Saturday, December 31, 2011

Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

Rated PG. Our Ratings: V -2; L -0; S/N -0.  Running time: 1 hour

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and
where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,
where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Matthew 6:20-12

Our hardy heroes survive the crash of their plane in the desert of North Africa.
© 2011 Paramount Pictures

After an almost 30 year delay, Steven Spielberg has at last brought to the screen the beloved teenaged reporter/sleuth Tintin. Popular throughout the rest of the world during its run as a comic book series between 1930 and 1976, Belgian artist Herge’s hero might just catch on here, so captivating is the movie, shot in 3D motion capture animation. The pace is so fast, and the laughs so many that the attention of neither young nor older viewers is likely to wander.

The Unicorn of the title is not the mythical animal itself but a model sailing ship with that name which Tintin purchases for a pound at a flea market. A sinister looking man tries to buy it for a greater price, but Tintin refuses. (One of the film’s many humorous touches is the vender bemoaning his letting the ship go for such a low price.) Of course, later the model is stolen, setting off a far-flung adventure in which the boy teams up with Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), whose cargo ship has been taken over by the evil Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who heads it toward Morocco. (Sakharine was the man who originally had tried to buy the model from Tintin.) Haddock reveals that both he and Sakharine are descendents of 17th century seafarers whose treasure-laden ship sank off the coast of North Africa. The model ship had contained one of three tiny scrolls of paper giving clues to the location of the old ship. All are needed in order to determine the latitude and longitude of the sunken ship. Finding those scrolls proves to be an arduous and dangerous task, with thrills galore.

This is an anticipated film that lives up to its advance hype. The motion capture animation is so realistic that my companion had to be reminded that the film is animated. The color is gorgeous, especially in the scenes set in Morrocco, and the action virtually non-stop. The sequence in which Haddock and Rackham “swordfight” with two giant shipyard cranes is one of the most inventive action sequences to be found anywhere. Our plucky hero and his smart little dog are delightful, and there is the expected moral lesson, as can be seen at the low point of the story when even Tintin has given in to despair. Haddock says, “I thought you were an optimist.” Tintin, “You were wrong, weren't you? I'm a realist.” “Ah, it's just another name for a quitter.” “You can call me what you like. Don't you get it? We failed.” “Failed. There are plenty of others willing to call you a failure. A fool. A loser. A hopeless souse. Don't you ever say it of yourself. You send out the wrong signal, that is what people pick up. Don't you understand? You care about something, you fight for it. You hit a wall, you push through it. There's something you need to know about failure, Tintin. You can never let it defeat you.” Good words for all of us to take to heart. We all should have a friend and companion like Haddock.

 There is also the good news that this is the first of a planned trilogy. And even though Spielberg will not
direct the second installment, there is still good news in that the co-producer of this show will take over the helm—Peter Jackson. Thanks to these two, Tintin should become as beloved in this country as he is in the rest of the world. It is too bad that Georges Remi (whose nom de plume was Herge) did not live to see this happen, but I believe he would have been pleased with what the American who befriended him long ago has produced,

A version of this is available with discussion questions for VP subscribers.

My Week With Marilyn

Rated R. Our Ratings: V -0; L -5; S/N -6.  Running time: 1 hour 39 min.

Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing…
And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the
weak, be patient with all of them.
1 Thessalonians 5:11, 14

Colin helps Marilyn through a mob of eager reporters.
© 2011The Weinstein Company

This film, based on Colin Clark's diaries, The Prince, The Showgirl and Me and My Week with Marilyn, can be seen as a good addition to the movies about movie making genre, as well as a peek into the private life of what was once the most famous and adored actress in the world. And for people of faith director Simon Curtis’s film has the additional dimension as being a good story about encouragement and grace and their role in life. That the story’s events are more or less true makes it all the better.

Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) comes from an upper-class English family, his father being the famous art historian Kenneth Clark whose 13-part BBC Civilization: A Personal View is a classic television documentary. Wanting to develop his own life and escape from under his father’s shadow, Colin manages in the summer of 1956, through pluck and persuasion, to land a position at Pinewood Studios. It is an unpaid position at first as a “Third Assistant Director” to Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), which translates as “gofer.”  Olivier is directing and co-starring in The Prince and the Showgirl, and the actress regarded by the press as an American sex goddess is soon to arrive in London. This, of course, is Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams), bringing with her new husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) and drama coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), wife of Method Acting guru Lee Strasberg.

Both at he airport and at Pinewood Marilyn is given the red carpet treatment, with Olivier heading the assembled cast and studio staff expressing warm greetings and words of admiration. For Olivier this will be the last time for a long while that he utters anything positive to or about his costar. The insecure actress is always late, sometimes hours late, and when she does leave her dressing room to show up on the set, she seeks guidance and reassurance not from director Olivier, but from Lee, whom she always keeps close at hand.

