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!

The Metaphysical Mayhem of Seven Psychopaths: a Reflection from Steve

What the heck was that? That was Seven Psychopaths and it is one strange movie! As I watched the film, I found myself thinking over and over that it just didn’t work. I was certainly enjoying the pieces, but the pieces just didn’t seem to fit together in a way that justified what writer/director Martin McDonagh seemed to be trying to do. Why would McDonagh’s work need to be justified? In this case it needs to be justified because he’s crafted a violent movie with a central character who happens to be a screenwriter and this screenwriter claims that he wants to move away from violent movies and work on stories that focus on world peace. How can one not make a connection between the character Marty, an Irish screenwriter played by Colin Farrell, and Martin himself? If Marty represents Martin then one must ask whether Martin is playing fair. Can you make an extremely violent movie while claiming you’d prefer to ponder world peace? Then the ending came and the movie made a strange sort of sense. The questions weren’t all answered, but that didn’t seem to matter. There seemed to be something deeper going on here.

Before we get to those deeper things, be forewarned that this movie has plenty of both violence and pondering. That is why I’m calling this a reflection rather than a recommendation. Although in the end I loved the movie, I’m not sure who I would recommend it to. On the one hand, if you have a problem with graphic images of violence, I can not state strongly enough that you should avoid this movie. The violence is quite, well, violent and, yes, graphic. It is violent in many and various ways. It will make you cringe. (Actually, some of the humor is likely to make you cringe, too.) On the other hand, if you like your movies to be filled with action, if you desire the mayhem to be nearly non-stop, only taking a breather for the occasional joke, and if you are not even sure what metaphysics are, then this movie may not be for you either. If pausing to listen to characters ponder such things as the existence of God and the afterlife doesn’t sound like a good time to you, then you may want to skip this film. Yes, it’s a bit like what Tarantino does in movies such as Pulp Fiction, but it feels both more spiritual and more disruptive here and you might not like it. If, on the other hand, you like your metaphysics mixed with mayhem, then, by all means, give Seven Psychopaths a try.

That brings us back to the key question: is writer/director McDonagh playing fair? Can you make an ultraviolent movie with a central character who claims he wants to focus on peace, especially if that character is based in some way on you, the writer/director? Many reviewers have made that connection between Marty and Martin, but I think the key to understanding the movie (and seeing that McDonagh is playing fair) is found in the realization that not only Marty, but also Billy, and possibly even Hans, are representations of particular aspects of McDonagh’s persona. Billy (in a typically delightful and off kilter performance by Sam Rockwell) is Marty’s best friend. Billy decides to help Marty with his screenplay by putting an ad in the paper so that Marty can meet some actual psychopaths (which begs the question: would an actual psychopath answer such an ad?) and by causing some psychotic mayhem of his own. Even as Marty desires to scrap the project and work on something more peaceful, Billy envisions a movie filled with gore and, of course, a grand Hollywood final confrontation with a bloody shoot-out. I think that Marty and Billy represent not just two sides of McDonagh, but the opposing forces that are found in each of us. Like Marty, we desire something better for the world. Like Billy, we are also drawn to something darker. At least in part, it is the Billy in me that is drawn to movies like this, including the works of Tarantino. (If you would like a Biblical example of this side of ourselves, check out Romans 7.)

However, I do not like movies that are simply filled with gratuitous violence. There has to be a sense of deeper meaning. I need the metaphysics, as well as the mayhem. That is where Hans enters the picture. Hans (played brilliantly by Christopher Walken) is Billy’s partner in a dognapping scheme. (Yes, the plot does take many strange turns!) As the movie unfolds, we find out that Hans has experienced some extremely difficult events in his life. He now faces everything, including grief and threats to his life, in a calm, controlled manner. You might be tempted to call him cold-blooded, but there is more going on with him than that. He is at the center of much of the philosophical pondering. He makes it clear that the only way to make any sense of the chaotic reality we live in is to have faith that there is something more. His explanation of the actions of the Vietnamese psychopath points to Christ-like self-sacrifice.

I wrote at the beginning of this piece that the ending brought with it a kind of resolution, but one must ask, which ending? Billy’s shoot-out with its strange sense of justice? Hans’ explanation? Marty’s acceptance of his fate in his conversation with the bunny-holding psychopath (in a small, but weirdly entertaining turn by Tom Waits)? Interestingly, each of these involves some form of self-sacrifice. Clearly, here and in his previous film, In Bruges, McDonagh is striving to make some sense of his upbringing in the faith, but such striving is difficult. Sometimes it leads to metaphysical mayhem. Marty, Billy, and Hans provide three ways to view the world, three ways to see ourselves. Does one come closer to the truth? Let me get back to you on that.

