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.

 

 

Their Finest (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 57 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 3; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.  She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.  But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’  But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’

John 10:38-42

Catrin and Tom examine a shot from the film they are writing. (c) STX Entertainment

Being a film lover I have always enjoyed films that deal with the making of movies, such as Barton Fink; Singing in the Rain; Sunset Boulevard or Hail Caesar. Now we have director Lone Scherfig’s World War Two-era tale, adapted by Gaby Chiappe and Lissa Evans from the latter’s novel about a woman scriptwriter working on a propaganda film at the British Ministry of Information Film Division.

It is 1940, the height of the London Blitz when every night Nazi planes fly over the city dropping their bombs as part of Goering’s campaign to beat the British into submission. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is a Welsh writer married to struggling artist Ellis Cole (Jack Huston). Ellis has suffered another turndown of his art because it is too grim and somber, so Catrin has been their mainstay of support. When she applies for a secretarial position at the Ministry of Information and they discover she has been a journalist, they send her to their Film Division to work on their propaganda films, short home front vignettes sandwiched in between the feature films.

The ones that she is shown supposedly record a backyard conversation between two housewives that are dreadfully unreal due to their stilted dialogue. Soon, however she is assigned to travel to the coast to investigate a news article about twin sisters Lily and Rose Starling (Lily and Francesca Knight). They reportedly piloted their father’s small boat by which they had rescued several soldiers stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. Catrin discovers that the story was overly exaggerated and the sisters anything but interesting, yet nonetheless she pitches their story upon her return to the office. (Actually, the boat had to be towed back to port due to engine failure. The press mistakenly thought they had reached Dunkirk and were returning home.) Thus, is born the dramatic film The Nancy Starling featuring the one-time matinee star Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) as the sister’s uncle. Working with male chauvinist co-writers Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter), Catrin faces an uphill battle in achieving an equal status on the project, due not only to her co-writers, but the Film Division’s labeling the women’s dialogue as “the slop.”

Catrin is like Mary in Luke’s story of the two sisters Martha and Mary, wherein the latter has left the place appointed to her by society (and her sister Martha), the kitchen, to listen to their guest Jesus. Martha is upset that she has left the female world to participate in the male world, that of learning. Nineteen centuries later, when Catrin’s husband is to take a job in another town, he expects his wife to quit her job and follow him, but she refuses. She wants to stay and work at the Film Division, even though it is male dominated. In the cramped scriptwriter’s office, the two male writers’ desks are so arranged that there is little room for her. She squeezes through a narrow passageway to a desk, clears away some of the clutter so she can set up her typewriter, and sets to work. We see her asserting herself later when she shoves one of the men’s desk back so she doesn’t have to squeeze through to reach her desk. This is a minor, private move, as we see her gaining in peer respect by her problem-solving skills with cast, crew, and bureaucrats.

She manages to ward off the egotistical Ambrose when he is about to walk-out in a huff because he cannot get his way. She rolls with the punches when Jeremy Iron’s Secretary of the War Department insists upon an addition to the script. He wants the story to include an American so that the film will do well in the States and arouse support for the Brits. (Isolationism was still strong across the Atlantic, with most Yanks favoring neutrality.) The British have a real-life hero in R.A.F. ace pilot Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy), a Swedish-American who had come to England to help in their battle against the Nazis. However, as an actor he is so wooden that he in danger of termite infestation. Some scenes can be saved by using voice over narration, but to save those scenes in which Lunbeck must speak, Catrin persuades the reluctant Ambrose to serve as his drama coach.

The film almost grinds to a halt when the higher-ups discover the truth about the sisters never making it to Dunkirk, but again Catrin saves the day. Hers is a commonsense solution: drop the “true story” claim and make a fictional film that shows the truth of what did happen aboard the hundreds of “little ships” that had helped the Royal Navy snatch the 338,000 Allied soldiers from their Nazi attackers. Make the kind of film the public needs to see during these dark hours.

As the filming progresses—and we get to see much of the movie within a movie—co-writer Tom Buckley gains greater respect for her talents, and she for him. They are clearly attracted to each other, but each holds back due to her married status. How this works out includes one development often used in such romantic plots, but then a surprise turn of plot lifts the film several notches higher than the run of the mill love story.

