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.

Life During Wartime (2009)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 38 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,vanity of vanities!

All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?

Ecclesiastes 1:1-3

Can Ethiopians change their skin or leopards their spots?

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

Jeremiah 13:23

Trish has kept from son Tmmy that his father is not dead but in prison for pedophilia. (c) IFC Films

Compared to writer/director Todd Solondz, Qoheleth and Jeremiah are cock-eyed optimists. In his 2009 film, which I just caught on cable TV, Solondz paints a bleak, pessimistic view of human beings that seems to be a cinematic version of the old Puritan doctrine of the total depravity of humankind. The film is both a sequel to and sort of a remake of his 1998 film about a suburban Jewish family, ironically named Happiness, one that seemed to me to be a tad more optimistic than this dirge. Strangely enough, the filmmaker abandoned the excellent original cast, with even the race of one of the original characters being changed from white to black. Thus, I am not sure that it matters if you have not seen the original, though for anyone admiring the work of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, the 1998 one is a “must see film.”

Life opens about ten years after Happiness, reuniting us with three sisters, Joy (Shirley Henderson), Trish (Allison Janney), and Helen (Ally Sheedy), though the latter appears in just one scene. As in Happiness, many of the scenes take place in restaurants. The scene opens in one in which Joy’s black husband Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) is trying to reconcile with her. He promises, “No more cocaine. No more crack. No more crack-cocaine.” The fed-up Joy’s resolve is weakening before this earnest pleading, but then the waitress comes up to take their order. Apparently recognizing Allen from news reports as a sexual predator, she spits at him and walks away. Joy questions him, and he admits that he has not quite reformed as much as claimed. Maybe he still acts on his passion a little bit, but only “On Sunday.”

Joy’s older sister Trish (Allison Janney) has left their family home in New Jersey so that her sons and little daughter can escape the notoriety caused by the sentencing of their therapist father Bill to prison for his sexual preying upon the friends of Billy. The 13-year-old son Timmy (Dylan Riley) is still at home, and Billy (Chris Marquette) is away at college. Timmy, getting ready for his bar mitzvah, has grown up with the story that his father has died.

Trish, getting back into the dating game again, dines with Harvey (Michael Lerner), a pudgy businessman emerging from a bitter divorce battle. She is delighted that he is so “noooormal,” compared to her convicted pedophile husband. This is the quality she describes to the curious Timmy, along with her sexual arousal by Harvey’s merely touching her arm. However, later, when Timmy, learning from school friends who have discovered through Google that his father is alive and serving a prison sentence for pedophilia, she puts a very different spin on touching. Timmy is worried that he might turn out like his father— “I don’t want to be a faggot.” His mother assures him that is not the case. The boy presses her for what happens during sexual contact between two males, and her clumsy response is both absurd and tragic. The latter because, in trying to reassure him that he is safe, she warns him that if ever a man should touch him, he should scream. This will have unintended consequences later in what begins as a tender scene but climaxes with her dream for a new start in family life shattered beyond repair.

After her break-up with Allen, Joy abandons her altruistic work with flies first to Florida, and then to Los Angeles where sister Helen (Ally Sheedy) is a successful writer for television. They talk about forgiving and forgetting, but Helen is still so scarred from her past that she cannot really help Joy. She is unable to focus on anyone else and their troubles because of her unhappy self-centeredness. Joy is continually haunted by appearances of her dead lover Andy (Paul Reubens), who has committed suicide.

Interspersed throughout the sister scenes are those of the imprisoned pedophile Bill (Ciaran Hinds, much grimmer in the role than was Philip Seymour Hoffman). Paroled from prison, he travels from New Jersey to Florida in the forlorn hope of relating again to his oldest son Billy. Along the way, he drinks alone at his hotel bar where he makes eye contact with the middle-aged Jacqueline (Charlotte Rampling)

who obviously is on the prowl. They engage in conversation and in loveless sex. The guilt-ridden Bill raises the issue of forgive and forget with the woman, who calls herself a monster. Her callous replies bear out her self-designation, her final comment being that forgiveness is for losers. He rises first the next morning and searches through her purse for money. She awakens and, her voice fil cynicism directs him to the roll of bills tucked in a corner.

