Could You, Should You Forgive?: Steve Reflects on Philomena

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. So we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, but are you able to forgive? The answer to that question probably depends on who hurt you and how deeply they hurt you. What if you were hurt by the Church itself, or at least philomenaby those who were representing the Church? What if they not only hurt you, but also did everything in their power to convince you (and anyone else who would listen) that you were in fact the guilty party? What if they heaped shame upon the original abuse? Could you forgive them? Should you forgive them? Is it not possible that their offenses are beyond forgiveness, at least human forgiveness? Those are the issues we are faced with in Philomena.

When I saw Philomena I entered the theater with some trepidation, fearing a movie experience that would become strident as the Church was bashed for its offenses, but I was relieved that the movie had much more to offer than merely holding the Church accountable for its deplorable actions. It does hold the Church accountable, particularly the Irish Catholic Church of fifty years ago, exposing its cruel treatment of young, unwed mothers who were required to work in the harsh conditions of the abbey’s laundry. Even more harsh was the way that at least some of the nuns took advantage of every available opportunity to rub the faces of these girls in their shame, announcing that their suffering was penance for their sins. The worst of that suffering came with the forced adoptions of their children.

The nuns had a point. God had given laws regarding adultery. Had these girls broken those laws? Certainly, they had. Did they need to face the consequences of their actions? Again, the answer is yes. However, this is where we come face to face with a vital spiritual truth. We need the law. We need its guidance and we especially need it to reveal our brokenness, but we even more desperately need the Gospel, the gift of God’s grace, which brings new life. When we get stuck in the law, as those nuns in the Irish Church were, we become nasty and the Church becomes a place of death rather than a place of life. Is it possible to “reprove our neighbor” as the Bible tells us to while at the same time loving our neighbor, which the Bible is even clearer about? Those young women clearly felt the criticism, but did they also experience the love?

Philomena was one of those young women. Having lost her mother at a young age, after an unwise decision she found herself pregnant and abandoned by her father at the abbey. While at the abbey, the nuns essentially steal her son and they try to rob her of her self worth. Both of those abuses will haunt her in the years to come. It would not have been surprising if she had left the Church, but throughout her life both God and the Church remain vital to her. Why would she remain in an institution that had caused her such pain? Was she that naïve? Although the movie portrays her as a very simple woman, she is not naïve. She is able to distinguish between those who hurt her and other nuns who treated her well, especially one young nun who was a messenger of grace. Her faith becomes one of the poles in the dialectic that develops in the movie.

The other pole involves the journalist, Martin Sixsmith, who ends up helping her search for her son. On her son’s fiftieth birthday, she decides that she has kept the secret long enough and she wants to find out what happened to her son. Sixsmith happens to be in need of work. He previously held a high position working for the Labor Party, but was forced out in disgrace, even though he had done nothing wrong. The injustice increases his cynicism and adds anger to it. He considers writing human interest stories as being beneath him, but he needs a project, so he agrees to work with Philomena. On a trip to the abbey, they find that the new administrators add to the sins of the past by giving Philomena the run-around. Sixsmith’s anger gets attached to the Church and increases as each offensive truth is revealed. Finally, his anger explodes and it would be easy to simply side with him. A lesser movie would have done just that. However, as I said, this movie offers us more to grapple with than that. Philomena responds to the revelations in a more complex manner. I won’t spoil the movie by revealing her response, because you simply have to see this movie!

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Back to Blogging: Reflections on the Movies of 2013 (plus a few from 2012 and 2011)

I’m back! After nine months I’m finally adding another post. Did I stop watching movies for nine months? Certainly not! Here’s the hustlescoop: none of the movies over the summer inspired me to write anything. When the good movies started rolling out in the fall, I was out of the blogging habit. I fell behind, but slowly added reflections on my 2013 rankings page. I finally have those rankings up to date. I’ve also added films to the 2011 and 2012 rankings, but not all of those gravityhave comments yet. In total, I added 32 movies from 2013, including American Hustle, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Nebraska, Wolf of Wall Street, Fruitvale Station, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, August: Osage County, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I added 14 movies from 2012 and 5 from 2011, including Cloud Atlas, Killing Them Softly, A Late Quartet, and Incendies. Check out my rankings pages and be looking for my annual Oscar predictions coming soon.

Steve’s First Rankings of 2013: Star Trek Into Darkness, Iron Man 3, Mud, and Place Beyond the Pines

trekIt took me until the end of April to see my first 2013 movie, but now I’ve seen four in two weeks. That’s enough to start my 2013 Rankings page. Check out what I have to say about Star Trek Into Darkness, Iron Man 3, Mud, and The Place Beyond the Pines.

Sins of the Fathers: Steve Recommends The Place Beyond the Pines

The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. That Biblical theme is at the heart of director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines. Befitting that theme, it is a dark, difficult, and thought-provoking film. It is also a gorgeous movie, beautifully shot and filled with strong pinesimages. It boasts solid acting throughout, especially from Ryan Gosling. It has all that and yet it falls short of being a truly great movie. However, it comes so close that it is well worth seeing. Even if it doesn’t quite work as a whole, many of the individual pieces are exquisite and Cianfrance should be applauded for his bold filmmaking.