The title, Their Finest, taken from Churchill’s famous speech, applies well to the English in general, taking shelter in bunkers and the Underground each night during the Blitz and then emerging to clean up the rubble and collect the bodies of bomb victims. Of course, it also describes the efforts of the film team, and of the women foremost of whom is Catrin. She is not shown as a fire-eating/spewing feminist. It is one of the female office workers, Rachael Stirling’s

delightful Phyl Moore who actual verbalizes the theme when she explains why the men are so demeaning in their attitude toward women colleagues, “They’re afraid they won’t be able to put us back in the box when this is over, and it makes them belligerent.” Catrin’s femininity tendencies are in her bold acts, not her words.

The cast is excellent, with Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole and Sam Claflin Tom Buckley as the lovers. They have to be good because the better known (to American audiences) Bill Nighy is a great scene stealer as the aging Ambrose Hilliard, who still cannot accept that he is no longer the dashing leading man he once was. It is Phyl Moore who nails his character when she says, “He is an actor. Unless you have reviewed him, had intercourse with him, or done both simultaneously, he won’t remember you.” (Catrin, about to approach him, had asked if he would remember her, their introduction being so brief.) When this vain, egotistical actor decides to walk off the set and quit, it is Catrin who runs after him and skillfully cajoles him into helping the untalented fighter pilot say his lines is a delight.

Another funny scene is the one involving Jeremy Iron’s Secretary of War—I think I am right when I recall that he is the one who quotes from the Crispin’s Day Speech of Shakespeare’s Henry V.

This is a good film to see while waiting for Chris Nolan’s big budget Dunkirk, set for release on July 21. Judging by the trailer (http://www.dunkirkmovie.com/), it approaches history’s greatest military rescue effort from the standpoint of those on the beach, on the sea, and in the air. I loved director Lone Scherfig’s 2002 film Italian for Beginners, and feel the same way about her latest.

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

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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.

 

Rules Don’t Apply (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 6 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 0; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 5.

 Our star rating (1-5): 4

Do not be afraid when some become rich,
when the wealth of their houses increases.
For when they die they will carry nothing away;
their wealth will not go down after them.

Psalm 49:16-17

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Howard Hughes testifies before Congress.                                        (c) 20th Century Fox

It has been 40 years since the death of billionaire Howard Hughes, yet interest in him remains high. There have been two major movies about one of the most eccentric men of the 20th century, Melvin and Howard (1980) and The Aviator (2004), and now a third, Warren Beatty’s mixture of fiction and fact. The fiction involves the budding romance between an employee and a protégé of Hughes, which turns out to be not nearly as interesting as the scenes involving the filmmaker-business man who, in the central portion of the film is showing signs of the bizarre mental instability that will in his old age turn him into a prisoner of his own fears and fantasies.

Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) is one of Hughes’ young drivers kept busy ferrying his boss or one of the many starlets that Hughes maintains around town, allegedly for a future screen test. Frank also aspires to better things, sometimes offering tips on what he thinks is a good investment.

Lovely, and very naïve, Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) has come to Los Angeles chaperoned by her mother Lucy (Annette Bening). She is thrilled with her contract to Hughes at $400 per week and their cozy Hollywood Hills home. She looks forward to a screen tested soon, but her wiser mother has a wait and see attitude. It is not reassuring that her daughter is one of 25 such lovelies that the middle-aged mogul is supporting. Frank drives one or another of them back and forth between her bungalow and the Hughes mansion. When Frank had picked up the Mabreys at the airport, their get acquainted conversation revealed that Frank is a Methodist who goes to church every Sunday, and that the Mabrey’s are equally devout Baptists. Lucy joked that she forgives him for being a Methodist.

Weeks pass without Marla even getting to meet Hughes. The young people enjoy getting to know each other better, even though Frank is engaged to his 7th grade sweetheart. We soon see how this will turn out. Marla and Frank are very much attracted to one another, but one of the many rules Hughes has imposed forbids any of the starlets from dating any of his employees. Of course, the two do fall in love, with Frank declaring that the “rules don’t apply to them.” Mom, however, becomes so fed up with no sign of a promised screen test that she decides that they should go back home. She does, but Marla decides to stay. Both Frank and Marla are drawn into a closer relationship with their reclusive boss, though in very different ways, with their faith and their ethics tested.

