The Big Sick (2017)

 

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

 Honor your father and your mother,

so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Exodus 20:12

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 8:7

Kumail eats at least once a week with his Pakistani family.                           (c) Lionsgate

Last year comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani had a small part in director’s  Hello, My Name Is Doris. The director’s new film is based on the actor’s real-life actor’s courtship of his wife Emily. Both he and she, Emily V. Gordon wrote the screen play. Nanjiani plays himself, and Zoe Kazan plays Emily, the result being a dramedy that is as tender at times as it is funny, making this a welcome addition to the culture clash that immigrants to America experience.

Kumail (Nanjiani) has grown up in America and adapted to its ways, whereas his Pakistani mother Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff), father Azmat (Anupam Kher) insists on the old ways, wanting him to accept one of the women whom they keep having “drop in” when he joins them for a weekly dinner. His brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar), and sister-in-law Fatima (Shenaz Treasurywala) also pressure him. He has been doing stand-up comedy gigs while letting his parents think he will go into one of the professions that will guarantee a high standard of living.

All is fairly well (except for the fact of his deception of pretending to go off to pray in the basement, he not being sure what he believes) until he meets cute Emily (Kazan) during one of his gigs. They start going together, but she is wary at first because of her bad divorce. In her eyes they are just hanging out together. But as they grow closer and thus more serious, he still has not told his parents about her. He does confide in his brother, who warns him not to continue the relationship, that their parents might disown him.

Each time his parents introduce a new marriage prospect, Kumail receives another large glossy photo of her. Instead of discarding them, he drops them in a closed box resting on a table in his bedroom. When Emily discovers them, she jumps to the wrong conclusion and storms out of his apartment, ignoring his entreaty to explain himself. She refuses all of his phone calls. And then succumbs to a mysterious ailment that apparently began earlier when she had hurt her leg while out shopping with Kumail.

Emily had his name and address in her purse, so the hospital summons him, whereupon he claims to be her husband so that they legally can begin immediately to work on her. The procedure requires that the doctors put her into a coma. Her parents, Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter), arrive and keep Kumail at arm’s length because Emily has told them about her lover and their break-up. They try to dismiss Kumail, but he persists, sitting across the waiting room from them so that he can learn of Emily’s condition.

The doctors are at a loss to explain Emily’s strange malady. The anxious parents eventually motion in the cafeteria for Nanjiani to join them. They slowly warm to him, though later he disagrees with their decision to move Emily to a hospital whose doctor they have more trust in. Matters go in the opposite direction with Kumail and his parents, who once they learn of his deception no longer want to see him.

How all this works out is handled well, one of the reconciliations especially touching in an understated way. The story is laden with humor, some of it touching on our cultural misunderstanding or bias. An example is Terry’s fumbling attempt to reach out to the Muslim Kumail about the 9/11 tragedy in the hospital cafeteria. He says, “No I mean, I’ve always wanted to have a conversation with [gestures at Kumail] people.” Kumail replies, “You’ve never talked to people about 9/11?” No what’s your, what’s your stance?” and Kumail says, “What’s my stance on 9/11? Oh um, anti. It was a tragedy, I mean we lost 19 of our best guys.” The surprised Beth interjects, “Huh?” Kumail, “That was a joke, obviously. 9/11 was a terrible tragedy. And it’s not funny to joke about it.”

This delightful comedy, skirting close to tragedy, provides us with an enjoyable opportunity to enter the Asian immigrant experience. That it can be painful for both the older generation and their off-spring is well shown. It is impossible to follow the traditional ways in an open society such as ours, and yet the children must tread carefully if they want to maintain familial relationships. This is a problem or theme as old as talking movies, 1927’s The Jazz Singer dealing with the conflict of an Orthodox Jewish cantor at odds with his son who wants to sing jazz. As long as there is intercultural interchange there will be such conflicts, and it will be incumbent upon filmmakers such as Michael Showalter and Kumail Nanjiani to bring us understanding and empathy to newcomers to our shores.

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

 

3 Generations (2015)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 32 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 3.5

A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.

Ecclesiastes 1:4

He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Matthew 22:37-40

Ray/Raymona, Maggie & Dolly are talking with a doctor about Ray’s desire for a sex change treatment program. (c) The Weinstein Co.

