The Big Sick (2017)


Rated R. Running time: 2 hours

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

 Honor your father and your mother,

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

Exodus 20:12

Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house,
it would be utterly scorned.

Song of Solomon 8:7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Baby Driver (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 6; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 5


Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days. (KJV)

or ‘Give generously, for your gifts will return to you later.’ (TLB)

Ecclesiastes 11: 1

Debra is drawn to Baby & the music on his iPod. (c) Sony Pictures

When I first saw the title, I thought that Edgar Wright’s film would be an animated one like Boss Baby. Not so, of course, the film turning out to be an unusual, fast-paced heist film with a romantic plot high-lighted by some of the most stunning car chases ever caught on camera. The “Baby” of the title is a code name for a troubled young getaway driver named Miles, played consummately by Ansel Elgort. Expect to see him as the lead in a lot more movies in the future.

Before the titles appear, Wright delivers up a getaway that would be the climax of a lesser film. Three crooks wearing Halloween masks and brandishing big guns dash out of a bank and jump into the red Subarus driven by Baby. Zig zagging through traffic, narrowly dodging cars at intersections, jumping up onto throughway ramps, often going the wrong way, he is chased by what looks like a third of Atlanta’s police cars. High above from the vantage point of a police helicopter his red car is a standout on the expressway—until he pulls between two identical Subarus. They enter a tunnel, and now hidden from view, Baby switches lanes, so that when they emerge the cops are not sure which car to pursue. On and on the sequence goes until at last, free from pursuit, the gang ditches the car and report to their boss. All the time Baby is listening to music through the earbuds of his iPod.

On his way to his apartment he rhythmically strolls along to the beat of his music, so that we almost expect him to start dancing and singing like Gene Kelly. Entering his apartment, he greets his deaf-mute foster father Joseph (CJ Jones) with sign language. He hides his share of the loot beneath a floorboard. Throughout the film Joseph shows his awareness that Baby’s money is not legitimate. Worried about him, he warns him that he (Baby) does not belong in that world. (Although their relationship leads to a beautiful moment later in the film, it could have been enhanced by an explanation of how a black man became the lad’s surrogate father. In the brief flashbacks to the boyhood tragedy that traumatized Baby both parents are white.)

Even while attending a planning session where Doc (Kevin Spacey) explains their next heist, Baby never removes the earbuds. The heisters this time include the brutal Buddy (Jon Hamm), his gun-loving girlfriend, Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and the ever-suspicious Bats (Jamie Foxx). When the latter takes a dislike to “the kid” because he has kept his earbuds on during Doc’s briefing, the other two crooks vouch for Baby’s driving skills. Not mollified, Bats demands that Baby take off the plugs and tell him what Doc had said, whereupon Baby responds as if his brain were equipped with a tape recorder. The crook’s skepticism is overcome, but not his hostility to the driver.

We learn that the tragic crash that robbed Baby of his parents left him with tinnitus – the “hum in the drum” as Doc calls it. The music overcomes the ever-present noise that plagues his ears every waking moment. Also, Baby is not a willing accomplice in the robberies. Because of something he has done, the lad is in debt to Doc, and when the crime boss discovered his driving talent, had been forced to drive for a specific number of bank jobs. The upcoming one is to be his last, much to the worried Joseph’s relief.

Baby wants to quit for two reasons, one of conscience, and one of romance. During the second heist, which involves not only a spectacular car chase but also a foot pursuit through streets and a mall, Baby is dismayed that an armored truck guard is killed when the three robbers rush from the bank. Romance enters the picture one night when a cute waitress at an all-night café bonds with him over the iPod music he shares with her during one of his visits. Debora (Lily James) is beautiful, not just because of her lithe body revealed by her short-skirted uniform, but also because she exudes honest concern and has a quick mind—and as we will soon see, loyalty. The scenes between them win us over to Baby’s side, if we had not already been there.

Of course, when the film’s second heist is successful, Doc refuses to call everything square with the driver. He tells the boy that he has become like a good-luck talisman, all the robberies for which he has been the driver having been successful. This heist will be the biggest of all, in that the target is a U.S. Post Office with a huge store of money orders that Doc plans to cash through an expert he knows. With such a talented team, can anything go wrong?

Well, for one thing, Baby has been secretly taping his comrades and using their looped voices for insertion into the special mixed music tapes he collects. What will they think if they discover them? And even worse, Bats’ nickname comes from his psychopathic behavior, which turns Doc’s night-time  deal to buy heavy duty weapons from a gang into a bloodbath. Events seem to be heading to a film noir-like conclusion, but…

Directing from his own smartly written script, Wright treats us to a film that is heart-felt as it is exciting. Those up on music and their bands of the past 40 years (which, alas, does not include this reviewer) will revel in the over 40 songs Baby listens to—songs by Lionel Ritchie, Isaac Hayes, the Vandellas, Martha Reeves, Young MC, Queen, and more. The writer/director has said that his is “a car film driven by music.” It certainly is, but it is much more than that—also a morality tale about inner goodness, love, and loyalty.

