by Kathy Merkle-Raymond
A sermon by Kathy Merkle-Raymond, Director of Communal Care (preaching texts: Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18 and Matthew 5: 38-48)....Download
The following are films that have been reviewed by members of our Faith Issues in Films covenant group. If you’d like to join that small group, or one of the many other small groups available through our small group ministries, please click here.
In January 2013, Laura Poitras started receiving anonymous encrypted e-mails from “CITIZENFOUR,” who claimed to have evidence of illegal covert surveillance programs run by the NSA in collaboration with other intelligence agencies worldwide. Five months later, she and reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill flew to Hong Kong for the first of many meetings with the man who turned out to be Edward Snowden. She brought her camera with her. The resulting film is history unfolding before our eyes. Greenwald and Poitras maintain a correspondence wherein they both express reluctance to return to the United States.
Throughout, the film offers smaller vignettes that precede and follow Snowden’s Hong Kong interviews, including William Binney, speaking about NSA programs, and eventually testifying before the German Parliament regarding NSA spying in Germany.
A chronicle of Martin Luther King‘s campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.
From NY Times Review:
“Ms. DuVernay…has stripped away layers of fond memory and retroactively imposed harmony to touch the raw, volatile political reality of the mid-1960s — the courage and the cravenness, the idealism and the calculation, the visible and invisible divisions and rivalries. Dr. King, played by David Oyelowo with the requisite grace and dignity and also with streaks of humor, weariness and doubt, occupies a central place in “Selma,” but the film is less interested in affirming his greatness than in understanding its sources and limitations, and in restoring his human dimensions.”
Dan Cohen, a former social worker and founder of the nonprofit organization Music & Memory, fights against a broken healthcare system to demonstrate music’s ability to combat memory loss and restore a deep sense of self to those suffering from it.
From the LA Times Review: “Think of them as Lazarus moments. One by one, we are introduced to a series of elderly people with serious dementia. People who’ve barely said a word in years, who don’t recognize their own children, who sit around nursing homes like the living dead. Then Dan Cohen does something to them and it’s like a switch has been turned on. They become, all of a sudden, gloriously happy…
As detailed in the joyous, unexpectedly uplifting “Alive Inside,” winner of Sundance’s coveted audience award for U.S. documentary, what Cohen has done is place iPod earphones on these people’s heads and played what family members have told him is their favorite music.
In a world drowning in bad news about dementia — an estimated 5 million Americans currently suffer, 10 million serve as their caregivers, with both numbers inevitably going up — “Alive Inside” is positively tonic. Though it has points to make about things like the nature of nursing homes and the direction of medical treatment, its raison d’être is to literally show us the power of music to reach and delight the previously unreachable.”
Excellent. There are three good reasons to see “The East.” The first is that it’s an effective thriller built around a subject of significant contemporary interest. The second is that it’s a film of rare moral intelligence and integrity. The third is Brit Marling. She brings fierceness and understanding to the role of Sarah, who works for a company that does counter-eco-terrorism. As the movie begins, she gets the assignment to penetrate a cell of the radical environmental group known as The East, which has been launching expensive attacks on corporate polluters. Her goal is to gain their trust, discover their plans and prevent their attacks. Sarah isn’t working for the government, so her job doesn’t involve getting people arrested, even if that might be the ultimate outcome. Her job is to make her company look good to its corporate clients, by demonstrating its ability to anticipate and thwart expensive incidents before they happen. Within minutes, a couple of things are immediately noticeable about “The East.” Marling and co-writer Zal Batmanglij consistently find inventive and unexpected ways to build tension and suspense. This means that, though “The East” has all the seriousness of purpose we associate with smart art films, it doesn’t have the usual longueurs. It is not, for any stretch or in any way, boring. It’s also morally complicated. There are no villains or heroes in “The East.” The environmentalists, led by a charismatic front man (Alexander Skarsgard), have legitimate concerns, but they’re also self-righteous, narcissistic and dangerous. Meanwhile, the big money types are rather normal and easy to talk to, but they’re complicit in environmental atrocities that have destroyed people’s lives. As with all thrillers, “The East” makes audiences concerned for the safety of its lead character – Sarah is in danger much of the time, and so the film is an exciting ride. But we’re also concerned for her spiritual health. We want her to be a good person. We want her to do the right thing. In most movies, we know what the right thing is and wait for the protagonist to catch up, but “The East” has the sophistication of a complex point of view. We don’t know what the right thing is. We’re just hoping that Sarah will discover it.
