• Sunday Essay #5: Three Recent Films Worth Watching

    • Posted on Dec 31, 2017

    Three Recent Films Worth Seeing, in order of worthiness-- Molly’s Game, dir. Aaron Sorkin, The Shape of Water, dir. Guillermo del Toro, and Mudbound, dir. Dee Rees. 

    Molly’s Game takes some getting used to—it’s extra-talky, and the talk contains a good deal of poker jargon that gushes at viewers like water from a firehose.  Clearly, Sorkin is a writer more than a director, and his writer’s stamp and style defines the film.  Remember long soliloquies in West Wing? This film feels and looks like an extended episode of West Wing set in high-end hotels in LA and New York.        

    Here’s a film about amorality—a lack of ethical consciousness on the part of high-rollers with too much money and time on their hands—and who develop an addiction to the adrenalin rushes that a winning poker hand inevitably delivers.

    It’s worth watching because Jessica Chastain, playing the crafty and gritty Molly Bloom, manipulates super-rich gambling addicts into paying her serious money to arrange high-stakes poker games. 

    The subplot about her brutal and cold father (Kevin Costner) helps explain Molly’s anger    and inability to connect emotionally to anyone, though it doesn’t explain her inability to care about ethical issues of constant lying and cheating. 

    If you liked Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, you’ll love her in Molly’s Game. 


    The Shape of Water works as a Beauty and the Beast story, meaning it taps into mankind’s most ancient and wise insights. It serves as an archetypal reminder that appearances deceive the best of us, and rewards await those who dismiss appearances and seek deeper realities.  Movies have told and retold this story since the very beginning, whenever a story reveals monsters who reveal goodness, or whenever beautiful people turn out to be monsters.

    Villainy takes beautiful forms, and beauty and goodness sometimes appear monstrous. So The Shape of Water contains visual reminders of The Creature from the Black Lagoon as well as ethical distortions from scientists reminiscent of King Kong.

    It’s worth watching because the main characters—the beauty and the beast—transform from lost, threatened, miserable beings into fully alive, even ecstatic individuals who meld into one another not just as erotic lovers, but as fearless believers in their own right to live their lives without interference from those who would destroy them.  


    Mudbound is a Netflix original, which means that you can only watch it on your TV with your Netflix membership. It was released in only 17 theaters around the country on Nov. 17—the same day it was released for home viewing on Netflix. This makes it eligible for the Oscars—and it may be the first Netflix film to be so nominated.  A new era dawns?        

    It fact, Mudbound deserves more than a few Oscar nominations.  It’s hard to watch at times—in fact impossible for some viewers who will cringe and weep at what the characters, especially the Ronsel Jackson character—played by Jason Mitchell—must undergo. This is suffering beyond the pale, and it’s set up in the story so as to feel inevitable—and utterly, horribly unjust. 

    Viewers come to love and admire Ronsel, and frustrated by his being trapped in an apartheid culture that will destroy him, given his new-found liberation as an American soldier in Europe returning to small-town racist Alabama. His evolving, powerful friendship with Jamie McAllan, (Garrett Hedlund) a white fellow war veteran, gives both characters an opportunity for moral transformation that drives the narrative.

    Mudbound isn’t just worth watching—it’s an essential film, one of those films that can alter perceptions and attitudes permanently about racial injustice, families, and American apartheid.

    I can’t help but mention actor Jonathan Banks, who played the crusty and memorable Mike Ehrmantrout in both Breaking Bad and its spin-off Better Call Saul. In Mudbound he plays Pappy McAllan, the racist Klan monster who embodies the ugly nihilism of racial hatred—and who gets exactly what he deserves. 


    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Reviews
  • On Noah's choice in the film NOAH

    • Posted on Apr 02, 2014


    SPOILER ALERT!  Do not read on if you believe that knowing the ending will erode your enjoyment of the film.  Go see Noah and come back. 

    Noah believes that he has been clearly commanded by God to destroy all mankind.   Because humanity has become so utterly evil, nothing will save humans from God’s scorn and wrath.  

    Noah’s plan (derived, he believes, from God’s will) is to leave no heirs—to just let his family die natural deaths from old age.  But his plan gets spoiled when the girl they had rescued from a marauding clan miraculously gets pregnant with twins—daughters, as it were.

    Noah knows that this means mankind will continue, since two daughters are capable of producing any number of future humans, especially since Noah’s son fathered them, and can father more.  Yet Noah continues to believe that God does not want mankind to survive.  And that would include Noah and his family. 

     To carry out God’s commandment, he—Noah—must murder his granddaughters.    He has no choice, he insists over and over.   This doesn’t sit well with his family, all of whom think he has become a madman, and tell him so.   
    Noah, however, will not be stopped, and with his knife raised, ready to slaughter his beautiful newborns, he pauses.   Then instead of stabbing them dead, he gently and sweetly kisses each one. 


    Thus Noah blatantly gives up on God’s commandment.   At first, this is horrible for him.  By disobeying God’s order he feels as though he utterly betrayed the Creator, and the poor man lapses into severe depression, hobbled by guilt, and soon turns to the fermented grape for comfort.   He’s a guilty mess. 

     To his family, however, Noah finally came to his senses and became the loyal father and husband they loved.

     More than that, they eventually convince him, supported by supposed signs from heaven (the sun’s rays peak through at just the right time, white doves return to the ark) that his refusal to kill his grandchildren was also an order from God, only from inside Noah in the form of his conscience.  God evidently changed His mind.  
    Mankind will continue after all, and Noah feels fine about that in the end.  

    Thus the film ends happily, with Noah’s family carrying on, post-flood, in the belief that mankind does have a few redeeming features—granddaughters and such.   

     SO:  where is God? Is he out there, issuing orders that seem cruel and heartless?  Or in there, letting each human listen to whatever their consciences tell them?   

    Here’s the rub.  God’s initial demand on Noah was directly contradicted by Noah’s choice to spare his granddaughters.  Directly.  You can’t have it both ways—if you’re listening to the God “out there” commanding you to do something you find distasteful, then change your mind because your conscience tells you it’s fine to disobey the first command, you have a problem.   You’re left to decide for yourself which set of commands to follow.

    This is exactly the same as not worrying about God at all.   Do what you think is right, and forget about trying to please anyone but your own conscience.  That’s what Noah does, and though he eventually believes God approves, this seems suspiciously like a rationalization, a self-serving decision to please his family and himself.  Who’s to say, really, whether he pleased God or not?  

    Thus the film Noah raises this question: Do we need God to help us do the right thing?  And down deep, offers this answer:  not really.  


    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
    • Hot Button Issues
    • Reviews
    • Religiosity
Cedar Valley Chronicles Photo

“Even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went 'viral' in the Cedar Valley… the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

Scott's work does just that.  Enjoy this collection of his writing.”

-Saul Shapiro, Former Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier Editor
Read Shapiro's entire introduction.


Contact Scott

Contact Scott Photo