In scene after scene we see that Hughes is very concerned that his bizarre behavior—drapes, usually closed around his bed even when Frank or another employee is talking with him; phobias about contacting germs, and thus his refusal to meet face to face with a group of bankers from whom he wants to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars—these, and more, will cause others to declare that he is insane. He still controls his airline TWA and is embroiled with a fight with his board who oppose his plan to switch their airliners from prop to jet. The board schemes to have him declared mentally incompetent so they can wrest control of the airline from him.

Hughes also is involved in movie making, and wherever he goes watches his copy of his early hit Hell’s Angels. And we should mention his troubles with Congress, upset with him because of the slow progress made in building the huge seaplane dubbed “The Spruce Goose.” Begun in 1942 as a prototype for transporting supplies and troops, the war was over before it was finished. It was made of wood because of wartime restrictions on metal, critics giving it the rhyming nickname even though most of the wood was birch. One of the film’s most delightful and surprising scenes is the one in which Howard and Frank sit outdoors at night while eating a hamburger. The camera switches from a frontal shot of the pair to a rear one, and there, looming over them, is the world’s largest airplane.

I enjoyed the way in which so many details of Hughes’s life and the times are woven into the fictional romance (as well as depicting two sincerely Christian young adults without condescension). In the shots of Frank driving the women through the heart of Hollywood it is fun to pick out period details, such as late 50s cars, old signs and billboards, including a billboard promoting a Hughes film. The real chronology of Hughes’s life is changed for the sake of the story, but this is not meant to be a film biography. The major stars turn in good performances, and the able supporting cast is joined by quite a group of well-know stars in minor roles, no doubt eager to work under director Beatty. These include Alec Baldwin, Candace Bergen, Matthew Broderick, Dabney Coleman, Steve Coogan, James Gleason, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Oliver Platt, Martin Sheen, and Paul Schneider. This is not Aviator class, but it is still an enjoyable look back at a by-gone time and a damaged mover and shaker who eventually came to a sad end. Although not meant to be a morality tale (consider who wrote and directed it), the film does suggest that money is not all that it’s cracked up to be, that mental stability and a concern for others are more important. I think the Psalmist or the authors of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes would see in the tortured life of this billionaire enough material for another book or two of wise  maxims.

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

A Hologram for the King (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hours 37 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

Psalm 27:14

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Yousef introduces Alan to Arabian food & style of dining. (c) Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions

A word search reveals that the theme of waiting runs throughout both the books of Psalms and Isaiah. It is also at the heart of director Tom Tykwer’s new film adapted from Dave Eggers’ 2012 novel, though our Willy Loman-like salesman Alan Clay is waiting for the arrival of a lesser king than did the psalmist, that of King Abdullah Saudi Arabia. Like another famous play that it also resembles, Waiting for Godot, this film has a touch of absurdity, though not quite as dark. Think instead of Christopher Guest’s mocumentary, Waiting for Guffman. Add to this the fish out of water theme combined with a poignant love story, and you have a pleasing little film that will make you feel better for having seen it.

Tom Hanks portrays effectively the failed businessman ruined by the hard economic times still occurring in 2010. His face looks like a waxen mask when he turns on his business smile, while at other times possessing a world weary, put-upon look. He wakens from a nightmare in which he is on a roller coaster to find that he is aboard an airliner bound for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. During the next days his life will very much resemble that roller coaster ride. The plane is definitely not owned by American Airlines: an imam is holding the stewardess’s microphone, leading the majority of the passengers in a Muslim prayer. Alan is traveling to Arabia in the hope of selling to the King a holographic teleconferencing system for a new planned city scheduled to be finished in 2025. This is Alan’s last chance to recover his failed career, indeed, his life. He is divorced from his wife, and his loss of his old job has forced his college-age Kit daughter (Tracey Fairaway) to defer her educational plans. Fortunately, his greatest success has been to maintain a close relationship with her, so she has readily forgiven him and keeps in almost daily contact through their laptops. (She actually initiates some of their exchanges.)

