War for Planets of the Apes (2017)

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

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

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

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

Isaiah 11:6

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

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

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

Matthew 9:13a

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

The Koran, Surah An-Nur 24:22*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017)

Reviewed by Markus Watson

Rated PG. Running time:  136 min.

Our content rating: Violence 7; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star  rating (1-5): 4

If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

Matthew 7:11

I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.                                                             

John 14:18

      Ego, Peter, & Yondu.         (c) Marvel Movies

The first Guardians of the Galaxy movie (2014) is about a group of individuals who are “losers,” that is, who have “lost stuff.” Peter Quill, aka Starlord (Chris Pratt), has lost both of his parents—his mother to a brain tumor and his father left them when Peter was a baby.  Peter and four other “losers” come together to form a ragtag family of heroes who call themselves the “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Peter is reunited with his long-lost father, a Celestial being who calls himself Ego (Kurt Russell).  At first, Peter is suspicious.  What if this guy isn’t his father?  What if he is his father, but he’s got something else up his sleeve?  With Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) encouragement, Peter—accompanied by Gamora and Drax (Dave Bautista)—goes with Ego to learn about his heritage and get to know his dad.

At first, everything seems perfect.  Since he is half-Celestial, Peter discovers powers he never knew he had.  He and Ego end up playing catch (with a ball of blue energy) just like Peter had always dreamed of doing with his dad.

But soon the truth comes out.  Ego has had hundreds of children from all over the galaxy, hoping that one of them would carry the Celestial gene, which would increase his own power.  But each of those children were mortal, so Ego killed them and disposed of them.  Peter realizes he is nothing more than a tool for Ego’s ambition, and that after Ego has used Peter for his own ends Peter will be dead.

Peter isn’t the only one with “daddy issues” in this movie.  Gamora’s sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), hates both Gamora and their father, Thanos (who had abducted both of them as children).  When they were young, Thanos would pit Gamora and Nebula against each other.  Gamora would always prevail; then Thanos would replace a part of Nebula’s body with machinery.

The father-relationship is really at the heart of this movie.  In both Peter’s case and in Nebula’s, their fathers failed to be true fathers.  But near the end of the movie, Peter realizes he actually did have a dad—Yondu (Michael Rooker), the leader of the space-thieves who abducted Peter when he was a boy.  Yondu wasn’t a great dad, but a much better dad that Ego.  In fact, it turns out that by abducting Peter, Yondu was protecting him.

The reality of life is that no father is perfect.  Some are downright bad—abusive, neglectful, selfish.  But most fathers do their best to love their children well.  Part of growing up involves accepting both the strengths and the weaknesses of our fathers.

The good news is that we have a perfect Heavenly Father.  It’s important to recognize, of course, that this does not mean God is primarily masculine (the scriptures use many feminine images for God, as well).  But the image of a father is one of the ways God presents himself to us.

This Father never neglects us.  He never abandons us.  He never abuses us.  He is always present, always listening, always available, always compassionate.  He is a Father who loves us as we are, yet empowers us to grow beyond what we are into who we were created to be.  This is a Father who delights in his children even when they don’t feel delightful.  God is the kind of Father who would give anything to be with his children—even his own life.

Peter Quill never discovers this Father.  But he does see some of the Heavenly Father’s qualities in the very imperfect fatherhood of Yondu.  Perhaps we, too, can find traces of the perfect love of God in our imperfect fathers.

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

The Lost City of Z (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running Time: 2 hours 21 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5


 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  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.

Romans 12:16-18

Jack urges his father to go back to the jungle in search of the lost city & take him along. (c) Bleecker Street

If you enjoyed the Indiana Jones adventure films, writer-director James Gray’s is the film for you, based on the 2009 book by David Grann. Not quite as dark as the recent Embrace of the Serpent, it also takes us back to the early 20th Century when the jungles of South America were being penetrated by scientists intent on studying (and exploiting) it. Whereas the earlier film took place in the Amazon basin, the scientist looking for a legendary plant with curative powers, Gray’s film is set on the western side of the Andes in the uncharted region between Bolivia and Brazil, its hero obsessed with finding a lost city he calls “Z.”