It is during this tumultuous period that the 23 year-old Colin, who like virtually every other male (Olivier included, as his wife Vivian Leigh observes) has developed a crush on the actress, is invited into the private life of the tormented actress. This becomes the intense week when Arthur Miller, who observes that Marilyn and her celebrityhood sucks all the air from him, decides to return to the USA so that he can get back to his writing. Feeling abandoned (again), Marilyn turns to Colin for the comfort and reassurance that she needs as badly as any heroin addict ever needed a fix.

During a week in which there is little call for her to be on the set, Colin escorts Marilyn around London. Earlier there had been a delightful exchange when someone says to her that she must get out more to see the sites of the city, to which she replies, “I am the sight.” This is not a vain boast, but a wry expression of the truth. She tries to go shopping, but is immediately spotted and quickly surrounded by a crowd pressing in upon her, everyone trying to touch her or acquire her autograph. She is as much a prisoner of her fame as a beneficiary of it.

When Colin takes her to his old university, she is quickly surrounded by admiring students, blessing one with a kiss on the cheek that he will never forget. Standing at the top of a short flight of steps, she senses that they want the screen Marilyn, so she graciously gives to them a brief performance of her famous shimmy and shake steps. They are enthralled. However when Colin is able to get them into the Queen’s palace, she shows her more serious side, making some intelligent remarks and questions to Colin’s grandfather, who is the royal librarian (and unaware of who she is).

Marilyn is wonderfully portrayed by Michelle Williams as a highly talented woman wracked by serious doubts about her ability and haunted by a sense of childhood abandonment. In one telling scene Colin sees two pictures on her vanity desk, one of her mother, he learns, and one of Abraham Lincoln. To his query, she says, “he is my Dad. I never knew my real father, so it might as well be him.” In scene after scene we see also that Marilyn is fearful in the presence of the man considered one of the greatest actors in the world. She worries that she cannot measure up to Olivier’s expectations, and sure enough, time after time she doesn’t, her mistakes requiring retake after retake. It is Colin who during their week spent together provides the comfort and support that not even longtime associate Lee Strasberg can offer.

Kenneth Branaugh should not be overlooked in this film, his performance as the frustrated director also being outstanding, though understandably overshadowed by that of Ms. Williams’. We see in Olivier’s interaction with Marilyn the clash between two approaches to acting, that of the classical in which practice and skill are paramount and that of the Method in which the actor strives to understand the motivation and inner life of the character. As Colin says to Marilyn, “It's agony because he's a great actor who wants to be a film star, and you're a film star who wants to be a great actress. This film won't help either of you.”  Marilyn, emerging from an insecure past and wanting to move beyond the straight jacket of “sex goddess” to which her fans would confine her, struggles to become an artist as serious as Olivier himself—and to be taken as seriously.

Earlier I wrote that this is a film of grace, and so it is. We see how young Colin, even more innocent in some ways than Marilyn, provides a measure of temporary security and comfort for the actress. But so do others serve as agents of grace, the most prominent being Judi Dench’s Dame Sybil Thorndike, an actress who immediately realizes Marilyn’s vulnerability and need for reassurance. Unlike Olivier, who as director is so focused on getting the film made within budget, she is able to reach out to the younger woman at various times. Marilyn as the child/woman also bestows grace—on the students who gaze at her in awe when she briefly performs for them, and also upon Colin, well before their magical week spent in close company. Sensing his concern for her, she treats him as a person and not just as a gofer. She lets him down gently when it comes time to part. And whether or not their relationship became physical the film leaves open to question. For this, and also because it takes us into the process of movie making, this is a film I will cherish henceforth.

A version with discussion questions is available for subscribers to VP.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Rated PG-13.  Our ratings: V -4; L -3 S/N -1.  Running time: 2hours 13 min.

Our hero dangles high above the streets of Dubai.
© 2011 Paramount Pictures

This is a film that shows nothing is impossible if you have vast funds for computer generated effects and a public willing to believe anything—implausible plot devices and a hero able to withstand crushing blows to the head and falls and jumps from great heights that would injure or kill ordinary humans. The most enjoyable part of the film is its use of scenic locales—Moscow, Mumbai, and especially Dubai with its world’s tallest skyscraper piercing the sky like a giant needle.

Our team of heroes is racing to prevent a rogue terrorist from starting a nuclear exchange between Russia and the US that will draw the whole world into destruction. Action fans, who never seem to tire of watching the same plot but with different titles, will get their money’s worth here. Others might wait until it comes out on TV and DVD—no, make that at a cheap seat theater, because the scenery and skyscraper scenes really should be seen on a theater screen.

The main interest to some could be that this is director Brad Bird's first live action film, his previous work being in animatios—I loved his Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille.  Because it’s such a cream puff of a film I am not going to the work of finding a relevant Scripture nor a set of discussion questions.

Arthur Christmas

Rated PG.  Our Ratings: V -1; L -2; S/N 01.  Running time: 1 hour  37 min.