The setting is Poland, 1962. On the eve of her vows to become a Catholic nun, 18-year old novice Anna meets her estranged aunt Wanda, a cynical Communist judge who shocks the naïve Anna with a stunning revelation: Anna is Jewish and her real name is Ida. Tasked with this new identity, Ida and Wanda embark on a revelatory journey to their old family home to discover the fate of Ida’s birth parents and unearth dark secrets dating back to the Nazi occupation. Ida is a vital and cinematic evocation of postwar Poland and an intensely personal tale of moral and spiritual awakening. Filmed in black and white in Polish with English subtitles. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year for 2014.
The Good Lie is a deeply satisfying, emotionally rewarding, dramatic and heart-warming glimpse into an ugly bit of history and the beautiful people that rose above the pain in their pasts and reunited their family. After civil war broke out in Sudan in 1983, millions were killed and thousands of children were left orphaned. Over 20,000 children trekked more than 1000 miles, looking for safety. One tiny group of Sudanese refugees (Lost Boys of Sudan) is finally assigned to Kansas City, where they are taken in by a brash American woman (Reese Witherspoon) assigned to help them adjust to modern life in the U.S. Their Christian faith runs into moral issues with how business is done in America, and they deal with identity crises and more.
The Good Lie delivers a moving, engaging, funny and warm experience for all. The drama on display here is affecting and real, and the characters are portrayed with such finesse and skill by such talented actors—many Sudanese of which were refugees of war and child soldiers themselves—that it cannot help but be deeply satisfying. It is rare to find a modern film that so earnestly displays such powerful and beautiful emotions in its characters: love, compassion, courage, and the bond between siblings.
The ravishing Terraferma sinks its roots deep into [Italian] neo-realism, only with an overlay of magical realism. The misspelling of the title is a pointed one for the beleaguered three generations of a family on a beautiful island off the coast of Italy’s mainland. Grandfather Ernesto is enraged by the government’s efforts to shut down the ancient fishing operation that has provided for his family for decades. Not so his widowed daughter-in-law, Giulietta, who’s played by the raven-haired Donatella Finocchiaro, whose earthy practicality is a clear nod to the great Anna Magnani. Giulietta sees the writing on the wall, and yearns for escape to the mainland and a better future for her son Filippo (Filippo Pucillo), a blond, tousled and shirtless hothead who has no idea what he wants, but goes along with his mother’s efforts to get into the tourism business. The family’s precarious survival and its harmony are further compromised by the arrival offshore of refugees fleeing war and worse in Africa. When a heavily pregnant Ethiopian woman gives birth in Giulietta’s home, the family is torn between the law of the sea, which compels fisherman to save anyone in peril on the ocean, and the laws of the land, which forbid their rescue. The plight of the Africans presents a moral dilemma that could hardly be more timely: no matter where it is the dispossessed must choose between turning on each other or standing together against those who would keep them down or out. Crialese is a sentimentalist at heart, but a fine one, and his compassion for the wretched of the earth is thrillingly amped by the movie’s ecstatic imagery. Like his neo-realist forebears before him, the director turns everyday activities and furtive acts into a theater of danger, cruelty and sensual delight.
Pride (2014, directed by Matthew Warchus) is inspired by an extraordinary true story. It’s the summer of 1984, Margaret Thatcher is in power and the National Union of Mineworkers is on strike, prompting a London-based group of gay and lesbian activists to raise money to support the strikers’ families. Initially rebuffed by the Union, the group identifies a tiny mining village in Wales and sets off to make their donation in person. As the strike drags on, the two groups discover that standing together makes for the strongest union of all. It’s both funny and poignant, definitely worth seeing, and I think that the theme would work well for our group, with its message of inclusion, community building and compassion for all. Featuring Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton
Director Alexander Payne’s film “Nebraska” starts with Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a confused old alcoholic, walking down a road along the railroad track in Billings, Montana, to go to Lincoln, Nebraska. He is going to Lincoln to collect what he thinks is his winning-number prize of $1,000,000 from the Publisher’s Clearing House (PCH) Sweepstakes. After the police return Woody home a few times, his youngest son David (Will Forte) decides to drive him to Lincoln. David has a dead-end job and troubles committing himself to his girlfriend. The journey becomes one of discovery for David as he learns more about the life of his father despite Woody’s monosyllabic answers. While visiting Woody’s birthplace in Hawthorne, Nebraska, Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb) and oldest son Robert (Bob Odenkirk) join them, as well as Woody’s brothers and other friends, including two no-good nephews. Here everybody wants to get a part of Woody’s “big winning” but they end up mocking him when they discover that it exists only in his wishful thinking. In Hawthorne David not only learns more about his father’s past life from Woody’s old girlfriend but also finds new strength within himself; he defends his father and keeps his commitment to Woody who insists on going to Lincoln despite it all. David also finds a way to soften Woody’s disappointment at the PCH office.