Thanks to this film, I’ve just expanded my list of “Susan Sarandon’s Mother Movies” again*—though as you might guess by the title, she’s also a grandmother. (Where have the years gone since 1992’s Lorenzo’s Oil?). It too is enjoyable, though because the script is somewhat superficial, will probably not be one listed in a summation of her remarkable career. Her Dolly is a supporting character. The film’s original title was better attuned to its plot: About Ray, the 3rd generation member, daughter Ramona (Elle Fanning) who wants to enter a sex-change program.

Now calling herself Ray, she is eager to begin the series of injections before he/she enters a new high school so that he can begin as a boy and not be stigmatized by having to explain the process for making the change. However, because she/he is a teenager, the 2nd Generation character, Maggie (Naomi Watts) her mother, must give her consent.

Both mother and grandmother are confused by Ramona and express mixed feelings. Dolly herself bucked the system, coming out years ago to declare that she is a lesbian. Ever since she has been in a long-time relationship with Frances (Linda Emond). Single mother Maggie and Ray have lived in the 1st Generation’s large apartment for a long time. Dolly blurts out, “Why can’t she just be a lesbian?” Maggie’s response is simple, showing that she has accepted her birth-daughter’s decision, “She likes women.”

When Maggie at last feels she can sign the legal document she discovers that the signature of Ray’s father Craig (Tate Donavon) is also needed. Her trip to the suburbs to find him leads to the discovery that he has remarried and that he is not eager at all in signing. This of course leads to Ray, and then Dolly and Maggie, traveling to his home—and also a revelation concerning Maggie that is not at all to her credit.

Directed by Gaby Dellal, with Nikole Beckwith as her co-scriptwriter, the film is more amusing than enlightening about transgender people. I do not recall the term “transgender” ever being spoken by any of the characters! Ray travels about the city on his skateboard and is sometimes seen with other teenagers. I recall no hint of his being despised or bullied by “straight” peers, as one might presume. We might also have expected to have sought out the company of other kids regarded as “deviants,” but not so.

The so-so script is well offset by the excellent performances of Elle Fanning, as well as Naomi Watts and Susan Sarandon. Also, the film is another good reminder of how diverse a form the family can take on today. (Unless we think about it, many of us of the older generations are still bound to the image of the ideal family as being male and female parents with a son and a daughter.) We have come a long way from the nuclear two-parent family of Father Knows Best. Back in the 50s gays were subject in the media to derisive humor and stereotyping. Now it is a lesbian that is depicted as expressing her confusion and frustration over a transgender granddaughter. We are in an age when the old Bible-based guidelines for gender roles are obsolete (and even possibly destructive), too culture-relevant to be of help—although, on the other hand, its two basic commandments are even more relevant than ever.

*See the article “Mothers—As Played by Susan Sarandon in the June 2016 VP.

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

After the Storm (2016)

 (Umi yori mo mada fukaku)

Unrated. Running Time: 1 hour 57 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Can Ethiopians change their skin or leopards their spots?

Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.

Jeremiah 13:23

 Famly

A broken family due to the father’s failure to grow up.
(c) Film Movement

In Japanese director/writer Hirokazu Koreeda’s film, set in the small city Kiyose just outside of Tokyo, there are two storms, an oncoming one, and a past storm in the life of Shinoda Ryôta (Hiroshi Abe). The one was in his past, the emotional storm enveloping him and his wife Shiraishi Kyôko (Yoko Make) that resulted in her divorcing him. The second is a typhoon that TV weathermen have been warning about for the past few days.

Once an aspiring, award winning writer, Ryôta has not been able to write anything since that first novel of 15 years ago. He has been eking out a living by working at a detective agency. With his younger partner Machida (Sosuke Ikematsu), he follows wayward spouses and takes photographs of them for use in divorce cases. He justifies his sleazy work by claiming to be doing research for his next novel.

Ryôta is months behind on his child support payments. His relatively small salary would barely be enough for living and making payments, but he also cannot resist gambling at the bicycle races and a pachinko parlor. No matter how much he loses, he keeps borrowing from his partner and from his sister Chinatsu (Satomi Kobayashi) for further bets. After the death of his father, he makes a rare visit to his mother Shinoda Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki) in her small apartment in a public housing project to snoop around for any valuable items he can pawn. All he finds are some pawn tickets and his father’s old ink stone. His mother tells him that has given away almost everything, that she is far better off now, feeling a sense of freedom that she had never known before. From her remarks and the pawn tickets we can see that father and son were far too much alike in her eyes.