The movie tells three inter-related stories, each taking about a third of the 140 minute runtime. The first segment, which is the strongest, features Gosling as Handsome Luke, a motorcycle daredevil working the carnival circuit. While making the annual stop in Schenectady, New York, he discovers that there is something new in town, his own infant son. He decides to quit the carnival and stay in town to care for his son, Jason, and the child’s mother, Romina (Eva Mendes). There are two problems: he has no job and Romina has a new man  in her life. The first problem is resolved when he meets Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) who is impressed with Luke’s motorcycle skills and offers to train him as a mechanic. There is another problem: Robin lives outside of town and has little business at his repair shop. But he already has another kind of training in mind. He is a former bank robber and he is convinced that with Luke’s special skill set they can take up that trade together. He says that the key to being a successful bank robber is knowing to quit before things get too hot. He knows when this is, but Luke does not, and that leads to a load of trouble for Luke and lots of other folks. Luke is a complex character. He wants to do right by his son, after being abandoned by his own father, but he doesn’t know how. His paternal need to provide ultimately traps him in a life of crime, an activity that both excites and frightens him. That moral struggle is what makes this portion the richest viewing experience of the three stories.

The second story focuses on Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop who becomes a hero by being in the right place at the right time after Luke’s final heist goes awry. That encounter is a stark reminder of the dangers of his chosen profession. His wife and father would like to see him change careers, which he considers only because of the fear that his own young son could lose his father. However, he doesn’t want to give up on the nobility that he sees in police work. That sense of nobility is shaken when he discovers corruption in the police department. He has the opportunity to be a party to that corruption, but he refuses to take the path. Instead, taking the advice of his father, a former judge, he exposes the corruption and uses the occasion to advance his own political aspirations, first as assistant district attorney, and eventually in a run for attorney general of New York. In his case, choosing the right path and doing good becomes self-centered and possibly even sinful. The cost of his choices is revealed when the story jumps ahead fifteen years for the final segment. He is now divorced and barely has a relationship with his son. So, the son did lose his father, not to the dangers of police work, but to abandonment through ambition. The problem with this second act is that at times it feels like just another police corruption movie and so the tightly woven film begins to unravel just a bit. Case in point: casting Ray Liotta as one of the primary corrupt cops. Sure, Liotta can play such a role in his sleep, but that is the problem. I thoroughly enjoy him as an actor, and he is good here, but it feels too much like been there, done that.

In the conclusion, the two sons, Jason and A.J. cross paths in high school. We see the effects of the sins of the fathers visited on the sons. It is no surprise that they have both become drug users. Yet, while it fits, it also feels forced and clichéd. That feeling pervades this segment, making it the weakest of the three, which is not a good way to end a movie! Some of the writing here borders on the ridiculous. It causes you to wonder: are these people thinking at all? That could apply to either the characters or the writers. Another case in point: what father, especially one running for attorney general and whose son had just been arrested for drug possession, would leave that son unsupervised for the weekend so that he could host a party with underage drinking, rampant drug use, and unfettered sexual activity? I’ll tell you this, I wouldn’t want that guy as my attorney general. Such scenes cheapened the overall impact of the movie. However, I still found myself nearly on the edge of my seat wondering how the movie would end. It is well worth seeing.

A few final thoughts on the actors. Gosling gives a strong performance. It is fair to compare it to his work in Drive, but this is not a simple rehashing of that character. He gives Luke a dark and intriguing persona all his own. Cooper has the difficult task of following the smoldering performance of Gosling. I didn’t find him as mesmerizing as Ryan, and his role here isn’t as interesting as in Silver Linings Playbook, but it is still quite good. (A word of warning to those who are excited about seeing Gosling and Cooper together in a movie: they share about ten seconds of screen time!) If following Gosling is hard, the two sons have to follow both Gosling and Cooper! They do a commendable job. I especially liked Dane DeHaan who played Jason. This is a nice follow-up to last year’s Chronicle. He is a young actor to keep an eye on. Mendelsohn deserves special attention. As good as Gosling and the other actors are, I was most impressed with Mendelsohn. He gave a strong performance as the brother in charge of the criminal family in Animal Kingdom and he is even better here. Unfortunately, his appearances are relatively brief. The bulk of his screen time is with Luke in the first third of the movie, along with a reprise in the third act when Jason comes searching for the truth about his father. Mendelsohn makes the most of his time (and ours) by giving Robin more depth and nuance than any other character in the movie.

And a final thought on the director. Again I applaud his desire to make a great movie. Too few directors even try. There are so many wonderful elements in this film. I trust that he will one day make his masterpiece. I liked this better than his Blue Valentine. He is gifted at revealing the brokenness of his characters, but they seem to have precious few redeeming qualities. I like to be left with at least a sense of hope. Here the ongoing power of sin is evident, but, what do you think, is there hope in the ending of The Place Beyond the Pines?