This theme of forgive and forget a rises numerous times throughout the film. Timmy’s paper that he is to read at his bar mitzvah connects becoming a man to forgiveness. Joy and Helen had discussed it, as did Trish and Timmy. Her son is so strongly pro-forgiveness, declaring that he would forgive even terrorists, that his surprised mother asks, “Are you saying you would forgive the 9/11 terrorists?” The very practical boy replies, “Well, no, not those terrorists because they’re dead.” When Harvey accepts Trish’s dinner invitation so he can meet Billy, he brings his grown son Mark (Rich Pecci), who has a mild case of Asperger’s syndrome that he becomes a drag on the table conversation. However, alone with Timmy, he shares his philosophy that people cannot change. Can you forgive the attacker who punches you in the face? One of the terrorist setting the off the explosions they see on TV? Of course, the two being Jews, Hitler? And bringing it closer to the boy, “Your father?” For Mark “forgive and forget make absolutely nonsense.

The last we, or anyone in the film, see of Bill is his brief visit to his son in Billy’s dorm room. It is a tense confrontation, with the father seeking forgiveness and the son too surprised to respond in a meaningful way. When Bill asks questions about the lad liking girls and dating, he is relieved to see that he had come to assure himself that he was not like him, that the boy was not doomed to repeat his mistakes. When it is obvious that Billy is not going to embrace him and his offer to reconcile, he leaves. Billy hesitates for a moment, then rushes out into the hallway. It is empty. Whatever he might have wanted to say or do, it is too late.

Timmy does read his speech at his bar mitzvah. All but Bill are there. All, that is, but Harvey, and we will leave it to you to discover why. The film ends a little later on a poignant note. Timmy is deeply sorry for what he has done. In a conversation with his mother, he says, “I don’t care about freedom and democracy. I just want my father.” Some have said this film is about the three sisters, and one reviewer thought it was about the pedophile father. But this, added to a clip scattered through the film, shows that Timmy is the focus of the film’s maker. In the clip the camera slowly pans over a lovely tree and flower lined pond until, ad end of the water we see a boy, out of focus. Only at the end is the figure in focus. It is, of course, Timmy.

This is not an easy film to watch. I came close to giving up about a third of the way in., Solondz’s take on life is so dark, and his view of his characters and their acts is ambiguous. Does he want to laugh, as I clearly remember many did during a scene in Happiness that to me was tragic, and thus warranted a sympathetic tear? Does he mock them because he despises them, as some critics have suggested? I do not know. Only that the film raises the important theme of love, of forgiveness and forgetting in powerful ways. This is one film you ought not to watch alone. From the many reviews that I have read (I’ve never consulted so many as for this one!), it seems that the film is like a Rorschach test, the response to it depending upon the viewers’ experience and values. If you are one who appreciates the dark insights of Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes, you probably can take this film. And by seeing it with others, you will be enriched by the reactions and insights of your fellow viewers.

 Note: You might want to compare the way that a pedophile is depicted in another film, Nicole Kassell’s far more positive 2004 film The Woodsman, starring Kevin Bacon as a recently released pedophile struggling against his dark urges while being harassed by the cop who originally arrested him and now hoping to catch him in another act and thus be sent away for good.

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

La La Land (2016)

There could be spoilers in the last two paragraphs, so if you have not seen the film, you might want to read them later.

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 8 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!

Psalm 150:3-4

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture,

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

James 2:8 (Lev. 2:18)

Let each of you look not to your own interests,

but to the interests of others.

Philippians 2:4


One of many beautiful shots of the lovers in this enchanting film.              (c) Summit/Lionsgate

Three years ago, Damien Chazelle’s acclaimed Whiplash dealt with a dedicated jazz student bullied by his demanding drum teacher. His new film is also about a would-be jazz musician (a pianist), but this time the whole film is a musical, indeed one that re-introduces the musical to audiences, and in a sense, re-invents the genre. The bittersweet plot, especially the conclusion, makes the title a very ironical one. “Romantic” and “La La Land” are synonymous in the minds of many folk, but this film might change their opinion, and even lead those who dislike musicals because “Real people don’t just break out in song like that” to think again.