Alan checks into the Hyatt and discovers that the site of the King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade (KMET), a fictionalized version of King Abdullah Economic City, is an hour’s drive out in the desert. He oversleeps, thus missing the regular shuttle, so he calls for special transportation. His driver Yousef (Alexander Black) turns out to have lived in Alabama for a while and has Western music tastes, but unsuitable to Alan’s liking. When they arrive at the site of the proposed city there is only a large business building and a distant hostel—and a large tent in which Alan’s three-person team sit at laptops barely functional because of the weak WiFi, no air conditioning, and no food service. They eagerly expect him to fix things. However, when he goes to the lavishly appointed business center, the receptionist, her head covered and yet her face made up with the latest products out of Paris or New York, tells him that neither the King nor his representative have arrived. Possibly the next day.

During each of the following days Alan continues to oversleep, thus becoming dependent upon Yousef for his transportation. And each day the cool receptionist gives him the same story. And so the film takes on the semblance of the repetitious Ground Hog Day. Losing patience at last, Alan boards an elevator while the receptionist is away from her desk. Stepping off the elevator and surveying the fully equipped (including air conditioning) room, he encounters a Danish consultant named Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen) who gives him a bottle of illicit liquor, and later at a wild private party at her embassy, an opportunity for sex, which he politely rejects. Along the way a growth on his back gets out of control when the cheap plastic chairs he sits in collapse twice, and he tries to lance the painful lump with an unsanitized knife. This brings him to the clinic where Dr. Zahra Hakim (Sarita Choudhury) treats him. She is such a rarity in the country, a female doctor, that Yousef can scarcely believe it.

Zahra will become more than just Alan’s doctor as the story progresses, and Yousef also will become an important part of Alan’s life, taking him to his distant home which includes passing through Islam’s holiest city. This creates a moment of tension because Yousef, engaged in conversation, misses the turnoff designated for non-Muslims to by-pass the holy city. Alan is given a Saudi checkered head covering, but if the stern-faced policemen that pass them in the city’s crowded streets should look at them closely, they could be in serious trouble.

During the course of the story we see signs and effects of globalism, including Alan’s part in it. There are several short flashbacks to the moment when Alan has gathered the workers of his factory to inform them that as a result of a deal he has negotiated their jobs are being sent to China. At the KMET during his climbing up the stairs of an unfinished building he encounters a group of foreign workers. During a break the immigrants are watching two of their members engaged in a fight. At some point Yousef wryly observes, “We don’t have unions; we have Filipinos.”

Alan’s seemingly interminable waiting does come to an end, and it looks very favorable for the team of Americans, but…The conclusion is positive, though unexpected—by Alan and us viewers. Sometimes what we get out of the surprising twists in life are even better than what we had planned. This is one of those little films with a big star that is sure to delight those looking for comedy with a touch of the exotic and the dramatic.

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

Freeheld (2015)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 43 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

 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?

Isaiah 58:6

Love is patient; love is kind…It bears all things,

believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

1 Corinthians 13:4 & 7

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Laurel & Stacie are unconventional lovers in this gay rights film.             (c) Lions Gate

Director Peter Sollet’s film starts out like a police thriller, changes soon into a romance, albeit a lesbian one, then a medical tale of fighting against cancer, and winds up as a social justice struggle to obtain equal rights. I went into this film not knowing any of the above—just that it starred Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, which was enough for me to want to see it.

Although critical reaction has been very mixed, I was deeply moved by the plight of the two women protagonists, and, when Steve Carell entered the picture as an aggressive gay rights activist, delighted by the light touch he brought to the serious struggle. Writer Ron Nyswaner’s script is apparently an expansion of Cynthia Wade’s 2007 film, which won an Academy Award for a documentary on a short subject. Ms. Moore plays veteran police detective Laurel Hester of New Jersey’s Ocean County. Highly decorated, she is in line for a lieutenancy. Her partner  Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) would like to become more than her trusted colleague, but he is unaware of her long held secret concerning her gender preference. When she meets the younger Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), the two are smitten, even though they get off to a rocky start. Stacie is unaware that Laurel is a cop until during a date the latter wards off some would be robbers with the gun she always carries with her.

After registering their relationship the two buy a house at a discrete distance from police headquarters, the deed in Laurel’s name because she is the one with the funds. Stacie manages to secure a mechanics job after showing the owner in a tire changing contest that she is faster, despite her small size, than another mechanic. Shortly after they have settled into their home Dane shows up with a large plant as a house gift, receiving the shock of his life when he learns that his long-time partner is a lesbian. (However, he says later that he is more upset by her not trusting him enough to reveal her secret than he is about her gender preference.)