The black and white cinematography has artistically beautiful scenes but it casts a somber mood in the film which is made alive by the excellent character portrayals, especially by June Squibb and Bruce Dern, who both received Academy Award nominations.
Faith issues involve David breaking old mental molds, compassion and caring for others, and honoring one’s father and mother.
Running time: 114 min. Rated: R for some language.
Director Richard Linklater was spot on in his wry observations of everyday Americans (see his more recent “Boyhood”) in his 2012 true-crime movie, “Bernie.” Bernie was a mortician and all-around good soul in the small town of Carthage, Texas (whence a “Greek chorus” of locals attested to his goodness). A devout churchgoer and singer, he cared equally for the departed and those left behind.
Bernie eventually befriended a wealthy but mean-spirited widow, Marjorie Nugent (whose own sister said that she “tore the heads off of my dolls when we were little”). Bernie became her best friend and traveling companion (in style!), and finally her only and constant helper – also presumably holding power of attorney over her financial affairs. As Marjorie pulled Bernie’s leash ever tighter, verbally abusing and belittling him, he began to imagine how to release himself from a situation he found less and less tolerable but did not have the wherewithal to stop. One day, he snapped, and nine months later Bernie was convicted of murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
The film posed many complex questions about the nature of good and evil. “Thou Shalt Not Kill”; we all know it – but did Bernie deserve a 50-year sentence for the crime, given that he was the abused? How would we feel if Bernie (a man) were the abuser and Marjorie (a woman) the abused? Was it a crime of passion or a premeditated murder? The stars, Jack Black as Bernie, Shirley MacLaine as Marjorie, and Matthew McConaughey as the ambitious DA determined to put Bernie behind bars, turn in outstanding performances. Highly recommended by everyone in film group.
Richard Linklater, Director and co-writer
PG-13, 104 minutes
In November, the film group watched and discussed Smoke Signals. Part road movie, part coming-of-age story, and frequently hilarious, the film is from a screenplay by Sherman Alexie, a well-known American Indian writer (see his memoir The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian). It tells the story of two young men of the Coeur d’Alene tribe who were saved as babies from a cataclysmic fire by Arnold, the father of one of them (Victor). Arnold, alcoholic and abusive, is wracked with guilt over his secret – that he started the fire that cost the lives of the parents of Thomas, the other boy. He ultimately abandons his wife and son for a new life in Phoenix, Arizona.
After receiving a call announcing Arnold’s death, Victor and Thomas, rivals throughout their boyhood, take to the road (with Thomas’s money) to recover Arnold’s belongings. Victor is simmering with both love and rage towards his father, while Thomas is very spiritual, a natural storyteller in the American Indian tradition — but he needles Victor with endless tales about Victor’s father. Ultimately, their journey of hardship, realization and reconciliation frees Victor from his anger and leads him to a better understanding of Arnold. Brimming with humor and compassion, Indian-American spirituality and the Christian religion are juxtaposed throughout the film.
The film won the award for best film at the 1998 American Indian film festival.
Rated: PG-13, 89 min.
The Israeli movie “Ushpizin” (“Holy guests”) was directed by Gudi Dar, a secular Jew, and written by the ultra-Orthodox Shuli Rand. It was filmed in Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim.
It centers on a devoted childless Hassidic couple, Moshe (Shuli Rand) and Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand), who are praying for funds to celebrate Sukkot, a joyful seven-day commemoration of the forty years the Israelites wandered in the desert. A proper celebration requires building a tent-like sukkah, inviting “holy guests” to enter it; it also requires obtaining an “etrog” or citron for the synagogue celebration. The etrog signifies someone with both an intellectual mastery of the Torah and a heartfelt yearning for God. A friend “helps” the couple obtain a sukkah; they miraculously receive a donation of 1000 shekels from the yeshiva; and Moshe proceeds to spend a quarter of it for a prized citron, which for him is also a symbol of fertility.
Their Sukkot celebration is interrupted by the arrival of two unexpected guests, Eliyahu and Yossef, whom Moshe knows from his not-so-holy past. The rambunctious secular pair tests the couple’s hospitality and commitment to faith. Moshe lies to get rid of the disruptive guests but Malli has him invite the guests back, only to learn that they are escaped convicts. Moshe seeks and receives forgiveness, but meanwhile the Rebbe warns Moshe to be very careful of his temper, for God will give him increasingly tough challenges. Eventually Moshe comes to accept that God sent the guests to test him and to facilitate his spiritual progress. The film ends in a surprise joyous celebration.