Facing Tragedy: Two Films from 2012

impossibleI recently added The Impossible and Rust and Bone to my 2012 rankings. Both are good movies, but difficult viewing experiences as they deal with folks struggling with the aftermath of tragedies, in the first case the Thailand tsunami in 2004 and in the second case a more personal tragedy. Both also feature strong performances, led by actresses who received a number of award nominations for their work, Naomi Watts in The Impossible and Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone. Check out my brief reviews on my 2012 rankings page.

Steve Highly Recommends Four More From 2012

I have yet to see a movie released in 2013, although there are finally some coming out that I’m looking forward to seeing. In the meantime, I’ve been catching up on a few more from 2012, which was quite a fine year for movies. I’ve seen four recently that I highly recommend, although the best of them, Holy Motors, is an art film for adventurous viewers only. Here are short reviews of the four of them. You can also check out where they landed on my 2012 rankings page.

Holy Motors

holyThe strangest movie I’ve seen all year and also one of the best, although certainly not a movie for everyone. Avoid this movie if you want a straight-forward narrative. Also, avoid it if you don’t like reading subtitles. This one is in French, but it is not heavy on dialogue, so the reading isn’t a great burden. If you do enjoy movies with a unique style and approach, see this. If you like movies that are challenging and thought-provoking, don’t miss this. What is it about? It’s a movie about the movies. No wait, it’s a movie about how the movies reflect life. No, it actually is about life (and death and sex and struggle and the difficulty of relationships and the effect of technology on humanity and…). What happens? A little bit of everything. It follows Mr. Oscar from morning until late night as he travels around Paris in a long, white limo on his way to a number of “appointments.” He is apparently an actor and at each stop he has a different role to play. I won’t tell you what those roles are because part of the fun is the sense of surprise around every corner. You will not guess where this movie is going, but it is a great ride! See it! (It is currently available on Netflix streaming.)

The Sessions

sessionsA movie about a man in his thirties, nearly totally incapacitated by polio, who has his first sexual experience, now that’s something you don’t see everyday. But, in this case it is something that you should see, unless you are quite squeamish when it comes to sex. There is plenty of sex, but just as Helen Hunt matter-of-factly disrobes in her role as the sex surrogate, so is this movie comfortable with the sex it presents. In a sense the sex is explicit, but it is not used to titillate. It is used to help us understand what this experience meant to Mark O’Brien (the writer/poet the movie is based on, wonderfully played by John Hawkes) and in so doing also help us to ponder what our own sexuality means to us. The movie makes it clear that the quality of the relationship is more important than the sexual act itself. What a novel idea! It laments the fact that our culture convinces too many people that their self worth is directly connected to the quality of their sexual experiences. It wonders if the sexual act itself might not actually be a bit overrated! This movie is not really about sex. It is about self discovery which leads to deeper relationships with others. It is also about faith and wondering where God is in the struggles of life. Hawkes and Hunt deliver fine performances, as does William H. Macy as Mark’s priest. This is in the Nearly Great category because I wasn’t as moved by the characters as I would have liked to have been, but nonetheless it is well worth seeing.

Sound of My Voice

sound voiceKeep your eye on Brit Marling. In the past couple of years she has co-written and starred in two intriguing movies, Another Earth and Sound of My Voice. She fills both of those roles again with The East, scheduled for release in May 2013. Both of those earlier films have twists at the end that make you rethink all that you have seen, but they do not rely solely on those endings for their strength. They tell interesting stories with a strong focus on the emotions of the characters. In Sound of My Voice Marling plays Maggie, the mysterious leader of a cult. A young couple decides to infiltrate the group to make a documentary on Maggie and the power that cult leaders have on their followers. When they hear the claim that Maggie is a visitor from the future, they know it has to be a hoax, but they are drawn in by Maggie’s charismatic power nonetheless. Marling gives a brilliant performance, presenting Maggie as fragile, yet alarmingly persuasive.

Liberal Arts

liberalJosh Radnor (of How I Met Your Mother fame) goes one better than Marling, handling writing, acting and directing duties for Liberal Arts and the earlier happythankyoumoreplease. Both are movies about the tricky business of relationships and finding one’s place in life. Both are well worth seeing. In Liberal Arts, Radnor plays a 30-something college admissions director who returns to his alma mater and falls for a college sophomore, played by Elizabeth Olsen. He struggles with their age difference, even as he feels drawn to her. Radnor has a gift for writing about the messiness of life, resisting the temptation to tidy up everything. Radnor and Olsen deliver fine performances, as does the supporting cast, including Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, and even Zac Efron in a decidedly strange role.

Steve Adds Seven Movies to 2012 Rankings

perksI’ve added The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Chronicle, Magic Mike, Flight, The Paperboy, Frankenweenie, and Premium Rush to my 2012 rankings. They range from an unexpected delight to the weakest movie I’ve seen from 2012. Check out my 2012 Ranking page.