Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 2.


Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;

for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’

Romans 12:19

Mildred & two of her billboards. (c)  Fox Searchlight

I loved filmmaker Martin McDonagh’s crime caper In Bruges in which the crooks turn the name of the great Indian leader Gandhi into a verb. Now the writer/director inserts his wry humor into a far darker tale of grief, anger, and desire for vengeance. And it stars two actors at the top of their form, Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson, making this a real treat for film lovers!

Mildred Hayes (McDormand), seven months after her teenage daughter Angela was raped and murdered, is still broken-hearted because no trace of the killer other than his DNA has been found. Convinced that local chief of police Bill Willoughby (Harrelson) is doing nothing, she marches into the grungy office of the local advertising agency and plunks down several thousand dollars to rent three decrepit billboards at the edge of town.

This act certainly grabs the attention of everybody. The upset Chief tries to reason with her, even informing her that he is dealing with pancreatic cancer, but she accepts no excuses. The townsfolk, though sympathizing with her loss, turn against her because of their esteem for Willoughby, and his two deputies, of course, side with their boss. One of them Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), is a thug with a badge, known for having beaten a black man. Her priest pays a visit to try to talk her out of her publicity campaign, but she orders him out of her house, much to the consternation of her teenage son Robbie (Lucas Hedges). She even gets so mad at her dentist, who defends his friend Willoughby, that she grabs his drill and pokes a hole in his thumbnail. This is a woman not to be messed with! Mildred believes that a patriarchal world that places little value on the life of a young woman must be fought tooth and nail.

The strong performances of the two stars are matched by all the above supporting cast, plus several others: Caleb Landry Jones as the young manager of the Ebbing advertising agency; Peter Dinklage as a local pool shark and who has a hankering for Mildred. (Ever since I first saw him in the wonderful Station Agent, I have admired the work of this tiny actor.) There also is Clarke Peters as Officer Abercrombie, who comes to town to take charge of the police department when affairs go awry. He is black, so we know Dixon is not pleased.

The film diverts from the path of the usual vengeance-driven film in a couple of ways, though this seems at first unlikely. Late one night, Mildred’s angry impatience leads her to torch the police station, located across the street from the ad agency. Where will this in a roundabout way this results in an unexpected change in the nasty deputy, which in turn produces an unusual alliance and a quest or mission that is left hanging after the film. Included in all of this is Dixon’s discovery of the identity of the possible killer, which leads us to expect… but then…

There is also a moving letter that Chief Willoughby leaves behind as a positive legacy, especially for his loathsome deputy.

I love it when the filmmaker takes us into unexpected territory, and then leaves us pondering the future of the characters. This is not a film for those who like everything at the end tied up in a neat package. Like life, it is filled with unexpected twists and disappointments and longings that sometimes are not satisfied. Mildred might long for closure, and we assume she will find it, but not in the way of the usual, formulaic tale of vengeance so popular through the years. Good news.

 This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the January 2018 issue of Visual Parables.

Detroit (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 23 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5


Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them.

Ecclesiastes 4:1

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Psalm 58:6

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.

From Episcopal Book of Common Prayer 1928

(c) Annapurna Distributtion

It has been 50 years since the death of 43 people during the violence that broke out on 12th Street in Detroit, and Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow teams again with screenwriter Mark Boal to offer a tribute to the victims. Detroit focuses upon three of the deaths, that of the murder of three black people trapped in a motel at the outbreak of the riot. Not only did a team of Detroit policemen kill the teenagers, they also tortured a group of other people (two of whom were white girls) that they held captive in what became known as the Algiers Motel incident. Sadly, this is not just a historical tribute to the victims, but also a reminder and a jeremiad against the current routine of black-killing cops being absolved of guilt for their crimes. For people of faith this also is a parable of the much-used Episcopal prayer of asking forgiveness for sins of omission as well as commission.

The destructive riot—many Detroiters today call it a rebellion—began on July 26, 1967, with at police night raid on an unlicensed bar located above a printing plant. The place was filled with friends of two black G.I.s just back from Vietnam when the cops launched their attack. Rounding up and herding the dozens of patrons in such a harsh and demeaning way, it would seem that the cops had been trained by those who had studied the tactics of the Nazi’s round-up of Jews. This is the 60s, so many of the policemen give full vent to their racist disdain for the black arrestees.

