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.

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.

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!

A Separation: Steve Looks Back at Last Year’s Foreign Language Oscar Winner

This Iranian movie won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It achieved the highest rating (95) of any 2011 movie on metacritic. Why? Because it is that great. It does two things that great movies should do: it transports you into another world and it reveals universal truths by carefully examining a particular situation. In this case that other world is modern day Iran. We get to experience the daily life of average citizens, including some who are more secularized and others who are actively living out the tenets of their Muslim faith, and we get to see the workings of the Iranian court system. The universal truths include the difficulties of dealing with the moral complexities of life and putting one’s faith into practice. The particular situation, which gives the movie its title, is the separation of a husband and wife. It is not that they no longer love each other. Nothing in this movie is that simple. The wife wants to leave Iran because she doesn’t believe that it is a good place to raise their daughter (word is that the Iranian government wasn’t too thrilled with this part of the story!). The husband says he has to stay to take care of his father who has Alzheimer’s. They agree to separate, but then things get complicated. He hires a housekeeper to help with the care of his father. There is an accident, the housekeeper has a miscarriage and he is charged for the death of the child. They go to court, but sometimes the truth is hard to come by. Yes, you’ll have to read subtitles, but don’t let that stop you. By all means, see this truly great movie.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green: a Recommendation from Steve

The Odd Life of Timothy Green isn’t, but it is. It isn’t all that odd, despite the fact that Timothy is a child who comes out of hole in the garden and has leaves growing on his shins. A little more oddness might have made it a better movie, but despite its flaws, it is a mostly charming movie that is worth seeing. It is also a movie that had me shedding a fair share of tears (which was clearly the intent), but not too many when it counted the most. Why should you see it? For starters, Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Garner deliver effective, and sometimes quite moving, performances as the parents, Jim and Cindy Green. I really liked Edgerton in Animal Kingdom and Warriors. His performance here cements my impression that any role he is in is worth a look, so I’m looking forward to seeing him in Zero Dark Thirty and The Great Gatsby. I’m not a big Garner fan, but she was good in Juno and is even stronger here in a similar role. CJ Adams didn’t knock my socks off (get it…socks…) as Timothy, but he was cute as all get out, which is about all the part really required. David Morse added some complexity to an otherwise clichéd role as Jim’s father, but the smaller roles that I most enjoyed were played by Dianne Wiest and M. Emmet Walsh. In both cases, this had something to do with past performances in movies that I adore, Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters and Walsh in Blood Simple and Raising Arizona. Wiest gives a nice turn here as the cranky co-owner of the pencil factory where Jim works. It was a delight to see Walsh again. He’s aged quite a bit, but is wonderful in the limited role of Uncle Bub.

The Odd Life contains enough strong scenes and surprises to raise it above mediocrity. The opening sequence in which Cindy and Jim face the news that they are unable to conceive a child was moving. I especially liked the resulting scene where they describe their dream child as a way of letting go of the grief. I also thought that the appearance of Timothy was handled well. Should Jim and Cindy have been more overwhelmed by this strange turn of events? It’s hard to say how someone would react in real life, because such things don’t happen in real life, but I felt that the tone was right for the movie. I found the ‘Lowrider’ rock out scene to be delightful. I liked the way that Jim and Cindy followed Timothy’s lead and just let it all hang out, not worrying about what anyone else thought. That scene gave important undergirding to one of the key themes of the movie, that it is o.k. to be who you are. The directing and camerawork were solid, simply allowing the story to be told. Maybe fancier camerawork or creative editing would have given the movie a more magical feel (which it could have used), but it just as likely could have been distracting. There were a few scene shifts that I thought were quite effective.

If saying that the movie was raised above mediocrity sounds like faint praise, it isn’t. Too many movies remain mired in mediocrity and there were a number of elements that could have trapped Timothy there. One problem was clichéd characters, especially Jim’s boss and Cindy’s sister. Overall, the strength of main characters counteracted the problems with the supporting cast, but the leads were not without their own issues. At times, the parents seemed, well, odd. When Timothy starts hanging out with a girl, Joni (played by Odeya Rush), Jim and, especially, Cindy are concerned. That’s a normal parental reaction, but rather than trying to find out something about Joni, Cindy goes after her, accusing her of being a bad influence on Timothy, even though there was no evidence of this. Did they think that she was too old for Timothy? She did appear to be older, but, of course, girls do mature sooner. However, all the kids around Timothy seemed to be older, or, at least, bigger. Was Timothy small for his age? For that matter, what age was he? How do you determine the age of a child who crawls out the garden in the middle of the night? Maybe they should have put him in a grade with younger students. Of course, having him be the small kid who gets picked on sets him up as someone we know we should root for. In this way, though, the film ends up feeling somewhat manipulative, which needs to be avoided as much as possible in a movie like this. Overall, the movie does avoid those kinds of issues often enough to make it fairly effective. However, I felt that the movie lost steam as it moved along. The beginning was much stronger than the ending. I cried at various points throughout the film, but not at the climax and only a few tears during the epilogue. A stronger film would have had me gushing at that point. Despite those drawbacks, I still recommend The Odd Life of Timothy Green, because, if nothing else, we do need that reminder that everyone is special in their own way.