Oh, God! (1977)

This review includes many spoilers so as to explore in some detail the theme of faith, so you might want to see the film first, if you have not already. I am posting it now because it fits in well with one of the Scripture Lessons in the column “Lectionary Links,” featured in the July 2017 issue of Visual Parables.

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 38 min. Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1. Our star rating (1-5): 5

 Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;  our God is merciful.

The Lord protects the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me.

Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.

I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.

I kept my faith, even when I said, “I am greatly afflicted”;

I said in my consternation, ‘Everyone is a liar.’

Psalm 116:5-11

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Hebrews 11:1

And he marveled because of their unbelief.

Mark 4:6

 

Jerry at night-time again reads the note,

supposedly from God.   (c) Warner Bros.

Many people were put off by the title of Carl Reiner’s film when it was released in 1977. Most were soon put to ease when they saw the story unfold about God trying to reassure an anxious humanity (it was the height of the Cold War) that things would turn out all right if they would have faith and do the right thing.

In the film God’s means of calling a mild-mannered assistant produce manager, very much like “the simple” of Psalm 116, was not quite as eye-catching as a burning bush, but still miraculous. Jerry finds a note amongst the produce at the store where he is an assistant manager. It is type-written invitation claiming that God wanted to meet with him at a certain place. Thinking it a joke, he tries to get rid of it, but it keeps reappearing, including that night when he is in bed with his wife.

The next day he does go to the building, his meeting setting him forth on a seemingly impossible mission because it seems so preposterous. Claiming that God took the form of an old man wearing sneakers whenever they met–how could anyone accept that? Jerry, as played by John Denver, had trouble himself at first believing that the old man, ably portrayed by George Burns, was really God. Nor was it any easier accepting his call to go and tell others. Wouldn’t they think he was crazy?

God & Jerry at his supermarket. (c) Warner Bros.

Yes, they would. Jerry’s own wife and children think he has gone off the deep end. When he manages to get on the Dinah Shore Show, he is held up to ridicule. The TV anchors and pundits have a field day with him. And a panel of famous theologians and a TV evangelist are unconvinced when they interrogate him. God, however, is fed up with the smug, less than honest evangelist, so he has Jerry go to one of his televised services and attack him verbally. This leads to a court case against Jerry, initiated by the evangelist and his attorney. Again, Jerry is held up to ridicule, but this time, if the judge does not accept Jerry’s claims, there will be a costly penalty. The trial reaches its climax, with Jerry calling one witness (against the judge’s advice Jerry serves as his own attorney).

Jerry calls as his witness, and he pauses for a dramatic instant, “God.” Everyone looks back at the double-door of the courtroom. Nothing happens. There is a snicker among the crowd, but the judge is clearly not amused. Jerry argues that there was a moment when everyone must have expected someone, a brief instant when belief and doubt co-existed in their minds, because they all looked back at the doors. Thus, he should be given the benefit of the doubt, and the case against him dismissed, he argues. The judge is not only not convinced; he is tempted to cite Jerry for contempt of court!

And then the doors do open, and in walks the old man in sneakers, just as Jerry had described him, claiming to be God. God accepts the oath, swearing “so help me, Me,” and then proceeds to affirm both Jerry’s message and his goodness. When the evangelist’s lawyer tries to question God, he is told, “Sit down, Sonny!” The camera pointedly shows us the court recorder starting a tape recorder, as well as typing every word being spoken. After his brief testimony in which God again reassures humanity that they will be fine if they believe and do right (and he also does a card trick for the judge!), he walks down the aisle and exits through the doors.