The commotion draws a crowd of onlookers, upset by what they are witnessing. The cries of some, “What did they do?” have been echoed down through the centuries of oppression. Soon someone is throwing a missile at the cops, and then the target becomes the windows of closed-up shops, followed by looting. Add a Molotov cocktail, and soon a riot is in full swing, the embattled original cops calling in reinforcements. In one of the numerous video clips inserted throughout the film we see Gov. George Romney ordering out the National Guard, complete with tanks, jeeps, and mounted machine guns. A war is on, a civil war of blacks against white enforcers of the Northern version of Jim Crow, with outbreaks also occurring that summer in Newark, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Cincinnati, and other cities.

By the next day the destruction covers several blocks, and trucks and tanks roll through the streets. The Guardsmen are so on edge that when a little girl peers out through her closed Venetians blinds, a Guardsman sees the motion and yells “Sniper” as he fires his machine gun at the window. From atop a car Congressman John Conyers (Laz Alonso) tries to calm the crowd, but they are too angry, their long pent-up resentment against their racist based treatment boiling over at last. (The film’s opening credits include an animated “history” of the great “Migration” of blacks from the South to the North and their subsequent segregation there also.)

Three patrolmen – Krauss (Will Poulter), Flynn (Ben O’Toole), and Demens (Jack Reynor) – drive through the streets amidst the burning and looting. They stop to arrest a man carrying two bags of groceries, but he runs away. Giving chase, Krauss fires his shotgun, hitting the man in the side. The fugitive gets away anyway, but bleeds to death later. When Krauss is reprimanded by a detective, he shows no remorse, even justifying his action. Surprisingly, the detective does not order the killer to stand down, but lets him go back onto the streets, which proves to be a terrible mistake, a sin of omission.

Meanwhile in a packed theater a musical review is going on, with a nervous Fred (Jacob Latimore) late in joining up with his singing group The Dramatics due to difficulties in getting through the police cordon outside. The group is to follow Martha and the Vandals, but just as the emcee is introducing them, a cop arrives with the order to evacuate the theater due to the riot. Lead singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) is so disappointed at missing their big opportunity to gain notice, that he remains on stage after the audience has left. He sings part of their song, with only Fred to hear it. The two take a bus to the Algiers Motel to stay the night. At the motel pool they meet two white girls from Ohio, Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever). Flirting with them, they invite them to a room where they say they can obtain some food. The occupants— Carl (Jason Mitchell), Lee (Peyton Alex Smith), and Aubrey (Nathan Davis, Jr.) –are not very welcoming. As they talk about the riot and the cops handling of it, Carl takes out a small pistol, and during a scuffle “shoots” Lee. The two laugh at the reaction of the others, revealing that it was a toy gun that uses blanks. The visitors and girls go back to their own room

Across the street African American security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is one of two men guarding a store. Seeing a club-wielding cop abusing a black teenager, he walks out and rescues the boy, even though the kid ungratefully calls him an “Uncle Tom” because of his uniform and gun.

From his motel window Carl watches the police swarming outside and makes a stupid mistake by trying to scare them with the firing of his blank pistol. The cops panic, taking cover and then wracking the motel’s windows with gun fire. They rush into the building, and when Carl tries to flee, Kraus shoots him in the back, stopping to drop an open switchblade by the body. A moment later Dismukes runs in, he becoming the first person to whom Kraus lies that he had killed the dead teenager in self-defense.

The nervous cops are convinced someone in the motel fired at them. (c) Annapurna Distributtion

The cops round up Larry, Fred, Aubrey, Lee, Julie, Karen, and another unfortunate motel patron named Greene (Anthony Mackie). Forcing them to face the wall of a corridor, Krauss begins aggressively to question and threaten them. He refuses to accept their claim that none of them had guns, even though a search fails to turn up any. Dismukes tries to moderate the situation, even conducting a search of the room himself, but he is black and thus has no influence upon the racist Krauss and his two fellow cops. State troopers arrive, but as soon as they see that the captives are a mixed-race group, their leader decides he wants no part of the incident, and quickly drives away. The National Guardsman who has joined the group also seems helplessly to accept Krauss’s drastic measures of interrogation by terror. The cops accuse the girls of being prostitutes and one of the men their pimp. During one round of questioning, a cop rips off the top of the dress of one of the girls, and Krauss fondles the other’s crotch with his billie club. The cops’ cruel mind game involves taking one of the captives into a separate room and pretending to shoot him in an effort to scare the others into confessing. This game goes horribly awry when the dumber of the cops, unaware that his colleagues had only pretended to kill the victim, actually carries out the threat. The long, horrible night will result in the murder of one more of the teenagers before dawn arrives the next day and the survivors are set free.

