Film Capsules January 2014

On Cable

Zorba the Greek

I am placing this film capsule first because of the time constraint. Turner Classic Films will air this, one of the great films of the 20th century, on Saturday afternoon (3:30 EST), Jan. 11. Perhaps Anthony Quinn’s greatest role, Zorba expresses both the joy and the pain of life through dancing When all their hard work to open a mine on Crete end in catastrophe, Zorba brings Basil, his painfully shy companion, from spiritual death to resurrection in an unforgettable way. If the time is inconvenient, be sure to set your DCR. An extensive discussion guide for exploring the film is free –just click onto the title above. (Or go to:


In Theaters

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Rated PG-13. Psalm 72:12-14

Of the many Mandela films this new work seeks to cover his whole life, from his days as a boy being initiated into manhood by his Xhosa tribe, through the years as a young lawyer with a roving eye (he is not shown as a saint), his courtship of and marriage to Winnie, his involvement in sabotage, arrest, trial, long imprisonment on Robben Island, to his negotiations with the government, release from prison, work of reconciling and preventing a bloodbath when apartheid was dismantled, to his election as the first freely elected president of South Africa. The film is a powerful testimony to a man able to move from violence to reconciliation, in stark contrast to a woman still enmeshed in the desire for vengeance, and thus captive to violence. (The film shows enough of the harassment and imprisonment of Winnie Mandela to make the comparison possible.) A film not to be missed—and calling for discussion of the dynamics of defusing the hostility of an enemy. For thoughts and other films about this liberator see my two Mandela blogs at  A third one will be posted in the near future.

The review with discussion questions is in the Jan. Issue of VP.

For thoughts and other films about this liberator see my two Mandela blogs at You might appreciate these earlier films.


Rated R. Psalm 142:4.

This fascinating romantic comedy updates the genre (the film is also sci-fi) to the technology-obsessed 21st century, the story set in the near future when virtually everybody is walking around listening or speaking into their portable devise. A lonely man going through a divorce falls in love with the computer operating system controlling his house, the female voice calling itself “Samantha.” Often funny, sometimes moving, the film pushes the exploration of how A.I. might expand beyond what we imagine, but also raises the question, can bodiless sex, minus any touch, really overcome loneliness for long. This is R rated, and so it may be questionable to show in a church when available on DVD, but nonetheless would be a great discussion starter, especially for young adults exploring technology and its limits.

The full review with discussion questions will be in the Jan. 2014 issue of VP.


Rated R. Ex 20.12; Eph 6.4; Luke 15:11.

It wasn’t long into the movie that I realized this was a reversal of Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son. This time it is the alcoholic father Woody (played by Bruce so convincingly that he is bound to win a Best Actor Oscar nomination) who is the prodigal, a Montanan wanting to travel to the “far country” of Nebraska in order to pick up some prize money he believes he has coming from a magazine subscription agency. Tired of trying to stop his nearly demented father from every time he treks out onto the highway, David, his long-suffering younger son (yes, there are “two son” also in this visual parable) agrees to take off work and drive him there. What a time they have, with David showing what unconditional love is like!

The review with discussion questions is in the Jan. Issue of VP.

Saving Mrs. Banks

Rated PG-13. Lam 3:19-21 The Message

This Disneyfied version of how Mary Poppins was brought to the screen shines with Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, the author of the book that Mickey Mouse’s creator had been trying to bring to the screen for almost 20 ears. Travers, as we see in flashbacks to her early life, had written the book out of the painful experience of her alcoholic father’s many failures, so she was at first extremely reluctant to let a man whose sentimentality is so prominently displayed in all of his movies ruin her book. The process of winning her over is fascinating to watch. This is a worthy addition to the “making of a movie” genre, even though in real life the author hated the movie so much because Disney would not make changes in the final cut that she refused him any further access to her novels.

The review with discussion questions is in the Jan. Issue of VP.

 The Wolf of Wall Street

Rated R. Romans 1:28-32

If you can endure the Niagara-like torrent of the “F” word, this take off on the rise and fall of a real life Wall Street crook will be of interest. Leonardo di Caprio’s Jordan Belfot is so persuasive at seducing hapless victims into buying worthless penny stocks that the snake of the Garden of Eden story could learn a lot from him.

The review with discussion questions is in the Jan. Issue of VP.


Rated PG-13. Psalm 72.4; Matthew 18:21-22

One of the best films of the year, this true story stars Judi Dench as a mother still agonizing over the fate of her out of wedlock son born 50 years earlier. Virtually cast off and imprisoned in an Irish convent by her father, the teenager was shamed by the nuns and made to work in the laundry, allowed to see her son for just one hour a day. When he was 3 the nuns “sold” him to a wealthy couple without telling her or even allowing her to say goodbye. Now she engages the help of a down-on-his-luck journalist, he a lapsed Catholic who hates the church, and she, still a believer. As we follow the journey of this odd couple, we are treated to a film filled with humor, grace, faith, and, best of all, forgiveness. The film could be viewed from a perspective of two contrasting lifestyles, one of faith & forgiveness, the other that keeps one stuck with anger and resentment, unable to forgive past wrongs.