Batman Over Spider-man?: Steve’s Reflection on The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-man

The question in this post’s title (Batman over Spider-man?) has two meanings. The first has to do with why I thought The Dark Knight Rises was a better movie than The Amazing Spider-man. The second has to do with why James Holmes chose to commit his horrendous crime at the opening of The Dark Knight Rises rather than the opening of the The Amazing Spider-man. As it turns out, the answers to those two questions are related. I would prefer to ignore the second sense of the question, but that seems impossible at this time. Eventually, the connection of that crime to the movie will fade somewhat, but, at the moment they are too intertwined to avoid some reflection on the events in Aurora.

A little background on my Dark Knight experience: At the time that Holmes was opening fire upon the theater patrons in Aurora, I was at the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises here in Montana. I do not regularly attend midnight showings, but at the urging of my son I decided to give it a try. During the first twenty minutes or so of the movie I was thinking that it was a big mistake. There were a few guys (and, yes, they were all males) yelling out comments. I think their actions had more to do with it being the midnight hour and quite possibly alcohol consumption than with the fact that it was The Dark Knight Rises being shown. These selfish boors were clearly reveling in their attention-seeking activities. Interestingly, there has been much pondering in the last week about the role that attention-seeking played in Holmes’ actions. As I became increasingly irritated, another guy decided to take matters into his own hands. (Again, it is interesting that at a Batman movie someone should decide to play the role of the vigilante.) He approached the guy making the loudest and most frequent comments and requested that he cease and desist. A scuffle broke out. An usher quickly moved the offending parties to the lobby where the disturbance continued. A surprisingly large number of folks rushed out to the lobby to see what was happening. I guess they thought the drama there would be more intriguing than what was being offered on the screen. Before long things settled down and we were able to enjoy the rest of the movie in relative peace.

Given that experience, it felt quite strange to hear about the events in Aurora. As I’ve already mentioned, I don’t believe that the events in our theater had much to do with the particular movie being shown. However, I do think that Holmes purposefully chose The Dark Knight Rises, although his actions were clearly based on the second movie in the trilogy because he could not have seen the new movie yet and he refered to himself as the Joker. Why this movie rather than, for instance, The Amazing Spider-man that opened just a couple of weeks before DK Rises? As many have noted, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is darker than most superhero movies, but I think there is more to it than that. Spider-man, along with most, if not all, other superhero movies, comes from the realm of fantasy. Heroes in the real world simply do not take on the properties of spiders and villans do not become large and vicious lizards. Batman’s gadgets aside, the Dark Knight movies come much closer to reality. Batman’s mask, the Joker’s makeup and whatever it was that Bane was wearing are the thin veneer that separates these characters from the real world. Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker was a particularly powerful evocation of the evil that we face in the world. We need not live in fear of someone becoming a rampaging giant lizard, but someone could be as twisted as the Joker. James Holmes was speaking the truth when he said that he is the Joker. I do not mean to imply that these movies made him do what he did. Without these movies his inclination to evil would have found another context in which to be manifested. Nonetheless, I am not at all surprised that he chose The Dark Knight Rises over The Amazing Spider-man.

Getting back to my reactions to the movies themselves, all of this does play into why I thought The Dark Knight Rises was a better movie than The Amazing Spider-man. It is not just that DK Rises was more realistic than Spider-man. There is certainly a place for fantasy in the movies. In fact, sometimes fantasy can help us more clearly see the truth of our reality, but I didn’t feel that was the case with Spider-man. Movies are works of art and art serves two basic purposes: to entertain us and to enlighten us. A work of art may lean more in one direction than the other, but they are both generally there to some degree. Marc Webb, the director of Spider-man, leaned more towards entertainment, and Christopher Nolan more towards enlightenment, but they both had protagonists that were seeking answers to a fundamental existential question. It was put this way in Spider-man. Towards the end of the movie, Peter Parker’s English teacher says that a professor once told her that there were only ten plotlines in all of literature. She says that is wrong and claims there is only one plotline: who am I? Both Batman and Spider-man struggle with that question. That struggle included wondering about the degree of responsibility that they owed to others. However, the struggle seemed more superficial in Spider-man. Maybe because the story was set during the time that Peter Parker was in high school, Spider-man felt like a coming of age story that happened to feature a superhero, while DK Rises felt like it was attempting to dig deeper into the human condition.