The film opens in 1905 in Cork, Ireland where we meet Major Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a British officer happily married to the beautiful Nina (Sienna Miller), but haunted by his lack of a medal that would elevate him to the level of respect enjoyed by his fellow officers. This is unlikely to happen during this peaceful era. We also see that he is victimized by the class prejudice of the time, one upper-crust officer observing, “He’s been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors.” It seems that his drunken father had disgraced the family by his gambling and womanizing, making the road to success for his son almost insurmountable.

In 1906, when the Royal Geographical Society offers to send him to survey the unmapped region and establish an acceptable border between Bolivia and Brazil, he jumps at the chance, even though it means a long separation from Nina and his young son Jack. After an arduous trek, he succeeds in his surveying, but feels unfulfilled because of being unable to press on to seek a city that is indicated by his finding in the jungle a broken piece of pottery of a sophisticated design. He had at first disbelieved his Indian guide’s stories about a city of gold, but the pottery plus a few small statues had convinced him there was a city awaiting discovery.

Upon his return to England he is greeted by crowds cheering him as “England’s bravest explorer.” However, during his speech before the Society there are those who jeer at his claim to have found evidence of a great civilization in the jungle. This would conflict with their prejudiced dismissal of the people of the area as far beneath the enlightened British. One audience member challenges Percy, “Are you insisting of these savages, they are our equals?” It is as much to dispel such prejudice as for honor and glory that Percy is determined to return to the jungle and find the lost city.

The Royal Society lacks the funds, but the expedition becomes possible when the wealthy biologist James Murray (Angus Macfadyen) agrees to finance it, providing that he can go along.

Returning means for Percy the further sacrificing of his family. He had been gone so long the first time that his little son, upon their reunion had asked, “Are you my father?” During his absence, Nina had given birth to a second son, and now a daughter. Nina has always supported her husband, even doing some helpful research in the Dublin library into an old text by a conquistador claiming that there was a fabulous city deep in the jungle. Indeed, she wants to go with her husband, but though he is somewhat progressive in his views on the female sex, he is not that progressive. Hence, she waves goodbye to him along with the three children, with Jack being angry over the separation.

In the jungle, the party faces many obstacles, one of their chief burdens being their egotistical patron, whose obesity makes it difficult for him to keep up the pace. One day a hail of arrows fly out of the jungle, killing one man outright. The party takes shelter behind the canoes, and then Percy does a surprising thing. Instead of firing back at their attackers, he urges his men to join him in a song. As they commence singing, he exposes himself, holds out his hand as a sign of peace and repeats “Amigo, amigo.” The natives are so startled that they emerge from their cover in the forest. Soon they are conducting the whites to their village, decorated with grislily corpses and hundreds of skulls of defeated enemies. In the welcoming ceremony, Percy gives the chief’s son a talisman, and the natives insist that they all eat the flesh of some of their slain enemies. All do but James, who insists on consuming more than his share of the rations they have brought with them.

When the biologist injures his knee, it becomes infected, bringing their trek to a halt. They are already short of supplies because the rotund man has consumed so much of their food. To save his life, Percy mounts him on one of their precious horses and sends him back with a guide to a rubber plantation where he can receive medical attention. The rest of the party presses on. In the midst of a rainstorm, all but Percy become convinced that they must turn back. Their leader, however has caught a glimpse of stone statues in a narrow canyon just as a flashflood almost sweeps him away. Despite this, his companions, pointing out that they have no more supplies, insist that they go back.

Back in England Percy must contend with the lies of James Murray that Percy had abandoned him in the jungle; the resentment of son Jack due to his father’s becoming a stranger during the years of his absence; and then World War One. Percy is severely wounded by a gas attack in the trench warfare, requiring extensive nursing and recuperation. Nina stands by him through all this, and Jack, at first rejecting his father, at last reconciles with him. In fact, it is he, now 20-year-old (Tom Holland), who in 1923 raises the idea that he and his father continue the search for the city. Percy agrees on the condition that Nina assent to another long separation. Bowing to the inevitable, she does, her observation including the famous quote from Browning, “To dream to seek the unknown. To look for what is beautiful is its own reward. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”  Thus, father and son set forth on their journey into the dangerous jungle. What happens to them is a mystery that the filmmakers speculate upon, but which cannot be asserted is what happened, plausible as it is. The ending of the film focuses upon the stoic bravery of the loyal wife and her refusal to give up hope for her lost husband and son throughout her long life.

