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!

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.

The Crazy Love of Silver Linings Playbook: Steve Recommends One of 2012’s Best Movies

You’d have to be crazy not to love Silver Linings Playbook. It is one of the very best movies of 2012. In many ways, it is a typical romantic comedy slpor maybe dramedy, but any movie written and directed by David O. Russell is not going to be simply typical. Anyone who has seen one of his off kilter comedies, such as Flirting with Disaster or I Heart Huckabees, or his gritty drama, The Fighter, knows that he brings an edge to everything he does, even to a rom-com. It is that edge that elevates this film from being merely typical to being one of the year’s best.

In this case, the edginess comes from the struggles with mental illness facing the lead characters, Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Although these struggles occasionally lead to humorous moments, fortunately they are not simply played for laughs. The difficult issues that face those afflicted with mental illness, as well as their families and friends, are taken seriously. Thus, the love that arises here is not simply the sweet feeling of most rom-coms, but is a gift with healing power. This makes Silver Linings Playbook not only one of the year’s best, but also one of the most hopeful.

Russell provides a solid script. Even though it falls into rom-com clichés at times, overall it has emotional depth. His earthy direction adds to the emotional resonance. He certainly puts his stamp on the movie, but for a movie like this to work the acting performances are vital and Russell’s actors serve him well. So well that they are represented in all four acting categories at the Oscars, which is a rare achievement. Cooper impressed me with his ability to portray Pat’s bipolar mood swings, from the anger and rage to the euphoria of seeking his silver lining. Cooper’s natural charm makes it possible to like Pat, even though there are plenty of reasons to dislike him. As solid as Cooper’s performance is, the movie truly takes flight when Lawrence arrives onscreen. Even as she deals with grief and depression, using sex in a misguided attempt find solace, Lawrence’s Tiffany electrifies every scene in which she appears. Her ability to project hope in the face of great hurt gives credence to the possibility that anyone can find a silver lining. This young woman deserves an Oscar. (How moved was I by her performance? I cried tears of joy when she won the SAG award!)

Lawrence and Cooper make the movie work. Robert DeNiro (Pat Sr.) and Jackie Weaver (Dolores, Pat’s mother), along with the rest of the solid cast, give it the depth that moves it to the level of greatness. Pat Sr.’s own neuroses are on clear display, including his obsessive compulsions, especially related to his superstitions regarding his beloved Philadelphia Eagles and what it will take for them to win, along with his gambling addiction. This is vital because it reminds us that mental illness is not a black and white issue, but rather a spectrum that affects all of us in some way. I’m a survivor of both cancer and clinical depression, so I understand the connection between physical and mental illness. Neither one can be easily compartmentalized. They both affect a person physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually and, therefore, the healing must also touch upon all those aspects. What I experienced with the clinical depression was different from other times of depression in my life, but it was a difference of degree, not of kind. Pat Jr.’s condition was diagnosed, but seeing him along with Pat Sr. reminds us that we all have issues to deal with. As Pat’s psychiatrist tells him, we need a strategy for dealing with the bumps along life’s road. It is my belief that the strategy is grounded in the faith, hope, and love that Paul writes about in 1st Corinthians 13.

Of the four actors in Silver Linings Playbook receiving Oscar nominations, some folks are amazed that Weaver was recognized for her work as supporting actress. Admittedly, she doesn’t say much, but no one no one acting today shows more emotion through facial expression and body language. I love her work here, as I did in Animal Kingdom (for which she also received an Oscar nomination.) Regardless of the nod from the Academy, her role is crucial. She plays the classic enabler, doing whatever is necessary to keep the family functioning in the midst of the craziness. Being an enabler means that one is also in denial, which is on clear display at the beginning of the film when Dolores checks Pat out of the mental institution before he is ready to go. Do you ever prefer to cover up a problem, pretending that it isn’t as serious as it is, rather than face what is necessary for healing and wholeness?

Often in life our struggles are passed on from parent to child, through both genetics and learned behavior. (This can be quite scary for a parent. Sorry, boys!) Pat inherits his father’s compulsiveness and anger issues, as well as his mother’s denial. Pat believes his silver lining will be found through reconciliation with his wife, despite the fact that it was beating up the man she was having an affair with that landed him in the mental institution. He takes the blame for her infidelity and believes that if he can prove to her that he is now a better man then she will take him back. Pat clings to this dream despite clear signs that it isn’t going to happen. Certainly, one of the trickiest things in life is knowing when to pursue a dream and when to let it go. Are you clinging to any impossible dreams that are keeping you from experiencing the very real joys that are available to you?

In addition to all the other wonderful stuff in this movie, Russell has done a great job in compiling the soundtrack. Bob Dylan’s duet with Johnny Cash on ‘Girl from the North Country’ plays during a key scene and there are three Jack White songs (two White Stripes and one Dead Weather.) I will never again hear Stevie Wonder’s ‘My Cherie Amour’ without thinking of this movie. But that’s alright, because being reminded of this fine film will be a good thing. Case in point: the sequence leading up to the climax felt contrived, yet it had me on the edge of my seat and then the tears started flowing. The bottom line for me in a movie like this involves two interrelated issues, do I care about the characters and does it make me cry of hope and joy? Obviously, the answers for Silver Linings Playbook are yes and yes! Silver linings, indeed!

