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!

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?

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 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.

Five Quick Reviews and Rankings by Steve

What are you in the mood for? A good old fashioned, but bloody, samurai movie? A family film starring friends from the past? An historical drama filled with sexual tension? A heart-felt comedy? A sci-fi thriller? I’ve added five films to my 2011 rankings. (Check my Ranking page to see where they landed.) None of them are high on my list, although two are currently in the top 25. However, even the lower ranked ones are worth seeing. Here are short reviews of the five.

13 Assassins

A classic samurai movie. A classic good versus evil movie. After a violent beginning that establishes the cruelty of an evil lord, the movie settles into a quiet middle section in which the thirteen assassins are assembled for a suicide mission against the lord and his army. The final third of the movie is an epic battle scene. The fighting here is realistic (and bloody) with none of the floating warriors that became all the rage with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This is a movie about honor, tradition, and sacrifice. Unless you speak Japanese, you will need to read subtitles, but it is well worth it!

The Muppets

What is better than a reunion with a friend? A reunion with a group of friends! I’ve been humming the Muppet theme for a couple of days now. I actually never was a huge Muppet fan, but I have long enjoyed their unique brand of humor and heart. While this reboot of the Muppet franchise doesn’t bring much of anything new to the table, it is delightful nonetheless. In addition to the theme song, there is a reprise of “The Rainbow Connection” and a batch of new songs. None of the songs are overly memorable, they all work well in the movie. In fact, everything works well. Simply put, see it!

A Dangerous Method

An interesting look at the beginning of psychotherapy. Michael Fassbinder and Viggo Mortensen give solid performances as Jung and Freud. My favorite performance was by Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross, who has an “if it feels good, do it” attitude towards life. Jung tries to get him to see how destructive such an attitude can be, but then ends up in affair himself with Sabina Spielrein. She is played by Keira Knightley in a performance that received mixed reviews. Some love her dramatic portrayal of Spielrein’s struggle with inner demons, others cringe at her jaw-jutting histrionics. I agree with those who feel her performance would have benefited from a more subtle approach.

Cedar Rapids

I liked this more than I thought I would. The trailers made it look like a Judd Apatow kind of movie, long on sex and alcohol/drug jokes, short on much of anything else. The crass jokes are certainly there, but they serve a story that actually has a lot of heart. John C. Reilly is responsible for much of the rude humor, but his character also has a tender side. I’m not a big Ed Helms fan, but he was believable as the small town insurance salesman at his first convention in the big city. Yes, in this case the big city is Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

In Time

An interesting premise that results in a fairly entertaining movie. It is a story set in the future when time is literally money. If you run out of time, your life is over. The poor face that threat every day, always living on the edge. Meanwhile, the rich can accumulate enough time to live forever. In this day and age when the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, the story strikes a chord, but the writing could have been a little less obvious. Also, the way in which time was transferred from one person to another was a bit ridiculous. Nevertheless, Justin Timberlake, as a man accused of stealing time, and Cillian Murphy, as the time cop sent to hunt him down, make the movie worth watching.

The Strange Entertainment of The Hunger Games: a Recommendation from Steve

The Hunger Games is an entertaining movie. Strangely, though, the premise of the movie forces the viewer to ask whether that is a good thing. Should we feel entertained by a movie in which the major plot point is kids killing kids? I know, I know, The Hunger Games is not about kids killing kids. And, no, I have not read the books yet, although I plan to soon because I did find the movie intriguing enough to pique my interest in the trilogy. I do understand that  the story is about the dangers of totalitarian power and, in conjunction with that, the dangers of media used to manipulative the masses, in this case reality television taken to a gruesome extreme. However, no matter what Suzanne Collins’ (she wrote the books and co-wrote the script) story may ultimately be about, there is no avoiding the fact that kids killing kids takes center stage. This is not a movie for younger children. There is a good reason why it is rated PG-13. However, for older children, it provides a good opportunity for parents to engage in conversation with their children about the darker aspects of human nature and the sinful ways in which we treat one another.