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. 
Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth 
more than many sparrows.
                                                                                              Luke 10:12:6-7 NIV


Grandpa Santa, the Elf Bryony, and Arthur set out in the obsolete sleigh.
© 2011 Columbia Pictures
The delightful folks who infused such quirky humor into Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run have updated the old Santa Claus myth in their newest gift to movie loving children and adults. What child hasn’t arrived at the age when they asked the question, “How does Santa Claus deliver in just one night toys to all the children around the round?” The answer in this film is that has ditched the old reindeer sleigh and constructed a city-sized space ship similar to the one in Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind with a team of a million elves trained to be lowered down and deliver the toys.

The current Santa (voiced by Jim Broadbent—we see displayed the portraits of previous Santas going back almost 1900 years) has relinquished Christmas Eve operations to his son Steve (Hugh Laurie), who runs things with great but hurried precision. Steve can hardly wait until his father retires, and is visibly upset that his younger brother Arthur (James McAvoy) is actually preferred by their father to assume command one day.

We soon see why, the difference between the two becoming apparent when Arthur, who is in charge of the Letters to Santa Department, discovers that the elves missed delivering a wrapped bicycle to a little girl in Cornwall. Steve, concerned with cost and efficiency, refuses to send anyone back to deliver the bike. It’s just one little girl.

Arthur is so upset over this that he, against orders from both his brother and his father, decides to deliver the bike himself. So he finds the old sleigh and reindeer, and accompanied by his grandfather (Bill Nighy) and a spunky elf named Bryony (Ashley Jensen), launches forth into the night. They have just a few hours until the sun rises and the child eagerly rushes down stairs to the Christmas tree.

What a series of adventures they have, with obstacles confronting them that seem impossible to overcome—and all of their Herculean efforts just to save Christmas for one child among the millions that were serviced that night. What a delightful tale to make us aware that even the smallest of us is important, and that someone cares enough to go to such great lengths for another. This has been a good year for animated films, 3-D at that, although this device is not necessary to enjoy this film.

This review with discussion questions will soon be available to VP subscribers at

New Year’s Eve

Rated PG-13.  Our Ratings: V -1; L -4; S/N -2.  Running time: 1 hour 58 min.

For everything there is a season, 
and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
Ecclesiastes 3:1-2

Hillary Swank as Claire has called in Hector Elizondo’s Kinsky to fix the
Stuck Times Square New Year’s Eve ball.
© 2011 Warner Brothers

Boasting a screen full of stars, Gary Marshall’s latest work is similar to a Robert Altman film (remember Nashville?) with its large ensemble cast, but lacking the depth of any of the great master’s films. Hilary Swank is in charge of operations involving the dropping of the ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve when it becomes stuck during a daytime trial run. As she struggles to overcome obstacles, a number of other stories—of a broken romance, the revival of hope, a dying man’s last wish, and a wife with her Army husband far off in the Middle East—are interwoven.

Enjoyable if you are not expecting a whole lot, the film does have a touching moment. The latter consists of a brief scene in which Halle Berry, as a night nurse, keeps her rendezvous via Skype with her soldier husband stationed in the Middle East. She is also involved in the moment of grace in which Harry, a dying patient played by Robert De Niro, is granted his last wish. It’s a bit silly—he wants to see the ball drop on Times Square live, not just on TV—so the nurse looks the other way while his daughter violates hospital rules by wheeling him to the roof where there the event can be seen. Two other characters keep a promise made a year earlier to meet again, the incident similar to the climax of 1957’s An Affair to Remember. This could become the movie to watch just prior to a New Year’s Eve, and then maybe not.

A version with discussion questions will soon be available to VP subscribers at

Young Adults

Rated R. Our Ratings: V -2; L -5; S/N -6. Running time: 1 hour 34 min.

The one who begets a fool gets trouble;
the parent of a fool has no joy.
                                    Proverbs 17:21

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; 
when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
                                  1 Cor. 13:11

Mavis intends to break up Buddy's marriage.
(c) 2011 Paramount

Charlize Theron's Mavis Gary is neither young nor adult in this character study of a pushing-forty divorcee whose life is as messy as her Minneapolis apartment. Since leaving her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota she has become a juvenile fiction writer though the books have not provided her the high profile fame she would like. She is the ghostwriter of a series created by another author, and it becomes clear when we see the books on a “remaindered table” that no one is buying them any more. The book she is struggling to finish probably will be her last in the series. With dismal prospects of searching for a new job plus her failed marriage causing her to live alone, Mavis turns too often to alcohol for escape.

When she learns that her former high school boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson) has become a new father, she decides to return to Mercury to see him again. However, we soon understand that it is not just to renew old acquaintances. She intends to steal him away from his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser). She is so self assured and glamorous looking that she is certain that it will be no contest between the two of them in capturing Buddy’s heart. Is she ever in for a surprise!