Rated: PG-13, 92 min. In Hebrew, with English subtitles.
After a heart attack, Daniel Dareus (Michael Nyqvist), a highly successful musician, decides to return to the village where he lived and was bullied as a child. He is known there only as a famous conductor and becomes the focus of intense interest. The local businessman asks him to help the church choir. Daniel takes on the challenge and encourages choir members to use physical exercises to find their own voice, a process that raises the suspicion and jealousy of the stern pastor, whose wife is a member of the choir, and an abusive truck driver (Daniel’s childhood bullyer) whose wife Gabriella (Helen Sjoholm) is the star soloist. The story evolves from midwinter, when Daniel arrives, to midsummer when the choir goes to Austria to perform at a singing competition. During this time, Daniel achieves his childhood goal of creating music that “opens people’s hearts,” experiences great joy, and falls in love with Lena (Frida Hallgren) a choir member who recognizes his fears, teaches him to ride a bicycle, and patiently waits for him to proclaim his love for her.
This subtle and sensitive film provides a vivid glimpse into the complexities of relationships in a small, traditional Swedish village. It juxtaposes strict Christian morality and piety with the real virtues of love, acceptance and caring and demonstrates the transformative power of music.
Unrated, 132 minutes.
Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of an enigmatic man whose music inspired a devoted following in one country and yet fell off the radar screen in his homeland. The film by Swedish director Malik Bendjalloul, which won an Oscar (Best Documentary Feature) in 2012, tells an inspirational story of the life of shy musician Sixto Rodriguez.
In the 1970s, Rodriguez wrote and performed his music to great critical praise but failed to catch on with the American public. When his records didn’t sell, he went back to his construction/demolition job in Detroit. Unbeknownst to him, his music was carried to South Africa, where bootlegged copies of his bluesy, anti-establishment songs became anthems for the anti-apartheid movement and the “soundtrack for South African lives.”
For decades he was unaware of and unpaid for millions of records sold in a faraway country. Yet as popular as his music was in South Africa, the man remained a mystery: rumors of his death circulated and the truth was hard to come by. However, in the 1990s a search for him began in earnest and, through an internet website, he was connected to his admirers in South Africa and invited there to perform. Suddenly he was a phenomenon―selling out huge arenas and being introduced to new generations of South Africans.
Remarkably, recognition hasn’t changed him. He still lives in the same Detroit house, still works construction, and, atypically, goes on tour periodically to the acclaim of millions of fans. He eschews celebrity, focusing on his family and his music,maintaining his lifelong values. Roger Ebert calls him a “secular saint whose music is the expression of a blessed inner being” and says “I hope you’re able to see this film.”
Rated: PG-13, 85 minutes
The film “Quartet,” Dustin Hoffman’s debut as a director, is set in England at Beecham Hall, a home for retired singers and musicians. This caring and supportive community of people, in general tolerant and accepting of each other’s declining faculties, is preparing for a gala concert to provide funds for its continued existence. The arrival of celebrated soprano Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) inspires the flamboyant impresario of the concert, Cedrick (Michael Gambon), to ask Cecily Robson (Pauline Collins), Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay), and Wilford Bond (Billy Connolly) to recreate with her their famous quartet from “Rigoletto.” Jean has lost much of her voice and is fearful to face this loss, whereas Reggie, who had been briefly married to Jean, still carries strong but painful feelings for her. As he, Wilf (the upbeat Casanova of the place), and the optimistic but mentally fragile Cissy try to convince her to participate, Jean attacks Cissy in a fit of anger. The quartet is supposed to be the highlight of the gala, but the question is whether Jean will be willing or able to sing adequately in it.
The music in the film– by Verdi, Schubert, and others, as well as jazz and pieces from The Mikado– is performed by retired English singers and musicians seen on the screen, except for the title piece. The story was based on a retirement home for retired opera singers created by Verdi in Milan in 1889. Faith issues in the film address compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, and include personal resilience and redemption.