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.

Darker and Better Than Expected: Steve Recommends Dark Shadows

When I was young all activity in our neighborhood would come to a halt at 3:00. It was time for Dark Shadows, so all of us kids would head for the nearest television. Occasionally, we would play the parts, with me as Barnabas, my brother as Quentin, and the other kids in various other roles. We even thought about putting on a theater production, but we were unable to come up with an adequate storyline. With those fond memories in place, I was excited when I heard that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp were teaming up again to make a movie version of Dark Shadows. My enthusiasm was tempered a bit by the fact that I was among those who thought that their Alice in Wonderland was far less than wonderful. Then came the trailers that made it look as though their movie would simply be a spoof of the original series, filled with predictable fish-out-of-water situations and tired ’70’s jokes when Barnabas is freed from his coffin in 1972 after being imprisoned for nearly 200 years. Next, there was the onslaught of lukewarm reviews, by critics and fans alike, many complaining that Burton/Depp had as big a problem coming up with an adequate story as we did as kids planning our theater production. I was about ready to forgo seeing the movie on the big screen, waiting instead for its release on DVD. But, a small voice told me to give it a chance, and I’m glad that I did. It’s not a great movie, but my 15-year-old son (who had no prior knowledge of Dark Shadows) and I still had a great time.

Many of those with prior knowledge of the cult series seem upset that the movie doesn’t pay due respect to its predecessor. Sure, the show provided a fair share of gothic horror meat, but that was always served with an ample amount of cheese. I think I even realized that as a kid. The show was scary (for a young kid anyway), but it was also somewhat ridiculous and it was that combination that made it so much fun. I thought that Burton/Depp did a good job of capturing that combination in the movie and in that way they did stay true to their source material. However, that combination has led to complaints that they didn’t know what kind of movie to make. Was it a gothic horror story? Was it a camp comedy spoof? It is some of both, but that worked for me. The movie is actually darker in tone than the trailers would lead you to believe. The opening portion that tells the back story of how Barnabas became a vampire and ended up in the coffin has a gothic feel to it. It is no surprise that Burton gives this part of the movie a wonderful look. The purists may have preferred that the entire movie maintain that feel, but I’m not sure that would have made it a better movie. I enjoyed the humor. Some of it was corny. Some of it was stale. But there were plenty of good laughs.

That being said, it needs to be mentioned that the PG-13 rating should be taken seriously. This is not a movie for younger children. There is darkness in Dark Shadows. Barnabas is a vampire after all. The bloodletting isn’t as graphic as in Sweeny Todd, but it is there. There is also a somewhat surprising amount of sexual innuendo, so beware of your tolerance level there. Younger kids probably wouldn’t pick up on it, but it is quite evident. I personally felt that the oral sex encounter between Barnabas and Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bohnam Carter) was inappropriate for this movie. Nothing was shown, but the intention was clear.

Aside from that, there were many more things I liked about this movie than I disliked. As I said previously, Burton gave the movie a great look and fortunately didn’t go overboard with the ’70’s stuff. Depp gave some depth to the internal conflicts that Barnabas faced. It wasn’t a knockout performance. We’ve seen him play this kind of role before, but it was satisfying nonetheless. The rest of the cast was solid. Eva Green brought a sultry edge to the role of Angelique. Be careful if you cross this woman. She is a witch! Michelle Pfeiffer was fine as Elizabeth. I always enjoy seeing Chloe Grace Moretz, such a marvelous young actress. It was fun seeing Jackie Earle Haley as Willie. It brought back memories of seeing him as a young actor in The Bad News Bears in 1976! Helena Bohnam Carter brought a slightly different feel to her role than usual, but unfortunately she wasn’t given much to work with. I though her role, along with that of Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller) were not written particularly well. One of the highlights for me was the cameo by Alice Cooper. They even made him look reasonably young. I recently had front row seats at a concert and I can tell you that up close he looks his age (64), but he still puts on a great show so see him if you get the chance. His two songs (“No More Mr. Nice Guy”, “The Ballad of Dwight Fry”) fit in well here, as did the other ’70’s songs used throughout the movie.

For the most part, Dark Shadows is fun, frivolous entertainment, but there were a couple of themes that are worth thinking about. The first is the importance of family. Early on Barnabas’ father tells him that family is more important than money and that theme remains an undercurrent throughout the movie. The other theme to ponder is the nature of love. Angelique claims to love Barnabas, but then curses him when she doesn’t get her way. Is that love? The movie also brings back that age-old question: does love mean never having to say you’re sorry. Actually, the love theme could have been highlighted more with greater attention given to the relationship between Barnabas and Victoria, but so be it. All in all, an enjoyable movie.