Some of the best scenes are between mother and son. Early on she points to a small tangerine tree that he had planted during his childhood, and observes to him, “It doesn’t flower or bear fruit, but I water it every day like it’s you.” When the tree became a home for caterpillars, she saw one turn into a butterfly. “So, it’s useful for something,” she remarks.  Ryôta wistfully repeats, “I’m useful for something.” “I’m the great talent that blooms late,” he continues. “Well you’re taking too long,” she replies. “Hurry up, or I’ll haunt you.”

Ryôta, to his credit, does want to keep his relationship with his 11-year-old son Shiraishi Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa). He uses his primary detective tool, a pair of binoculars, to spy on his wife and son, feeling especially upset when he finds the two with her new boyfriend at a baseball game in which the boy is playing. Though overbearing, the boyfriend is taking an interest in the boy. The cash-struck father had wanted to give Shingo a baseball mitt, but he sees the man has already done this. Worried that he now has a serious rival, he later asks Shiraishi to report to him on how his mother and boyfriend are getting along and whether this is a serious relationship.

Kyôko is so upset with her ex-husbands continual failure to pay her child support that she threatens to refuse him time with the boy. This might not be a bad idea, because we see the father use some of his scarce funds to buy several lottery tickets and give them to Shingo. He tells him they are his, but that because he paid for them, they will split the winnings. Is this the start of the boy traveling down the same road? Elsewhere Yoshiko tells Ryôta that his father was just like him, and she does not mean this as a compliment.

Still hoping to win back his wife and son, Ryôta and his mother hatch a scheme that brings him, Kyôko, and Shingo to Yoshiko’s apartment where the latter invites them to stay for supper. Reluctantly, Kyôko agrees. The typhoon is about to start, so then they talk her into staying overnight until the storm has passed. It turns out to be quite a time for all of them, though the outcome is not the same as it would have been in an American movie (think The Parent Trap), making this a more poignant and realistic film.

Ryôta is a character so flawed that it is difficult to like him. Besides his obsessive gambling and wheedling of money, he also steals from his mother. He even shakes down one of the subjects he has been spying on as a detective, accepting money from an adulterous spouse in exchange for his destroying the incriminating photos and promising to show his client just the innocuous ones. However, I felt better about him during the stormy night when Shingo asks his father if he is the man he had wanted to become when he was a boy. Ryoto replies that he is not, but that he is trying to become what he had wanted to be. He seems to be struggling to accept his responsibility as a parent and a grown-up man.

Hirokazu Koreeda explores the broken life of a Japanese family in both a dramatic and humorous way (with the delightful mother providing most of the latter), bringing out well the universal theme of not living up to one’s early promise. Kyôko is as much a failure as Willy Loman, but there is a faint hope at the end that, whether or not he writes again, he might become a better human being than when we first met him–especially after the pawnshop owner reveals something he had not known about his father. Maybe Ryôta will be able, as his mother had urged, to let go of his Peter Pan ways and move on with his life.

This review with a set of questions will be in the May 2017 issue of VP. Please consider supporting this site by going to The Store and buying a single issue or a year’s subscription.

The Shack (2017)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours min. 12.

Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

1 John 4:16

 Moreover, we know that to those who love God, who are called according to his plan,

everything that happens fits into a pattern for good.

Romans 8:28 (Phillips)

Famly NKichn

(1) Mack's family when Missy was alive, and
(2) Max making biscuits with God at the shack 
where his youngest daughter was murdered.

(c) Summit Entertainment

Ten years after Canadian William P. Young’s theological novel became a best seller, it now comes to the screen, adding Octavia Spencer to the roster of actors who have played God—George Burns and Morgan Freeman. Or I should say, 1/3 of God, for this film features the Christian Trinity, Father (or Papa), Son, and Holy Spirit! Quite a feat for a writer and filmmaker to attempt to pull off!