Rated PG, 98 minutes.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011)– reviewed by Linda Busek
A devout, somewhat mystical and rich Yemeni sheikh (Amr Waked) wants to bring cold water salmon to the desert. First, because he is fond of fly fishing, and second, because he sees the project, with its necessary dam and watercourses, as nourishing the land by irrigation so his people will be able to grow crops to sustain themselves. Sheikh Mohammed hires a British agency, whose representative is Harriet Chetwode-Talbott (Emily Blunt), to smooth the way and handle the logistics of the project. Not least of her tasks is securing the cooperation of British fisheries expert Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), who is enlisted to supply 10,000 salmon for transfer to the Yemen. Jones initially thinks the whole project is nonsense, but plays along since the Prime Minister is looking for a good story out of the Middle East that doesn’t involve “blowing things up.” Of course, there is deep skepticism whether the project can or should be realized: by Dr. Jones, by British anglers protective of their fish, and by a group of local Arabs who feel a project of this scope is an insult to God and want it to fail. The sheikh reminds us the virtues of patience, tolerance and humility are all essential to fishing and fishing becomes a metaphor for faith. The story uncovers personal growth within and among all the characters. At the end, not only is the desert transformed, but each of them is as well.
Rated PG-13, 107 minutes
Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik are father and son as well as rival professors in the highly specialized, deeply competitive Talmudic Studies department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. There’s no doubt that trouble will ensue when a prestigious prize intended for one scholar is mistakenly bestowed on another.
The film is not just about the vanity of intellectuals, but a piercing satire, a poignant family drama and an investigation of the competing claims of honesty, loyalty, ambition and love. It speaks to the social dynamics of groups, father-son relationships and mother-son relationships with incisiveness and humor. It asks the question of whether anything is more important than truth.
The diretor uses jaunty music, printed chapter titles, and witty forays into memory and fantasy to emphasize the absurdity of his tale. Starring two of Israel’s best known actors, this film was Israel’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 Academy Awards. In Hebrew with English subtitles.
Freedom Writers (2007)—reviewed by Vija Lusebrink
Based on a true story, takes place in West Los Angeles in 1992. Erin (Hilary Swank), a young teacher looking forward to her first job, teaching 9th grade, is confronted with the interracial strife between African America, Latino, and Asian youth. Eventually Erin realizes that she has to make the studies relevant to these students exposed to violence daily. A drawing with a racial slur prompts her to draw a parallel to Nazis’ hate towards Jews and the resulting Holocaust. Erin becomes aware of the students’ lack of knowledge about such history, and, failing to secure support from school, she obtains two additional jobs to pay for extra books and supplies, including Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl.” She encourages the students to write diaries about their experiences and designs games to help the students break through their racial barriers. Erin also takes the students on field trips, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a dinner with Holocaust survivors.
An Unfinished Life (2005)– reviewed by Vija Lusebrink
Lasse Hallstrom’s film An Unfinished Life tells a story of an old rancher Eimar (Robert Redford), his friend and ranch hand Mitch (Morgan Freeman), and a bear living in rugged Wyoming ranchlands. Mitch has been mauled by the bear and depends on Einar for taking care of his needs. Einar has given up most of his ranching; he is angry and still grieving his only son Griffin’s death in a car accident more than a decade ago.
Their life is interrupted by the arrival of Jean (Jennifer Lopez), Einar’s daughter-in-law who is escaping from an abusive relationship, and Griff (Becca Gardner), Einar’s twelve-year-old granddaughter. Einar only grudgingly grants them a temporary shelter since he holds Jean responsible for his son’s death, and he has not even been aware of the existence of a granddaughter. Jean has a confrontation with Einar, and Einar and Mitch have to confront the bear in their own ways. Griff, though, with her directness and enjoyment of helping on the ranch, gains Einar’s respect and acceptance.
Forgiveness and reconciliation emerge as the underlying themes of the film, including Mitch’s forgiving the bear for hurting him.
Rated PG 13, 108 min.
Lantana (2001) – reviewed by Vija Lusebrink
The Australian film Lantana, directed by Ray Lawrence and set in Australia with mainly an Australian cast, deals with the universal themes of love and trust in personal relationships. The film is presented in a mosaic-like manner, interweaving the lives of four couples caught in disconnected communications and forming a tangled mesh like the lantana plant’s hidden mesh. The couples come from different walks of life and are drawn together by the disappearance of a woman therapist (Barbara Hershey). The detective involved in the case (Anthony LaPaglia) not only has to solve the mystery but also confront his own feelings. The film is “murder mystery, thriller, and drama;” the seemingly disconnected fragments of the first half of the film yield, as it progresses, depth and insight into the characters dealing with the importance of love and trust in marriage and possible ramifications of their absence. The film received 7 Australian Film Institute awards.
120 minutes, sexual scenes and strong language, rated R.