A buzz spreads through the startled people in the courtroom. Only Jerry, and at last his wife who had questioned his sanity, are calm and pleased at what has transpired. The judge orders the plaintiff and the defendant into his chamber to discuss the case. He confesses that he is not sure what happened, especially when the court recorder cannot find any of the words of God on the tape and the typed transcript. We can hear during the playback the questions and remarks of all the humans, but where God supposedly spoke there is only silence. A check of the paper transcript also reveals only blank spaces at those places where God’s words should have been. The evangelist and his lawyer claim that this must all be a hoax or a hallucination. Jerry tells them that God had told him such would happen, that God cannot be captured or enclosed physically, that he came in human form only to accommodate our limited senses. His accusers refuse to accept this, of course. The judge, saying that they will probably never know what really happened in that courtroom, dismisses the case, and Jerry walks out a free man, both he and his wife believing that they had indeed encountered the living God.

I really enjoyed Avery Corman’s novel, on which the film is based, but it ends before God walks through the courtroom doors. Thus, when the film continued, I thought, “Oh no, here goes Hollywood, messing up a good novel–they couldn’t just end the film here. They had to prove to everyone that it was really God whom Jerry had met.” This feeling of disappointment continued–until the scene in the judge’s chambers, when no physical evidence could be provided for God’s presence. The people had only the evidence of their own senses, and they responded according to the nature of their character. The evangelist with his fake faith, so smug with his belief in a god made in the image of himself, refused to credit his own eyes and ears. The skeptical judge was at least open, but still not convinced. Only Jerry and his wife truly believed and left the courtroom changed by the experience.

The filmmakers accepted Avery Corman’s thesis that there is always ambiguity in faith, that the believer must choose whether or not to believe. The scriptwriter took the novelist’s biblical understanding a step further, showing us that God cannot be pinned down by our modern devices. God is far too big and tenuous (spiritual) for tape recorders, or any other technological device, by which we attempt to capture “Reality.” Thus Oh, God! stands in opposition to the many biblical spectaculars, such as Cecil B. DeMille’s’ The Ten Commandments, in which miracles are objectified for all to see and be convinced of God’s presence. The film seems to start out that way, with God acceding to Jerry’s request for a miracle to prove that he is really god: God causes it to rain inside Jerry’s car, while the sun is shining outside–but this is a private experience just for Jerry. Others, such as the traffic cop who stops him, could interpret the water as having been left over from a car wash through which he must have driven with his windows open.

Oh, God! reminds us that although “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” we must still choose to accept an experience, and that different people, such as those in the judge’s chambers, will react to a faith encounter in different ways, some accepting, and others rejecting the validity of the experience.

This review is adapted from the longer feature (it includes questions) “Praying the Movies” that appeared in the Oct. 2000 issue of Visual Parables.

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.

 

Oh, God! (1977)

I am reprinting this review of a delightful old film because the theme of the rejection of God’s messenger goes well with the Lectionary text—Mark 6:1-13—for July 5, 2015.

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 38 min. Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 0; Language 1 ; Sex/Nudity 1. Our star rating (1-5): 5

 Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful.

The Lord protects the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me.

Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.

 I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.

 I kept my faith, even when I said, “I am greatly afflicted”;

 I said in my consternation, “Everyone is a liar.”

Psalm 116:5-11

 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

  Hebrews 11:1

 And he marveled because of their unbelief.

Mark 4:6

InBedWifNote

Both Jerry and his wife think the note from God is a friend’s hoax when they read it.

All pictures (c) 1977 Warner Brothers

Many people were put off by the title of Carl Reiner’s film when it was released in 1977. Most were soon put to ease when they saw the story unfold about God trying to reassure an anxious humanity (it was the height of the Cold War) that things would turn out all right if they would have faith and do the right thing.

In the film, God’s means of conveying the message was troubling to most, a mild mannered assistant produce manager, very much like “the simple” of Psalm 116. Claiming that God took the form of an old man wearing sneakers whenever they met–how could anyone accept that? Jerry, as played by John Denver, had trouble himself at first believing that the old man, ably portrayed by George Burns, was really God. Nor was it any easier accepting his call to go and tell others. Wouldn’t they think he was crazy?