The review with discussion questions is in the Jan. Issue of VP.

 The Book Thief

Rated PG-13.             Micah 6:8; Psalm 10.12; Colossians 3.12:

Based on a popular novel about a girl in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, this is a powerful endorsement of reading, books, and sacrificial relationships.  Liesel, given up to foster care because her Communist mother realizes she will soon follow her husband into a concentration camp, starts by picking up and not returning a book that fell from the pocket of the man digging her brother’s grave; continues with her snatching a smoldering book from a book-burning event to celebrate Hitler’s birthday; and moves on through “borrowing” books from the library of the mayor’s wife.

The review with discussion questions is in the Jan. Issue of VP.

Frozen (In 3D)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 40 min. Our Advisories Violence 3; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.

Psalm 35.20; Proverbs 3.3

The Disney animators have again risen to the level of Beauty and the Beast, giving our young daughters another strong heroine to emulate. Set in a Scandinavian kingdom, it is the story of two princesses, the older one of whom has dangerous powers—through her hands and she can turn anything into ice and create snow. When her power gets out of control during her coronation and changes summer into perpetual winter, she flees from her angry and fearful people. Her sister Anna sets out to find and work with her to restore. The tuneful songs make this seem like a Broadway musical. Too good a film to confine just to a children’s audience—go see this with or without a child!

The review with discussion questions is in the Jan. Issue of VP.

 The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Rated PG-13. Psalm 7.9; John 1.5

Although too long and including too many bloody battles, this is far better than the first of the trilogy which dealt at such great length with the wizard Gandalf inviting 13 dwarfs to supper at the home of the unwilling hobbit Bilbo Baggins and the beginning of a quest. This middle film of the trilogy based on Tolkien’s novel deals with, appropriately, the middle portion of the trek in which the little band trying to restore to the dwarf king the realm now under the sway of the fierce dragon Smaug, finds our heroes contending with vicious monster-warriors known as Orcs, a skin-changing bear/giant, fierce wolf-like creatures, giant spiders, and even unfriendly elves who want no part of the outside world and its warring races. As Bilbo uses the magical Ring he had found in the first film, we see the beginning of its corrupting effect upon those who try to use it for their benefit. Best sequence is a roller coaster of a prison escape of the party in barrels that send them cascading down a wild river, with Orcs on the shore trying to capture or kill them and two leaping elves protecting them. If there were an Oscar for “Best Escape Sequence,” this would win it hands-down.

The review with discussion questions is in the Jan. Issue of VP>

 American Hustle

Rated R. Proverbs 21:6; Proverbs 6:12-15

The film is loosely based on the Abscam scandal back in the late 70s and 80s, an FBI sting operation using a fake Arab sheik that brought down numerous politicians and others. David O. Russell, director of last year’s delightful Silver Linings Playbook, has given us perhaps the best con artist film since 1973’s king of the genre The Sting­—and there have been some very good ones since then—see The Grifters; Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; House of Games; Catch Me If You Can: and a musical beloved by many, The Music Man. A pair of con artists Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser are caught by FBI Richie DiMaso and forced to work with him in a sting operation to bring down Camden, N.J., Mayor Carmine Polito and a number of bribe-taking US Representatives and Senators. Funny, suspenseful and conducive to discussing many ethical issues, the film contains some of the best performances of the year.

The review with discussion questions is in the Jan. Issue of VP>

The Armstrong Lie

Rated PG. Proverbs 12.22.

While we’re thinking about con artists (see American Hustle in case you skipped it), Alex Gibney, whose other documentaries are top-notch (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side), goes into considerable detail on the man who perhaps is the sports world’s greatest con artist, Lance Armstrong. The filmmaker started out to make an inspirational film on what seemed to be the greatest com back of the century—from cancer victim to biking champion—but shelved the film when charges that the athlete had been doping grew from whispers into a crescendo that no longer could be ignored. After Armstrong’s confession to Ophra Winfrey, he added a fresh material, resulting in a cautionary film supporting that old saying, “If it seems too good to be true—Armstrong’s incredible feats against all odds—then it probably isn’t.” A fascinating tale of a complex man whose wonderful charity work was based on deception, it offers much to think about and discuss on ethical issues.

The review with discussion questions is in the Jan. Issue of VP>

 The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Rated PG. Ecc 5:7a.