The Painted Veil (2006) – reviewed by Vija Lusebrink
The Painted Veil, a film directed by John Curran, portrays the relationship between spoiled Kitty (Naomi Watts), who is escaping her scheming mother, and Walter (Edward Norton), a quiet bacteriologist stationed in Colonial Shanghai. When Kitty has an affair with the charming married Vice Counsel of Shanghai, Walter gives Kitty an ultimatum: either accompany him to work in a remote cholera-afflicted village—or marry her lover. Kitty eventually goes with Walter. The suffering by the village people they encounter forces them to reach outside of themselves. Kitty helps to take care of orphans in the local convent while Walter tries to eliminate the source of the epidemic by cleaning up the water supply, which involves breaking local social customs. Walter and Kitty’s relationship is changed in the process and they come to respect and truly care for each other, but too late. The main faith issues in this film address spiritual growth, forgiveness, and making unpopular decisions for the good of the whole community.
Based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham and beautifully set in the 1920’s in London, Shanghai and Guilin, China.
Rated PG-13, 125 min.
The Kite Runner (2007) – reviewed by Jim Gibbs
Based on the widely acclaimed novel of the same title, The Kite Runner is the story of Amir, an Afghan-American author from Fremont, California.. Set mainly in Afghanistan, it opens with a flashback to Amir’s boyhood in Kabul in 1978, as he and his friend and family servant, Hassan, fly kites in a tournament with other boys. In a fearful moment, when a neighborhood bully attacks Hassan, Amir betrays him. Shortly afterwards, the Soviets invade and Amir and his father, Baba, flee into exile in California.. A complicated and riveting plot takes the adult Amir back to contemporary Afghanistan, where Hassan’s son is in peril and the neighborhood bully is now a Taliban tyrant. Amir struggles to overcome his burden of shame and redeem himself. Much of the film soundtrack is in an Afghan dialect, with English sub-titles, and it provides a rich, authentic feel of Afghan culture. Geopolitics remain in the background, as the focus is on compelling characters and a universal tale of struggle and triumph over human frailty. Slow in spots, but with much excellent acting and very good cinematography.
Directed by Marc Forster with an Afghan cast.
122 minutes. Rated PG-13 for strong thematic material, including the rape of child, violence, and brief strong language. Won Golden Globe Awards in 2008 for best foreign language film and for best original score.
Dead Poets Society (1989) – reviewed by Jim Gibbs
At an all-male Eastern prep school, English teacher John Keating inspires his students to a love of poetry and calls them to “seize the day.” In trying to do so, they butt against the school’s stifling patriarchal tradition and, in one critical instance, a rigid, unyielding father. Keating can be seen as Christ like and the plot has some parallels to gospel accounts of Jesus.
Themes include: transformation, call, the impact of social class and traditional notions of masculinity, and father/son relationships. Directed by Peter Weir. Starring Robin Williams and Ethan Hawke. Rating: PG. Touchstone Pictures.
Motifs common to this film and to Beautiful Dreamer are: Walt Whitman, and institutional change.
Vera Drake (2004) – reviewed by Jim Gibbs
Set in 1950 England, Vera Drake is the tale of a kindly, bustling woman, who takes care of her husband and children, her aged mother, and a few others as well. In addition, she works as a domestic and “helps out” young women by providing them with abortions. The film, starring Imelda Staunton, tellingly reflects the post-WW II British class system and the tension between legal right and wrong and moral right and wrong. Directed by Mike Leigh.
125 minutes. Rated R for depiction of strong thematic material.
Babel (2006)– reviewed by Vija Lusebrink Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu bases his film Babel on Genesis 11:9-11, where God confused the people’s languages and scattered them all over the earth, as punishment for their hubris. The film takes place on three continents, deals with four cultures, and, even though in English, incorporates seven languages including sign language. The story line itself intermixes short scenes dealing with (1) an American couple, Robert (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett), traveling in Morocco; (2) two young Moroccan goatherds; (3) a Mexican nanny Amelia (Adrianna Barraza), who cares for Robert and Susan’s two young children in San Diego, and (4) a deaf-mute Japanese teenager named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), who lives in Tokyo. One of the goatherds, playing with his father’s new rifle, critically injures Susan, who is traveling on a tourist bus. The shooting is perceived as a terrorist act by local and American authorities. The Moroccan driver takes the bus with the bleeding Susan to his native village. In the meantime, Amelia takes the couple’s children from San Diego to Mexico to her son’s wedding. On the way back, she inadvertently endangers them in the desert. In Tokyo, Chieko, feeling isolated and desperate, seeks attention through inappropriate behavior.