Although Percy sacrificed much physically and mentally for his obsessive search, the film makes it clear that it is Nina who gave up the most. At first the presence of her husband while she coped with the raising of their three children, and then the sacrifice of her oldest son. Actress Sienna Miller is not given a great amount of screen time, but she is so capable that she quickly wins our heart-felt sympathy and admiration for her character. Her co-star Charlie Hunnam displays tenacity and the qualities promoted by the apostle Paul, especially in his rejection of the prejudice against the natives so prevalent then. However we might question his giving in to his son’s request to return to the jungle, we admire his tenacity, bravery, and genuine love for the family he leaves behind for duty. And even more, his broad mindedness and creativity to deal with a lethal situation in a non-violent manner there in the jungle. Not even Indiana Jones would have thought of that.

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

The Road to Perdition (2002)

Reprinted from the Aug. 2002 VP.

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 57 min.

Our content rating (1-10): Violence 7; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 1

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.

You shall not murder

Exodus 20:12-13

In those days they shall no longer say:

‘The parents have eaten sour grapes,

and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’

 But all shall die for their own sins;

the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set

 on edge.

 Jeremiah 31:29-30



Sam Mendes first film following his acclaimed American Beauty transports us into a very different world from that of his earlier one. The time is the 1930’s when the power of gang mobs, enriching themselves with bootleg liquor, made the headlines and controlled many politicians and policemen. Paul Newman and Tom Hanks play against their usual good guy screen persona, portraying ruthless gangsters in an un-named city not within driving distance of Chicago. Paul Newman is John Rooney, gang boss, who loves Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) as much as his own son Connor (Daniel Craig). Rooney raised the orphaned Michael and tutored him in his law-breaking way of violence. Michael is strong, whereas Connor is weak. The strongest part of the latter’s character is his hidden envy and resentment of Michael’s place in his father’s heart. Thus, Connor awaits the opportunity to strike at the usurper of his father’s affections. That opportunity arrives very early in the film.

Michael is married to Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is sadly under-utilized in the script), and the couple have two sons, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), about 13 years of age, and Peter, a few years younger. Both boys idolize their father, even though he is away so much that he has missed most of their growing up, almost always excusing himself from their school performances and athletic games. Neither has a clue as to what their father’s business is, Michael strictly segregating his life as a gang hit man from his private family life. Young Michael, however is determined to find out, hiding under the rear seat of his father’s car when the senior Sullivan sets out one rainy night on a job. Michael arrives at his destination, where he meets Connor, and the two go into a barn to confront several men. Young Michael watches with wide-eyed horror when Connor loses his temper and begins shooting the men. Michael Sr. disgustedly joins in, cold bloodedly dispatching any who are wounded.

The two killers discover that they have a witness, and are surprised that it is Michael. His father, making the boy promise that he will tell no one, assures the skeptical Connor that he need not fear anything. Connor is not so certain. When he tells Rooney what has happened, the latter is very angry with him for needlessly shedding blood, but reluctantly agrees that the potential problem of young Michael must be fixed. As much as he loves Michael and wishes Connor were like him, he chooses his own flesh and blood. The result is terrible tragedy for the Sullivans.

The two Michaels find themselves on the road, fleeing for their lives from a hired assassin hot on their trail. Maguire (Jude Law) works as a photography taking pictures of murder scenes, some of them turning out to be his own work, for his real money comes from the gangs that hire him to do their dirty work. During the Sullivans’ flight, which entails a visit to Chicago where Michael hopes to find protection from Al Capone’s chief lieutenant Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci), to a string of bank robberies, to the home of a kindly farm couple, father and son for the first time become close. The boy cannot condone the crimes of his father, but the hit man is his father none-the-less.