I see it as a visual parable based on the first verse of the 11th chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Several times Baby’s goodness shines forth—not just with his beloved foster father and with Debora, but with strangers as well, one example being that when he is fleeing the police and orders an old woman out of her car, he notices her purse on the seat, tossing it to her before driving away with screeching tires. That kind act, and others, will return to reward him later on, turning what I had feared would be a tragically ending film into one ending as happily as most other romantic films.

I think the conclusion would have satisfied even the promoters of the old Puritanical Hays Code—though I doubt they would have sat through the violence and foul language segments leading up to it. In essence, an epilogue, it is shot in black and white and prefaced briefly several times earlier in the film. If parents were notified of your intentions, Baby Driver, would make a great film for a youth group to see and discuss. (But be careful—years ago when I recommended such a film, a youth leader wrote in that he had been fired because he used the film in his program. However, when asked if he had alerted the parents to his plans, he had to admit that he had not.)

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



Italian For Beginners (2000)


 (In Danish with subtitles)

Reprinted from VP May 2002

Rated R. Running time 1 hr 58 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5


Lone Scherfig writes and directs her film with obvious affection for the ensemble of characters. They work at and live near a suburban complex that houses a sports facility, a restaurant, a hair salon, and a church close by. Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen) has been called to replace the demented pastor of the church (besides vociferously berating his parishioners the former pastor shoved his organist off the balcony).

The young cleric soon drops in for a haircut at the salon and is drawn to the sweet Olympia (Anette Stovelbaek), who is caring for her elderly, thankless father and needs spiritual counsel.

The manager of the hotel where Andreas is staying is Jorgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler), whose heart belongs to the non-English speaking Italian cook Guila (Sara Indrio Jensen). He sees that the newly offered Italian class might be the path to his being able to communicate his love.

Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund) is the crusty manager of the restaurant, who tells off any complaining customers. When Jorgen, who owns the restaurant, orders him to get a haircut, Hal-Finn meets and falls for the hairdresser Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen).

All the Danes become involved in the Italian class, but this is threatened with cancellation when their teacher suddenly drops dead. Fortunately best-pupil Hal-Finn agrees to fill in, with all sorts of relationships developing amongst the disparate members, including a class trip to Venice.

The way the various stories of the quirky characters is interwoven is a delight, but I was especially glad to see such a positive image for a change of the church and one of its leaders. Pastor Andreas is human, needing companionship and love, and yet an effective counselor and leader. The almost empty church begins to fill up as both in sermon and in his relationships with people he offers a positive, hopeful gospel. This is one of those absorbing, uplifting little films for which we should thank God that there are theaters whose owners are willing to show them, there seeming to be an inverse relationship between their profitability and their spirituality.


A United Kingdom (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 51 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house,
it would be utterly scorned.

Song of Solomon 8:6-7

Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;
the faithful have disappeared from humankind.
They utter lies to each other;
with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.

 On every side the wicked prowl…
as vileness is exalted among humankind.

Psalm 12:1-2, 8


Seretse & Ruth Khama (with their daughter) stand against racism & colonialism in this powerful film. (c) Fox Searchlight Presents

Director Amma Asante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert’s exquisite film is based on Susan Williams’ well-received 2007 book Color Bar. It seems remarkable to me that this story of an interracial love story should come out upon the heels of Loving. Asante’s film is about an international romance, whereas the latter is a domestic one in this country, but each had widespread repercussions. The state of Virginia’s attempt to destroy the Lovings’ marriage led to the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down miscegenation laws. A United Kingdom had an international impact. When the British government, appeasing South Africa’s apartheid government, tried to prevent Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), the latter a London office worker, from marrying, there was an uproar in both England and Africa. The film’s title is a cleverer one than the book’s in that it makes us think of Ruth Williams’ home country, while at the same time taking on an ironic twist, in that the fierce debate over the interracial marriage threatened to make Seretse’s homeland, the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, anything but united.

Seretse Khama is descended from a long line of Bechuanaland chiefs who bore the title of king. He has been in England to study law while his uncle Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene) serves as regent. In 1947 in London at a church-sponsored dance he meets Ruth, they discover they have a love for jazz and dancing, and after a whirlwind romance, she accepts his proposal of marriage. One night on a street they learn depth of racism in England when several thugs attack them while they are out walking. British government representative Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) appears at Ruth’s office to warn her that their marriage is unacceptable to the government, and her father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) tells her he will refuse to see her if she goes through with her plans. The two are sobered by the opposition, but decide to go ahead anyway. From the Archbishop of Canterbury on down, the clergy are against the interracial marriage, so they pledge themselves to each other in a civil marriage. So much for the church boldly preaching God’s love for all of humanity!

