Each month, I post a series of very short film reviews—focusing mainly on films that will be fully reviewed in Visual Parables Journal. This capsule-sized feature was started several years ago as a service for clergy, newsletter editors and teachers to alert them to films worth seeing (or, in some cases, as a warning of ones to avoid). Readers are encouraged to reprint any or all of these capsules—as long as your republication includes the line:
(c) Ed McNulty’s www.VisualParables.org
(Arabic with English subtitles)
Rated R. Jeremiah 17:9
This is one of those rare films that immerses you in an alien culture, leaving you at the end with a little more awareness of why someone unexpectedly does the inexplicable. Co-written and directed by Ziad Doueiri, this is a dark and troubling film about a dark and troubling situation–the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Dr. Amin Jaafari, a Muslim surgeon who has chosen to live and work in Tel Aviv where he receives its highest honor for a doctor, is devastated when his wife, killed by a suicide bomber at a café, is accused of being that bomber. After the suspicious police confirm that he was not involved, the rest of the film is his parallel spiritual and physical journeys back to his and his wife’s hometowns of Nablus and Nazareth in Palestine where he confronts a truth so terrible that it will scar him forever, making him an outsider to both Israelis and to his Arab family. One of the most spiritually challenging films of the year, Lebanese-born Ziad Doueiri’s film is as helpful for understanding the Palestinian viewpoint as was the 2005 film about two friends preparing to become suicide bombers, Paradise Now. (Note that star Ali Suliman was a co-star in the earlier film.)
Lee Daniel’s the Butler
Rated PG-13. Psalm 42.9; Luke 12:49-53; Luke 15:17a
How propitious that this powerful drama, based on an article in the Washington Post, was released during the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech! The film’s black butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) may be a fictionalized version of the real Eugene Allen, but the events he witnessed, inside and outside the White House, are true, indeed historic, including Pres. Eisenhower’s sending in troops to protect the students integrating the Little Rock High School; the Kennedys and the Freedom Riders; the Selma March and Pres. Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech; the Mississippi Summer Feedom Project; the urban riots following the murder of Dr. King; and much, much more. Every person of faith should see this film and discuss it with others. White and African American pastors should seek each other out and see if their congregations are willing to meet together and talk about the issues raised. Some of the conversations the black characters have among themselves will surprise many whites about their assumptions and views, one example being how acclaimed actor Sidney Poittier is perceived. It is so good to see a film in which the story of blacks is told without bringing in on an equal basis a white character to share the star credits. Oh yes, the constellation of famous whites playing the supporting roles has garnered lots of attention, but essentially this is an African American story told by African Americans! (A longer review with discussion questions is available at http://visualparables.blogspot.com/.)
Rated PG-13. Luke 6:24-25
Reflecting the current controversy over the 1% wealthy versus the rest of us, this is Woody Allen’s best film in a long while. You are sure to hear Cate Blanchett’s name mentioned when Oscar fever strikes later this year. Her portrayal of the once wealthy Jasmine is unforgettable, perhaps the only other portrayal of a Narcissistic woman that compares being that of Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara. The” blue” in the title describes Jasmine’s mood as, having lost all of her money and assets when her fraudulent financier husband is sent to prison, she has to leave the glitter of New York Society for the shabby San Francisco apartment of her estranged sister located in a run-down district. Even worse is her sister’s boyfriend, whom Jasmine considers just a step above a cockroach. She attempts to start her life over, but can such a person do so while keeping her shady past a secret? This is a fascinating, detailed study of a woman whose worst enemy is herself. Not to be missed!
Rated R. Proverbs 15:3; Psalm 10:8.
In this world where surveillance cameras are placed virtually everywhere to counter terrorism, who is watching the watchers? Set in London, two defense lawyers assigned to defend a Muslim bomber find themselves up against England’s M15, and these ruthless agents definitely are not Smiley’s People. With all of the debate about the US government’s intelligence gathering this is both a timely and an engrossing thriller, the plot of which follows a different arc than such similar films as Three Days of the Condor. This is a thinking person’s thriller way beyond the likes of such shallow male fantasies as Mission Impossible, and Die Hard.