I’ll soon post my first rankings for 2012 movies. When I do, I’ll include a few particular likes and dislikes for these movies. But, to wrap things up here, I’ll simply say that Spider-man  had two big drawbacks for me. As much as I enjoyed Andrew Garfield as Spidey, I felt over all the characters were stock types and that the movie did have a number of plotlines that were clichéd. The movie had a been there, done that feel to it. I guess I would side with those who wonder if we really needed this reboot. The second problem was that there were too many inconsistencies within the movie. Even a fantasy movie needs to have internal logic. Two examples: when Dr. Conner converts back into human form in the sewer he is wearing a robe; much is made of the fact that Peter’s hands are sticky when he turns into Spider-man, but he is shown looking through his father’s papers and they don’t stick, while moments later the keys from his computer keypad do stick. On the other hand, in The Dark Knight Rises I found many of the characters intriguing and my engagement with the film wasn’t disrupted by inconsistencies. It’s not an all-time classic, but it’s darn good. Despite its flaws, The Amazing Spider-man is fairly entertaining. Bottom line: I recommend both of them, but if you can only see one, make it The Dark Knight Rises.

Big Questions: Steve’s Reflection on Prometheus

Don’t you want to know? That is a recurring question in Prometheus, a movie filled with big questions. If you had the opportunity to talk to your creator, wouldn’t you want to participate in that conversation? Don’t you want to know who created us? Don’t you want to know why we were created? My favorite movie in 2011, The Tree of Life, asked big questions about the meaning of life, and since Prometheus promised to do the same, I listed it as my most anticipated movie in 2012. As it turns out, it won’t be my number 1 movie for the year, it had too many weaknesses to achieve that lofty position, but it was nonetheless lots of fun to watch and its big questions do provide plenty of food for thought.

Whereas The Tree of Life presented its questions in the context of family drama, Prometheus does so as a sci-fi/thriller/horror film hybrid. It certainly makes for an interesting experience to be pondering big questions while waiting for monsters to fill the screen with their gory exploits. Since this movie is a prequel to Alien (whether director Ridley Scott cares to call it that or not), the gore is expected, but the violent destructiveness of the aliens is not there simply for its shock value. It provides an important subtext to the questions that are being asked. What role does evil play, not only in the destruction of that which is created, but in creation itself. To put it in Biblical terms, where did that snake in the Garden of Eden come from anyway? Or, as David, the android played so well by Michael Fassbender, says, “Sometimes to create, one must first destroy.” This may sound counter to the Christian understanding of God as Creator, but it made me think of the story of the flood, and verses such as Isaiah 45:7 (I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.) and Ezekiel 17:24 (All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.).

If God is potentially destructive, why do we trust God to care for us? We trust that God is a loving God because that is what we choose to believe. The notion of choosing to believe is a recurring theme of the movie. This is especially true of the character Elizabeth Shaw, played by Noomi Rapace. Shaw chooses to believe that the alien beings that left evidence of their time on earth through cave drawings and other artifacts had something to do with our creation, thus giving them the name Engineers. This seems like quite a jump to make given the lack of evidence, but that is part of the big question about faith and why we believe what we believe. Faith does indeed seem to involve a leap. Shaw also chooses to believe that these beings have not simply left a map of their place in the universe, but that this map is more importantly an invitation. When Shaw (and the others) discover that these beings are not what they were expecting, she must face the challenge of altering her beliefs to fit the facts at hand. There is much to ponder here: why do you believe what you believe?; how have the facts of life altered your beliefs?

I appreciated the fact that the movie did not pit science against religion. Yes, there was one scientist who claimed to have no belief in a divine being because of the evidence of Darwinian evolution, but Shaw was both a scientist and a Christian believer, showing that these two things can go hand in hand. I would argue that they must go hand in hand. Religion that disregards science quickly becomes idolatry and science without faith will never be able to enter into the mystery of the big questions. That truth is handled wonderfully in the movie when David asks Shaw if finding out that the Engineers actually did create the human race would end her faith in God. She responds that the question of who created them would still remain.

Another Biblical allusion that caught my attention was a scene in which David has a drop of liquid which presumably has the alien DNA in it on the tip of his finger. He says something along the lines of “big things have small beginnings.” Having preached on the parable of the mustard seed that very morning, this line jumped out at me. As my co-blogger, Bill, has pointed out in a number of his posts, the theme of self-sacrifice is important throughout the Biblical narrative, including, of course, Christ himself, and that theme appears in a couple of interesting ways in Prometheus. I don’t want to include any huge spoilers here, so I won’t mention the sacrifice that comes late in the film, but I think its safe to point out the one that comes at the very beginning. The opening scene shows an Engineer who drinks a black liquid that seems to break down his body so that his DNA can mix with Earth’s water. It this where human life began? The movie doesn’t say so for sure, but it does seem that the Engineer is sacrificing his life in order to create life. What do you think?