Long-time readers of VP know of my lack of enthusiasm for almost all faith-based films. I have always regarded these films as visual sermons preached to the choir. While the same is true for director Stuart Hazeldine’s film adaptation, there is a huge difference in that this film explores so many Christian doctrines in an unconventional way that it challenges believers to move beyond the narrow boundaries of their present understanding of their faith. The Shack is a Christian apologetics work, following in the train of the 20th century’s famous C.S. Lewis. But just as Lewis’ works served to challenge and stretch the faith of believers, rather than to convert staunch atheists like Bertrand Russell, so this one will likewise be unconvincing to those outside the Christian faith. Especially if they read the tepid and negative reviews of most critics: the critic for The Wall Street Journal reveals his ignorance by condemning this as a “New Age” film, despite the three marvelous actors who are expressly identified as members of the Holy Trinity! (No, make that four actors, as God changes her appearance into a male late in the film.)

Before the title appears, we are shown the sad background of the protagonist in scenes in which the young Mack Phillips (Carson Reaum) and his mother are abused by his church-going but alcoholic father. We do see that a kindly neighbor (Olivia Spencer), offering him a piece of pie, tries to comfort him. When he asks her what he should do, she tells him to turn to God. The script never suggests that this is like what the apostle James condemned in 2:14-17 of his Letter—or even that it goes against the child abuse laws requiring a person to report any incident of sex abuse about which she or he learns. That this advice proves to be ineffective we see when the boy can endure the abuse no longer. Abandoning his faith (or maybe patterning himself after one of the vengeance-seeking characters in the Old Testament) after he reveals his father’s abuse during his church’s alter call, which results only in more abuse, he pours poison into his father’s bottles of liquor. However, we are not shown the results, and after the film’s title appears, the story jumps ahead when Mack seems to be a well-adjusted husband and father of three adorable children. (Neither novel nor film make any more references to the boy’s act of patricide, which does seem to be a strange omission!)

Mack (now played by Sam Worthington) and wife Nan (Radha Mitchell), living in Oregon, are justly proud of their three children teenaged Kate, Josh, and six-year-old Missy (well-played by Megan Charpentier, Gage Munroe, and Amélie Eve), all of them attending together their local evangelical church. It is Nan who refers to God as “Papa,” perhaps influenced by Jesus’ calling his Father Abba, “Daddy” when praying, the children also picking up on this.

Although Nan is prevented from going on their planned family camping trip, Mack piles the three children into their camper-hauling van and head for the mountains. On the way, they stop and view a spectacular waterfall plunging in a long narrow stream hundreds of feet down a cliff. Mack tells the myth of the Indian princess who sacrificed herself for her people, after which the tears of her grieving father became the waterfall. We see how perceptive little Missy is when that night she connects the sacrifice of the princess to that of Jesus.

After bonding with another family around a campfire, the next day everyone enjoys the lake, the two older children waving at their father as they paddle by in a canoe. Kate stands up to show off, thus turning the canoe over. Mack can see her head bobbing in the water, but not Josh’s. Diving quickly into the water, Mack swims out, finding his unconscious son beneath the canoe trapped in its webbing. Bringing him to shore, he frantically compresses the boy’s chest to force out the inhaled water. Everyone gathered around expresses relief when the boy comes around. However, Mack’s relief is short-lived, because Missy is nowhere to be found. Only the picture of the Indian princess whose dress she had colored red, like her own.

That night as the sheriff’s deputies mount a night-time hunt through the hills, they reveal that a man responsible for the murder of several other young girls was sighted in the area. Mack’s worst fears are borne out when they find Missy’s red dress, as well as her bloodstains in an old abandoned shack. There is no trace of her body. Not only Mack is wracked with guilt, Kate, whose foolish canoe antics caused everyone on the beach to focus their attention on her and her brother, feels responsible as well.