The senior Michael’s biggest fear is not their implacable pursuer, who comes close to eliminating them a couple of times, but the strong aversion to seeing his son follow in his footsteps. He knows all too well what kind of a person he is, so he hopes that the terrible judgment of Exodus 20:5 (“for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation…”) will not descend upon his son. At the climax, there is a strange moment of grace, the dark film thus ending on a note of hope, similar to what Jeremiah wrote to his captive countrymen after their defeat by the Babylonians.

Some critics have noted that Tom Hanks might not have been the best choice to play such a cold-blooded character. The filmmakers must have realized this, as the script has Michael Sullivan killing guys that deserve their fate. This is like the Hollywood gangster of the old days, as played by James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson or Humphrey Bogart: the audience’s sympathy is drawn to the bad guy so much that we root for him rather than the police out to get him. Still, we have to admire Tom Hanks the actor for taking on another role, as he did with Philadelphia, that goes against audience expectations. And to be paired with the legendary Paul Newman, whose presence brings quality to any film. This is one Road you want to take for the thrill of the ride, despite its destination.

Interesting touch: Young Michael in several scenes is reading one of those ten-cent Better Little Books about the Lone Ranger. This is the story of a good man who appears to be a bad man because of his mask. The boy is soon to learn that his father, who appears to be a good man, actually is one who kills in cold blood.


Fences (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 18 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 For he is our peace, who has made us both one,

and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility…

Philippians 2:14

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may be well with you and that you may live long on the earth.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Philippians 6:1-4


Rose goes against husband Troy when she gives stepson Lyon the loan he has requested. (c) Paramount Pictures

Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) might be illiterate, but he is no stranger to words, the spoken kind that is. From the moment we first meet this opinionated black man at work on a Pittsburgh garbage truck with his best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), our ears are bombarded by a veritable Niagara of words flowing forth from his mouth. He is an untutored master at telling stories and slinging insults. Had he been able to read, with his glib tongue he would have been a great salesman, a fit companion for Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman. Indeed, August Wilson’s Tony Award-winning play will remind you of Death of a Salesman, especially toward the end.

During the course of the interaction among the characters, we learn that Troy was sired by an abusive father in the South, leaving home while still a teenager. He served time in prison for killing a man he tried to rob; was a talented baseball player in the old Negro League, but was unable to make it in the major-leagues after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. He claims it was racism, but it also might have been due to his age—he was just born a few years too soon.

However, Troy’s belief that racism was the cause has poisoned his mind so much that he refuses to allow his youngest son Cory (Jovan Adepo) to continue playing football, even when the youth tells him that a scout for a university intends to come to town to see him play. It is 1957, and there are few professional black players, so Troy thinks he is saving his son from the pain and trauma he had gone through. He wants the boy to be responsible and contribute to the family income, hence his order to Cory to go back to the A&P where he had just quit his job. He must ask for it back, which would mean resigning from his school’s football team.

A good example of Troy’s parenting skills, or lack of them, is this speech which comes at the end of a stream of back and forth remarks initiated by Cory’s asking his father, “How come you ain’t never liked me?”

“Like you? I go outta here every morning, I bust my butt ’cause I like you? You’re about the biggest fool I ever saw. A man is supposed to take care of his family. You live in my house, feed your belly with my food, put your behind on my bed because you’re my son. It’s my duty to take care of you, I owe a responsibility to you, I ain’t got to like you! Now, I gave everything I got to give you! I gave you your life! Me and your Mama worked out between us and liking your black ass wasn’t part of the bargain! Now don’t you go through life worrying about whether somebody like you or not! You best be makin’ sure that they’re doin’ right by you! You understand what I’m sayin’?”

But this is more than a father and son play, even though there is still another, much older son from a woman he had known years before he had gone to prison– Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a struggling musician who comes around on Troy’s payday to ask for another loan. Troy’s wife Rose (Viola Davis) appears early in the film, receiving Troy’s paycheck when he returns home with Bono to share drinks and tell tall tales. She joins in the conversation with the pair. Troy makes it very evident that he adores her, no doubt one reason being that she is strong enough to stand up to him. One example of this is, in her husband’s presence, going ahead and giving to Lyons the small amount of money he had requested, despite Troy’s having turned him down. Lyons might be another woman’s son, but she cares for him, and seems determined to treat him better than his father does.