Set in Hollywood (indeed many scenes unfold in a coffee shop, studios, and audition rooms on Warner Bother’s back lot), the film is episodic. Spanning more than 5-years, its 5 segments named after the 4 seasons, the film begins with “Winter” and ends with it. In the pre-credits opening four rows of cars are backed up on a Los Angeles freeway over-pass. Mia (Emma Stone), dressed in an eye-catching yellow dress, gets out of her car and sings “Another Day of Sun.” She is quickly joined by others. Soon, a hundred commuters are singing, doing daring flips, and dancing around and on top of their cars. It’s a mesmerizing scene as the camera reveals the vastness of the blue sky, the city stretched out below, and the mountains surrounding it. When the traffic starts to move, Mia is slow to step on the gas. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), in the car behind her, impatiently honks his horn, and then when she does move on, he pulls around her, and she gives him the finger.

At Warner Brothers Mia works as a barista at the coffee parlor, dashing off from time to time for an audition. She is treated like dirt by those conducting the auditions, one even taking a phone call during her dramatic emoting. At the apartment she shares with three other aspiring actresses, she resists at first their invitation to go with them to another pool party to mingle and make connections. Giving in and going, she finds herself in no mood to engage in empty conversation (The song is “Someone in the Crowd.”) so she leaves.

Sebastian is an idealistic jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own night spot where jazz fans can congregate. Unfortunately, jazz is a shrinking genre, so he supports himself by playing old standards at weddings and parties. An admirer of Miles Davis and a frequent patron of a jazz spot called The Light House, he has a steady job at a club, but the owner (J.K. Simmons) insists that he play only standards fit to accompany cocktail drinking. One night during the Christmas season, apparently fed up with the usual seasonal pop music, Sebastian improvises a song, which in the rest of the movie will be a signature for him. It is the kind that calls attention to itself, thus distracting patrons from their drinking and conversing. The angry owner fires the pianist on the spot. Trying to appeal to his better nature, Sebastian reminds him it is Christmas, to which the Scrooge-hearted boss replies, “Yeah, I see the decorations. Good luck in the New Year.”

Meanwhile, on the street just outside the club, Mia, having left her friends at the party, is drawn by the faint strains of Sebastian’s song. Entering, she sees the owner talking with Sebastian, but she cannot hear them. As the pianist turns to leave, she smiles and strides forward to meet him, obviously wanting to compliment him. Ignoring her, he rudely bumps her as he rushes out of the club, leaving us to wonder, “When they will ever meet?”

They do, at a party where he is playing at which she baits him by requesting an inane song. Despite this, they begin a friendship that blossoms into romance (Song, “A Lovely Night.). Later, after a date to see Rebel Without a Cause (that almost does not happen), their night stroll turns into a wonderful dance routine in Griffith Park when Mia, sitting on a bench, reaches into her bag and changes from heels to spectator shoes—which, of course, matches Sebastian’s. Suddenly the ordinary changes into the fantastical as they dance in perfect synch, enter the Observatory (no problem getting into the closed facility, this now being a fantasy), and continue to dance through its cavernous main hall. Turning on the planetarium’s projector, they gaze up into a star-studded sky in which several galaxies also can be seen. In the magic of the moment their feet leave the ground, the pair now swirling amidst the stars. An awe-inspiring moment possible only in such a musical.

She moves in with him, even though they look at their art in different ways. Sebastian is totally committed to jazz, even though he knows it is no longer popular. Mia disputes his affirmation that he should play even if almost no one shows up. Art requires an audience, she believes. When she shares the humiliation she has gone through at her auditions, he encourages her to write her own material and produce it. She quits her barista job and stays home to do just that, eventually mounting a one-woman play.

Ironically, Sebastian decides to go for the money, joining his friend Keith’s (John Legend) band “The Messengers.” The money is good, but the music, while tuneful, is far short of what he had dreamt of playing. When Mia attends a session that the large crowd is enjoying, we can see by her face that she is saddened to see him sell out. Also, the band often is on the road, causing long separations.