Back home Mack cannot move beyond his guilt and pain, as well as his feelings about being abandoned by God. That winter, while removing the heavy snow from his driveway, Mack sees a note in his mailbox. On a small folded piece of white paper is a typed invitation to meet at the shack, signed Papa. Upset, thinking it might be cruel joke from his best friend across the street, Mack confronts Willie (Tim McGraw). Both are astonished that there are no footprints in the snow around the mail box. After checking at the Post Office, Mack thinks it might be from the killer, so he packs a gun into his winter gear, and because Nan and the children are away, he takes Willie’s truck and heads up for the state park where the tragedy had begun. While trekking through the snow laden forest, he is joined by a slender bearded Middle Eastern carpenter. As they approach the Shack the snow disappears, giving way to lush green grass and flowers—and the once dilapidated shack is now a lovely wooded cottage into which Mack is welcomed by two women of color, an African and an Asian calling themselves Papa and Sarayu (Octavia Spencer and Sumire Matsubara). His guide is Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush). Mack is thus astonished that his invitation is to spend the weekend with the Holy Trinity. Some host(s)! There’s a light note from the beginning of their encounter with Papa’s introduction of herself– “I am…who I am;” “See? We’re already quoting Scripture.”

When Mack is puzzled that God should appear as a woman (indeed like the neighbor he had known as a boy), Papa replies, “Based on what you’ve been going through lately, I don’t believe appearing to you as ‘Father’ now would be particularly helpful to you. You’re not ready for that yet.”

It will be a weekend with quite a few conversations and just a little action—such as making biscuits with Papa, puttering in a garden with Sarayu, and walking on water with Jesus, the two at one point exuberantly running side by side across the lake’s surface. It will be those conversations about forgiveness, redemption, the nature of God and guilt, and sometimes arguments and angry charges by the troubled Mack, that change the latter’s life and allows him, after a near fatal crash involving a truck, to help his daughter Kate also to find spiritual healing.

The novel was severely criticized by evangelical leaders such as Chuck Couslon and several other leaders when it was published, and now the film also has been attacked by some leaders, as well as so many critics. (When one of the latter stated he felt nothing other than boredom during the film, I found this more an indictment of him than of the film.) Let me note several factors in the film that deeply moved me, even though I knew fully well that the basic plot was a faith-based formula (in that Mack would regain his faith):

There are so many neat visual touches in this film! Here are some of them:

  1. Papa replies to Mack’s accusation that God had abandoned his Son on the Cross (as well as Missy), to which Papa says she was there with the Son, with the camera in a close-up shot showing us the nail marks on her wrists. Papa says “Don’t ever think that what my Son chose to do didn’t cost something.”
  2. From the outside one night Mack sees Papa and Sarayu dancing joyfully in the cabin’s main room. This is a lovely depiction of God’s delight, carrying on the ancient image that God danced at Creation. There is a beautiful hymn by Richard Leach’s that you can hear (and see the fine words) on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQ55zGuti04 . “Come, Join the Dance of Trinity” is set to the familiar tune Kingsfold, used for the familiar hymn “O Sing a Song of Bethlehem, and could easily become as familiar and as beloved as Sidney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance.” (We should also mention that this dance theme is shared by Hindus whose god Shiva is a cosmic dancer.
  3. Sarayu walks with Mack through a glade of wildly beautiful but chaotic swirl of flowers. She and Mack dig a hole, the importance of which will become clear later. The camera moves around high up to a spot directly over their heads, and we see an order in the chaos: at four spots around the pair the flowers form gorgeous pinwheels. This reminds me of the old illustration about seeing a tangle of knots and colored threads on the back of a large tapestry, and then moving to the other side to behold the beautiful picture that artists have made by weaving colored threads in and out of the cloth, similar to seeing God’s plan that includes the dark.
  4. Some reviewers said the scene of Jesus and Mack running together across the surface of the lake looked silly, thus completely missing the filmmakers’ intention of depicting the human Christ as one who enjoys engaging in human abandon.
  5. Mack meets Sophia, depicted here, as in the Hebrew Scriptures, as a woman, who guides him into a fuller understanding of judgment, an involved conversation that leads him to say if it came to a decision as to which of his surviving child should be saved and which sent to hell, he would choose himself to go to hell rather than either of them. Through the waterfall at the mouth of the cave he is granted a glimpse of Missy, who, romping with a group of other happy children, is as far from hell as one could be.
  6. The Canadian veteran actor Graham Greene portrays God near the end of the film, indicating that Mack is entering the most difficult part of his pilgrimage or spiritual transformation, the forgiving not only of himself, but of the killer of his beloved daughter.
  7. The scene in which Mack faces the one who had most wounded him: how is this like a scene from Fields of Dreams?