Faith issues in the film deal with the inter-connectedness of people, the commonality of their suffering, and their miscommunications and cultural misunderstandings, as well as hope and the kindness of strangers. In the film, hubris actually helps the materially wealthy individuals, whereas the disadvantaged have to suffer without help. Adrianna Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi were nominated for Academy Awards.
Rated: R for violence, nudity, sexual content, language, and some drug use. Length: 2 hrs, 23 min.
Hold Your Breath – reviewed by Greg Plant
What would you do if faced with cancer and the doctor spoke no English? Could you trust him if you didn’t understand him?
That situation faced Mohammed Kochi, an Afghan refugee living in Fremont, and it is captured in “Hold Your Breath” (the phrase used by CATscan machines). Kochi, who speaks no English, meets with his American doctor, who tries to urge Kochi to take chemotherapy. But does Kochi understand, through a family friend as interpreter, his choices? The film follows the wrenching crisis, interspersed with scenes from Kochi’s youth and the Afghani war, and how Kochi and his family respond to it.
This documentary is directed by Maren Grainger-Monsen, an M.D. working with the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, and it does raise many questions about the clash of cultures in medical decision-making. It is used by medical schools and other organizations dealing with these issues.
Unrated, 58 min.
Defending Your Life (1991) –reviewed by Greg Plant and Jim Gibbs
Albert Brooks is a very funny man, yet in “Defending Your Life” he is also thoughtful. Brooks plays a man who dies and literally has to defend his life’s behavior in a sort of purgatory “Judgment City.”
This approach to death seems to echo the idea of Tibetan Buddhist belief in “bardo” as a transitional stage after death and before reincarnation.
Brooks’ movie is filled with jokes and pokes fun at American icons, such as overeating, lawyers, and television, including a “Past Lives Pavilion” hosted by who else? — Shirley MacLaine. There Brooks watches his past self running from a lion, and, asked who he is, he quips, “Dinner.”
“Defending” also plays fun with our ideas of heaven. Here you can eat endlessly and the food is the best ever eaten, yet this is not heaven. And hell? Brooks’ defense “lawyer” says “there is no hell, but I hear Los Angeles is getting close.”
The movie does probe thoughtfully into why humans can fail to reach full potential. To Brooks it is “fear,” as he amply demonstrates in his trial. How he faces and overcomes this makes for a brave and inspiring ending, in a surprisingly-romantic way, with Meryl Streep lending a sweet hand.
Even though the film is classed as a comedy, several members of our group disliked its lighthearted, satiric style and its treatment of the faith issue of life after death. This was especially true of those who had suffered the loss of someone close to them.
Rated PG, 112 minutes.
Away from Her (2006)– reviewed by Vija Lusebrink
Canadian director Sara Polley’s film “Away from Her” is based on Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came over the Mountain” (1999). Grant (Gordon Pinset), a retired professor, and his wife Fiona (Julie Christie) have to face Fiona’s Alzheimer’s disease. As Fiona gradually succumbs to the disease, she decides to enter a nursing facility. Fiona develops a bond with a mute stroke patient Aubrey (Michael Murphy), who has been placed there by his wife Marion (Olympia Dukakis) during her vacation. Fiona pushes Grant away and prefers Aubrey who “does not confuse” her in his muteness. Grant persists in visiting Fiona, and he wonders if she is playing a charade because of his past infidelity with a student. He seeks out Marion to obtain her view as a caretaker. Fiona’s condition takes a turn for the worse as Marion brings Aubrey back to their home. In some of her lucid moments Fiona, though, is able to express her appreciation for Grant’s steadfast love. Grant, in turn, develops a capacity for selfless love and helps to return Aubrey to the facility so that Fiona can be with him. This act can be seen as Grant’s moment of grace and redemption.
Rated PG-13. Runtime 1hr. 50 min.
The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam (2005) -reviewed by Vija Lusebrink
Mashayekh’s The Keeper:The Legend of Omar Khayyam (2005) is partially based on the life story of the 11th century Persian mathematician, astronomer, and poet. An American-Iranian boy Kamran seeks out Khayyam’s story, first from his dying older brother who is the keeper, then from an English heiress (Vanessa Redgrave), who has a rare illustrated copy of Khayyam’s poems, The Rubaiyat.
Flashbacks show Khayyam as a child with his school friend Hasan and Darya, a slave girl who is sold off. Khayyam attracts the attention of the wise Imam Mowaffeck who tutors him in mathematics and astronomy. Mowaffeck helps Khayyam join the court of Seljuk Sultan Malik Shah as astronomer. In a chance meeting Khayyam and Darya express their love for each other.