Dead are Carl Cooper, 17; Aubrey Pollard, 19, and Fred Temple, 18, shot at close range. There is a trial of the three racist cops, and even Dismukes at first is suspected of participating, until it is proved that he was a witness rather than a participant. The trial in the film is a composite of several actual ones, but the outcome is true—the defendants were declared “Not Guilty” by the jury. It was in the late Sixties, and the attitude of so many of the whites in the area was so racist that the trial might as well have been held in Mississippi.

The filmmakers do include a scene designed to show that not every Detroit cop back then was a racist potential thug. When Larry Reed is able to run from the motel, he is taken by a cop who, seeing his blood and bruises, takes him into his car and drives him to a hospital. The film ends with end notes informing us what has happened after the trial. Larry was so traumatized that he left the successful Dramatics to become a church choir director.

I marveled at the way in which Krauss was able to get his fellow cops and the National Guardsman to go along with his extreme method of interrogation. This horrific sequence took me back to the 2015 docudrama The Stanford Prison Experiment in which a professor hired 24 students to pretend they were at a prison, with some serving as guards, and the others prisoners. Almost immediately the guards began to abuse their authority, and the “prisoners” meekly submitted. The make-believe guards became so abusive that the experiment had to be ended long before its scheduled time. If this could happen in a role play situation, it should be little wonder that real life wielders of power would succumb, especially when racism is present.

Although the filmmakers change many of the names and condense trial events, the script stays close to the facts, though no doubt speculating on certain details that were murky at the time. For source material, the filmmakers had John Hersey’s 1968 book The Algiers Motel Incident, and equally important, three of the victims, the white Julie Delaney, played by Hannah Murray, and the black security guard, Melvin Dismukes, portrayed by John Boyega, and would-be singer Larry Reed. They not only spent time with scriptwriter Mark Boal, but at director Kathryn Bigelow’s insistence, Ms. Delaney was on the set for consultation during much of the filming.

That the film is as relevant today in its depiction of racism among law enforcement officers is evident from Ms. Delaney’s comment, “It’s amazingly sad that things haven’t changed. I thought things would change in 50 years. I really did. I guess that’s my looking through rose-colored glasses.”*

At times the brutality, both physical and mental, is so strong that it is difficult to watch, but watch it we should. I write this despite the disturbing Huffington Post article “‘Detroit’ Is The Most Irresponsible and Dangerous Movie Of The Year.” The distinguished authors attack the filmmakers for omitting the historical background of the riot and treating the blacks as just victims without giving us any of their background. I agree that providing more context would have improved the film, but I do not accept their recommendation to skip the film. It might be flawed, but it nevertheless should be viewed and discussed by as many people as possible.

*For more see the article in Detroit Free Press “Eyewitness to horrific night depicted in ‘Detroit’ movie shares story” at

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

A Dog’s Purpose (2016)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.  Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.

1 Peter 4:9-10


Mom & her son Ethan enjoy a moment with the dog they rescued from a closed-up car. (c) Universal Pictures

The author of 1 Peter was addressing, of course, humans, but his admonition to serve is certainly exemplified by the canine hero/ine in director Lasse Hallstrom’s latest film, based on W. Bruce Cameron’s novel. I don’t know all the facts of the controversy over the alleged mistreatment of a dog during the making of the film, but I don’t think that the maker of Hachiko: A Dog’s Story would have allowed this had he known. These two films were helmed by a man who clearly loves “man’s best friend.”

My only qualm is the acceptance of the Eastern doctrine of reincarnation, but this is the link connecting all the dogs in the film, so for the sake of the story, I went along with the concept. As a film that demonstrates love and loss, loyalty and service, this will serve as a good family outing.

The film begins with Bailey philosophizing about the meaning of life. “Are we here for a reason?” the dog (voice of Josh Gad,) asks. (All the sequences are narrated by Bailey.) At first Bailey is

a cuddly golden retriever puppy that 8-year-old Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) and his mother (Juliet Rylance) find almost prostrate with heat in a locked car. (That they break the window and take the dog home without any interchange with the car’s negligent owner might require some parental explanation to young viewers, because the film offers none, but hey, this is a movie.)