Another important member of the family is Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), a World War II veteran suffering from brain damage. Unable to hold a job, he wanders around the neighborhood while clutching an old dented trumpet because he believes he is God’s messenger. It was a large disability payment to him from the VA that had enabled the family to buy the house they are living in, Gabriel for several years living with them until he had moved on to an apartment close by.

It was at Rose’s request that Troy had started building the fence in their back yard to provide some privacy and safety. During the course of the film there are many scenes of him and Cory sawing boards for it. In one conversation, it seems to take on a symbolic meaning for Troy. Years before he had fought against death, so he regards the fence as a way to keep the Grim Reaper out. Still another meaning is suggested by Bono, “Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in.” And, as Troy and Cory clash over his giving up football, the fence also represents a barrier so high that it threatens to destroy their relationship—and not only between father and son, but, eventually, also between wife and husband.

It comes as a surprise that, as much as he loves Rose, Troy has maintained a mistress for several years, much to Bono’s displeasure. When she becomes pregnant and enters a hospital, he feels he must tell Rose his secret. Of course, she is terribly hurt and resentful. When the mistress dies in childbirth, Troy brings the baby, named Raynell, home. In a confrontation so powerfully written and acted that I am sure it alone would thrust Viola Davis into the Oscar race for Best Supporting actress, Rose agrees to take in the child, but she declares that Troy will no longer touch her. Several years later Raynell (Saniyya Sidney) will be an important factor in a decision to be made by the older Cory, by then a proud member of the Marines. Gabriel is also present at this point, after spending some time in the mental institution to which Troy had committed him. For reasons I will leave you to discover, he raises up his horn so that the gates of heaven will open up…The conclusion hints that maybe old Gabe isn’t so crazy after all.

This is a fine depiction of a blue collar black family during the Fifties. Race is not a dominant theme, though it is important, racism having impacted Troy throughout his life and blinded him to the possibility that times were changing and that his talented son might have a future in professional athletics. In the first scene Troy is talking with Bono as to why there are no “Negro” drivers, blacks being relegated to picking up and emptying the garbage cans. After he registers a complaint, he is apprehensive upon receipt of a summons to the sanitation office. What a relief to be told that he will be the first “Negro” driver.  Troy becoming a driver means that the pals will no longer be working together, which has an unforeseen consequence.

It will be other factors, more than racism, that will lead to the disruption of this once close family. The fences (or “the dividing wall of hostility,” to use the apostle Paul’s phrase) we build take many forms. The apostle Paul sees Christ as the one tearing the barriers down, but only Rose is a person of faith, and she is so hurt by his betrayal that she gives up on Troy, even while still living with him afterward.  Perhaps it is that faith, symbolized by the small cross she always wears around her neck, that enables her to help Cory come to terms with his father. Dealing with the dark legacy of a father also is a major theme in the film. Troy had let his father shape his life so that he became that which he had hated. Rose, by telling Cory that he is like his father, just might liberate the young man, this possibility suggested in the scene in which Cory and his little sister sing one of his father’s old songs.

Director Washington and scriptwriter/adapter Wilson have opened up the play a bit, a few scenes set outside the Maxon’s backyard and house, but it is evident that this was once a play confined to a stage. There is little physical action, the wordy dialogue driving the story forward. But what dialogue, so rich in passion and insight! What a treasure the late August Wilson has bequeathed to us. Denzel Washington does a fine job directing and performing the lead role. Both he and Viola Davis won awards for starring in the 2010 revival of the play. What a delight that their performances have now been made available for virtually everyone to see. For adults wanting more than shootouts and impossible car chases and rooftop pursuits, this film, so full of drama, humor, and tragedy, will be one of the most memorable cinema experiences of the year!