Since seeing the movie a couple of days ago, I find myself thinking about the implications of many of the scenes. So much so, that I look forward to seeing it again to see how things strike me the second time around. As I said earlier, I don’t believe that this will be my top ranked movie for the year. At the moment, I rank it just a bit below The Hunger Games, another movie that gives us questions to ponder and one that I found to be more purely entertaining than Prometheus. Prometheus is well worth seeing, but it does contain those horror elements, so be prepared for that. Although, I actually didn’t find it to be all that scary or suspenseful. I didn’t find anything that happened to be all that surprising, which is part of what works against the movie’s impact. There has been much discussion about the weak writing of the movie and I would agree, but only in a certain sense. I’m not concerned that the movie left so many things unanswered. The movie was clearly designed with a sequel in mind, so the fact that the big questions are left hanging is not a big surprise. My chief concern was that too much of the dialogue was dumbed down. It was as if the screenwriters weren’t content with merely obvious, but had to push things to the point of being painfully obvious. I found myself snickering too many times at lines that weren’t meant to be funny. I also felt that the actions of the characters were too often ridiculous. Much of the crew was composed of scientists, but one wonders how these scientists made it onto the crew of this trillion-dollar endeavor. They paid so little regard to proper scientific methods. Now I know that in horror thrillers folks have to do foolish things in order to set up the consequences that follow, and that certainly happens here, but beyond that too many of the actions of the characters seemed simply ludicrous. Despite that, though, I enjoyed most of the characters and thought the acting was mostly quite strong, especially Fassbender. I wasn’t sure about Rapace early on, but her performance as Shaw grew on me. Charlize Theron’s performance as Vickers and Idris Elba as the ship’s captain, Janek, should also be mentioned. Not surprisingly, Scott has given the film a marvelous look and feel, which makes it a worthwhile place to spend a couple of hours pondering those big questions.

Scorsese is Wrong Wrong Wrong About 3D: a Reflection by Steve

I greatly admire Martin Scorsese as a director. He is simply and undeniably one of the all time greats. But he is completely and utterly wrong when it comes to 3D. He recently spoke at a film convention and said that all his future films will be in 3D. Please, Martin, say it isn’t so! He said that 3D films transport fans into another world. That may be so, but it’s not a world where I want to go. I do want films to transport me and the good ones do, without the aid of 3D. He said that 3D allows the viewer to feel a stronger connection to the story and the actors on screen. I find the precise opposite to be true. I find 3D to look phoney and artificial. We do not experience the world in layers like we do when watching 3D. Rather than being drawn in to the story and feeling a closer connection to the actors, I feel repelled by 3D. Scorsese’s own Hugo is a perfect example. Seeing it in the theater in 3D, I was underwhelmed. I thought it was a decent movie, but nothing special. Sure, there were a few scenes where the 3D provided a cool effect, as is the case with most 3D movies, but at those moments I find myself thinking about the cool 3D effect, which actually serves to disconnect me from the story. The rest of the time I just find the 3D annoying. A few good moments do not make it worthwhile to have the movie in 3D. These days I find myself giving a little cheer when I see that a movie is being released in 2D. When I watched Hugo at home in wonderful 2D, I fell in love with it and it jumped into my top 5 for the year. So, please, Martin, and all you other directors out there, get over your misguided infatuation with 3D!

The Sins of Young Adult: a Reflection from Steve

Are you looking for a movie to help you ponder the nature of sin during this season of Lent? If you especially want to consider the notion that the dark heart of sin is self-centeredness, then I highly recommend Young Adult. Charlize Theron gives a knockout performance as Mavis Gary. The trailer describes her as “the girl you hated in high school.” She is all of that and more. She is an appalling character and, as such, quite fascinating. In 2003, Theron was willing to let movie magic turn her ugly in order to play a serial killer. In Young Adult, she’s again willing to occasionally look awful (on the frequent mornings that she wakes up with a hangover), but she also shows that beauty on the outside might be a coverup for incredible ugliness underneath. Mavis is unhappy, but is determined not to stay that way. Unfortunately, her drive is fueled by a self-centeredness that is ultimately and ironically self-destructive. It also threatens the happiness of everyone with whom she comes in contact and blinds her to that reality. It doesn’t help that her drive is also fueled by alcohol.

As events unfold, we find out that Mavis is divorced. We’re never told what led to the divorce, but after meeting Mavis, it is not a surprising revelation. She is the author of young adult series that is waning in popularity. Her success seems to be due in part to the fact that, though she is now in her thirties, she never really grew up. She receives an email announcing the birth of her ex-boyfriend’s baby. She decides that she wants him back and she won’t let his happy marriage and new child stand in her way. In order to avoid any guilt feelings about what she is going to attempt, she convinces herself that he must be unhappy and that the only thing that could make him happy would be to get back together with her. How often are our sins built on a foundation of lies? Lies to others and lies to ourselves?