Hasan becomes the leader of a fanatic terrorist group. A meeting between Khayyam and Hasan ends up in an argument about faith. Khayyam has to flee while the Crusaders vanquish the Sultan and his troops.
Kamran’s journey ends in Iran where his dying grandfather tells him the rest of the story. Faith issues in the film deal with family ties, friendship, and some aspects of the Muslim faith. The privately financed film, made to honor a part of Iranian culture, is unevenly executed and acted.
Rated PG, some violence. 1 hour 35 min.
Doubt (2008) – reviewed by Mary Alice Thornton
Directed by John Patrick Shanley, adapted from his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play, starring Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams & Viola Davis.
Set in a Catholic elementary school in the Bronx in 1964, the film captures the culture and tensions of the Catholic Church following the Vatican II Council. School Principal Sister Aloysius (Streep) begins to have doubts about one of the parish priests, Father Flynn (Hoffman), who seems to be overly involved in the life of the only African American student in the school. Sister Aloysius plants her doubts into the mind of compassionate, much younger Sister James (Adams), and asks her to be another set of eyes and ears observing Father Flynn. Sister Aloysius also confronts the mother (Davis) of the young boy with her suspicions about Father Flynn. The mother’s unanticipated convictions shock the principal into taking matters in her own hands.
From the opening moments to its conclusion, though possible sexual misconduct is an unstated theme, uncertainty hangs in the air leaving one with more questions than answers, more doubt than certainty. Questions that arose in our discussion included articles of faith, certainty, doubt, duty, gender inequality, loyalty, pride, and self-righteousness.
Marked by strong performances and excellent cinematography, the film was nominated for five Oscars.
Rated PG-13. May be inappropriate for children under 13.
Kinky Boots (2005) – reviewed by Linda Busek
When Charlie Price’s father dies and leaves him a bankrupt shoe factory in Northampton, England, he faces laying off dozens of loyal workers. But serendipity works its magic, and Charlie meets gay performance artist Lola in London’s funky Soho District when he rescues ‘her’ from a thuggish band of punks. He learns that drag queens and transvestites long for sexy, cross-dressing footwear with strength and style that is not currently available.
Charlie re-engineers the factory to make “kinky boots” and saves jobs and the business in a delightful film based on a true story. Lola (acted convincingly by Chiwetel Ejiofor in drag) becomes the new footwear guru, although his transition from drag queen on the London stage to Northampton shoe designer isn’t a smooth one. Neither is Charlie’s, since his vision of the future didn’t originally include saving a moribund shoe factory. Both Lola and Charlie struggle with their fathers’ disapproval of their life choices. Simon (aka Lola) was disowned for ‘not fitting in’: Charlie dismissed for straying from the family business to find his fortune elsewhere.
The struggle of coming to self-identity is beautifully portrayed in a way that leads the viewer to analyze his own life choices. The film explores race, sexual orientation, anger, revenge, forgiveness, love, loyalty, sacrifice, and, ultimately, acceptance. The story culminates on the catwalk at the Milan Shoe Fair where an ensemble of Lola’s back-up dancers model the factory’s chic footwear in a sequence set to–what else–These Boots Were Made for Walking.
Rated PG-13, 107 minutes
The Best Years of Our Lives (1945) – reviewed by Jim Gibbs
Winner of six Oscars, including Best Picture, The Best Years of Our Lives is set just after the end of World War II. It tells the stories of three servicemen from the same small town, each from a different station in society, and their attempts to pick up the threads of their lives and adjust to civilian life. Most poignant is Homer, a sailor and real-life double amputee, who wonders if his fiancee can love a man with prostheses for hands. Fred is an air force officer who returns to his job as a soda-jerk and a wife who may have loved only his uniform. Al, an older army sergeant , has trouble adjusting to his former job as a bank officer and to his children who have matured in his absence. Complicating these intertwined lives are a host of societal problems of the postwar period such as how women, who had to take on traditional male responsibilities while their menfolk were at war, will respond to expectations that they will return to “their place.”
The film is parable-like and packed with faith issues from major (e.g. the morality of war) to the more focused (e.g. loyalty, sacrifice, courage, and the handling of issues like alcoholism). Best Years is star-studded and laden with outstanding, moving performances– that may strike some in today’s audience as idealized. Directed by William Wyler. Starring Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Hoagy Carmichael, and Harold Russell.
249 minutes. No rating.
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