Collins and the other creative forces behind the movie, including director Gary Ross, had a tricky task before them. Even with that central theme, they had to ensure that the movie was rated PG-13 rather than R because a large portion of the intended audience are “young adults.” They achieved that by keeping the blood and gore to a minimum, but in so doing they muted the horrific nature of the deaths of the young participants in the Hunger Game. This also muted the social critique of the story. Indeed, the social commentary is also kept to a minimum. One could argue that the writers did this out of respect for the intelligence for their audience. There is some truth to this point of view. The movie does get its point across without hitting us over the head with it, but I still think that this lack of urgency is what keeps the movie from being a great movie rather than just a good one. Given the plot, you would think the movie would be filled with tension, but the inevitability of the ending deflated the intensity. Another drawback in that regard is that we never really get to know the characters, even the main ones. This also mutes the emotional impact of the deaths of the children.

Despite those drawbacks (and a few other issues with the story), I did enjoy the movie. Much of the credit for that goes to Jennifer Lawrence. She shows here that her strong performance in Winter’s Bone was no fluke. Her ability to express deep emotion through facial expression is essential to her role as Katniss. I just wish the writers had given her a bit more to work with. I guess I’ll have to read the books to get to know Katniss better. I’m of mixed feelings regarding Josh Hutcherson as Peeta. At times he seemed a bit flat, but there was a subtlety to his character that he handled well. I’m a big Woody Harrelson fan and I enjoyed him as Haymitch.

Two final things before I wrap this up. I was surprised that the Games were so manipulated by those running them. This was so unfair, yet it made perfect sense. What didn’t make sense was the dogs. What was the deal with that? A movie needs to make internal sense and sci-fi gives one a lot of leeway, but I thought the dogs just didn’t work. There was a realism to what was happening in the Game, despite the manipulation, but what were the dogs? Virtual reality? No, they were certainly real, but even in that sc-fi world there is no good explanation for their appearance in the Game. I can live with the dogs, but I would rather have lived without much of the camera work. Especially in the beginning of the film, Ross chose the herky jerky approach of a handheld camera. I recently praised the use of that technique in Melancholia, where it created intimacy and intensity. It didn’t work that way here. It was simply distracting and annoying. At least it wasn’t also in 3D! Even with those complaints, I still recommend the movie. It was a (strangely) entertaining movie that is hopefully the beginning of a trilogy that will get stronger as it goes along.

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.

Finding Faith and Doubt in Higher Ground: a Recommendation from Steve

Why do we believe what we believe? To what degree is our adult faith the product of our childhood exposure to religion? To what degree is our adult faith a reaction to our childhood exposure to religion? What do we do when life gets complex and messy and simple answers that once worked don’t seem to work anymore? Higher Ground is not a great movie, but it is a very good movie that leads to great pondering on those and other questions about faith, doubt, and the presence and/or absence of God. I highly recommend it to anyone who would like to examine questions about their faith and why they practice their faith in the way that they do. However, it must be made clear that this is a movie for adults. Not only does it tackle deep issues, it also does not shy away from the fact that faith is not one part of our life, but that it touches every part of our lives, including our sexuality. There are no sex scenes in the movie, but there are frank discussions about sexuality and imagery of a sexual nature. As with most things in the movie, they are handled in both a sincere and a humorous way. I do not think many adults will find these scenes to be offensive, but you might want to keep them in mind as you consider who your viewing partners might be.

Higher Ground is based on the memoir of Carolyn Briggs, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Corrine, the main character, is played by Vera Farmiga. This is also Farmiga’s directorial debut. She handles both of those roles well. The story follows Corrine from the time when as a young girl she answers her pastor’s altar call at Bible School and opens her heart to Jesus to a time about twenty years later when Corrine wonders if Jesus actually accepted her invitation into her heart. Along the way, Corrine marries her high school sweetheart at a young age. After a nearly tragic event, they feel that God has protected them and as a response they join an close-knit evangelical group. The heart of the film is Corrine’s clear desire to have her faith nurtured by this group and her growing realization that her desire will not be fulfilled. This group could have easily been stereotyped and ridiculed, but the strength of this movie is in the fact that they are presented in an evenhanded manner. Their simplistic faith is evident, and although that particular style of belief clearly does not work for Corrine, the group and its beliefs are not bashed in the film. Certain elements of the movie are somewhat cliched, but even these ring true in their own way because, let’s face it, sometimes life is a bit cliched.