What happens on the opening night of Mia’s play is heartbreaking at first, leading to their break-up, and yet eventually resulting in unexpected success for her. What amounts to a long coda takes place 5 years later and includes a thrilling fantasy dance sequence of “what might have been.” It is an energetic, gorgeously staged production that would have climaxed the old style of boy-meets-girl musicals. Damien Chazelle gives us the best of two worlds. His film’s title references both the idea of being out of touch with reality and the nickname that cynical writers gave to Los Angeles in general and Hollywood in particular. Mia and Sebastian might live in Hollywood, but no longer are they in La La Land.

The director/writer has assembled a terrific crew, his friend Justin Hurwitz composing the music (also for Whiplash), and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul wrote the lyrics. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren captures the dance sequences and the sites of Los Angeles in glowing color reminiscent of the old big studio musicals—he even shoots in Cinemascope, a favorite format of the 50s musicals and spectacular adventure/historical films. He also harks back to the 20s and 30s by using several iris shots, the technique which opens or closes on a character in a circle, the rest of the screen blacked out. Costume designer Mary Zophres’s lollypop-colored dresses for the women also take us back to those grand old 50s musicals.

But of course, it is Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling to whom much of the credit for the film’s success is due. They are utterly charming and move across the screen in their dance numbers with a grace that seems effortless. She is the better singer, but if you liked Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire’s singing, you will enjoy Ryan’s as well. They don’t have the long period of training that the old stars had, so their dancing might fall a bit short, but you will not think about this while watching their beautiful moves. This is another film that demonstrates how beautiful the human body is in motion, and more than doubly so when two dance side by side. I know that the Psalmist was referring to liturgical dance, but I think that the dancers in a musical also bring praise to the One who designed and created the human body.

The film demonstrates well the theme of the importance of support in achieving dreams, each of the lovers strengthening the other during moments of despair. But for Sebastian, Mia would have dropped out of show business. Thanks to his wise advice, she focuses her attention on her basic talent of writing. But for Mia, Sebastian might have continued to play music he disliked, the good money making up for the guilt and disappointment he would have harbored resulting from his giving up his dream. And their Eros love morphs into the love of neighbor enjoined by Scripture, each of them following the dictum of the apostle Paul about looking to the interest of others before their own. It is this which leads to the bittersweet ending. We are not shown what happened during the five-year interval mentioned in the coda, nor is this needed. By this we see that Damien Chazelle respects the intelligence of his audience.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Jan. 2017 issue of VP. If you find this and other reviews helpful, please support the site by buying an issue or taking out a year’s subscription at the store.


What’s Cooking? (2000)

This is one of 3 films from VP’s archives recommended for Thanksgiving viewing.

(Also see Avalon & Broadway Danny Rose.)

Rated PG-13   Running time : 1 hour 41 min.

Our content rating: V- 1; L – 3; S/N-2.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

Ecclesiastes 3:13


The answer to the question in the title is “Plenty!”  Filmmaker Gurinder Chadha serves up one of the most delicious banquets of a film since The Big Night, or Babette’s Feast. Set in Los Angeles, just before and during Thanksgiving, the film shows us a Thanksgiving that has not ever appeared before on the screen. It is a multi-cultural Thanksgiving, from the children’s school Thanksgiving Pageant that opens the film, to the dishes served alongside the traditional turkey, as well as the people sitting around the tables. Miss Chadha is a Kenyan-born Englishwoman married to Los Angeleno Paul Mayeda Berges (who wrote the screenplay), so she brings an outsider’s fresh perspective to the American holiday. Her fascination with and love for this uniquely American celebration shows in the wonderful way that the food is photographed and the fact that we enter not one, but four, households where the family gathers together around the biggest meal of the year. The families are African American (with two yuppie guests), Vietnamese, Latino, and Jewish.