There’s more, much more this film than we can go into here. Many churches hosted discussion around the book, so now is the time to do so around the film, either now after going to a theater, as I know that the Presbyterian Church in Oxford Ohio is doing, or a little later when it is available in some form of video.

The film is not without its flaws, a couple of which I wrote above concerning the plot, but these are minor, and even if you object to some of the theology, the film can result in a great discussion of theology, especially the nature of perhaps the most difficult doctrine of Christianity, the Trinity. Writer William P. Young and Stuart Hazeldine have joined a long line of artists who have attempted to depict the Trinity visually, from Byzantine times to the present, with the icon of the Russian painter Rublev probably being the most famous. For an interesting essay on this with illustrations go to https://seeinggodinart.wordpress.com/2016/05/22/the-solemnity-of-the-most-holy-trinity/.

To sum up this review, I don’t really care so much about its doctrinal purity because it understands that all the manifold doctrines are meant to explain the unexplainable. That in the end, only one word is need to explain Christianity and the film, LOVE.

This review with a set of 21 questions will be in the March. 2017 issue of VP.

 

American Pastoral (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 48 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 4.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 Honor your father and your mother…

Exodus 20:12a

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?

Luke 15:3-4

famlyearly

Merry was so close to Dawn & Swede that they could not imagine the rift to come. (c) Lionsgate

The title of Ewan McGregor’s first foray into directing was obviously meant by the author of its source, Phillip Roth, to be ironic. The life of the story’s protagonist Seymour Levov (played by McGregor) is anything but the pleasant picture suggested by such a title. The story of his life since high school is told by his brother Jerry (Rupert Evans) to old classmate Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) at their 45th high school reunion. Having been out of the country as a journalist for the past several decades, it is news to Nathan that Seymore has just died. This scene at the school and their attendance at his grave side service serve as bookends.

During high school days, the Jewish athlete, dubbed Swede because of his blond good looks, had everything—popularity, due to his looks, and athletic team prowess. After graduation, he works at his father’s thriving factory in New Jersey where the mixed-race employees make high-end ladies gloves. He succeeds in getting his rather conservative father (Peter Riegert) to accept as his bride the WASP Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), a beauty queen who had been Miss New Jersey. The newlyweds move to a stately home in the suburbs where they give birth to their lovely daughter Merry (first played by Ocean James). The only dark cloud in their sunny sky is Merry’s stuttering, which saps her self-confidence. A counselor’s suggestion that Merry’s problem is not physical but psychological, arising from her inner comparison to her beauty queen mother is not comforting, but the parents vow to make the best of things. With few schoolmates willing to befriend a stutterer, the girl finds solace in her scrapbook of Audrey Hepburn clippings and pictures. Also she and Swede become very close, he assuring her that he will never forsake her. What else could go wrong in  such a pastoral setting?

Well, this is a Roth novel, so you know the answer. The dark cloud that began with Merry’s stuttering is just the harbinger of the storm to come. The girl’s handicap persists into the 1960s when the American Pastoral for the parents turns into an American Hell. Now played by Dakota Fanning, Merry turns into a rebellious teenager. The family TV set thrusts the violent turmoil of the times into their living room—anti-Vietnam demonstrations, race riots, battle scenes from the warfront, President Johnson defending the War. Merry is especially affected by the sight of a Buddhist monk burning himself alive in protest of the war.

She makes frequent trips into Manhattan where she connects with student radicals. Spouting slogans calling for a violent revolution, she quarrels repeatedly with Swede and Dawn. He says that he too is against the war, but she scornfully brushes this aside, charging him with being part of the exploiting class. The once loving girl has been transformed by her older associates into a hate-filled creature the parents barely recognize. Early one morning their postmaster/storeowner friend goes out to raise the American flag. When he re-enters, the store, a bomb explodes, killing him and setting the building on fire. Merry is nowhere to be found.

The parents strongly assert to the FBI investigators that their daughter would never do such a thing. But her failure to return home or even contact them, proves them wrong. Dawn accepts Merry ‘s guilt as her once placid mind slowly disintegrates. Swede still steadfastly clings to the belief that Merry is innocent. Other outside matters also impact him—his factory is facing hard times because women no longer buy and wear gloves to match each of their outfits, and the race riots flare up in Newark. Black rioters torch buildings and exchange gunfire with National Guardsmen. His “Negro” employees remain staunchly loyal, one veteran woman insisting that she stay with him one night to protect the building from rioters. They cautiously go to a window to unfurl a large banner on which is printed the message (actually, a plea), “Negroes Work Here.”