Group Effort: Steve Recommends The Avengers

There are folks proclaiming that The Avengers is an incredibly awesome movie. If they mean that it is awesome in its ability to make money, they are certainly correct. After all, it did shatter the opening weekend money record. However, if they mean that it is a great movie, they are wrong. It is not a great movie. There are others lamenting that it is terminally boring. I understand where they are coming from since I found last year’s Captain America to be as dull as its muted color scheme and Thor to be, well, terminally boring. They are currently ranked at 56 and 62 on my list of 2011 movies. Given that they were both lead-ins to The Avengers, I did not have huge expectations as I walked into the theater, despite the fact that the trailers looked fairly good. I was pleasantly surprised. No, it’s not a great movie, but it is quite good. I found it to be fun and entertaining. I know that won’t be near enough to earn it a spot in my top ten for the year (or most likely even my top 20), but in this case it was enough for a satisfying movie experience.

So, what worked here that didn’t in Captain America and Thor? As it turns out the difference was the group effort. When I heard that they were making this movie, even before CA/Thor nearly turned me off of superhero movies for good, I thought that it could never work. There were just too many characters to give them all their due. I figured the story could only turn out to be a jumbled mess. I knew Joss Whedon had good credibility as a writer, but his resume didn’t seem impressive enough to make me think he could pull off writing and directing something of this magnitude. Although the overall story that Whedon and Zak Penn came up with is hardly special in any way, there is enough good writing here to keep things moving along quite nicely. In fact, even at two and a half hours, the movie did not feel too long. The writing provided some good humor and even attempted to add some depth by pondering such things as the nature of freedom versus the human need to feel connected to (and protected by) a greater power; the irony of attempting to achieve peace and security through war and violence; and self-centeredness versus self-sacrifice. True, none of this was deeply profound, but at least they made an effort. Where the writing was at its best was in giving each of the Avengers (with one exception), along with the villain Loki, an adequate amount of screen time to establish some sense of character. Again, there was no deep character development, but what I thought would be the movie’s downfall turned out to be its strength.

Although there will be no Oscar nominations, the group effort of the cast saved the day. I know I was not in the minority in thinking that having Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man brought this movie its greatest hope of success and he did not disappoint. I’m not tired of his Tony Stark schtick yet. Actually, he was better here than in Iron Man 2. I was underwhelmed by Chris Evans’ performance in the movie that introduced Captain America. On his own, the noble nature of Captain America was bland, but here it worked well as a counterpoint to Tony Stark’s self-centeredness. Samuel L. Jackson provided a Nick Fury who showed strength with an undercurrent of mystery. (Sidenote: Jackson threw a twitter hissy fit over a lukewarm review. Sam, I love most of your work and you do a good job here, but do you really want to put your professional record on the line for this movie? I don’t think so.) I was one of those who was bummed when Edward Norton got bumped as the Hulk, but I must admit that Mark Ruffalo did a fine job as Dr. Bruce Banner. He gave the movie a much needed grounding in human compassion, along with his struggle with the other one living in him. I’m still not sold on Chris Hemsworth as Thor. Maybe it is just hard to play a god. (Although, are Thor and Loki really gods or is that just the human perception? Hmmm. My son also raised an interesting point, why does Thor have that strange accent, but Loki does not? I know Loki was adopted, but he was raised in the same family.) Speaking of Loki, Tom Hiddleston was one of the few highpoints of Thor and he is up to the task again in this one. I especially like Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Her fighting style is fun to watch and her cleverness was captivating, but is she a superhero? That question applies to Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, also. He is the one that the script is not kind to. Renner gets little chance to do much more than brood. He’s good at that, but hopefully he’ll do more than that in The Bourne Legacy.

The strength of the movie is the group effort, but it is certainly no surprise that there is conflict when this wide range of personalities first comes together. The verbal sparring between Stark and Captain America is especially fun, much more so than the various physical fights between the characters. It is also no surprise that when push comes to shove and the Avengers are needed to save the world, they come together as a team. Sure, it is expected, even inevitable, but, if done right, even what we expect can be nearly as satisfying as a cinematic surprise. I was satisfied. The group effort here can teach us something. My co-blogger, Bill, has written a piece on The Avengers and the Church that can be found below. If you haven’t read it yet, by all means do so. Also, use this movie to ponder why we are drawn to superheros and what that might say about the human need for God, especially a God who comes as a savior. I may write a few thoughts on that later this summer as we anticipate the arrival of both Batman and Spiderman.

Steve’s Look at Upcoming Movies

So far I’ve only seen one movie released in 2012 (The Hunger Games), but that’s about to change. With the release of The Avengers this weekend, the floodgates will be opened. I’ve added a new page to my blog on which I rank 44 movies coming out between now and the end of the year. Take a look to see what I’m most looking forward to and then leave a comment to let me know which movies you are most anticipating. For each movie I’ve included the release date and reasons why and why not to see it. See you at the movies!