Despicable Me 2
Rated PG. Ezekiel 11:19
It’s the summer movie desert time of year when all the boom-boom, chase-chase blockbusters are dominating the screens, so it should come as no surprise that at this moment two of the best films are two children’s animated films. The once villainous Gru has become the doting foster father of three little girls when he is recruited by a curvaceous agent of a spy agency to investigate a super villain who has a serum that can change the loveable little minions that serve Gru and others into vicious little monsters. Lots of fun and laughter here.
Rated R. Psalm 10:17-18; Luke 4:18
At last, a summer blockbuster that doesn’t insult the intelligence! South Africa-born director/writer Neill Blomkamp, who gave us District 9, sets his dystopian epic 140 years in the future where current social and economic trends have resulted in the very wealthy and the very poor. The 1% live in luxury and good health on a giant space station named Elysium, while the 99% toil on the polluted Earth, kept in subjugation by ruthless robot cops. Matt Damon is the everyman born to “to let the oppressed go free.” The simplistic ending does not detract too much from one’s enjoyment of the film.
Rated R. Psalm 40:9
Based on the true story of 22 year-old black man Oscar Grant, inexplicably shot by the transit police of the San Francisco subway system, this is a gripping story even though we know how the plot turns out. Killed just right after News Year 2009, the film’s relevance is underlined by the more recent killing of Trayvon Martin. Both cases chillingly teach that young black men are in mortal danger when confronted by representatives of the law. This is another film that moves beyond entertainment into the realm of social justice. Every person of faith concerned for social justice should see this film!
Rated PG-13. Psalm 140:5
Ethan Hawke plays an ex-race car driver forced by an unseen master criminal to endure a series of trials if he is to save his kidnapped wife. The tests involve a lot of fleeing in a fancy stolen car from a fleet of police cars in this thriller set in Sofia, Bulgaria. He is soon joined by the teenaged owner, who against her will becomes a key operator in the complicated events. Though it could do with a lot less of the car chases—these soon become repetitive—the thriller will get your heart to pumping, but the ending will be disappointing, the scriptwriter definitely not sharing the psalmist’s faith in a God of justice.
Rated PG-13. Matthew 9:17.
Ashton Kutcher’s performance as Steve Jobs is the main reason to see this first of two films about the co-founder of Apple. (Aaron Sorkin is adapting from Walter Isaacson’s exhaustive 2011 biography a film not yet scheduled for release.) Although this film is not too deep, Kutcher looks like, walks like, and sounds a little like the real Jobs. The story follows the entrepreneur’s life from his brief attendance at Reed College and races through his trip to India and assorted other ventures, including his work at Atari where his genius was evident, but his lack of social skills earned him the title of “a—h—“ This warts and all film could have benefited from more details about his Zen Buddhist beliefs as well as some more about his friend and partner Steve Wozniak.
The Lone Ranger
Rated PG-13. Psalm 34:16
This rebooting of the once popular franchise is definitely not the Lone Ranger that my father and I eagerly listened to at 6:30 PM on our old Philco radio. Part camp, and more Pirates of the Caribbean (or should we say Texas) this remake is such a mess of anachronisms (toy electric train in 1869!) and CGI enhanced action scenes that are both too long and too unbelievable, that it is no wonder that it came in third to Despicable Me 2 on its opening week. The cartoon is actually far more realistic! The humor, with Johnny Depp’s Tonto given the best lines, does make this fun to watch, but I recommend that you wait and catch this at a cheap seats cinema—as they say on TV, “Don’t waste your money!”
Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
Rated PG-13. Psalm 92:5-8.