Yes, they would. Jerry’s own wife and children think he has gone off the deep end. When he manages to get on the Dinah Shore Show, he is held up to ridicule. The TV anchors and pundits have a field day with him. And a panel of famous theologians and a TV evangelist are unconvinced when they interrogate him. God, however, is fed up with the smug, less than honest evangelist, so he has Jerry go to one of his televised services and attack him. This leads to a court case against Jerry, initiated by the evangelist and his attorney. Again, Jerry is held up to ridicule, but this time, if the judge does not accept Jerry’s claims, there will be a costly penalty. The trial reaches its climax, with Jerry calling one witness (against the judge’s advice Jerry serves as his own attorney).

Jerry calls as his witness, and he pauses for a dramatic instant, “God.” Everyone looks back at the double-door of the courtroom. Nothing happens. There is a snicker among the crowd, but the judge is clearly not amused. Jerry argues that there was a moment when everyone must have expected someone, a brief instant when belief and doubt co-existed in their minds, because they all looked back at the doors. Thus he should be given the benefit of the doubt, and the case against him dismissed, he argues. The judge is not only not convinced; he is tempted to cite Jerry for contempt of court!

And then the doors do open, and in walks the old man in sneakers, just as Jerry had described him, claiming to be God. God accepts the oath, swearing “so help me, Me,” and then proceeds to affirm both Jerry’s message and his goodness.

SwearIn

When the evangelist’s lawyer tries to question God, he is told, “Sit down, Sonny!” The camera pointedly shows us the court recorder starting a tape recorder, as well as typing every word being spoken. After his brief testimony in which God again reassures humanity that they will be fine if they believe and do right (and he also does a card trick for the judge!), he walks down the aisle and exits through the doors.

A buzz spreads through the startled people in the courtroom. Only Jerry, and at last his wife who had questioned his sanity, are calm and pleased at what has transpired. The judge orders the plaintiff and the defendant into his chamber to discuss the case. He confesses that he is not sure what happened, especially when the court recorder cannot find any of the words of God on the tape and the typed transcript. We can hear during the playback the questions and remarks of all the humans, but where God supposedly spoke there is only silence. A check of the paper transcript also reveals only blank spaces at those places where God’s words should have been. The evangelist and his lawyer claim that this must all be a hoax or a hallucination. Jerry tells them that God had told him such would happen, that God cannot be captured or enclosed physically, that he came in human form only to accommodate our limited senses. His accusers refuse to accept this, of course. The judge, saying that they will probably never know what really happened in that courtroom, dismisses the case, and Jerry walks out a free man, both he and his wife believing that they had indeed encountered the living God.

I really enjoyed Avery Corman’s novel, on which the film is based, but it ends before God walks through the courtroom doors. Thus, when the film continued, I thought, “Oh no, here goes Hollywood, messing up a good novel–they couldn’t just end the film here. They had to prove to everyone that it was really God whom Jerry had met.” This feeling of disappointment continued–until the scene in the judge’s chambers, when no physical evidence could be provided for God’s presence. The people had only the evidence of their own senses, and they responded according to the nature of their character. The evangelist with his fake faith, so smug with his belief in a god made in the image of himself, refused to credit his own eyes and ears. The skeptical judge was at least open, but still not convinced. Only Jerry and his wife truly believed and left the courtroom changed by the experience.

The filmmakers accepted Avery Corman’s thesis that there is always ambiguity in faith, that the believer must choose whether or not to believe. The scriptwriter took the novelist’s biblical understanding a step further, showing us that God cannot be pinned down by our modern devices. God is far too “big” and tenuous (spiritual) for tape recorders, or any other technological device, by which we attempt to capture “Reality.” Thus Oh, God! stands in opposition to the many biblical spectaculars, such as Cecil B. DeMille’s’ The Ten Commandments, in which miracles are objectified for all to see and be convinced of God’s presence. The film seems to start out that way, with God acceding to Jerry’s request for a miracle to prove that he is really God: God causes it to rain inside Jerry’s car, while the sun is shining outside–but this is a private experience just for Jerry. Others, such as the traffic cop who stops him, could interpret the water as having been left over from a car wash through which he must have driven with his windows open.

