Thursday, April 26, 2012

Those Far Away Places in Two Film

Many years ago one of the hit songs heard everywhere included the line, "Those far away places with the strange sounding names that are calling, calling me." One of the reasons why I love film so much is its power to transport us to those "far away places" where we meet interesting people who see the world differently from myself and my friends--and yet, as their stories unfold, whose feelings are not so different after all. Such is the case of the two films briefly discussed below.

Boy (Not Rated)

Rocky, Boy and their father play "Army."
(c) 2010 Unison Films

Director Taika Waititi's film is an inventive coming of age tale set in a Maori Village in Waihau Bay, New Zealand during 1984. 11-year-old Boy (James Rolleston), an  ardent  Michael Jackson fan lives with his grandmother, his younger brother  Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu), several little cousins, and the goat, the latter being their source of milk for the impoverished family.

Their father Alamein (played by the director) was imprisoned a little before Rocky was born, and their mother died shortly thereafter. Thus Boy often has had to watch over Rocky and their cousins, as is the case now when Gran is away for a week attending a funeral at the other end of the island. Despite his family responsibilities, Boy spends a lot of time with friends, sometimes making a fool of himself when he tries to impress a girl with his poor imitation of Michael Jackson's Moonwalk. Rocky fantasizes that he has superhero powers to make things happen--and when he tries them out, sometimes the person slips or trips so that the lad is convinced that he does.

Boy has nourished his dreams of his father being a hero, so he is very happy when Alamein drives up with two doltish friends who fancy that they form a tough gang. Although Dad does play with the kids (indeed, he seems more of a kid than boy at times), he spends most of his time smoking pot and digging with his friends holes in a nearby field. It seems that he has buried a sack of money before the police had caught up with him, but he can't remember the spot.

The film is enhanced by some funny drawings by Rocky that come to life, expressing his thoughts or commenting on a character or the action. How Boy comes to terms with the father of his dreams and the reality of the loser who sometimes abuses him is both funny and poignant at times. The fate of the money is especially a delight. The film shows the Americanization of other cultures, but not in a judgmental way so much as suggesting that no national or cultural boundary is impervious in today's world. (Alamein himself is taken by the title of the novel Shogun.) Best of all, the film demonstrates the resiliency and imagination of children, helping them to survive when reality fails to live up to their dreams.

Separation (Rated PG-13)

Nader and Simin are separated by more than a wall.
(c) 2011 Sony Pictures Classics

Asghar Farhadi's film might come as a revelation at a time when some are beating the war drums in an attempt to move us to go to war against Iran because we fear their nuclear program. The winner of the "Best Foreign Film" Oscar, this domestic strife story avoids all politics, except for the reason that wife and mother  Simin decides to leave, and then divorce, her husband. She wants to emigrate from Iran because she hopes to give her daughter Termeh opportunities which the male-dominated Iran prevents women from enjoying. I suspect that that was as far as he felt he could go for social commentary if he wanted to see his film shown beyond his own country.

Nader, the husband and father, refuses because he is the sole caregiver of his Alzheimer-afflicted father, now in need of watching every single minute. When Simin leaves home, Termeh chooses to stay with her father because she believes that this will bring back her mother: she knows that if she accompanies her mother, Simin will take them out of the country, thus depriving her of the father whom she loves in equal measure. When Nader hires a woman to watch his father while he is at work, he unleashes a chain of sad events that brings anguish and heartache to everyone, the film ending on a note that will puzzle and upset those who like everything in their films to be tied up neatly by the end.

The glimpses of Iranian society show a world in which people are neither fearful of their government nor rebelling against it, but simply trying to get on with their everyday lives. Simin and Nader are as secular as most Americans, whereas the family of the caretaker are devout Muslims. The court scenes are intriguing because the system seems to abide by secular rather than Sharia law.

Both films  are confined to the art house circuit, but their release on DVD should make them available to a wider audience.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

It's Been a Very Titanic Anniversary Week

What a week it's been for those engrossed with all things Titanic, with the re-release of James Cameron's blockbuster, plus TCM's airing of the 1958 film A Night to Remember, ABC Television's mini-series Titanic, and the History Channel's documentary on the salvaging of artifacts from the sunken ship. I didn't see it, but someone told me that The Unsinkable Molly Brown also was shown on a cable channel. Quite a fitting way to observe the 100th Anniversary of this terrible marine tragedy!