Mavis travels from Minneapolis to her despised hometown, the fictional Mercury, Minnesota, in order to seek out her prey. While waiting to get her hooks in Buddy (played nicely as a sweet guy by Patrick Wilson), she runs across another high school classmate, Matt. At first she doesn’t remember him, even though his locker was next to hers all through high school. She finally recalls that he is the “hate crime guy.” During high school a group of jocks severely beat him, leaving him with permanent damage to his legs and another part of his anatomy. In the character Matt, Patton Oswald provides the moral compass for the movie. Unfortunately, Mavis is not interested in following any moral compass that would get in the way of her plans. She is willing to hang out with Matt, though, because he also makes bourbon in his garage.

Young Adult reunites the creative team from Juno, writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman. This movie is much darker than Juno. It provides some laughs, but they tend to be of the uncomfortable variety. Both Cody and Reitman show their limitations. Although there are intriguing characters, the movie felt both overwritten and underwritten. At times it felt like the characters were delivering speeches to get the point across rather than engaging in natural conversation. This was unnecessary because the point was really clear enough. A surer hand by Reitman as director was needed to overcome the weakness of the writing. That being said, it is still well worth seeing.

SPOILER: I’m going to reflect a bit on the ending. If you haven’t yet seen the movie, I would suggest doing that first. Then come back to read this and see if you agree. Just as Mavis shows the destructive power of self-centered sin, the movie also shows the dangers of the communal nature of sin. As Mavis spirals towards self-destruction, Matt tries to save her from herself, but others sabotage that process. At one point Mavis tells her parents that she thinks she is an alcoholic. It seems that this is the first time she has dared to make that confession, maybe even to herself. Her mother laughs off the comment, thus shutting down a possible moment of healthy change for Mavis. That kind of enabling behavior presents its ugly head again at the end of the movie. At breakfast with Matt’s sister, after she has made a complete fool of herself, Mavis says she has to change. Will the movie end on a hopeful note after all? Nope. Matt’s sister also despises the town she lives in. She feels trapped there. She remembers how cool Mavis seemed in high school. She assumes Mavis has a good life now because she has moved away to be an author. She is as blind as Mavis has been. She convinces Mavis that she doesn’t have to change at all and thus Mavis drives away from Mercury still bound by her self-destructive, self-centered sin. If Matt’s sister had been willing and able to name that sin, she could have encouraged Mavis to seek the change that could bring life and happiness, but she wouldn’t or couldn’t. That, too, is the nature of sin.

Steve’s Initial Reactions to the Oscar Nominations

Today’s a big day for us movie fanatics. The Oscar nominations have been announced. We rejoice when the movies and performances that touched us in a special way this past year are recognized with a nomination. We lament when they are snubbed. We scratch our heads and wonder how that received a nomination. Should we  even care what the Academy says? Should there even be awards for movies? Is art meant to be a competition? Woody Allen doesn’t think so, but I bet he’s at least a little bit pleased that Midnight in Paris was nominated for best picture and that he was nominated for best director. I know they made me happy. Here are few other random reactions.

Best Picture

I’ve seen 5 of the 9 nominated films. Of those, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, and Midnight in Paris hold the top three spots in my rankings for the year, so I’m obviously glad to see them here. I’m especially pleased that The Tree of Life was nominated. Yes, it’s self-indulgent at times and the creation stuff should have been much shorter, but it is a deep and rich film that demands multiple viewings. I enjoyed it much more the second time and will definitely watch it over and over through the years. I thought that Hugo was quite good, but not great. Maybe it was that despicable 3D that ruined it for me. The Help is way overrated, but it’s no surprise it was nominated. The Descendants comes to Bozeman on Friday, so I’ll be seeing that soon. I hope The Artist makes it here before the Oscars, but I’m not holding my breath. I’m skeptical about that one. It seems a bit slight, but I’ll withhold judgement until I see it. At least it looks worthy of seeing in a theatre. On the other hand, War Horse came to town, but I didn’t bother going to see it. I’ll wait for it on DVD. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close? Really? A 46 at Metacritic? I have a feeling it was nominated for the wrong reasons. I’m so, so, so glad that Bridesmaids wasn’t nominated!