Years pass with no word from Merry, Dawn’s mind so confused and withdrawn that she spends time in a mental institution. The factory is barely surviving.  A young woman named Rita (Valorie Curry), claiming to be a reporter, visits the glove factory. Swede gives her the red-carpet treatment, even having a worker make her up a special pair. Then she reveals to Swede that she is in contact with Merry, who wants her Audrey Hepburn scrapbook. Swede desperately goes along with her, ignoring her harsh criticism and an attempt to seduce him. Eventually he does get to see her, Merry now a disheveled shadow of her former robust self, living in a ruined house alive with rodents and littered with trash. The film’s subsequent scenes are not out of a Hallmark production, though the concluding one at the graveyard does bring about a solemn measure of closure.

The film provides a piercing glimpse of what was once called “The Generation Gap.” Swede and Dawn were members of the post-world War 2 generation that had achieved the American Dream (or Pastoral)—a good marriage and adorable child; a meaningful vocation that made possible a lovely home far from the dangers of the inner city. Then came the Cold War and the Vietnam War, the latter nothing like WW 2, along with the rising revolution of blacks no longer willing to wait for their rights to be granted by unwilling whites. The parents of the 1960s were upset when their children took the values of love, fairness, and justice seriously for all, blacks included, and began to question why the older generation did not live up to them. The generation gap was a key factor in such Hollywood productions as The Graduate (1967); Easy Rider (1969); Joe (1970); and with the sci-fi film Logan’s Run (1976) speculating on the result of the rebel slogan “Don’t trust anyone over 30!”—but none of these gave much of a picture of the dark side of the antiwar movement. This film reminds us that some protestors did not agree with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s policy of nonviolence, nor that they saw irony in their protesting violence by using violence themselves.

As I watched Swede cling to his hope for reconciliation with Merry and his promise that he would never abandon her, the father in Jesus’ Parable of the Father and Two Sons came to mind, as well as the shepherd in one of the parables that precede it. I think Jesus would have loved Swede, who did not just wait for his lost child to return before running out to welcome him back, but ventured forth himself into the dismal slums in search of his prodigal daughter. I wish his anguished encounter with Merry could have ended with the same result as the Parable’s, a Welcome Home party replete with prime rib and merry guests eating and dancing. (What an ironic name for the daughter!)

Critics have not been kind to the film. Not having read the novel, I don’t know what else should have been included. Of course, the standard two hours allotted to films require much good material to be cut, but what I do see in the film leads me to conclude that John Romano’s script packs in plenty of substantive material for movie goers looking for more than just entertainment. Doctor Strange provides escape, and thus is far, far more popular, but Ewan McGregor’s film reaches much deeper into the heart and mind of viewers. Also, as with so many novel-based films, the movie might lead viewers to read the source: I have already put in my request at the local library.

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

 

Meet the Patels (2014)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 28 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 0; Language 2; Sex /Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.

The heart of her husband trusts in her,

and he will have no lack of gain.

Proverbs 31:10-11

Famly

The Patels enjoy each other’s company. (c) Archive

After watching so many serious (and admittedly excellent) documentaries in the past few months it was enjoyable to come across this scripted one about an almost 30-year old man’s search for “a capable wife.” Although it is very particular as to its Indian-American context, its theme of longing and searching are so universal that virtually everyone can identify with its beleaguered protagonist. The film is a scripted documentary in that its protagonist Ravi Patel is also the co-director with his sister Geeta—and she is also the cinematographer. They travel not only back and forth between their American and the Indian cultures, but also geographically, from their home in Los Angeles to India, and then back to various stopovers in cities across the USA.

The film begins with a delightful cartoon version of Ravi (animated by Jim Richardson) speaking to the camera and informing us of his earlier life. A first generation Indian-American, he reveals that he has just broken up with Audrey, his white girlfriend, a person whom he had never introduced, or even mentioned, to his traditionalist parents.