Given the time frame, the part of Corrine is played by three actresses: McKenzie Turner as the young Corrine, Taissa Farmiga during the teenage years, and Vera as Corrine in her 20s and 30s. When I saw Taissa’s name in the end credits, I thought Vera had cast her daughter in the part. It turns out that Taissa is Vera’s younger sister, 21 years younger! It was her first film role and she does a more than adequate job. When Vera took over, I thought she seemed too old for the character at that point, but as Corrine aged, Vera settled nicely into the role. The story does occasionally move ahead without a clear sense of the timing involved, but Vera always provides a few clues to help the viewer get a sense of where things are at. That technique points to an overall strength of the movie. There is no attempt made to give all the answers, or really any answers at all. This is a movie about questions and doubts, but also about the desire for faith even in the midst of those questions and doubts. That being the case, it should be no surprise that the movie does not have a neat and clean ending. Corrine is left pondering and seeking and so are we. I’m thankful for movies that give me the opportunity to do just that.

The Descendants is Mostly Great: a Recommendation from Steve

The Descendants, starring George Clooney, is mostly great and nearly made it into my top 3 for the year, maybe even all the way to No. 1. It turns out that “mostly” and “nearly” are fairly important modifiers. Fortunately, most of the movie is wonderful. Unfortunately, the parts that aren’t wonderful are remarkably weak. Much like in The Help, I find it stupefying that a movie could contain material that felt so brilliant and true along side material that felt so banal and false. Again, fortunately, most of the movie falls in the first category, so overall I do highly recommend it. Just be prepared to cringe once in a while.

Let’s start with the good stuff. That conversation clearly begins with Clooney. He is terrific, quite deserving of the Best Actor nomination. He has to juggle an amazing array of emotions with out being too obvious about any of them. His character, Matt King, faces not only a wife in a coma due to a boating accident, but also the news that she had been cheating on him. Her condition forces him to be the primary parent for two daughters (ages 17 and 10) that he barely knows because he has been so focused on his work as a lawyer. At the same time, his extended family is awaiting his decision as the sole trustee for the family’s trust that includes a large parcel of undeveloped land in Hawaii. A change in the law requires them to sell the land within seven years or lose it. A few want to keep it undeveloped, most want it sold so they can enjoy the millions that it will bring to the family. Add to this the need to decide about taking his wife off of life support and an encounter with the man his wife was have the affair with and Matt has more on his plate than anyone should have to deal with. Clooney’s ability to present the layers of emotions that all of these plot points bring out is the greatest asset of this mostly great movie.

We’ve come to expect that kind of performance from Clooney. Unexpected, but no less amazing, is Shailene Woodley’s performance as Alexandra, the older daughter. She is the one who must break the news of her mother’s affair. She does a masterful job as a teenager struggling to grow up and trying to make sense of how she feels about her dying mother. Matthew Lillard, as the man in the affair, and Judy Greer, as his wife, give strong performances. Beau Bridges, as Hugh, the only cousin who gets enough screen time to get a sense of his character, is also quite good. In addition to those fine performances, the movie also excels in presenting in presenting the complexity of life. The bottom line seems to be that grace is possible. We can move on from the things we have messed up and strive to live in a better way. All of that, along with Alexander Payne’s assured sense of direction, makes this a movie well worth seeing.

Why then the “mostly” and “nearly” qualifiers at the beginning of this recommendation? As wonderful as so much of this movie was, it was kept from true greatness by the incredible ineptitude in presenting a number of the supporting characters. Although, the younger daughter Scottie and Alexandra’s friend Sid grew on me, there was too much that felt false and forced about their characters. This was also true for Matt’s father-in-law, Kai and Mark (friends of Matt and his wife), Scottie’s teacher and counselor, and Alex’s dorm supervisor. That is just too many weak characters, minor though some of them are, to call this a truly great movie. I think the problem lies with the writing, not the acting. There is a rule of thumb that multiple writers for a movie is a sign of trouble. This movie lists three writers in the credits. Interestingly, they are nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. For about 80% of the movie they deserve an Oscar, but for the other 20% I’m not sure they even deserve the nomination. Yes, I thought it was that bad! The weak writing showed up not just in the characters, but in the plot as well. The big family meeting to decide about the land sale fell on the same day that the life support was removed from Matt’s wife. Sure, it created dramatic tension, but it also felt incredibly contrived. They had seven years to make a decision, so what family would be heartless enough not o postpone the meeting. Things like that drag the movie down, but not too far. It is, indeed, mostly great and lands in my top 5 for the year.