Oh, God! reminds us that although “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” we must still choose to accept an experience, and that different people, such as those in the judge’s chambers, will react to a faith encounter in different ways, some accepting, and others rejecting the validity of the experience.

This review is taken from the longer feature “Praying the Movies” that appeared in the Oct. 2000 issue of Visual Parables.

A Serious Man (2009)

Rated R. Our contents ratings (0-10): Violence 1 ; Language 4; Sex/Nudity4. Running time: 1 hour 45 min.

Our star ratings (1-5): 4.5

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

            Job 2:1

Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?    Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

            Psalm 10:1

SMFamly

Larry Gopnik and his eccentric family.        (c) 2009 Focus Features

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen can always be counted on to deliver each year a film with provocative ideas. In Raising Arizona they presented us with two of society’s losers who try to become like other families by kidnapping a baby; in The Big Lebowski the world of slackers is dominated by the Dude; They provided a Southern fried version of Homer’s The Odyssey in their delightful O Brother, Where Art Thou. Who can forget Frances MacDormand’s underestimated law officer and William Stacey’s hapless villain in Fargo; or the lesson that the cop hero does not always get his man in No Country for Old Men? Indeed, their latest film, a black comedy, is almost as dark as the latter film. And it too, will become lodged in your memory with its unresolved questions, this film being for the Coen brothers what Crimes and Misdemeanors is for Woody Allen, a brave foray into the realm of theology raising the same questions that best the authors of Job and of Psalm 10. Like a modern day Job, Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is beset on all sides by troubles—his doctor is concerned and wants to run more tests on him. At his college he might not attain tenure because a failing student who had unsuccessfully tried to bribe him is sending anonymous messages denouncing him. When the chair of the faculty tenure committee peeks into Larry’s office to inform him on the “Q.T.” about this, he tells him not to worry about this, that he is sure the committee will not be swayed by the charge. Not to worry? Either the guy is naïve and dumb, or he is a sadist who loves to see another person squirm. He is as much help as one of the so-called comforters of Job! But these are just the beginning. Larry’s wife Judith (Sari Lennick) tells him she wants a divorce so she can marry Sy (Fred Melamed), a mutual friend. Sy has been leaving him messages at the office (along with a persistent bill collector from the Columbia Record Club) asking that they meet “to talk.” Apparently it is his relationship with Judith that is to be the subject. When the three do at last get together, Sy, like a smooth snake oil peddler, tries to ease Larry out of his house so that he can give up his apartment at a senior’s home and move in with Judith, and she wants their break-up to be reasonable so that she can obtain a ritual divorce and stay in good standing at their synagogue. Speaking of house, I have yet to mention good ole Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind), who sleeps on their couch because he has some kind of mental and health problems and occupies the one bathroom almost 24/7, much to the consternation of the rest of the family. Especially daughter who is saving her money in order to obtain a nose job so she will not look so ethnic. She in turn is constantly at war with 13 year-old Danny who has taken $20 of her money, and he gets in trouble at Hebrew school because he is caught listening to Jefferson Airplane (the time is the 1970s) on his pocket radio/recorder. He also lives in mortal fear that he will mess up his up-coming Bar Mitzvah. Oh yes, brother Arthur gets into deep trouble with the law, and there is also a hostile anti-Semitic next door neighbor who wants to claim part of Larry’s yard, and that Columbia Records Club rep, plus two layers whom he consults, both expensive, and– Larry seeks counsel from his rabbi, but the old man is too busy to see anyone, so the harried petitioner has to settle for a young assistant who seems more a student of pop psychology and self-help books than of the Torah. Then he goes to another rabbi, and when that encounter yields only what is supposedly a Middrash-type story about a dentist and a patient with “Help Me” engraved on his teeth, Larry can only ask in anguish why God gives us questions that have no answers. He almost gets to his knees to see the senior rabbi back at his own synagogue, and what an encounter that turns out to be, along with a later meeting between the cleric and Danny! Larry’s story is laced with a gallows-type humor, but he affirms to the rabbi that he is a serious man, trying to do good, and yet here he is beset with difficulties beyond his understanding or strength. As an Everyman, Larry asks those questions that we all ask sooner or later when faced with the absurdity and tragedy of events. This is a film that Federico Fellini would admire, I believe, because of the unresolved ending. In an interview the great Italian director said that he did not like films that ended with everything neatly tied together because that left the audience off the hook. They would think that the problems of the protagonists were not so difficult if all of them could be solved so easily. The Coen brothers’ film ends with lots of questions (very much like John Sayles’ Alaska-based tale Limbo), leaving the audience very much up in the air wrestling with the same questions that beset Larry—and Job. (You will see what I mean by this when you watch the very last scene.) This review with a set of discussion questions is in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Visual Parables.

Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 33 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 0; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (0-5): 4

 Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”

Psalm 14:1a

Seance

While skeptical Stanley watches Sophie leads a seance to contact the spirit of a dead husband. (c) 2014 Sony Pictures Classics

Woody Allen revisits spiritual issues he explored in Crimes & Misdemeanors in this his 44th film. The scene has shifted from the late 1980s Manhattan to the late 1920s Provence, France, but Allen’s concern with the possibility of the existence of a spiritual world, and thus of God, is raised again—something he has not done for quite a while in the more frothy comedies of recent years.

It is 1928 and Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) a stage magician elaborately made up with slanted eyes and a Fu Manchu mustache and richly costumed as Wei Ling Soo, wows a large audience again in Berlin with such tricks as a disappearing elephant, sawing a comely assistant in half, and transporting himself from a closed booth to a chair some ten feet away. Among the admirers who congratulate him backstage is Howard (Simon McBurney), a fellow magician who has always looked up to him.

The super rationalist Stanley’s avocation has been to unmask fake mediums and spiritualists, so Howard asks him to help in exposing Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), an American clairvoyant who has mesmerized members of a wealthy Pittsburgh family now residing in Provence. The mother Grace Catledge (Jackie Weaver) hopes to connect with her dead husband through Sophie, whereas her foppish son Brice (Hamish Linklater), has fallen madly in love with her, frequently serenading her while singing off-key and strumming a ukulele, promising her endless bliss. Howard says that he has studied Sophie during her séances but can discover no trickery.

Posing as a businessman, Stanley accompanies his friend to the estate of his wise Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) and then to that of The Catledges’. He first sees how beautiful Sophie is, but also is certain that she is a fake. Each of their encounters becomes sort of a duel of wits, and when, during a séance the candle rises above the table, Howard grabs it, suprisedly exclaiming that it really is floating without any visible support. Stanley is impressed, but all the more determined to show up Sophie as a fraud.

However, over the next few days, he grows more impressed with her beauty, and during a convenient rainstorm, his romantic feelings toward her increase when they take refuge in the old observatory he had often visited as a boy when living with his Aunt. (Of course, it is unlocked, no fear of vandals or thieves in Allen’s fairty tale-like Provence.) Then, when Sophie reveals some facts about his past, “known only to God,” as Stanley puts it, he becomes a believer. His arrogant certainty that the spiritual universe does not exist is replaced by an unfamiliar humility as he admits that he has been wrong for most of his life.