Charlize Theron's task is a difficult one--to win our interest, if not our sympathy, as she plays a unlikable character. Mavis is selfish and petulant, used to having her own way all of her life, hence my choice of the above Proverbs passage. And yet there are moments when we see how vulnerable and in need of love she is.
Fortunately there is a character close at hand with whom she spends far more time than Buddy. This is Matt (Patton Oswalt), an overweight nerd whom she at first cannot remember, even though he had the locker right next to hers. Of course, she was the beauty queen, and he was a nobody. They meet in the bar where Mavis has come to drink alone. Matt reminds her that she used to call him “the theater fag,“ even though the gossip about his being gay was not true. Some of the jocks had ganged up on him during his a junior year, their hate crime injuring him so severely that he can get about only with the aid of a cane, and worse, he is sexually impaired. Buddy is so involved with his family that he can spend very little time with her, so Mavis looks upon Matt as her drinking partner. Soon he becomes her confidant.

There is a beautiful moment when Mavis comes to Matt’s home completely crushed and he embraces her. They fall into bed, and for once sex is not a matter of lust or exploitation, but of mutual grace, each giving and receiving what they need at the moment. Of course, this scene might make it a hard sell for a church group to watch and discuss. So too might be the revelation of what Mavis went through when she and Buddy were dating, creating a situation of sorrow and grief, the impact of which explains part of the reason for her stunted growth.

As a study of a woman who has never caught onto what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, Young Adult is an excellent film, which should not be surprising in that its director Jason Reitman and screenplay writer Diablo Cody are the pair that brought us the insightful teen drama/comedy Juno. Their Mavis is typical of so many in our culture that thinks beauty is a matter of physical appearance rather than of the heart. Mavis has to learn the hard way that real beauty is not a matter of changing one’s face by applying new make-up, but rather a matter of changing the heart from self-concern to other concern. At Buddy and Beth’s baby naming party we see that the ordinary-looking Beth is the beautiful person. After what happens there to Mavis we can only hope that she eventually she will also discover this. Though billed as a comedy, there is a serious and dark side to the proceedings.

A version of this review with discussion questions will soon be available at

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Rated PG-13.  Our Ratings: V -4; L -5; S/N -1.  Running time: 2 hours 9 min.

Even though a person sins and gets by with it hundreds of times throughout a long life, I’m still convinced that the good life is reserved for the person who fears God, who lives reverently in his presence, and that the evil person will not experience a “good” life. No matter how many days he lives, they’ll all be as flat and colorless as a shadow—because he doesn’t fear God.

                                                                                                      Ecclesiastes 8:11-13 The Message

Transgression speaks to the wicked
deep in their hearts;
there is no fear of God before their eyes.
For they flatter themselves in their own eyes
that their iniquity cannot be found out and hated.
The words of their mouths are mischief and deceit;
they have ceased to act wisely and do good.
They plot mischief while on their beds;
they are set on a way that is not good;
they do not reject evil.
                           Psalm 36:14

Holmes and companions flee while being bombarded by cannons.
© 2011 Warner Brothers

Purists might be even more upset by all the anachronisms in this second computer effects-driven film of Arthur Conan Doyle’s super sleuth played again by Robert Downey Jr., but action fans, meaning the majority of young adults, have taken so to the film that it was the top drawing film during the weekend of its release.
The fast-paced plot involves our martial arts hero and his newly married associate trying to thwart the evil Prof. Moriarty (Jared Harris) from starting World War One 23 years early. A noted Oxford professor, Prof. Moriarty apparently is very wealthy, as he has been busy buying up weapons and munitions factories all over Europe. Beginning with the assassination of a crown prince, Moriarty hopes to poison relationships between the major nations so that they will go to war, thus enriching him even further. “War on an industrial scale is inevitable,” he says to Holmes. “All I have to do is wait.”
The evil villain boldly tells Holmes that he will strike at him through his friend and confidante Dr. Watson (Jude law), who is getting married. What turns out to be the briefest and strangest honeymoon (until you see Melancholia) is an exciting sequence involving Holmes’ pushing the bride out of a speeding train as it speeds across a bridge high above a river.

A number of new characters are introduced, such as Stephen Fry as Holmes well connected brother and Noomi Rapace (star of the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) as a gypsy whose compatriots are involved in revolutions. But Downey and Law remain at the heart of the film, the two interacting well as they exchange remarks and put downs. A few delightful examples: Watson, near the beginning of the film, “Oh, how I've missed you, Holmes.” The reply,” Have you? I've barely noticed your absence.” Or, Holmes, “Get that out of my face.” Watson, “It's not in your face; it's in my hand.” Get what's in your hand out of my face!” And when Holmes appears on a train dressed as a woman, Watson expresses surprise, “What?” to which Holmes replies, “I agree, it's not my best disguise.”

This is a fun, escapist film that nonetheless upholds the age-old battle of Good against Evil. Holmes is a very flawed hero, overly rational, rude, under appreciative of his loyal friend, and even arrogant, but at least he is on the right side.

A version with discussion questions will soon be available to VP subscribers at


Rated R.  Our Ratings: V -4; L -5; S/N -1.  Running time: 1 hour  37 min.

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
    …    …
What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
    Ecclesiastes 1:1, 2:22-23

Justine, her new husband, brother-in-law, and her sister 
look up at the blue star in the sky.
© 2011 Magnolia Pictures

Note: Toward the end of both the review and the set of questions there are spoilers.