Ravi’s father Vasant has been a success in business, so he likes to say, “Look at me now,” but worst, as far as the nearly 30 year-old Ravi is concerned, “Not getting married is the biggest loser you can be.” His quick-tongued mother Champa agrees, and well she would in that she is a widely respected matchmaker in her home village. Very much in love with each other after a 35-year arranged marriage that was agreed to after just one 10-minute meeting, they explain, “Some people date and get married; we did it the opposite.” Thus they want Ravi to give the traditional Indian method for finding a bride a try.

He agrees, realizing that he has arrived at the age when he should be settling down and starting a family. There follows a series of meetings with prospective brides that are sometimes funny and often colorful, the latter especially when the family travels together back to their homeland in Gujarat India. I once thought that the Jones or the Smiths must be the world’s largest families, but it turns out that Patels hold that honor. They started out in a 50-square-mile radius in Gujurat province but now Patels have emigrated to countries throughout the world. It is from this clan that his parents intend for him to pick a mate. Scattered throughout the episodes in India and sojourns in a number of American cities are more brief cartoon inserts that add much to the fun of the proceedings.

The American side of Ravi says, “It’s pathetic to have your mom and dad set you up,” but he goes along with an endless series of organized group encounters involving speed dating (at a large Patel Matrimonial Convention held each year—yes, there are that many Patels!), weddings, and such, wherever he might meet an eligible young woman. Even before that the family had worked up a system they call “bio-dating” that involves families exchanging comprehensive resumes of the young man and woman. Phone calls are made when Ravi reads the paper and likes the attached photo, and the two are brought together, usually at a restaurant where they exchange views and sum each other up. There are also Indian marriage websites, showing that Indians are trying to adapt their ancient traditions to the modern world.

The photography includes some crude camcorder footage when Geeta was learning how to use a camera to sophisticated, non-jerky, clear-focused film shots. It looks and sounds like the brother-sister had a good time putting all the different kinds of tape/film together. You will too as it unfolds to a conclusion that you probably can see coming, but this will not matter. The fun is in getting to it. There are no cosmic issues in this immigrant family tale, but viewers will learn the old lesson that though cultures differ, families bound by love and respect will be able to go through unsettling changes and emerge stronger than ever.

This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the Nov. 2015 issue of VP.

Poltergeist (2015)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hours 33 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 3

 You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day.

Psalm 91:5

FamExprts

Plenty of scary moments in this remake. (c) 2015 Fox 2000 Pictures, MGM

Moviegoers who enjoy being scared will find plenty of scares in this remake of the 1982 Stephen Spielberg-produced original version. Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell) and his wife, Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) are moving with their three kids into a smaller house in a suburb of the Illinois town where Amy attended college. Searching for a job since he was let go by John Deere, Eric and Amy seek to downsize, and thus are relieved to find a house available at such an affordable price. They don’t notice that many of the other houses around it are vacant.

The children are less than thrilled by the move and the new house. However, Maddy (Kennedi Clements), the youngest daughter, is excited following their first tour when she speaks with some new invisible friends in her bedroom closet. Griffin (Kyle Catlett), middle child is unsettled to be assigned the attic bedroom because through its skylight he can see a creepy willow tree hovering over him. Teenage daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino) is especially resentful of the move, spending much of her time texting, phoning, and video chatting talking with her best friend back at what she still considers her home town.

Soon all hell breaks forth, with little Maddy touching the living roomTV set and repeating the words ffom the first film, They’re here.” Soon she has disappeared, Griffin has been attacked by the willow tree, and much more during the next few days. The parents don’t feel they can tell the police because of the bizarreness of their story, so they turn to the head of the Department of Paranormal Research at Amy’s former university, Dr. Claire Powell (Jane Adams). She and her team set up elaborate equipment, and also reveal to her that the housing developers had lied about moving the graves of the Native Americans before building on their burial ground. They had moved only the tombstones, so the angry spirits of the departed are enraged at this violation of their ground. Matters become so difficult that Powell calls in the reality TV host Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris) who is an expert in this field. There follows a savage battle that requires two of the contestants to take great risks, even to the point of sacrifice.

Despite my less than enthusiastic interest in this genre, the film held my attention, the special effects being seamlessly worked in to the natural world. Again, I must observe that the world view of both filmmakers and their characters is non-religious—spiritual, of course, but no one seems to think of praying. The savior figures are “scientists” who put their trust in their equipment and the knowledge that they gain from it.