There is a very tender scene when, his beloved Aunt Vanessa hovering between life and death as a result of an auto accident, Stanley sits and begins to pray. It begins like one of those fox hole prayers of desperation, Stanely admitting he has not been on a familiar basis with God or whomever. But just as he is ready to submit to a Higher Power, his old rationalistic mindset kicks in, and the moment of faith slips away. This scene reminded me of what C.S. Lewis wrote in his satirical book The Screwtape Letters, the whimsical series of letter exchanged between a senior devil in Hell, who gives his name to the book, and his nephew Wormwood. The latter is a novice devil assigned to destroy the soul of a human being on earth. When his unnamed target joins a church, the worried novice writes to Screwtape whose advice is not to worry, that some of his best conquests have been staunch church members. He tells Wormwood that when the newly pious man is saying his prayers that he should distract him by something, such as, in church drawing to his attention the squeak of someone’s shoes walking down the aisle. Or, as he is pondering faith and making a commitment, to plant the thought that this is too important to decide now, that he should go to lunch and decide later. At the moment that Stanley reverts to his old cynical self I could imagine old Screwtape saying, “Well done, well done. You’ve pulled back another victim from a life of faith in that obnoxious Creator!”

Woody Allen’s film is a wonderful blend of strong performances; gorgeous scenery photographed in almost glowing colors by Darius Khondji; sumptuous period costumes (no doubt bound to be mentioned at Oscar times); shiny, sleek roadsters that will make vintage car lovers drool; and well chosen pop songs of the time, plus short portions of Stravinsky, Ravel and Beethoven.

Cole Porter’s “You Do Something For Me” is an apt theme song, with it’s lines that decsribe so well Stanley’s reaction to Sophia, “Let me live ‘neath your spell./Do do that vodoo that you do so well. /For you do something to me/That nobody else can do.” The film might not be nearly as profound as Crimes & Misdemeanors, but it does attain the high level of Blue Jasmine, and well worth your time, both to watch and discuss.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September 2014 issue of Visual Parables.

 

Contact (1997)

Rated PG. Running time: 2 hours 30 min.

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

 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things
not seen.

Hebrews 11: 1

Contact2

The camera takes us on a faster than light trip through the universe in the film’s opening 4 minutes. (c) Warner Brothers

Ellie Arroway and Palmer Joss are both concerned with truth and ultimate meaning, but they take different paths in their search. Ellie is the scientist, a fervent believer in rationality; Palmer a spiritual leader following the way of faith. When Ellie was a little girl her curiosity was fostered by her father, who bought her a telescope. She was hooked forever on the stars and on the possibility that there was intelligent life out there. When he died during her ninth year she could not accept the well-meaning consolation of the pastor: “We just have to accept some things.” Even at that young age hers is the response of the person of reason, “We should have kept some of his medicine downstairs.”

Jody Foster plays the scientist, following her yearning down an unpopular road shunned by lesser scientists willing to go where the publicity – and the grants are. She has to beg and borrow to gain time on the radio telescopes so essential to her research. She has a brief romantic encounter with Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), but they clash over beliefs. He tells her, “I’m not against technology. I’m just against those who deify it at the expense of their fellow man.” It will be a long time before she understands this, and comes to see how much “faith” is involved in her own world-view. She and Palmer talk about God, Ellie declaring, “I need proof.”
Palmer asks, “Did you love your father? .. Prove it.” Palmer’s beliefs are never explicated; he comes across as a somewhat facile-tongued – New Age guru with friends in high places (he is supposed to be a Presidential adviser in spiritual matters).
And he apparently can be hoodwinked: as a member of the international panel to choose the person who will travel in an interstellar device, he votes against Ellie because she honestly states her disbelief in God. Instead, he chooses the National Science Adviser, Ellie’s former mentor who has been trying to take credit for her work and is willing to tell people what they want to hear.

Good scenes for teaching/preaching:

-The opening shots in which the camera recedes from the earth and we hear current television sound tracks. As we move past Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and beyond Jupiter, the soundtracks are from older programs, and when we see the Solar System receding ever farther, we hear radio broadcasts (including F.D.R.). We emerge from our galaxy, and there is silence, and we continue our cosmic journey beyond a cluster of galaxies. Right from the beginning we know that we are embarking on a cinematic voyage of extraordinary beauty and challenge!