One expects a Lars von Trier film to be a bit weird (remember his Breaking the Waves?), and this new one about the impending end of the world, which won the Palme d'Or and Kirsten Duntz’s “Best Actress Awards at the Cannes Film Festival, is no exception. Somewhat similar to Another Earth, and even Tree of Life, this film reflects the deeply pessimistic view of its auteur. Accompanied by the overture to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, it opens with a visual preface consisting of a series of shots of a bride, astronomical shots, the bride floating down a stream that calls to mind a painting we see later, John Everett Millais' “Ophelia,” and more, all in extreme slow motion. Like a musical overture, we are introduced visually to the story, such as it is, to come.

Part 1 of the film is named after Kirsten Duntz’s character “Justine,” showing in detail the events of an overly lavish wedding reception. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and groom Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) arrive in a stretch limousine two hours late at the reception held by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) at their palatial estate overlooking the sea. Instead of going in to greet the guests, Justine visits her favorite horse in the stables. Although she attempts feeble smiles, she is so depressed that she does not enjoy the festivities, sneaking off to take a bath, then a nap, and later even having sex with a new acquaintance on one of the greens of the estate’s golf course. All this taxes the patience of her sister, and even more her brother-in-law, who keeps reminding Justine of how much the affair has cost him. Thus the marriage is over on the very night that it was to be consummated. Hanging over the events is a bright star that Justine had spotted earlier.

This bright star grows still larger in Part 2 “Claire,” actually dominating it. It is months later, and the star is a planet given the name of Melancholia. It had been hidden by the sun because it had been on the side opposite from the earth, but now it has deviated from its orbit and is moving toward the Earth. Justine, suffering a nervous breakdown, has stayed on at the estate, but it is Claire now whom we see acting strangely, becoming fearful that her amateur astronomer husband’s soothing statement that Melancholia will pass by the Earth is wrong. Each day the planet looms larger in the sky. Claire is anxious that her young son will not be able to grow up and enjoy life as she has. Justine is not much help to Claire, declaring at one point, "The Earth is evil. We don't need to grieve for it."

Claire tries to find some measure of comfort and reassurance but Justine dashes that with her statement, "We will all die, and no one will miss us." And yet it is she who brings a measure of calmness as she gathers Clair and her boy beneath a group of poles stacked tee pee-like to await the End.

Lars von Trier apparently wants us to contemplate the end of our own lives by depicting the end of all life on Earth. What does it amount to? The filmmaker’s use of Pieter Breugel's painting “The Land of Cockaigne” is a clever device in that the medieval painter was criticizing sharply the overly hedonistic values of his society, one very much like that in which Justine feels enmeshed in. von Trier shows us some people, such as the parents of the sisters (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling), who are bitter and cynical about life, having failed in their own marriage. Even at the reception their mother criticizes marriage as a useless institution.

Justine’s brother-in-law’s ranting about how much the reception has cost him shows what a hollow materialist he is. And worst of all is Justine’s advertising agency boss (Stellan Skarsgard)) who even at the reception presses her to come up with one of her clever tag lines for their new ad campaign, even offering her a promotion. Just as she rejects marriage by later engaging in sex with the new man her boss has hired, so she ends her career by refusing her boss and telling him how she despises him. Here is a woman who seems to want to end her miserable life, and thus, unlike her fearful sister, is not sorry that the End is at hand.

I have compared the film to Another Earth because the plot of each involves a planet approaching Earth, but in terms of the film’s criticism of the shallow materialism of its characters, Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is a more apt comparison. Lars von Tier is in good company, not just with the Italian filmmaker, but also with the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes in his rejection of society’s values. If only he possessed the faith in the latter’s God who infuses value into our lives as nothing else can. This film might be a hard sell for church groups. It is at times difficult to understand, and its brief sex scene might be off-putting (though it is filmed in a long shot), but it is one that could result in a lively discussion that calls for an in depth examination of our values and of death.

A version of this review with a set of discussion questions will soon be available to VP subscribers at

War Horse

Rated PG-13. Our Ratings: V -4; L -5 ; S/N -1.  Running time: 2 hours 26 min.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
        Luke 2:13-14

Albert and Joey form a close bond.
© 2011 DreamWorks Pictures

Stephen Spielberg’s first of two films to be released this December (Tintin will be out within a week) will win the hearts of those who loved Black Beauty or The Black Stallion. The director and his screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis based their film on the novel by Michael Morpugo and the 2007 London stage play by Nick Stafford. Divided into two parts, a pre-War pastoral sequence in rural England, and an action filled one in the war-torn fields of France, the film will appeal to all ages.