There are so many characters in the four families that the following annotated list might prove helpful:

The Williams Family: Audrey Williams (Affre Woodard) is a bit flustered because her mother-in-law Grace keeps criticizing her dishes and preparations. Grace is anything but that, and yet she comes through when a table accident almost spoils the perfectionist Audrey’s dishes. Audrey is also understandably worried that her husband Ronald, a workaholic spin doctor, is keeping back a terrible secret from her. She’s concerned too that their grown son Michael has not showed up. When he does, however, his criticism of his father’s working for a conservative white governor poses still another threat to his mother’s carefully planned gathering. Complicating this is the presence of the white couple whom Audrey has invited because they live too far away to return to their own family.

The Avila Family: Elizabeth Avila (Mercedes Ruehl) teaches school and is a newly single mother, adding tamales and other Latino dishes to her carefully prepared turkey. Her married son Anthony, meeting his father at the supermarket and worried at how bad he looks, invites him to the dinner, in the hope that his parents will reconcile. He has no idea what a potentially explosive situation he has created because of a special guest his mother has invited. Gina is the college-student daughter who has invited her new Asian boyfriend to dinner. Imagine her embarrassment when the only topic for conversation with her guest her brother and father can think of is Bruce Lee. Javier (Victor Rivers) is the father whose adultery has exiled him from his house. He now realizes what he has lost and is repentant–but is it too late?

The Seelig Family: Ruth (Lainie Kazan) and her husband Herb (Maury Chaykin) are Jewish parents who want their single daughter Rachel (Kyra Sedgwick) to marry and be happy, like their other children. Rachel, however, has chosen as her life-partner Carla (Julia Marguilies), who graciously agrees to go along with the fiction that they are just roommates. Ruth and Herb realize there is more between the two young women but cannot stand to confront the truth about Rachel. Rachel’s siblings are supportive of her decision, but they all worry about their naive Aunt Bea (Estelle Harris), who is so naive that she cannot see Rachel’s discomfort over her insistent questioning of why Rachel is not married yet.

The Nguyen Family:  Trinh Nguyen (Joan Chen), a recent and proud immigrant, is having great difficulty coping with her children’s adopting American ways. They all work to make their video store a success, but when she finds a condom in the pocket of her daughter Jenny’s (Kristy Wu) clothing, she jumps to the conclusion that it is for her Anglo boyfriend. And hidden under the bed of son Gary (Jimmy Pham) is a secret that will really traumatize Trinh. Then there is Jimmy (Will Yun Lee), a student at a near-by college, who claims he is too busy to come home for the family gathering.

The above are just the principals in the four family gatherings, some of whom are joined together in unsuspected ways, but all by the desire that their families come together in something resembling peace and harmony on this one day. The food is lovingly photographed by Jong Lin, whose exquisite photography of the food in “Eat Drink Man Woman” so captivated audiences. With such artists behind and before the camera, Gurinder Chadha succeeds in giving us a film that is as pleasing to the eye as to the mind and spirit. “What’s Cooking?” has something for every family that sees it–family loyalty and betrayal; misunderstandings and efforts to reconcile; love and anger–all are there, along with a delicious looking array of food that will remind everyone of their own Thanksgiving meals. The families are from different cultures yet united in their celebration of the holiday that brings families together, whether its members want to or not. Each begins their feast by offering thanks, a brief ritual that reminds even the skeptical that they do indeed have much to be thankful for.

Food has always been an important part of life and faith–Abraham and Sarah’s hosting the three strangers, with momentous results; the Passover meal; the manna in the wilderness; the wedding at Cana; the feeding of the 5000; and the Last Supper. Jesus did affirm the ancient Scriptural declaration that “humans do not live by bread alone” (too bad Martha in her kitchen didn’t hear this), but he did nonetheless enjoy a good meal, even inviting himself to dinner at the sinning Zacchaeus’ house. He broke the taboos against dining with societal outcasts and the ritually unclean so often that his enemies charged him with “eating and drinking with sinners.” Jesus even compared the kingdom of God with a wedding feast, and his last command to his disciples in the Upper Room concerned a meal, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Thus, there is for people of faith much to celebrate in “What’s Cooking?” In each family the Thanksgiving meal becomes more than just eating and drinking, which is why those preparing it go to such loving lengths to make it special. The traditional turkey affirms their entrance into the amorphous American society, whereas the ethnic dishes affirm and celebrates the goodness of the tradition from which each have come.