-Ellie volunteers to go on the alien-designed space vessel. The worried Palmer asks her, “Why?” Her reply is that of all people of courage, scientists and saints, it is to meet the challenge of the
unknown and toanswer the question of why are we here? “If I can only find a little of the answer, it’s worth  human life. It’s worth it.”

-Ellie’s sense of awe during her journey. Any difference here from that of Psalm 8?

The hearing when Ellie, returned from her journey, is faced with the skepticism of her inquisitors because she has no “hard evidence” to support her account. At bottom, are science and religion
so far apart?

– The beautiful ending in which we see Ellie sitting quietly meditating underneath the panoply of stars. The film’s conclusion reminds me of the last scene of Inherit the Wind in which the lawyer who is the Clarence Darrow stand-in picks up his copy of the Bible and Darwin’s ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES, looks at each, seeming to weigh them in each hand, brings them together, and places both, side by side, into his brief case.

Director Robert Zemickis has left in the dust the purveyors of summer thrillers with their violence with his newest film. Contact is a thriller, but the thrills are of the mind and of the spirit, not the crude pyrotechnics and car/plane/boat chases of the summer competition. If you see but one film this season, CONTACT should be it!

Philomena (2013)

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

Our Advisories: Violence 4; Language -1; Sex/Nudity –1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.

            Psalm 72.4

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church* sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven* times.

Matthew 18:21-22

Vist2Convnt

Philomena and Martin seek clues for the fate of her lost son at the convent where 50 years earlier she had given birth to him, only to have him given up for adoption without her consent.
(c) 2013 The Weinstein Company

Director Stephen Frears, best known for his The Queen, Mrs. Henderson Presents, and Dangerous Liaisons, gives us his best film yet—and Judi Dench presents us with perhaps the best of a long string of great performances. Although overshadowed by the huge blockbusters, this film—no doubt to become a part of the Oscar buss soon—will be around and cherished long after the mega-producers have ceased counting their hundreds of millions in box office receipts. Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s screenplay is based on Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, a story as filled with grace and forgiveness as it is of oppression and institutional cruelty.

The film at the very beginning brings together the strands of three stories:

1. That of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) dealing with his dismissal from a post in Tony Blair’s administration, amidst charges of scandal, and his attempt to restart his career in journalism.

2. Retired nurse Philomena Lee, holding a picture of a toddler boy and, musing guiltily over the events, and, on the day of his birth, deciding to tell her daughter Jane (Michelle Fairley) her secret story of how Anthony, as she had named him, was taken from her.

3. Frequent flashbacks to the young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) meeting and having a one night stand with a boy; of her father abandoning her to the cruelties of life in an Irish convent run by overly moralistic nuns who showed her no sympathy.

Jane, working as a server at a catered party, overhears one of the guests, Martin talking about his journalistic ambitions, tells him about her mother in the hope that he might help her find out what happened to her son. However, Sixsmith, a former BBC correspondent and bureau chief, has his heart set on “serious” journalism, not what he condescendingly calls “feature story” writing, so he blows her off. He would like to write a book on Russian history, but the lack of enthusiasm from those to whom he mentions the project makes him aware that this is not the way to go. Talking over with his wife Jane’s invitation, he makes an appointment at a restaurant to meet the mother and daughter.

He is upset by Philomena’s story in which the nuns, believing that she is a depraved girl, dismiss her terrible childbirth pains with, “Pain is her penance.” She and the other Magdalene girls are forced to work in the laundry to pay off their care, allowed to see their infants for just one hour a day. Then, when Anthony is three, the nuns sell him to a wealthy couple without any warning or the opportunity to say goodbye. The one bright spot in her incarceration was a young sympathetic nun who managed to take a picture of the boy and give to her on the sly. Through the years this small framed photograph had become like a holy icon, bringing Philomena a measure of comfort, even a tiny pleasure, as she takes it out and gazes at it.