Acting Categories

I’m simply delighted that Rooney Mara was nominated for Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I have some issues with the film overall, but I thought she was fabulous! Glad to see Brad Pitt nominated for Moneyball, he was great in it, but he was even better in Tree of Life. I think the aforementioned self-indulgence by director Terrance Malik cost Pitt here. Get the DVD and just watch Pitt’s scenes. You’ll see the best acting performance of the year! I’m definitely not a Jonah Hill fan, but I thought he was also brilliant in Moneyball, so glad to see him nominated. Haven’t yet seen Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy but I was pleased to see Gary Oldman get a nom. I’ve been a fan of his since Sid and Nancy. Jessica Chastain had such an incredible year that she had to be nominated for something! Her performance was one of the things I liked about The Help, but, like Pitt, she should have been nominated for Tree of Life. (Haven’t seen Taking Shelter yet). There was much that I loathed about Bridesmaids but I did like Melissa McCarthy. I haven’t seen Drive yet (next week on Netflix), but I’m intrigued by the many comments about it being snubbed, especially Albert Brooks for supporting actor. I would have loved to have seen Elle Fanning nominated for supporting actress in Super 8. That movie failed in many ways, but she was fabulous! Take a look at the scene where her character is giving her first try at acting in the zombie movie the boys are filming. Fabulous! Fabulous! Fabulous!


Rango is not just my favorite animated movie of the year, it’s one of my favorites over all, so I was pissed when The Adventures of Tin Tin stole the Golden Globe! It won’t steal the Oscar. It wasn’t even nominated!! A shout out to my co-blogger Bill who just posted a reflection wondering whether it even made sense to do Tin Tin as an animated film. Was he anticipating the Oscar snub?

Biggest Disappointment

Speaking of snubs, I can’t believe that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross weren’t nominated for Original Score for Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I’m a big Nine Inch Nails fan, but beyond that I thought their music was perfect. I can think of few movies where the music so powerfully enhanced the action on the screen. Their music made you feel the tension. Shame on you, Academy! This was your biggest mistake of the year. I have a feeling they see Reznor and Ross as outsiders and didn’t want to give them the chance of winning an Oscar two years in a row.

That’s it for now. Check back for more Oscar musings (and predictions) as  I see more of the films and as the day draws closer. Until then, happy viewing!

Ugly Tattoos: a Reflection on Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steve

I hate tattoos. There, I said it. I know that will offend some of you, especially those of you with tattoos. I hate tattoos because they are ugly. Our world is filled with enough ugliness. Why do so many people feel the need to add to the ugliness by putting bad art on their bodies? Tattoos used to be a sign of outsider status, of rebellion, but now that everyone is getting them they are just bad art. Years ago I heard a great line about tattoos: why would you put art on your body that isn’t good enough to hang on your wall? Sorry, lady, but that butterfly isn’t cute. It’s pathetic! So, will everyone please stop with the tattoos and stick with body piercings. At least piercings will heal up and go away when you come to your senses and see the big mistake that you have made. Have I made myself clear enough? I hate tattoos. But, I am also fascinated by them (which is another reason that I hate them.) I can’t take my eyes off the darn things! I’ll never forget that hot July night when the Stray Cats took the stage at Duffy’s. In that nearly 100 degree heat Brian, Slim Jim, and Lee quickly shed their shirts and for the next hour and a half their colorful tattoos glistened on their sweaty bodies. Alright, I’ll admit it, the tattoos added to the ambiance of that glorious evening of rock and roll. So, I guess maybe tattoos aren’t all bad. If you are in a rockabilly band, by all means get a tattoo, or two, or three. Heck, cover your arms and torso with them. But the rest of you lay off!

What does all this have to do with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, aside from the fact that Lisbeth does have a dragon tattoo? I feel about these movies (both Fincher’s version and the Swedish version) a bit like I do about tattoos. Actually, I didn’t hate them. They are both very good movies. Fincher’s version is, in particular, an incredibly well-crafted movie. I found them to be ugly, not in regard to their art, but in the way they reflect upon humanity. I am disturbed by our fascination with that kind of ugliness. Lest you think I am simply a prude, check out the Steve’s 100 page on this blog. In that list of my favorite movies you’ll find four by Tarantino, four by Scorsese, among quite a few other dark films. I would wager to guess that more of my list is dark than light. Maybe that is at the heart of my concerns about the Dragon Tattoo movies. For some reason they seem to have forced me to ponder what it is that I find fascinating in movies of this type. First, there is simply the adrenalin rush involved in an intense viewing experience. Beyond that, there is something cathartic about seeing evil played out in a movie with some sort of resolution at the end. Of course, there isn’t always resolution, or at least not the resolution that we would hope for. In many of these movies there is also the revenge factor. I do not believe in revenge. It is not a solution, but rather a continuation of, or even escalation, of the problem. Do movies serve an important function by giving us a safe outlet for our desires for revenge? Or, do they promote the idea that revenge is a viable solution to a problem? On the one hand, I love the Kill Bill movies. On the other hand, after the killer is discovered in Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo, I find the question that Lisbeth asks Mikael to be quite disturbing and, equally so, his response. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here!)