The social justice issue arises when Laurel learns that she has cancer, and that it will be terminal. Stacie tries to deny the inevitable, but Laurel, knowing better, petitions the Ocean County Freeholders Board to transfer her pension benefits to Stacie upon her death. For various reasons the Board members in a private meeting turn her request down, even though a state law does allow them to do so. Without these benefits Stacie will be sure to lose their house.

With great trepidation from Stacie, Laurel decides to make her request public at the next meeting of the Board of Freeholders. They again turn her down, but the issue will not go away because a reporter writes a story about Laurel and her plea. Enter Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), both a rabbi and a gay rights activist who knows how to stir things up with his hand-held bull horn. And he is not alone, bringing a bus load of other activists who chant with him to the Board, “You have the power! You have the power!” Life becomes very hard for the members of the Board, who try to remain adamant in their refusal to grant Laurel’s request, one that would be routine if Stacie were a man.

Dane supports Laurel, though he is as dubious as Stacie is about the bold and brassy Goldstein. In one exchange he responds to Goldstein’s declaration, “This is an outrageous miscarriage of justice. Their next meeting we show up with 100 protesters,” with, “Radicals and strangers from New York aren’t going to convince these guys.” Goldstein answers, “I am not a radical. I am a middle-class, Jewish homosexual from New Jersey. How about you, sweetheart?” “I’m a straight, white, ex-Protestant, atheist cop. You okay with that, ‘sweetheart?’” The activist declares, “I am. That is very hot.”

The many scenes in which the Board members discuss Laurel’s request are very interesting. One of them for religious reasons rejects her case out of hand. Another wrestles with his conscience because he recognizes the justice of her case. Others are opposed at first just because society rejects the gay lifestyle. All are concerned about an upcoming election, and so remain determined to resist the claim lest they lose votes. If only that loud, brash guy with his megaphone would stop stirring up the crowds!

The story’s going national puts even more pressure on the Freeholders. Thus we see the importance in our modern society of agitators and media publicity in bringing about change. This is something that the Hebrew prophets would have readily understood, Isaiah shouting his condemnations of injustice of king and people as he strode naked through the streets of Jerusalem, knowing that he could not be ignored by using such a shocking act. And Jeremiah standing in the crowded doorway of the temple to denounce the unfaithfulness of the nation also knew how to get his message out to the people.

Also worthy of note are the scenes set at the police station where Dane risks his career by attempting to get his fellow cops to come out and publicly support the colleague they had once liked and admired. He tries to shame them by pointing out that hundreds of other locals have come to the hearings in support of Laurel, but none of them have. Their instilled-from-birth homophobia proves to be a major barrier, and also one of them harbors his own secret. How they come around, for the most part, might seem a bit too Capraesque for some, but it is still inspiring. (If only the soundtrack music had been subtler instead of telling us what to feel during some of the scenes!)

Given the prominence of gender equality in political debates and the news, this movie is very timely. People of faith will differ concerning the film’s acceptance of the gay lifestyle, but they should be able to ralley around the issue of the injustice that would leave Stacie homeless. There are far more Scriptures in support of the outsider and the despised than those few misunderstood Scripture passages opposed to homosexuality. If you appreciated Philadelphia, you should enjoy this flawed but still inspiring dramatized documentary celebrating two brave women and two brave men.

This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the Nov. 2015 issue of VP, available for purchase on this site.

The Age of Adaline (2015)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 50 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

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The repartee between Jennifer/Adaline and her suitor Ellis is worthy of the romantic films of the 30’s & 40’s.     (c) 2015 Lionsgate Films.

We might add to the Genesis passage that “it also is not good for the woman to be alone,” as director Lee Toland Krieger and the marvelous cast of his film demonstrate. In this magic realism tale Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively), born near the beginning of the 20th Century, has lived a solitary existence because of the strange occurrence that occurred when she was 29. Most Hollywood starlets would pay a king’s ransom for Adaline’s immortal condition, but she comes to see her eternal beauty as a burden, which makes this a fascinating tale, as well as a romantic occasion for the perfect date film.