Martin, backed by his editor at a newspaper, agrees to accompany her for still another visit to the convent in County Tipperary, Ireland. The two are received courteously at the convent, but are told that they do not have any further information because the old records had been destroyed in a fire. When Martin continues to push the matter, suggesting that they be allowed to talk to the older nuns to see if they remember anything, the nun curtly dismisses him so that she can talk privately with Philomena. Noticing through a window a dour old nun, he tries to enter and talk with her, but is prevented by the staff from doing so. He goes outside and comes across a graveyard. It is filled with the graves of unnamed babies, as well as of several mothers who had perished in childbirth. The nuns had not bothered to tend the graves, all of which are covered over with vines and weeds.

Discouraged, the two return to the village inn, but there in the pub Martin learns that they have been lied to by the nuns. The fire was a bonfire, the bar tender informs him, with the nuns themselves burning all of the old records. They also learn that American parents probably had adopted Anthony. Clearly the convent is not well liked by the villagers.

Deciding to go to America, Philomena experiences culture shock—you probably saw in the trailer her express her fear that Anthony might be overweight—because of the large portions of food they serve in America. Thanks to his journalistic contacts and his trusty laptop computer, he learns the truth about Anthony, who had been given a new name by his adoptive parents. There are several surprises in store for the two, as well as for viewers, so we will go no further with the story—only to say that it is a powerful one that deals with faith and forgiveness as much as with the solving of a the puzzle of a lost son’s fate.

The film reminds me a bit of Les Miserables in that it can be seen and discussed as one contrasting two ways of life—that of grace and forgiveness as opposed to one of clinging to past wrongs and refusing to forgive. Martin and Philomena both grew up in the Catholic Church, but whereas Martin now has given up his belief in God, Philomena’s faith is even deeper than when she was young. Martin refuses to forgive the church, and the nun in particular, Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford), whose cruelty so hurt his friend. Philomena, on the other hand, still goes to confession and loves the church, able even to offer the now aged but unrepentant nun forgiveness. Philomena is free from the bitterness and dour outlook on life that plague Martin.

It would be nice to be able to write that forgiveness softens all hearts, but the rigidly moral nun still believes that it was Philomena, not herself, who is guilty of mortal sin. Martin loses his cool and lashes out like an Old Testament prophet. If Philomena’s naïve faith has softened his atheism a bit, the nuns’ cruelty—their past wrongs against Philomena are added to by a new, incredibly cruel, one—quickly confirms his contempt for any and all religion, thus illustrating an old observation that the church has created more atheists than all other causes combined.

Despite the heaviness of the drama, Stephen Frear’s film is much lighter than the similarly themed Magdalene Sisters (2002). The script (co-written by actor Steve Coogen) plays on the class differences between the Oxford-educated Martin and the lower class Philomena. He quotes T.S. Elliot, whereas she goes on almost endlessly telling him the plot of a bodice-ripping novel she tries to get him to read. In fact, their status as odd-couple friends is confirmed by the ending when the last words we hear are her reciting again the plot of her favorite novel while he listens in silence.

The film also has many moments of grace that makes it a shoo-in for Visual Parables’ Top Ten Film list. One of them is when the couple are still in Washington DC at the airport, about to give up because the trail has gone cold. Reporting this to his editor back in London, the response is negative. She orders him to convince Philomena to keep up the quest. He is clearly reluctant to do so, seeing what pain she is in. He says nothing about his phone conversation. It is Philomena who decides they must go back into the city, thus relieving him greatly. Later, when she is highly troubled, his humanity is affirmed even more when he tells her that he will not write the story, quite an offer for a journalist to make!

This opportunity to see two actors at the top of their form is not to be missed!

The full review with discussion questions will be included in the January 2014 issue of Visual Parables, scheduled for posting early that month. To subscribe to the publication go to the Store. A year’s subscription will gain you access not just to this issue (which has far more features in it than just film reviews and guides), but also to issues as far back as Summer 2006.