Here is one more fantasy akin to Harry Potter and the Twilight series aimed at young girls. Based on Cassandra Clare’s series of fantasies, we follow the exploits of teenaged Clary living with her mother in a Brooklyn apartment until the latter is kidnapped and her daughter learns that she is a shadow hunter, half human and half angel. Lots of special effects and so many complications of plot that Tolstoy’s War and Peace seems like a simple short story. Parents will want to be wary (definitely not for girls below the age of 12 due to violent images) because of the tattoos sported by the characters, and one person’s burning a design onto her skin—far too similar to the problem of cutting their skin that some teens are addicted to. And yes, darn it, there will be sequel. Also, one character speaks of the battle between Good and Evil which can never be won. This flies against a Christian view that there will indeed be a victor in this battle. The ancient struggle between Manichaeism and Christianity continues. If you can go to just one fantasy, then make it to the Percy Jackson one.
Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters
Rated PG. Joshua 1.9; 1 Corinthians 10.24
The second in the series based on Rick Riord’s books, this updating of the Greek mythic hero Perseus, offers lots of excitement as Percy and his band of heroes travel from the relative safety of Camp Halfblood to secure the Golden Fleece, located somewhere in the Sea of Monsters, better known to us as The Bermuda Triangle. There is a pleasing mix of humor, daring deeds and sacrificial service to hold the attention of both adults and older children. I write “older” because a minimal knowledge of Greek mythology is needed to appreciate all the allusions to myth, and, more importantly, some of the monsters and adventure violence might frighten young children.
Rated PG. Proverbs 17.17
As in Cars the planes, trucks and other mobile machines are given distinct human personalities in this animated tale about a global airplane race. Our hero Dusty, tired of flying back and forth over farm fields, longs to enter the world race. His friends encourage him to do so, but Dusty harbors a secret—he is afraid of heights. How he overcomes this, as well as the disdain of the bigger airplanes who resent what they regard as his intrusion into their elite circle, makes for enjoyable viewing for young and old. As in Cars, in this under dog tale there are good life lessons about friendship, self-sacrifice, courage, and the need for perseverance.
Even the elderly get their due in this action sequel about a gathering of retired super spies. “RED” means “Retired, Extremely Dangerous,” and so they are as they come out of retirement (again) to track down a missing nuclear device, and thus, of course, save the world. The bomb was somehow smuggled piece by piece into the Kremlin, so out versatile band must penetrate one of the most heavily guarded complexes on the planet. The main reason to see (preferably at a cheap seat theater) this violence-affirming thing is Helen Mirren, whose presence enhances even mindless, unbelievable schlock as this.
The Spectacular Now
Rated R. Luke 15:17; Philippians 2:4.
Based on the novel by Tim Tharp, this is an engrossing coming of age story worthy of John Hughes (remember The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles?). Under achiever high school student Sutter, in a series of flashbacks, recalls his relationships with classmates as he struggles at his computer answering the question on his college entrance exam about what hardship he has faced and overcome. Neither a jock nor academically gifted, Sutter has become popular by being the goofy life of the party—and imbibing from his silver flask. When, after waking up from an all night binge, he decides to help the socially overlooked Aimee, his life begins to change. Actors, excellent script and direction combine to make this a memorable film exploring youth about to become adults. It is unfortunate that coarse language and a love scene earned this an R rating, barring the very members of its potential audience from seeing it on their own, those under 17. If church leaders carefully explain (after seeing the film themselves, of course!) the R rating to parents and secure their permission, this would be a good film for a high school youth group to watch and discuss.
Rated R. Psalm 52:3-4.
Lots of action in this undercover crime thriller that Denzil Washington and Mark Wahlberg must have made either for the money or the fun of playing two buddies who, during the course of the movie, wind up shooting each other—not to kill, just to make a point. They seem to be bank robbers when we first encounter them, but when their haul turns out to be $43 million instead of the expected $3 million, they realize they are in deep doo-doo–with a Mexican drug lord, and with the CIA and Naval Intelligence. Each is surprised to learn that the other has gone into deep undercover—one for the DEA and the other for Naval Intelligence. The easy acceptance of violence and unbelievable stunts make this of questionable value: best see it in a cheap seats theater, or better, when on a boring evening you can catch it for free on cable or TV.