Certainly Tarantino’s movies are graphically violent, as are many others on my top 100 list, so what is it about Dragon Tattoo that caused such a strong reaction in me? What line did it cross? It has been suggested that Fincher’s version should have received the stronger MA rating rather than an R. I can understand where those arguments are coming from. The rape, revenge, and torture scenes are very dark, indeed. The question I find myself asking is whether they cross the line from presenting a realistic picture of the ugliness of human nature to reveling in a fascination with that ugliness. And, if so, how is that different from what Tarantino does in Kill Bill,  Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction, or Reservoir Dogs? I’m not sure, but it feels different to me. That being the case, why did I still decide to watch the Swedish version of Dragon Tattoo if Fincher’s version bothered me so much? Mostly, I suppose because I find Lisbeth to be an intriguing character and I wanted to see if another director could present the story in a way that was less disturbing. I could then recommend that one over Fincher’s version. The Swedish version is less intense, but the fore-mentioned scenes are still disturbing (especially the rape, less so the revenge and torture). It seems the problem lies somewhat in Stieg Larrson’s story, but I do think both director’s could have chosen to present those scenes less graphically. Thus, I have put this in the Reflection category rather than the Recommendation category. I do not want to recommend that anyone see these films. On the other hand, if you know what to expect and still desire to see them, I don’t recommend not seeing them either! I wish life was simpler.

With all of that being said, I still feel a need to comment on the relative merits of the two films. They are, as I’ve said, very good movies, but I don’t think either of them is a great movie. The reason again is Larrson’s story. As dark and sordid as it is, it is also fairly shallow. It is really just an Agatha Christie-style who done it with more grisly murders. We know someone in Vanger family is the killer because it had to be someone on the island. I’m guessing the book fleshes out the Vangers a bit more, but neither movie focuses much on them. They are mostly just pieces in a puzzle. Although Larrson’s story is weak, he did come up with a marvelous character in Lisbeth Salander. Both actresses bring her to life, but I prefered Rooney Mara somewhat over Noomi Rapace. Maybe that’s just because I saw her version first, but I think it’s because she brought a greater intensity to the role. I’d say the Mikael Blomkvist part is a toss up. Both Daniel Craig and Michael Nyqvist were good in the role, but he’s simply not as interesting a character as Lisbeth. Beyond the two leads, overall I liked the Swedish cast better. They felt more real. That version also had more heart and left me feeling at least a little bit of hope. Fincher’s version, though, has a much better look. The Swedish version, directed by Niels Arden Oplav, at times looks amateurish in comparison. The other place where the Fincher version excels is in the soundtrack. The Swedish soundtrack is fine, but once again Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have created incredible music, as they did in winning an Oscar for Fincher’s The Social Network. Their music becomes another character in the movie, creating an intensity that is palpable. I’d love to see them win another Oscar! The main storyline is obviously the same in the two versions. There are slight variations in details, but I didn’t think those made either movie better than the other. There is quite a difference in how the movies end. Both deal with another issue after the main crime is solved. I thought this portion worked better in Oplav’s version, it felt less tacked on than in Fincher’s version, and it had that slight sense of hope that I mentioned earlier. So, of the two, which would I recommend? Ha, you thought you had me, didn’t you? I stand by my non-recommendation. But, if you feel you must see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’d say see them both. Then, go and get a tattoo advertising my blog. Just make sure that it isn’t ugly!