The Titanic 3-D
Rated PG-13.  Running time: 3 hours 14 min.

The 3-D is well done, but the main reason for laying aside your DVD version of James Cameron's film and venturing out to the theater is the opportunity for seeing the incredible special effect scenes on a big screen, especially if there is an Imax theater near you. The overworked "Awesome" is appropriate for this. No doubt credit for this film's enormous success is due to James Cameron's successfully melding a classic love story, so ably depicted by  Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, with a spectacular disaster.
The first two hours consist of the despairing rich Grace bonding with the free-spirited Jack who dares to hope that they are meant for each other. Thus, though we see many touching scenes of the other passengers plight during the last third of the film, it is their fate which holds our attention. Cameron focuses so narrowly on the lovers that he does not include nearly as many details as the 1958 film A Night to Remember, possibly because he thought they might be distracting. For example, the film never mentions the ship which was just ten miles away and failed to come to their aid
Although the re-release of Titanic did not capture first place at the box office (as did Disney' Lion King, it has done well, coming in No. 4 on its opening weekend. It is worth visiting again: even though I knew the plot well, the scene of his entrapment below deck while the water rose in the room was still suspenseful.

On DVD: A Night to Remember 
Not Rated. Running time: 2 hours 3 min.

Based on Walter Lord's carefully researched book about the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic, this film adds very little fictional element in its straightforward account of the events. Much of the story is told from the standpoint of 2nd Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, who after seeing to the lowering of the other life boats, took charge of those who managed to stay atop the upside down collapsible lifeboat.
This film gives a more comprehensive view of the terrible night in that considerable screen time is given to twoother ships, one that did rush to the rescue of the Titanic's stricken passengers and crew, and one which did not. By a terrible irony it was the one closest, The Californian,  just ten miles away, that looked on and did nothing, even as the crew watched numerous rockets being fired as distress signals. Also, the ship's radioman closed down his wireless and did not bother to co back and check it, despite the rocket signals. On the other hand the Carpathian sped at full speed when they received the call for help via wireless, but unfortunately was 4 hours away. They took in the life boat survivors, but everyone in the ice-cold waters had died.
All the Titanic films show the various ways that people faced death--from panic to calm acceptance--and this one shows a priest reciting a prayer and quoting from the Book of Revelation as several dozen people kneel around him, the little group like an island of tranquility as others scream and rush around them. Another beautiful depiction is the band which played music almost right up to the last minute, their last tune being the hymn "Nearer My God to Thee." In this version it is the British tune used, whereas in James Cameron's film it is "Bethany," the tune familiar to Americans.

On ABC Television: TITANIC
Not Rated.  Running time:  c. 3 1/2 hours

This excellent recreation of the story also includes fictional characters as well as historical ones. Although the other versions show the strict class distinctions of society in 1912, this version  emphasizes class barriers more through the story of a snobbish British women. We follow the fortunes and misfortunes of major characters in First and Second Class and in Steerage. It was no accident that far fewer of the steerage women and children survived than did those in the upper class section, the crew refusing to unlock the gates that kept the poor in their place until the well off had been loaded into the lifeboats.
Through flashbacks the film also underlines the thoughtless hubris of the White Star Line executives during the building of the ship. They rush the construction so that one person expresses his misgivings that they are using iron bolts rather than steel ones, purchased from companies that they have not vetted. And of course, as in the other films, there is concern, voiced by ship designer Thomas Andrews, over the low number of life boats. As we have saw in the other versions, this concern is swept aside because more boats would make the promenade too crowded for the first class passengers.
You can see all four parts of the series at this site: . They are not commercial free, but there are fewer than when originally broadcast--and there are also several short "Making of" features.

And by the way, if you are hungry for more films based on the disaster, there is the 1953 film Titanic starring Barbara Stanwick and Clifton Web as estranged parents on board the ship who are battling for custody of their son and daughter. There is even a 1953 German film of the same name that Goebbels made to discredit the British and Jews.


Friday, April 13, 2012

Blue Like Jazz

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.

(c) 2012 Roadside Attractions

Those who are ashamed of me and of my words* in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
Mark 8:38

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
Romans 1:16

He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
Matthew 22:37

Director Steve Taylor's film, based on the collection of essays and memoir by Don Miller that was on the New York Times' bestseller list, raises the bar for faith-based films--and also has stirred up controversy among believers and nonbelievers. This latter is a good thing for the film in that it might lead more people to go see it for themselves. As I watched it recently via a Live Streaming screening set up for film critics and reviewers, I found my initial skepticismconcerning the film  melting away due to the well crafted script (by Taylor, Ben Pearson, joined by Don Miller himself) and excellent performances by the actors.