Why this excellent film has remained largely unknown, while such inferior tripe is doing so well at our cineplexes, remains one of those mysteries of the film industry and public taste.

Chef (2014)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.

Colossians 3:21

 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.

James 3:5-6


Martin, Percy, & Carl become a smooth team running their traveling food truck. (c) 2014 Open Road Films

This foodie movie is also an enjoyable father-son tale (we might substitute “neglect” for “provoke” in the above passage from James), as well as one in which social media are important. Jon Favreau plays Carl Casper, a hard working chef at a fancy L.A. restaurant who has settled into an unchanging routine after top food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) gave him a rave review ten years earlier. He is such a workaholic that his only outlet beyond the restaurant is with Molly (Scarlett Johansson),and she also works there. Amiable divorced, he has found it hard to fit his 11-year-old son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), into his schedule. His ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) is genuinely concerned about his relationship with the boy.

Carl’s world comes crashing down after Ramsey Michel comes to sample Carl’s menu again, Beforehand Carl had planned to concoct a new menu, but his profit-minded boss Riva (Dustin Hoffman) demanded that he stick to the tried-and-true bill of fare that has kept the customers coming back for several years. They argued, but in the end Carl gave in—and of course, the food critic expected that Carl will have moved on to greater things. He tweets his disappointment as well as giving a bad review on his blog. Knowing nothing of Twitter, the upset Carl responds, and soon the exchange is all over the Internet, eventually leading to a shouting match in the restaurant when the critic accepts Carl’s invitation to return. What he does not know is that Carl had been fired just a few hours before when he refused to follow Riva’s order to stay with the old course, so Ramsey tweets out his disappointment. Clued in to Twitter by his son, Carl sees the tweet and reacts with such vehemence that their exchange goes viral. No other restaurant in the city will now employ such a guy who could be the poster boy for the cautionary note about the tongue in the Latter of James.

Two women come to Carl’s rescue: Molly, who advises him to leave the city for a fresh start, and Inez, who has to make a business trip to Miami and suggests that Carl come along as a nanny for Percy. Swallowing his pride in being unable to pay his own way, Carl agrees, and soon the arc of the story is soaring to lyrical heights. Inez had earlier suggested that Carl open a food truck, but he had always brushed off such an idea. Now he agrees to go visit her former husband Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.), who provides an old beat-up taco truck. It is a mess, so the clean-up job to which Carl invites Percy is not a pleasant one. The boy is glad to accept at first just to be with his dad, but the inside of the truck is so foul that the boy rebels after a while, leading Carl this time to unleash his tongue on his own son, sending the boy off in a huff. That night the more mature side of Carl prevails, as he comes and apologizes to the lad. He has learned a lesson in patience, and Percy one in the necessity of hard work and perseverance required for any job worth doing.

In a film filled with grace filled moments, the one in which Martin (John Leguizamo) arrives to join Carl in his new venture is especially moving. Martin had called Carl the day before from L.A. to share the good news that he had just been promoted to sous chef back at the old restaurant. It now is obvious that he had wanted to learn more about his former boss’s situation than to share news about himself. With no promise of being paid, he had impulsively hopped a Miami-bound plane to help Carl with his new venture. It is he who shows Carl and Percy how to make Cubano sandwiches—as well as, at the very beginning, in dealing with Cuban-American workers reluctant at first even to help Carl load the heavy stove aboard the truck. Decorating the truck in bright colors and equipping it with new stove, sandwich grills, and utensils, the three work harmoniously, and soon quickly and efficiently when word gets around about their delicious sandwiches.

Inez, about to return to L.A., agrees that Percy can stay and work in the truck as the adults drive it back to the City of Angels. The renewed bond between her ex-husband and son was just what she had been hoping for. (This is one gracious lady!) And so the story turns into a delightful road trip tale with stopovers in New Orleans (which fulfills Carl’s earlier broken promise to take Percy there) and Austin, Texas. You will love the colorful shots in those two cities, as well as some engaging music—and certainly the cities’ chambers of commerce will! Along the way Percy shows Carl his skills with social media, and just how powerful a tool they can be in arousing the interest of potential customers. At each stop food lovers that have followed Percy’s tweets are waiting to sample their wares. Most touching of all the scenes is the one of reconciliation in Austin in which—well, see for go yourself.