Unfinished Song (Song for Marion)
Rated PG-13. Psalm 96.12
Stephen Sondheim is quoted as saying, “If I cannot fly, let me sing.” That is certainly Marion’s view in Paul Andrew William’s London-set film about an elderly couple devoted to each other. Even though she has terminal cancer, Marion refuses to stop going to the eccentric choir made up of seniors and led by the perky young Elizabeth. Marion is still filled with the joy of life even though death is just around the corner. Husband Arthur, however, somehow, for reasons unspecified, checked out of life years ago, so he refuses to sit in on the choir practices, preferring to sulk outside while smoking a cigarette. The crux of the story is the slow, painful transformation he undergoes after Marion passes away in her sleep, a process that might well get you also to sing about the possibilities of life. The three principal actors Vanessa Redgrave, Terrence Stamp, and Gemma Arterton, backed up by a fabulous group of senior singers, make the film memorable.
The Way Way Back
Rated PG-13. Matthew 10:31
Poor Duncan, a 14 year-old boy with an unfriendly older teenaged sister and a newly divorced mother (Pam) who is so enamored with her snarky boyfriend Trent that she cannot see the hurt in her son, is dragged along to a beachside cabin to spend the summer together. He would much rather be with his dad, but the latter claims his circumstances do not allow this. On the way Trent tells the morose boy that on a scale of 1 to 10 he rates Duncan as a “3.” Real paternal skills here! Fortunately at the cabin Duncan meets a friendly girl slightly older than he and, best of all, Owen, a crazy-talking guy who works at the Water Wizz Park and takes a shine to the lonely boy. This is one of the best coming-of-age films that I have seen, certainly one of the best of any kind of film of the summer. It is devoid of the juvenile humor of the usual Holly wood film about teens. There are adults who are jerks, but also some who have the wisdom of experience to impart, and the compassion to pass it on. Treat yourself and any teenagers you know by taking this one in.
John 11:25-26; Revelation 21:1-4
Marvel Comics has made a fortune from its popular movie versions of its many X-Men team members. In case you are not into comics (for Marvel, this label is a real misnomer!), X-Men are mutants blessed/cursed with super powers, such as the title character of this film who has retractable steel claws and an immortality that brings him more anguish than pleasure. Although escapist fare, the Marvel Comics films are interesting because they explore the cost to the character’s humanity of the possession of great powers, as well as the theme of a gifted person forced by society to be an outsider. Lots of soulful angst in their films.
Rated PG-13. Isaiah 53:3; James 3.5.
This fine Danish film packs such a wallop that you soon forget that it is subtitled. A former schoolteacher now working at a kindergarten thinks his bickering with his ex-wife over whom their teenaged son should live finds this problem dwarfed with a new problem that hits him like an atom bomb. Lucas is popular with all the children, and with little Klara, daughter of his best friend, in particular. But when he upsets her and she picks up from her older brothers iPod the word penis, she gives the head teacher the notion that Lucas has molested her. Without fully checking this out, she unwittingly unleashes a torrent of abuse on him. Unfolding from November through Christmas, a late scene at the church’s Christmas Eve Service combines the Nativity with crucifixion in an unforgettable way. If you’re looking for a different kind of film with an underlying Christmas theme, this is it!
To the Wonder
Rated R. Song of Solomon 8:6-7; Mark 9.24; Psalm 42:1-2; Matthew 5:43-44.
Terrence Malick’s films are hard for most people to stay with because they do not follow the usual 3-act narrative of the typical film. Like his Tree of Life, this film that explores two kinds of love—eros or human, and agape or spiritual–will be confusing at times, the scenes, beautifully photographed, but seeming far too random. (They made far more sense when I viewed the film a second time.) The stories, such as they are, deal with a young couple falling in and out of love and a compassionate priest going through what the ancient fathers called “the desert of the soul” as he struggles to feel the presence of God. There is very little dialogue among the characters, most of the words that we hear being the inner monologue of the characters as they wonder about existence and meaning. Best parts are the insights on love and commitment that we hear in snatches of the priest’s sermons, as well as in a creative use of St. Patrick’s Breastplate hymn near the climax of the film.