Here is that rare remake that proves to be better than the original. My memory of the original was that it was a delightful film with Danny Kaye at his tongue-twisting best, but when I watched it again recently on Turner Classic Movies, I realized how shallow and meaningless was the plot. Ben Stiller has raised the level of the story by setting it in LIFE Magazine’s transition from print to on-line publication. The romance, daydreams, and ultimate globe-circling trek of Mitty to recover a lost negative needed for the last cover of the print edition are far more interesting and meaningful. Despite what so many critics have written, this almost overlooked film is a delightful family film—young viewers will enjoy the heroine’s young son and the related skate boarding sequences.

The full review with discussion questions will be in the Jan. 2014 issue of VP.

47 Ronin

Rated PG. Deut. 25:15.

Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa gave us Seven Samurai, and now American director Carl Rinsch offers us 47, transforming a Japanese historical legend into a fantasy, complete with special effects (the dragon is spectacular) and 3-D. Keenu Reeves is Kai, a half-breed who leads 46 ronin, reduced from samurai status to disgraced ronins when their shogun was brutally slain by his enemy, to restore their dead lord’s honor. Lots of daring do and wizardry from the witch in league with the villain. The ending, true to the Japanese bushido code that strictly enforces the command of obedience, will be very hard for Americans to accept.

The full review with discussion questions will be in the Jan. 2014 issue of VP.

Last Vegas

Rated PG-13. Proverbs 17.9.

Four aging buddies agree to meet in Las Vegas for a bachelor party just prior to one of them, hitherto a bachelor playing the field, plans to marry a woman young enough to be his daughter (maybe even granddaughter). Despite some scenes of lust and drug use, the movie turns out to have some tender and insightful moments about friendship, marital loyalty, and sacrifice. The main reason for seeing it however is to watch four screen legends–Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline—work together. Also Mary Steenburgen adds much to the story.

The review with discussion questions is in the Jan. Issue of VP.

On DVD/Netflix

 Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas

Rated PG-13. Galatians 3.28.

This prolific Atlanta-based African American filmmaker again blends piety, naughtiness, his saucy character with a swift, sharp tongue (Madea), and a touch of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? This time, of course, it’s the black friend of Madea, Eileen, who is upset over the marriage of her daughter Lacey to the white man whom she first thinks is a hired farmhand, Connor. The latter’s parents, who look like they belong at a Klan rally or lynching, become Madea’s allies, they having approved of the match before Eileen finds out about it at the Christmas gathering. Played by Larry the Cable Guy and Kathy Najimy, the pair are hilarious scenes stealers. Some of the film’s corn and dialogue make you wince, but much of it is great fun (and some of it a bit raunchy for children). Especially amusing is Madea’s cockeyed retelling of the Nativity story to a middle school class daring her to arouse their interest, followed by her tying to a cross the pesky girl who irritates her—some unwitting theology that cradle and cross do go together.

The review with discussion questions is in the Jan. Issue of VP.

The Christmas Candle

Rated PG. Matthew 5:14-16; Hebrews 2:3b-4.

This faith-based film, adapted from popular author Max Lucado’s 2006 novel, has high production values, good acting (save for one performance), and raises the question of miracles in a world becoming dominated by the new science arising from the Age of Enlightenment. Set in a small English village at the end of the 19th century the new pastor Rev. David Richmond has given up belief in miracles after the untimely death of his wife and child. Reducing Christianity to an ethical system, he rejects the villagers’ belief that every 25 years an angel blesses one of the candle maker’s tapers that will grant the buyer’s deepest wish. With a plot that is pretty predictable, like virtually all such films made by believers too anxious to win souls, the film has already closed at the only theater showing it in the Cincinnati area—thus you will have to find it on Netflix or DVD. By the way, the exception to the acting kudus is a villager played by Susan Boyle—but she more than makes up for this by her wonderful singing.

The review with discussion questions is in the Jan. Issue of VP.

Mister Scrooge to See You

Not Rated. Isaiah 42.10a

This extension of Charles Dickens’s great Christmas fantasy does not rise to any classical height, but it does offer some good entertainment for families. The film starts in London where Scrooge, now transformed into a benevolent lover of Christmas, is visited again by Jacob Marley’s Ghost. He is sent forward in time and place to 21st century America where Timothy Cratchit VI is about to foreclose on the mortgage of a woman whose restaurant has proven a haven for the homeless and good-hearted. Yes, the descendent of Tiny Tim has been corrupted by the love of money (just like those capitalist Americans!) into a likeness of ole Ebenezer Scrooge. Writer/director Steve Zambo provides some amusing moments with Scrooge trying to cope with 21st century gadgets, customs, and language, and of course another instance of character transformation.

Available on DVD  from: Vision Video, P.O. Box 540, Worcester, PA 19490. (610) 584-3500 or (800)523-0226. .

The review with discussion questions is in the Dec. 2013. Issue of VP.

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