According to those who have read the book (I haven't), the story is a very fictionalized account of a young man's spiritual journey from a closed belief system to skeptic denial and back to a spiritual belief that is open and affirming. Don (Marshall Allman) is a 19 year-old enrolled in a Baptist junior college and active as an assistant leader in the junior high fellowship of his Southern Baptist Church in Texas. When a case of blatant hypocrisy involves his divorced mother (Jenny Littleton), he accepts his free thinking father's proposition to enroll at ultra-liberal  Reed College in Portland Oregon. The skeptic had been working on his son, telling him in one scene that the boy was smart, "A brain like that shouldn't be wasted at church."

Climbing into his beat up old car, the young man seeks to escape from both his family and his church. At Reed Don at first is like a fish out of water. Girls freely use the men's bathroom, drinking and swearing are rampant, the professors encourage students to question everything, and lesbian student Lauryn (Tania Raymonde) warns him that if he is a Christian, he better stay in the closet.

Don soon finds that he has little faith to keep under wraps, the young man being swept away by the confident skepticism of his peers who love to mock the faith. The stand out of the latter is the student known only as the Pope (Justin Welborn), who almost always is wearing arobe and pontifical hat. Needless to say, this is a character whom Catholic viewers will have trouble relating to until the greatly moving climatic scene of the film. Don himself becomes a campus celebrity after he and some other students are arrested for defacing a billboard advertising a bottled water product despised by the students because its expensive contents can be obtained free at a water faucet.

During this middle period of the film when he has rejected his old faith his spirit seems to be sustained by the love for jazz inherited from his father and fed by his listening to a recoringd of John Coltrain. The boy has embraced his father's statement that "Jazz is like life because it doesn't resolve." Don hismelf refuses to resolve his anger toward his mother, ignoring her frequent  phone calls. At a so-called civil disobedience demonstration at a large bookstore Don becomes even more attracted to the cute student activist Penny (Claire Holt) whom he had observed around campus. He joins in such hi jinx as placing a huge plastic phallis symbol over the tall tower of a local church. However, his pride in his accomplishment is deflated somewhat when Penny, hurt by the action, reveals that she is a believer who attends that church. His confrontation with Penny is the beginning of Don's re-evaluation of his beliefs and behavior, though there are plenty of bumps in the road for him yet.

The film has flaws, such as what seemed at times some stereotyping of both fundamentalists and liberals, and the scene of the students dressed as robots and computers protesting at Books, Ink seemed far too much over the top to be believable. Conservative Christians will have problems with the language and alcohol/drug depiction--and also, as I learned during the online chat exchange following our screening, with the film's raising some of the failings of the church acknowledged in the film. One critic kept complaining of this, even stating that this showed a "hatred" toward Christianity--as if frankly admiting that the Crusaders killing thousands of women and children, as well as combatants, was evidence of a vendetta against the Church by the filmmakers.

I thought that the wild campus-wide party at he end of the film was too far out until I read about Reed College and that the Renn Fayre, staged by seniors at the end of the academic year, actually takes place, with its bizarre events of drinking, eating, and more by costumed students dating back to a Renaissance Fayre decades earlier. It is at this that the climatic scene featuring the old Pope passing on his post to the new one brings the film to a highly dramatic and satisfying conclusion, one that like jazz, is not quite resolved.

As a depiction of a faith that is large enough for doubt and that admits that it does not have all the answers to the mysteries of life, Doin's father's analogy is a good one, even though he in his dogmatic skepticism would not grasp this. I especially appreciated the film because the arc of Don's spiritual journey is a little similar to my journey. Mine wasn't nearly as exrteme, but it began in a fundamentalist church (one which taught that one must be baptized in "living water," a river, not in an indoors" bathtub"), from which during my junior high years I drifted away due to a couple of spiritual crises. Then during my high school years the direction was reversed when I discovered that in the Methodist Chrurch one did nt have to "check your brains at the door."

 This provocative film would be a good one for a youth group to watch and discuss about the nature of faith and doubt, but the leader should see it first and be sure to alert parents to the elements that almost resulted in the film being given an R rating.

A version of this review with 12 multi-part questions is available forVisual Parables subscribers at