Ethan’s alcoholic father (Luke Kirby) is dubious at first about keeping the dog, but gives in. There follows a series of events through the next ten years that includes Bailey’s love for retrieving a deflated football for Ethan; the dog’s nudging teenaged Ethan into a relationship with Hannah (Britt Robertson), who soon loves the dog as much as Ethan does; the dashing of their plans to go off to college together; and the inevitable death of the old and sick Bailey at the vet’s office.

Next, Bailey reawakens as a German Shepherd pup named Ellie (quite a shock when the dog notices something is missing between his hind legs). Chosen for the K-9 division of the Chicago Police Department, Ellie forms a close bond with her handler Carlos (John Ortiz). The dog empathizes with the lonely man, still not recovered apparently from the loss of his wife. Their relationship ends abruptly, with Ellie’s heroic act during a kidnaping. As a short-legged Corgi named Tino, the dog provides companionship for still another lonely person, female college student Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). Tino also serves as an agent for romance for Maya and another African American student, also a dog owner.

Last of all, Bailey returns as Buddy, a lost mutt (now a mixture of Australian Shepherd and St. Bernard) who re-enters the life of the now grown Ethan (Dennis Quaid). Companionship and service are again themes because Ethan too is very lonely as a farmer who had given up his dreams of college and a life with Hannah due to a sad event in high school. Again, it is Bailey who brings Ethan and Hannah (Peggy Lipton) back together. When Buddie discovers that old flattened football in the barn, he makes his startled master aware of his identity.

Despite some improbabilities, I think anyone who has ever owned a dog will enjoy this film. It took me back to my childhood days when one of the heartaches growing out of my parents’ divorce was having to give up my pet chow Blackie, one of the joys of which had been for me to emerge from school at the end of the afternoon and find him patiently waiting to walk home with me, (No leash laws or fences in those more innocent days.) Back then my favorite film was Lassie, Come Home, which was to launch several TV series. The euthanasia of the aged Bailey was especially moving because I held Tigger, who had grown up with our children, in my arms while the vet injected the drug that would end his suffering and his life.

The film is often as funny as it is moving, thanks to the comments that Bailey makes. He is not all-knowing, his remarks coming from his limited understanding of human behavior. He doesn’t know what they do when they mysteriously go away, and when the teenaged Ethan and Hannah kiss in the car, he wonders at first if there is food in their mouths that they are sharing or fighting over.

As a tribute to the unconditional love and loyalty of dogs, this is a film both adults and children can enjoy.

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


Chappie (2015)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 3

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

Psalm 12:8


Engineer Deon Wilson  wants to install A.I. into one of the police robots he has invented. (c) 2015 Columbia Pictures

 Director Neill Blomkamp in his 3rd science fiction film returns to his native South Africa where in the near future Johannesburg is the first city to replace most of its human cops with robots called Scouts. As a result street crime has been greatly reduced. The brainchild of engineer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), they have enriched the corporation where he works, Tetra Vaal, but he wants to raise the robots to the next level, artificial intelligence. His boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) is content with them as they are. He also has a rival employee Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) whose invention The Moose is like a tank set on legs. It’s ugly and cumbersome, but with the success of the Scouts the company has set his invention aside. He will stop at nothing to discredit Deon.

Matters become complicated when Deon begins to experiment on a damaged Scout and then is kidnapped by three klutz’s who want to use a robot in their criminal activities. Out of this mess emerges the Scout with A.I., its mind like that of a child. They name it Chappie. Deon wants to instill ethics into it, but the crooks work to turn it to crime. There is a lot of action involving the crooks and some higher up thugs demanding they pay a past debt, and of course Vincent and his Moose. Some of the events are funny, a couple poignant, reminding me of some of the intimate scenes in the animated film The Iron Giant, and some aimed at viewers who enjoy the mayhem that erupts when Chappie and The Moose engage each other in combat.

A good deal of the humor is provided by two members of the South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord. Its members Ninji and Yolandi are the whacky 2/3s of the bumbling trio of small time crooks. Ninji is the dumb one, and Yolandi the sentimental one, whose fate is touching.

The strange ending depends on the Cartesian concept of the split between mind and body and might remind you of Johnny Depp’s character in Transcendence who enters into an existence that transcends his body. The film might not be up to the standard of the director’s first film, but it offers plenty to think about and discuss in regard to mechanized law enforcement and the body-mind (or spirit) dualism Descartes vs. the Biblical fusion of soul and body.

The review with a set of discussion questions will be in the April Visual Parables.