This is both one of the best feel good movies of the year and one in which people of faith will celebrate its many moments of grace and reconciliation, as well as the possibility of renewal of one’s sense of a calling. Oh yes, have I mentioned that this is a food movie in which the close-up photography of the preparation of colorful foods are bound to stir your gastric juices? What a banquet of a film!

For Reflection/Discussion

There might be a couple of spoilers at the end.

1. What has happened to Carl since his rise to culinary prominence ten years earlier? How do we all need at times to step back from our routine and take a fresh look? Carl does want to do something different when he learns that food critic Ramsey Michel is paying him a revisit, but what prevents him—and note that it is not just “who” but “what”?

2. How do we see that impulsively lashing back at a tormentor is not the best policy?

3. From what we see of her, what kind of a person is ex-wife Inez? What was it that probably led to the divorce?

4. What moments of grace do you see in the film” (With Molly; Inez; Martin; even with the ex-husband of Inez, Marvin, and food critic Michel Ramsey)?

5. How does the film show that food preparation can be a calling? Note that Carl says that through his food, “I get to touch the lives of people with what I do.” This might seem a stretch at the food truck where they must work so fast that they scarcely have time to converse with a customer, but what about at the climax, when his situation has changed?

6. What moments of reconciliation do we see in the film, and how did you feel during them? (With Percy; with Tony, Carl’s former sous chef; with food critic Michel Ramsey?)

7. How did you feel during the last scene of the film? What apparently has happened? How has food brought the family back together again? Might this be a little over the top, like the ending of Mr. Holland’s Opus, yet still very enjoyable?

8. What are the things that you like most about this film genre? How is grace and food often related in such films? (Note the supreme example in Babette’s Feast.)

Note: We’ve included the set of reflection/discussion questions this time to give you an idea of what you will find for virtually all of our reviews in the Visual Parables journal. See the sample issue to see what you get when you subscribe.

her (2013)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 6 min.

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

Our Star ratings (1-5): 5

Note, because in the next-to-the-last paragraph I refer to the final shot of the film, this might be a spoiler for some, though I intend it to be an alert or “Heads up,” hence there is no description of what is in the shot.

Look on my right hand and see—
there is no one who takes notice of me;
no refuge remains to me;
no one cares for me.

Psalm 142:4


Theodore finds a very unorthodox lover named Samantha in this sci-fi romantic comedy.
(c) 2013 Warner Brothers

Spike Jonze’s fascinating romantic comedy updates the genre (the film is also sci-fi) to suggest where our technology-obsessed society might be headed in the 21st century. Set in the near future when virtually everybody is walking around listening to or speaking into their portable devices (almost half of the customers I encounter at our local Kroger’s grocery usually are similarly occupied!), the story’s Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is similar to the little boy in the director’s Where the Wild Things Are. You might recall that that film, an adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book, is about a stubborn boy named Max who seeks to escape from his family by running away into a fantasy world.

Theodore’s world is just as unpleasant as little Max’s. He is dragging his feet on signing the final divorce papers from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), feeling as lonely as the author of Psalm 142 during this period. But unlike the psalmist, he has no relationship with the God who might fill his void. During the day Theodore is a modern day Cyrano de Bergerac, working at a futuristic agency called where he writes beautifully sensitive letters for any occasion for anyone who pays the fee. His boss Paul (Chris Pratt) shows by his admiring comments what a valuable employee Theodore is. At home Theodore whiles away his time by playing a video game with a foul-mouthed avatar. His only human connection beyond Paul is his Platonic relationship with fellow building tenant Amy (Amy Adams), who has issues with her husband—and who plays a mommy video game.

