prayer to relieve their fears and sorrows. If a hospice chaplain ever paid a call on Milly, it is not depicted in the film. The closest the script approaches spirituality is in the moving scene in which Milly is trying to explain to her little daughter Scarlett (Sophie Brown) her impending death. The thought of her mother not living to see her grow up is too much, even though Milly tries to reassure her that her spirit will be with her. Also, there is a brief nod to spirituality during the end credits, noticeable only to those paying attention. Earlier Milly and Jess had visited one of London’s Before I Die Walls, part of a movement that began in New Orleans*. An outside wall had been covered with blackboard paint upon which is printed in large letters BEFORE I DIE…Hundreds of passers-by have completed the sentence by printing in chalk such intentions as taking a trip or improving themselves. The friends gaze at the wall and add, “Fear nothing.” The Wall and its myriad of contributions form the backdrop for the end credits, and over on the left we read, “Believe in God”—not once, but two or three times.

* For more on this intriguing movement use the following link:

https://www.facebook.com/BeforeIDieWall/

Also an article by Candy Chang at http://candychang.com/before-i-die-in-nola/

Roadside Attractions & Lions Gate

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2013)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 45 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Luke 12:7

Famly

The Spivet Family on their Montana ranch.   (c) 2013 The Weinstein Co.

French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, known for his delightful Amélie and A Very Long Engagement has gifted us with a tale set in the USA that is part road movie, coming of age, and neglected son seeking parental approval. Adapted from a novel by Reif Larsen, the film centers on a ten year-old boy with the unusual name of Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet (Kyle Catlett). What kind of parents, you might ask, would saddle their son with a name so unusual that he will become known by his initials rather than his given first name?

To say that the Spivet family is unusual is understating the case. Dwelling on Copper Top Ranch in Montana, the parents could be a case study in eccentricity. Tecumseh Elijah (Callum Keith Rennie), the father, looks, and acts, like a John Wayne cowboy spin-off, a man of few words. His man cave is crammed with artifacts indicating that he is the cowboy born over a hundred years too late. Mom, Dr. Clair (Helen Bonham Carter), is an entomologist so totally engrossed in her bugs that she scarcely notices the children. Our young hero has picked up his mother’s scientific curiosity, rather than his father’s values of rugged manliness. T.S.’s teenaged sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson) is obsessed with bodily appearances because she wants to be Miss Montana and then an actress. There once was T.S.’s twin Layton, the apple of their father’s eye because he loved “shooting everything that moved.”

T.S. himself is something of a scientific genius, but no one in the family pays any attention to this. The boy feels all alone, blaming himself for his brother Layton’s death and knowing full well that his father preferred his dead brother to himself. No one talks about Layton or the shooting accident that took his life. However, all of this will change when T.S. decides to leave home and travel to Washington D.C. He has received a phone call from Smithsonian Museum representative Ms. Jibsen (Judy Davis) that his design for a perpetual motion machine has won a prestigious prize. She is unaware that the inventor is a ten year-old, so in a funny telephone scene T.S. tells her that he will call his father to the phone, but that because the man is a mute, he will serve as interpreter.

The boy packs a bag and sets out to catch a rides on a freight train, meeting colorful characters along the way, as well as dialoguing with his deceased brother. He has left a note telling the family not to worry about him—and, based on his years of neglect, he actually believes that they won’t. From Chicago he hitches a ride to D.C. where the self-promoting Ms. Jibsen is at first surprised that the inventor soon to be honored is a boy, but who quickly sees his age as a P.R. windfall. How all this culminates for T.S., and for his family back in Montana, provides for heartwarming viewing.

Known for his whimsical style, the director provides plenty of such moments, with T.S. as the narrator often giving full vent to his youthful imagination, as well as to such observations as, “The amazing thing about water drops is that they always take the path of least resistance. For humans it’s exactly the opposite.” The director adds diagrams, text and pictures to the scenes, such as the one in which the boy imagines himself at the crossroads between the Mountain of Lies and the Prairie of Truth—these work well with the film’s 3-D effects.

Permeated as it is with T.S.’s feeling of alienation and unresolved grief of the parents, this is a somewhat dark film, considering that children are a major part of its intended audience. For me one of the highlights is T.S.’s talking over the phone with his mom, the worry and concern clearly shown on her face—and standing by are his father and sister, with even the latter showing her concern for her little brother. It is a beautiful moment, one in which we catch a glimpse of what Jesus, though under very different circumstances, was conveying when he told his followers that they were worth more than many sparrows to God.

It is sad that the Weinstein Company, after purchasing US distribution rights, let the film sit on the shelf for a couple of years, and then, when they did release it, used very little of their usual vast promotional means to inform the public about it. Here in the Cincinnati area the film came and went in just a week with no fanfare. Fortunately Amazon.com has picked it up, making it available for streaming. The film will be a treat either for families or for groups wanting to watch and discuss something decidedly different from the usual family fare—the film has touches of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and the modern classic A Christmas Story, so if you like those works you should enjoy this one. If you agree that this is an undiscovered gem of a film, then tell your friends about it–it deserves a better fate than its present one.

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