When English farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullen), living at the edge of poverty, foolishly buys at an auction a thoroughbred horse for plowing his field, his wife Rosie (Emily Watson) is outraged. He was supposed to buy a plow horse, but being a bit tipsy from drink, he had determined to outbid his landlord Lyons (David Thewlis) whom he despises. His teenage son Albert (Jeremy Irvine), immediately drawn to the beautiful horse, works hard to train the high-spirited animal to pull a plow. All the neighbors gather to witness what they think will be a failure as the boy hitches Joey (thus he has named the horse) to the heavy plow and tries to get him to pull it. The land is rolling and rocky, and Joey is confused by the difficult task. Cutting back and forth between the crowd, the horse, and the boy, Spielberg infuses drama into this sequence so that by the time Albert, talking to and stroking the horse, manages to convey to the struggling Joey his intent, there is a note of triumph as the horse cooperates and the long furrows are plowed deep and straight, to the amazement of the onlookers.

However, Nature does not cooperate as well as Joey, with the lush crop being ruined by a rainstorm. Badly in need of money to pay the over-due rent, Ted reluctantly has to sell Joey to an Army officer buying up horses for the cavalry. War has just broken out on the Continent. The bond developed between boy and horse remains strong, Albert telling Joey at their tearful parting that he will find him no matter what.

There follows a series of adventures, some of them horrendous as Joey passes through the hands of various humans amidst the carnage of the war. The British officer also comes to love the horse, but in a terrible scene that shows that war has entered into a new mechanized phase, a cavalry charge against the Germans that at first seemed a victory turns into a slaughter as German machine guns cut down the charging equestrians.
For a brief time Joey is loved by a young German soldier, then an old French farmer and his teenage granddaughter, and then he is confiscated to pull a heavy cannon over a muddy road. Joey and a beautiful black horse work in tandem for a while, but the cruelty of conditions and their treatment by a harsh artilleryman takes it toll. Fortunately for Joey another young German soldier strives to protect the animal.
As in his past films, the director brings out the humanity to be found on both sides of the battle lines.

One of the best films of the year, the film is gorgeously photographed. The rolling hills of England and the picture-perfect rustic cottage of the Narracott’s are beautifully captured by the Technicolor film. At first the scenes in France are beautiful as we see the British cavalry moving through a field of tall golden grain, but after the massacre by machine guns, the palette turns stark grays and blacks as the story moves into the stalemated trench warfare sequence. That machines are replacing the horse in warfare is well shown by the faceless German tanks that crawl through the mud and smash down anything impeding their paths. However, there is still a trace of humanity on the battlefield, as we see in the scene in which Albert, now old enough to join the Army, and the German youth who has befriended Joey, meet in No Man’s land to rescue the injured animal from the barbed wire that encircles his body. This reminds me of the Christmas Eve Truce so movingly depicted in the French film Joyeux Noel.

The film is also indebted to many other earlier movies—the already mentioned horse films and, of course, some of the Lassie films in which boy and dog are separated and then reunited at the end of the film after the dog encounters numerous humans, most but not all being kind-hearted. A harsher film that Hollywood Reporter reviewer Todd McCarthy mentioned in his review is Robert Bresson's 1966 masterpiece Au Hasard, Balthazar about the lowly mule with the exotic name that passes through the hands of a number of masters, most of them not so kind as those in the American films. Indeed, some have regarded the cruel suffering borne so patiently by Balthazar as pointing to its being a Christ figure—thus if you haven’t yet seen this film, you owe it to yourself to search it out on Netflix. (I would say the same of the wonderful Joyeaux Noel as well.)

War Horse is one of those films that has made the last month of the year such a joy. Some may quibble over the unlikely happy ending, but then this is a film by the man who turned James Ballard’s dark novel about a boy in a Japanese internment camp Empire of the Sun into a bright, positive film, so what do you expect? The war scenes are stark, though photographed in a way that does not rub our noses in the blood and gore, so parents should see the film first before taking a young child to it. Most of the latter probably have seen as much violence on their television screens, but here they will also see the humanity and love that also are to be found in the midst of war. Youth groups will also find lots of material for discussion. Again Spielberg has gifted us with a film to love and cherish for years to come.

A version of this review with discussion questions will soon be available to subscribers of

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Descendants

Matt and his daughters gaze at their fasmily’s land.
© 2011 Fox Searchlight

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
      Matthew 18:21

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;
for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers.
      Psalm 24:1-2

George Clooney’s Matt King, a real estate lawyer on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, has his hands full dealing with serious problems. His wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) lies in a comatose state in a hospital as a result of a boating accident; he has become estranged from his teen-aged daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and her younger sister Scottie (Amara Miller); he is being pressed by his large clan to agree to sell the family inheritance, a beautiful track of land on the island of Kauai that resort developers want to build on—and he learns from Alexander that his wife had been cheating on him. The latter is ironic in that Matt begins the film’s narration by acknowledging that he must talk with his wife because the two have drifted apart because of his absorption in business affairs.