A narrator starts with Adaline (Blake Lively) in 2014 San Francisco obtaining from a youthful forger a fake driver’s license identifying her as Jennifer Larson. She works in the archives of the SF Library. Then the narrator backtracks to the early 1930s when Adaline is trapped in a car submerged in icy water and a lightning bolt strikes, transforming her body so that it stops aging. She marries and bears a daughter, but her young husband dies. As those about her grow older she remains 29, mistaken by casual observers as the sister of her daughter Flemming (at age 20 played by Cate Richardson). Thus every decade or so she moves and changes careers, never sharing her secret with any one but her daughter or allowing herself to become entangled with a man. Over the 80 years since her accident she has buried too many of her beloved pet spaniels to grieve over the loss of another husband. She also keeps on the run because she fears what others might do were they to learn of her strange condition: in a sequence set during the paranoid McCarthy era she barely manages to escape from two sinister Federal agents trying to take her into custody. Were this a Marvel Film, the plot would have gone in a very different direction! Indeed her fantastic transformation, “explained” in pseudoscientific terms is triggered by a process similar to those that changed Spiderman and other super heroes and super villains.

In the present time Jenny, the name on her new I.D., is coping with the plan of her daughter, whom she now introduces as her grandmother (Ellen Burstyn), to enter into an Arizona retirement home. At a New Years Eve party at a fancy hotel philanthropist Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman) is drawn to her and follows her out of the ballroom and into the hallway. He keeps trying to connect with her, but she rebuffs him. In the elevator he persists. She tells him that she first heard his line “from a young Bing Crosby type.” (Little does he know she could have met the real Bing!) He plies her with a line from a poem by the 19th Century British writer Leigh Hunt, “Jenny Kissed Me,” “Say I’m weary, say I’m sad. /Say that health and wealth have miss’d me./ “Say I’m growing old, but add, Jenny kiss’d me.” (To see how appropriate it is to the story see the whole the poem at: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/180845.)

Of course Ellis will not give up, and eventually Jenny agrees to go with him for a weekend with his parents William and Kathy Jones (Harrison Ford and Kathy Baker). The tone grows heavier when William sets eyes on his son’s beau. The older man recognizes Jenny as the Adaline whom he had wooed while a student in England and who had stood him up while, fingering the box that held an engagement ring, he had awaited her on a park bench. Her explanation that Adaline was her mother puts off the full revelation of her secret, but only for a time.

Although there is not enough humor to label this a romantic comedy, there are many witty lines, and a delightful sequence in which Jennifer joins the family in a game of Trivial Pursuits. Ellis and his sister warn her that William is on a 50-game+ winning streak. However, A daline has experienced first-hand many of the events referenced on the cards. Poor Henry does not stand a chance, the result being that he has to swallow his pride and endure the good-natured taunts of his family.

The resolution of Adaline/Jennifer’s dilemma would have been hokey in any other film, but by the time it arrives we are so invested in the engaging characters that this does not matter. The top five cast members are so convincing that it is easy to cast reason and logic aside and embrace the magic realism. Blake Lively, looking gorgeous and genuine in the costumes of several different eras, surely has come into her own now as a major star. Harrison Ford’s performance, although he is in just the last third of the film, is moving, one of his best in years. He is convincingly astonished, confused, and then wonderfully gallant in the marriage anniversary scene in which he pays tribute to his present wife. He is the perfect picture of the man who lost his first Great Love and who has accepted and learned to love his second best. Kathy Baker does well at showing a twinge of jealously at her husband’s attitude toward their son’s lovely partner. Michiel Huisman and Lively interact very well together, and the few scenes in which the older Ellen Burstyn appears with Lively are fun, being visually ironic.

Along with its entertainment value the film offers opportunity to talk about aging, beauty, and immortality. Adaline’s loneliness and her long-time inability to enter into the common joys of ordinary mortals remind me a little of the desire of one of the angel’s in German filmmaker Wim Wender’s spiritual odyssey Wings of Desire in which one of two angels watching over Berlin during the Cold War longs to become mortal so he can experience human experiences. Both films make the viewer more aware and appreciative of the miracle we call the human experience. Like the author of the Song of Solomon, Adaline leads us to believe “love is strong as death,” more valuable than all the wealth of the world.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the May 2015 issue of Visual Parables.