In Africa, many of the crowd awaiting them in front of the family home welcome them, but the uncle sends Ruth into the house while he engages in a long talk with his nephew, the substance being that he refuses to accept a white woman as their queen. Inside, Seretse’s aunt and sister serve Ruth with refreshments, but treat her coldly. Saying that a queen must be of and know her people, they charge that her marriage is demeaning to the women of their country.

The native tribal council accepts the marriage, to the chagrin of the local British officials and Uncle Tshekedi, who states that he will no longer accept Seretse as the future king. The couple are ordered to return to England so that they can deal in person with the government, but Seretse, seeing this as a plan that would prevent Ruth from returning to the country, convinces her she must stay behind.

We then follow them as they live apart, Ruth, after suffering an illness, slowly winning over her sister-in-law and others by her genuine interest in the welfare of the impoverished people. In London, Seretse faces the duplicity and racism of various government officials, even Winston Churchill, although we never see this iconic politician. We do see Clement Atlee, who appears bent on placating the new racist South African government that in 1950 is setting up its apartheid system, he also joining in on the plot to discredit and keep Seretse from returning to his country.  Told at first that he is exiled for five years, when Churchill returns to power, the new P.M. bans him for life, despite having claimed during the election process that he favored lifting the ban.

The courage and love of the two lovers is put to the test by all this opposition, with Seretse prevented from being present when Ruth births their first child, a daughter. Just what a plucky woman this former office typist is we see when she has to drive herself to the hospital. Earlier she had refused “the best doctor in Africa” because it would have meant traveling to South Africa.

The filmmakers probably turn the government officials into stereotypes, much as some American filmmakers have done with Southern “rednecks.” Many of the issues and history also have been simplified, but the film is not meant to be a documentary. It is a story, and all the better because it is basically a true one. The intrigue involving a mining company searching for diamonds is especially shortened, though it is made clear that the Brits would have loved to be able to claim the rights to the minerals by changing the status of Bechuanaland from a protectorate to a colony, hence their scheming to prevent Seretse from gaining power.

David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are well suited to their roles as the embattled couple bound by a love so strong that they will take on the world to maintain their bond. Quiet and unassuming in private, he becomes passionate when he addresses his people, telling him that he loves and wants to serve them, but that he also loves his wife and must have her by his side. Ms. Pike has us rooting for her as she moves from the ordinary life of a London typist, willing to lose her family for the sake of love and move to a totally unfamiliar land, where she is regarded by both the white colonials and most of the black population as an interloper.

The audience loved the Gandhian scene in Africa when the colonial officials have called for a mass meeting of the people to hear the terms of the new order they will live under. The camera shows us the officials, their wives, and the military brass all gathered on the platform. Then it is revealed that the field in front of them is empty. By now most of the people have accepted Ruth and the position of her husband, so they refuse to show up. Later on, the impasse between Seretse and his uncle is resolved in a very creative way, the scene of their reconciliation being a moving moment in the film. What an enchanting true story of the power of love and courage standing against racism and colonial oppression. Even more so when the end notes inform us that Seretse, after renouncing his claim to the crown, was elected president of the new nation of Botswana—and that he did not succumb, as far too many other African leaders did, to the lure of power and wealth.

Note: If you enjoyed this film, you will also want to see Ms. Amma Asante’s other film reviewed on this site, Belle, about a mixed-race woman in 18th century. Also, for more about Botswana see History Today’s50 Years of Botswana.

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

I am Not Your Negro (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 33 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees,

and that write grievousness which they have prescribed;

To turn aside the needy from judgment,

and to take away the right from the poor of my people,

that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless!

Isaiah 10:1-2 (KJV)

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Matthew 12:29-31


Malcolm X & MLK, Jr. were friends of James Baldwin.          (c) Magnolia Pictures

When I was in seminary and early ministry James Baldwin through his provocative writings made a deep impression on me. Many times, I quoted his statement that being a black man in America meant being in a perpetual state of rage. His polemical The Fire Next Time I regarded as every bit of a God-sent prophecy as the denunciations of injustice hurled forth by Amos and Jeremiah. And now we see, thanks to this work by film-director prophet-Raoul Peck, that Baldwin’s words are as relevant today as they were a half century ago. Despite what the naïve Supreme Court justices thought when they ripped out the heart of the Civil Rights Act, racism is still almost as strong as it was when Jim Crow laws kept “Negroes” in their place. Racism has just gone underground, those still under its sway defending themselves by using the term “political correctness” against anyone who would call them out on their remarks and acts (usually disguised by code words and phrases such as “law and order”).