Director Alexander Payne’s film is one of the best of the year with its themes of family, land heritage, forgiveness and reconciliation. Adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the story is a complex one with a wonderful ensemble cast that match Mr. Clooney’s artistry—I will be very surprised if he is not nominated for a “Best Actor” Oscar. The characters are well rounded, even Alexandra’s somewhat goofy boyfriend who seems as devoid of brains as the Oz’s Tin Man comes through for Matt toward the end of the story. George himself is a descendant of a Hawaiian princess and an early white settler. Although he lives a low key middle class as a businessman, the multitude of cousins seem to be mostly slackers eagerly awaiting their portion of the proceeds from selling the ancestral land.

After the doctor tells Matt that Elizabeth’s coma is irreversible, Matt keeps the information to himself for a while. He gathers up the girls and boyfriend and flies to Kaui where he has learned that Elizabeth’s lover is vacationing with his family. He is Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), a real estate agent. Before searching for the lover, the family drives out to see the tract of land that belongs to the larger family. It is indeed pristine, with an unspoiled beach and extensive grove of trees.

Matt and companions scour the beaches for Brian, but have no success, until Matt casually talks with a mother carefully watching her two little children play in the surf.  She turns out to be Julie Speer (Judy Greer), who is staying with her husband at a nearby beach cottage owned by one of George’s many relatives. At last Matt has found the man who had stolen the affections of his dying wife.

The confrontation with Brian later that night at his cottage turns out to be very different from what is expected. Indeed the scene is the second best moment of grace in the film. An equally fine moment of grace unfolds in the hospital where his father-in-law and family have come to say goodbye to Elizabeth before the medical staff, in compliance with Elizabeth’s stated wishes, pull the plug on her life support system. When the father-in-law lashes out at Matt, declaring that such a faithful wife as Elizabeth deserved a better husband, Matt shows tremendous restraint. Later Julie’s visit to the hospital room also is a moment of high drama.

George Clooney’s performance is Oscar worthy, but we must also mention that of Shailene Woodley as Alexandra. This young TV actress appears here in her first movie role, and we can only hope that other filmmakers will use her. She is resentful of her father’s lack of attention to her and her sister, and is almost contemptuous of his ignorance of her mother’s infidelity. At the private boarding school she attends she has retreated into the role of rebel without a cause. She is uncertain of her place in the world and only gradually warms up to her father. Ms. Woodley holds her own in every scene played with the experienced Clooney.

The gradual rapprochement of Matt and his daughters; his wrestling with his emotions upon learning of his wife’s infidelity; his finally arriving at a decision concerning what to do with the land—all this makes for compelling viewing. Although set in the present, Matt feels the hand of the past upon him in regard to the land, reminding me somewhat of the theme of people and land in the Hebrew scriptures. Given the lofty and inspiring ancestors, the film raises the question we should all be considering, "Is my present life a worthy one and is it honoring those who came before me?  This is a film to cherish and return to more than once. Watch next year for it to be included among the ten nominations for the “Best Picture” Oscar.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Pic 1. Scorcese’s tribute to Buster Keaton as Hugo hides from his pursuer.
Pic 2.  Hugo starts out on the wrong foot with georges, the grumpy owner of the toy shop in the station.

 Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
      maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
     deliver them from the hand of the wicked."

                   Psalm 82:3-4

…and a little child shall lead them.
                  Isaiah 11:6d
Who would have guessed that the director of Taxi Driver would direct a film based on a teen novel? The Invention of Hugo Cabret seems more like Spielberg territory. The answer to the question does not arrive until well into Hugo, the first section being a tale about an orphan, though a very engrossing one. Scriptwriter John Logan’s adaptation of Brian Selznick’s novel is set in 1931, mostly in a railstation in Paris where the boy lives secretly amidst the gears and pendulems of the giant clocks of the station

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) had lived and at times assisted his widower father (Jude Law) who had a clock shop and also worked at a museum repairing mechanical devices and clocks. When the man died in a fire, the alcoholic uncl, who was the clock winder at the train station, took the boy, gave him a bed in the chamber that held the works of the huge tower clock, withdrew him from school, and taught him how to maintain the various large clocks. Then the uncle disappeared on a drinking binge, leaving the boy to fend for himself. The only thing Hugo had of his father’s was an automaton he had been trying to get to work.

Hugo survives by stealing bread rolls and fruit from a café and vendors who sell to the crowds that pass through the station. He has to be careful because the vigilant station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) is on the lookout for him. There are several madcap chases with the Inspector and his dog almost catching the elusive boy several times. Not knowing that the uncle is missing, he does not suspect that it is the boy who keeps the clocks running.

Hugo runs afoul a toy repairman and salesman named Georges (Ben Kingsley) when the old man grabs him as he is trying to steal a mechanical mouse. Forced by the angry proprietor to empty his pockets, the boy reveals that he has also taken a number of springs and gears. What we know but Georges does not is that the boy has been attempting to repair the automaton as a way to connect with his father. He is especially intrigued by the lock in the chest of the automaton with its heartshaped hole. Only after meeting and befriending Georges’s ward Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), a girl about Hugo’s age, does he find the key, not only to the lock and the secret of the automaton, but also to the secret of Georges as well.