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

Happiness (1998)

Reprinted from the Dec. 1998 issue of Visual Parables

Unrated. Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 7.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5



Todd Solondz explores the darker side of the quest for happiness of a number of suburbanites, the film reminding one at times of a Robert Altman work with its intricate plot and wide range of characters– and its humorous, ironic viewpoint. All of the characters are lonely and trying to connect with someone else, with few, if any, of them ever succeeding.

Allen is a desperate loner pouring out his heart to his therapist Bill. He knows that he is boring, unable to stir any interest in himself in the women he dates. Little does he realize how boring he is, for Bill’s mind drifts away from his patient’s groans to run down lists of things he must do later.

The therapist has troubles of his own, feeling attracted to some of the friends of his young son Billy. The latter is disturbed also, confiding in his father that he has not been able to “come” (as in sexual stimulation) like his friends do.

Bill’s wife Trish thinks she is happily married, living in a nice suburban house with good neighbors–but she does miss Bill’s passion. She feels sorry for her sister Joy, single, and spectacularly unsuccessful in finding the right man (the ironically named Joy has had a disastrous date with Allen).

Joy still lives in the house their parents had lived in before moving to Florida, where they are just as unhappy in their loveless marriage. Trish often discusses Joy with their other sister Helen, a popular author living a glamorous life.

Each of them wonders at times if the other isn’t happier. Even successful Helen is lonely, so when a man stalks her on the telephone, she responds positively, not suspecting that the caller is her geeky neighbor Allen, whom she barely acknowledges when they pass in the hall or elevator. Allen is harmless, but the even more pathetic neighbor Kristina, who sets her sight on him, is capable of a dark, passionate deed.

The characters, in their self-absorbed pursuit of happiness, understand little of the truth of Jesus’ teaching that those who lose their lives will find them. Joy comes close, when she seeks work as a teacher of immigrants out of an altruistic desire to help others, but in Todd Solondz’s quirky world, this has unhappy consequences–not only must she walk through a picket line of striking teachers and endure their jeers of “Scab” for replacing one of them, the students themselves resent her, apparently preferring to have no class at all than one taught by a scab. And the Russian student whom she becomes attracted to and dates, turns out to be a thief who steals her TV and stereo, and then, when she finds out where he lives and goes to confront him, wheedles money out of her.

This is a difficult film to digest, partly because the father is a pedophile, and partly because we are not sure at times how to take the characters. In the theater I attended, for example, the young adults laughed and smirked during what seemed to me like a tender scene between Bill and his son Billy. Bill is under investigation by the police in the molesting of two of Billy’s friends, so the boy has heard rumors concerning his father at school. When he asks if they are true, Bill, instead of evading him, confesses that it is. Just how this or the ensuing destruction of the man and his family is funny escapes me.

Happiness is not a film for everyone (although do not fear, Solondz does not show Bill in his act. In this sense the film is as discreet as any film of the 40’s in regard to adult sex, but the creator’s probing of the darker side of human life, including that of a man supposedly in a helping/healing profession, show again that comedy and tragedy are not opposites, but flow back and forth along the continuum we call life.

The saddest and most provocative scene: In the middle of the night, after he has given in to his terrible compulsion, Bill comes to his wife sleeping in bed and asks her, “Do you love me?’ She sleepily replies that she does, but she is too groggy to hear the pleading in his voice. Bill is looking for unconditional love, something that even if she were wide awake, she could not do, because Bill by his unspeakable act has placed himself in a category even lower than were the lepers in Jesus’ time. He knows that sooner or later he will be found out and branded as a pedophile, and he desperately wants and needs reassurance that he is still a lovable human being.

To the credit of actor Dylan Baker and director/writer Todd Solondz Bill is presented not as the moral monster to which we react in fear and loathing, but as a terribly flawed human being in need of unconditional love. We do not know what will happen to him, Todd Solondz apparently following the example of Federico Fellini, who told an interviewer that he did not like films in which everything was neatly tied together at the end. He believed that it was the duty of the filmmaker to present the problem clearly and from various angles and leave it to the audience to wrestle with it and find their own solutions afterward. Sounds very much like another parable maker of long ago, doesn’t it?