The Haitian-born filmmaker in a way finishes a work that Baldwin was working on at the time of his death in 1987, Remember This House. He had completed just 30 pages and was hoping to visit the survivors of the three prophets he had cherished as friends, murdered between 1963 and 1967, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. As we see words addressed to his literary agent typed onto the screen, Baldwin wanted “these three lives to bang against and reveal each other, as in truth they did, and use their dreadful journey as a means of instructing the people whom they loved so much, who betrayed them, and for whom they gave their lives.”

The author’s text from his unfinished book are scattered throughout the film, read forcefully by Samuel L. Jackson. We hear Baldwin himself in numerous clips from his TV appearances and speeches on college campuses. All of these provide evidence of what an articulate and courageous observer he was, a true prophet willing to call out liberal whites, as well as rabid segregationists, on their shortcomings. Whites too often, Baldwin observed, thought racism to be an individual affair, conquered by converting the individual, when in reality it was systemic, embedded in our culture. The director also inserts archival photos and news clips from Civil Rights demonstrations and clips of his three friends, as well as photos and clips from ads demeaning to blacks, the latter including scenes from Hollywood films. None of the black screen characters, he says, acted like any black person he knew.

The film clips will be of special interest to VP readers. They go back to the silent era’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin­ and the Thirties era King Kong, Dance, Fool, Dance, and the Stepin Fetchit movies with their negative image of blacks. Films from later on include Imitation of Life, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and The Defiant Ones. Baldwin’s comments on the latter remind me of my surprise years ago, when I first read his report of the reaction to the film of the audience in Harlem (I think this was in The Fire Next time.). Like other whites, I saw the film, about a black and a white convict (played by Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis) escaping while still chained together, as an appeal to racial brotherhood because their hatred of each other slowly changes to mutual respect. Blacks saw it otherwise. The two convicts manage to break the chain that had bound them together. When Poitier’s character jumps aboard a slow-moving freight train, Curtis’ almost reaches the black’s outstretched hand, so he can be pulled aboard. Failing to do so, the black jumps off, now unwilling to abandon his friend. Baldwin approvingly reports that the black audience yelled, “Fool! Get back on the train!” The author points out that liberal depictions of black-white relations in film are attempts to get blacks to let whites off the hook and make them feel better without really facing up to the enormous damage that racism has inflicted on blacks—and on whites as well.

Early Hollywood’s negative view of blacks was carried over into print, a series of shameful magazine ads depicting blacks only in servant roles, adding a touch of color to the mostly B&W documentary. (Aunt Jemima was just one of many such servile characters.)

Just as traditional Christianity teaches the total depravity of humanity, Baldwin teaches the total depravity of American society because of the embedded racism in it. Indeed, he fled his native land to Paris so that he could experience for the first time a sense of freedom, but felt compelled to return to the U.S. when the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum. He says that he wanted to be a witness (and participant) to the struggle to change America, rather than watch if from afar.

Baldwin wrote as an outsider, pointing out that he was not Black Muslim, a Black Panther, nor a Christian –the latter, he says because the church did not practice the command to love the neighbor. He also might have added that the intense loathing of homosexuals of most of church leaders and members at the time also put him outside its pale. (There is just one mention of his homosexuality in the film, revealed in an excerpt from a report by the FBI that kept a watch on him because Hoover saw the writer as Communist endangering the security of America.)

Because of his repeatedly calling out the “moral apathy of American whites’, viewers might be reminded of Baldwin’s friend’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which Dr. King denounced his Southern white detractor’s, some of whom considered themselves liberal, and complained that he was pushing racial matters too hastily. By including scenes from Ferguson and recent police beatings and shootings (including Trayvon Martin’s murder), the director shows that the Black Lives Matter movement is very much needed.

This is truly a movie that matters, and should be seen and discussed along with another film that ought to dispel illusions that racism has been defeated, Ava DuVerna’s 13th. Some have called racism “America’s Original Sin.” When Jesus’s summary of the Law is read, it is apparent that it is indeed the church’s, given the long history of so many of its members’ complicity in the slave trade, slavery, and the maintenance of segregation. All religious leaders who believe that the Scriptures have relevance to current life should be calling this important film to their people’s attention!

In closing, I leave you with these Baldwin quotes to ponder:

“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”

“What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it.”

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed that is not faced.”

Note: This director’s film Lumumba can also be found on this site.

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


Collateral Beauty (2016)


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

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

Our star rating (1-5): 3.5

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

Jeremiah 20:18

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

Matthew 5:45b


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.