The Help Needs Help: a Reflection from Steve

I wish I could highly recommend The Help. I can’t. It is worth seeing, but the story deserved a much better movie. Maybe the story is the problem and the topic deserved a better story. I do know this, the movie is deeply flawed. I also know this: Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Cicely Tyson deserved a better movie. These actresses gave outstanding performances as three of the maids. Davis will be a favorite to win the best supporting actress Oscar and Spencer could be nominated, too. It was so good to see Cicely Tyson again. She was only on screen for a few minutes, but they were among the best scenes in the movie. The flashback scene where she talks to Skeeter on the bench was one of the most deeply moving in the film. It rang so true and that moves us towards the fatal flaw in The Help. The black characters were richly and powerfully presented. The white characters were not. I love Emma Stone and I thought she did an admirable job as Skeeter, but ultimately I felt she lacked the acting chops to give the role the depth it desperately needed. The bigger problem was the other white characters. Too often they came across as grotesque caricatures. The best example is Bryce Dallas Howard’s portrayal of Hilly, a racist writ large. Were there racists like her in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963? No doubt there were. Are there still racists like her? Unfortunately yes. Yet, as true to life as her character might be, she felt like a stereotype and easy target to me. That type of characterization of the whites cheapened the movie. At times I felt offended, not by the way whites were presented, but by the way that representation detracted from the story of the maids. The problem lies not with the quality of the acting, but with the writing and directing. Similar critiques were raised in regard to Kathryn Stockett’s novel itself. She co-wrote the screenplay, along with Tate Taylor, who also directed. Some were surprised that the inexperienced Taylor was given the chance to direct this high profile movie. It turns out that he is a hometown friend of Stockett. I think Stockett and Taylor’s intentions were good. As my blog partner wrote in his piece on this movie, it is a wonderful thing to give voice to the voiceless, to help “the least of these” as Jesus commands. Unfortunately, the tone of the movie undermines that objective. The desire to fashion a light, feel good movie is an insult to the seriousness of the topic. This almost felt like two movies in one. When the majority of characters on the screen were black, it was a very fine movie. Not so when the majority of characters were white. This lead to some jarring transitions. The murder of Medgar Evers and the police brultality against one of the maids felt like they belonged in another movie and that, finally, is why I cannot highly recommend this movie. Rather than giving voice to the maids, it feels like a movie designed to make all of us “non-racist” whites feel good about ourselves. That approach simply lets us off the hook too easily.

Steve’s Thoughts on Bill’s 5 Faith-filled Films

My blog partner, Bill, had a great idea…a list of films dealing with faith issues to ponder during this season of Lent.  I’ll respond to Bill’s list and then offer my own list later.

5. The Passion of the Christ…I have a few concerns about recommending this movie.  The first is its connection to Mel Gibson.  Since the movie’s release, he has been, shall we say, less than a prime model of proper Christian behavior.  Do we really want to present him as a spokesperson for the faith?  In and amongst his various shenanigans, his anti-Semitism stands out.  Some would argue that his writing and directing of this movie is affected by that anti-Semitism.  Then there is the issue that the movie is presented as Biblically accurate.  What does that even mean when you are taking portions from four Gospels and combining them into one movie?  Any telling of Jesus’ story is going to face that difficulty, but there is a deeper concern here.  Gibson did not use only the Gospels, but incorporated material from 19th century mystics, especially Catherine Emmerich.  Among other things, the scene where Jesus is thrown from the bridge by the arresting soldiers comes from this material.  Finally, there is the gore.  Does this depiction of the cruel punishment Jesus faced really give us a deeper understanding of what Christ’s death means?  As Bill says, veiwing this movie can leave you feeling numb and I wonder how that is an aid to faith.  As an alternative, I would recommend the 1977 movie, Jesus of Nazareth, or Jesus from 1999.  Both of these were originally TV mini-series and are now available on DVD.  The first has a star-studded cast and the second adds some interesting touches, such as Satan appearing in a modern black suit and, one of my favorite scenes, Jesus splashing the disciples as they talk by a well.

4. The Life of Brian…Yes, Bill, this is a fun movie, and even thought-provoking in many ways, but in the top 5 faith-filled movies?  One could even argue that it is profoundly anti-faith.  Is the movie asking the question, “who are you following” or is it a critique of any following at all?  Despite that, I do love this movie and I recommend it to those not easily offended.  It does have many great lines (one of my favorites: “He has a wife you know.”).  However, for a comedy that leads to deeper pondering about faith, I would recommend Dogma, but again only to those not easily offended.  Both of these, especially Dogma, earn their R ratings.  For those who want a comedy that’s a bit less edgy, how about Bruce Almighty?

3. Big Fish…Here I am in complete agreement with Bill.  This is a terrific movie.  If you haven’t seen it, stop whatever you are doing and watch it!  I love how it shows that a story that is not literally true can still reveal the truth.  It is also a marvelous movie about the healing of a father-son relationship.  My younger son hasn’t seen it yet, so I think we’ll share that experience this Lenten season!

2. The Lord of the Rings…Of course, Bill, you have to include the whole story.  They provide lots of food for thought.  Yes, Frodo, but also the whole notion of the fellowship, loyalty, etc. etc.  I definitely go with these over the Narnia series.  I was never a big fan of the Narnia books and the movies haven’t really caught me, either.  A historical sidenote: Tolkien, though  a friend of Lewis, was critical of the Narnia books.

1. The Matrix series…again, Bill, I’ll grant that you need to include all three, but I am one of those who jumped ship after the second movie.  The first one was dazzling and has been copied in so many ways since it came out, but the second one kind of lost me and I never saw the third.  Now though, Bill, you have me thinking I should give the whole series another try, which is, afterall, one of the reasons for this blog!