One day Theodore sees an ad about a new home OS (operating system) claiming to be, “The first artificially intelligent operating system … a consciousness that knows you.” So, like those who rushed out to buy the latest iPhone, Theodore installs his new OS. After answering just a few questions, the Sirius-like Samantha is talking with him (the “with” rather than “to” is important here). Voiced by the smooth voiced Scarlett Johansson, we can well understand how his relationship with her grows into a romance. “She” declares, “I have intuition, the ability to grow and evolve through my experiences, just like you.” Does she ever! She organizes his email, almost instantly scanning his stacked-up messages, informing him that only 86 are worth saving. To her “Should I delete the rest,” he replies in the affirmative.  She not only laughs at his jokes, but also responds with some of her own. She is always “there” when he comes home, tired from his daily chore of expressing the thoughts of strangers who want to write to others but cannot find their own words to do so. (I was reminded during this “getting to know you” sequence of the old song popularized by the Mills Brothers back in the 50s, “Paper Doll,” a smooth song about an anti-social guy who dreams of having a Paper Doll who will be superior to the real life “flirty, flirty girls,” because she is always waiting there when he comes home at night.)

Samantha advises him to seek human companionship. Since Amy is just a friend, he should try dating, she suggests, and there follows that blind date which proves so embarrassing. The more he and Samantha chat, the closer he feels to her, so much so that he carries his smart phone in a pocket so that she can see his world through its camera. As in a conventional comedy wherein a friend of the opposite sex offers advice to a troubled character, drawing ever closer until he or she realizes that this is one’s true love, Theodore arrives at that moment with Samantha. They engage in a passionate night of sex that is similar to the phone sex he had engaged in earlier in the film, but now is as personalized as the other had been impersonal, even though earlier there had been a human being at the other end of the phone line.

The absurdity of this relationship is made acceptable by the skills of both Phoenix and Johansson, as well as the believable social milieu that Jonze has set up. (The special effects showing new rising towers in Los Angeles and its citizens at last accepting mass transit are also effective.) Paul and his girlfriend, far from laughing at Theodore, accept and laud him for his newfound love. Samantha and Theodore experience that interlude so well celebrated by such oldies as “I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy” or “Some Enchanted Evening.”

But Samantha reminds her lover that she can learn at an exponential rate. There comes the day when she does not respond instantly at his command. To his astonishment she reveals that she has other relationships, one of them with an OS based on the philosopher Alan Watts. As an OS she can intimately relate with dozens, even hundreds, of others, but can he? And can he accept his limitation and her ability to carry on numerous affairs?

Often funny, sometimes movingly tender, the film pushes the possibility of how A.I. (another good film worth exploring) might expand beyond what we imagine, and beyond our own limitations in regard to a relationship. Theodore and Samantha get to know each other intimately, but is this really what “knowing” means humanly speaking? People of faith are well aware that the Biblical word for a man and a woman “knowing” one another involves the physical act of two bodies coming together, producing what Jesus called “one flesh.” Samantha can never experience this (nor produce a baby with Theodore for that matter). In a Greek sense, based on the philosophical subordination and even denial of the reality of the body, Theodore and Samantha can have a love affair, but never in a Judeo-Christian sense. Jonze at one point inserts a flashback of intimacies that Theodore remembers from his life with his Catherine, experiences forever alien to a disembodied OS program.

In the film’s last beautiful shot up on the roof of the apartment building, what do you think that director/writer Jonze is saying? If he has been raising the question about the ability of bodiless sex to overcome human loneliness, what does he suggest by this wordless scene? Is he leaving it up to us to see the value, indeed the necessity, for human touch in order to arrive at the deepest level of human relationships?

The R rated elements of the film make it questionable, or at best risky, to show in a church when it is released on DVD. Careful preparations, including full disclosure of the sex scenes, would be necessary. But what a wonderful opportunity Jonze offers for young adults to explore human love and intimacy and the affect of technology upon them—as well as what insight faith in God and Christ can offer as we ponder the technology of our time, so fascinating that it might seduce into substituting virtual reality for the real thing.

This is but part of the review. A set of questions designed to help an individual, or better, a group, explore the many issues raised by the film is included in the January issue of the journal Visual Parables. Find out how you can subscribe in The Store and gain access not only to this full review, but hundreds of others as well, including film program ideas for the church and civil holidays.