The old man turns out to be the great pioneer of film special effects Georges Melies. Having gone bankrupt and losing his film studio (the first one in history), the once famous filmmaker—creator of over 500 films—had become embittered and was reduced to selling and repairing toys at the shop in the station. Now we know the reason why Scorcese was drawn to the movie. Keenly interested in film history and preservation, the master director can share with us clips from Melies and other silent filmmakers—for instance, there is a clip from The General in which Buster Keaton sitting on the driving rod of a steam engine and then being lifted up when the engine starts up; and there is a shot of the famous Babylonia set from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. Most extensive of all is the famous scene from Safety Last. We see this through the eyes of the children, Hugo sneaking Isabella into a theater after she tells him that her father has never allowed her to see a movie. Comedian Harold Lloyd is stuck out on a ledge high above a city street, and then slipping, he dangles from the minute hand of a huge clock. Later on homage is paid to this classic scene when Hugo, being pursued again by the Inspector and his dog, rushes up the stairs of the clock tower, climbs through the face of the giant clock, slips and grabs onto the minute hand of the clock. He hangs there in great peril until the Inspector gives up the search and leaves.

In flashbacks we see the younger George Melies in the late 1890s and early 1900s present at the first public showing of a film by the the Lumiere brothers’ 1897 Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. The audience was so mesmerized by the spectacle of pictures that move that they rose up in fright as the steam engine seemed to be heading right for them. Already a successful magician, Melies was so taken with this new magic that he built his own camera and began making films, He discovered he could work screen magic by special effects such as the stop-camera effect in which a woman appears to disappear, replaced by other objects, and the first sci-fi/fantasy film, the comical A Trip to the Moon. And through the film historian Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), Scorcese even gets in a plug for his favorite cause of film preservation. Film buffs will love the recreation of film history, but the film works for families because of the well-rounded characters and delightful plot.

We feel for the grieving and lonely boy struggling to survive—indeed, striving as he tells Isabella, to discover his purpose in life, which after learning of Georges’ place in film history, he now understands. It is a neat plot device to pair Hugo’s attempt to repair the automaton with the repairing of a broken man. The young actors are convincing in their parts, and are wonderfully supported by the adult cast. There are a few subplots, such as the shy Inspector’s desire to make the acquantance of the flower girl, and an old man and woman who might have paired off but for the snappiness of the woman’s dog. The audience loved his solution to the problem.

Although I suspect that Scorcese would prefer to have been able to create a film biography of the great originator of his profession instead of encasing it within a tale for young people, he does not stint on the story of Hugo and his friends. Every scene is shot with passion and enthusiasm, designed to lead us to share his love for the movies. The camerwork is thrilling as we swoosh the crowds in one long shot, and the settings—the huge train station, a public library, the giant gears, shafts and workings of the tower clock, and the vistas of Paris, all enhanced by 3-D. Scorcese had a big budget and used it well to recreate the details of the early 20th century. This is one film that you really should see in 3 D, Scorcese using the device better than anyone since James Cameron in Avatar. Martin Scorcese has given the world something to be thankful for during this season of turkey and football. Hugo is the kind of film that makes going to the movies (and writing about them) the joyful experience that Georges Melies and talented filmmakers since have intended it to be. A treat for the entire family!
(A version with discussion questions tis available to Visual Parables subscribers at
© 2011 Paramount Films

About this blog

Several times a week I will be posting film reviews, both those opening in theaters and those released as DVDs.
I have been writing film reviews and articles for a number of years, but this is my first entry for, so I want to explain some of the reasons for starting this. My main efforts go into writing, editing, and formatting Visual Parables, a film journal dedicated to exploring film and theology and provide materials to use films in groups. Located at, the site includes film reviews posted weekly and a bi-monthly journal that includes the reviews with the added feature of discussion questions plus articles, book and DVD reviews, and materials to help preachers integrate films into their sermons. The reviews are available free, but the journal is open only to subscribers.

I partner with the editor/publisher of the print journal LectionAid, to which I contribute. He serves as my webmaster for free, but is often so busy that my reviews are often delayed. Thus this blog is intended first for Visual Parables readers, who will be notified via the Face Book Visual Parables Group as soon as new reviews are posted here. Second, I hope that the casual viewer who comes across this blog might find something of interest. Most people go to the movies for entertainment, or for the reason implicit in the name of a cinemaplex near me--I love its name:

And this is okay--we all need escape at times. Apparently lots of people do, as most of the summer blockbusters are thrillers and such that provide a good 2 hours of escapist enterainment. But these are not the films that make me wonder about life or stretch and challenge my set ways of thinking, nor do most of them stand out in my memory. Instead most of them blend together in one big blurr of computerized action. Most of the films that I will be dealing with at any length will deal with films such as The Descendants, Incendies, War Horse, or Another World, to name a few recent ones. Recently I saw Martin Scorcese's Hugo and fell in love again with movies at their best. So please join me as we explore the magic of films and what they mean for our lives.

It takes me a while to learn the ropes, but I will keep trying--and will look forward to suggestions and ideas from others who also who love movies.