Jun 2 2017

Life Itself

maureen


Life Itself a biographical documentary about Roger Ebert’s unique contributions and cultural significance. It’s also a hopeful look at the combination of choices and happenstance that make up any life. Steve James (Hoop Dreams) shoots the film, based on Roger Ebert’s memoir of the same name, in the end stages of Ebert’s battle with cancer. Responding to James questions, Ebert appears on camera, missing the bottom part of his jaw, typing his thoughts into a computer that speaks for him. Ebert’s wife Chaz, family members, and friends help tell his story.

Ebert, with fellow critic Gene Siskel made film criticism entertainment for the masses. I might not be teaching film today if it hadn’t been for their PBS series Sneak Previews and later, At the Movies. They give insightful, intelligent analysis of films. They were the ones who made me think about movies in the same way my English teacher taught me to think about books. This isn’t a dry, academic mental exercise. It’s exciting to understand the elements of film and to see how each filmmaker creates something unique using those elements. Siskel and Ebert helped make film accessible as an art form.

Out of college Roger was hired by the Chicago Sun Times and eventually became the film critic because the film critic quit. This became his life’s work. He received the only Pulitzer Prize ever issued for film criticism. Ebert continued writing on his blog to the very end of his life. It’s a treasure trove of years and years of his past film criticism. A group of  critics continue to post to Roger Ebert.com.

As much as Life Itself  is a tribute to Ebert, it’s also a contemplation on life itself, as the title states. Some opportunities in life happen through developing gifts and talents. Some are about attitude. Some involve being in the seemingly random right place at the right time. Some happen through willingness to change and grow, to take risks, and to embrace the good that comes out of the bad.

The film takes Ebert from his cocky twenties with skewed priorities to the gracious maturity that knows that love is the best legacy. Much of the film focuses on Ebert’s relationships, especially with his wife Chaz who he met at AA. Roger was 50 when he married Chaz and gained a family. They were married 20 years. Her influence helped him develop deeper friendships with others in his life.

Roger Ebert died before filming was complete. Near the end of the film Chaz talks about Roger’s last moments.  She tells about the family surrounding him, holding hands, and the room filling with incredible peace. It is such a familiar and real story.

 

 

 

 


Jul 17 2015

5 random movies I liked on Netflix this week

maureen


Short Term 12 
is about a “short term” care facility for teens who can’t be at home but who, for whatever reasons, don’t fit into any long-term care models. Two twenty-something counselors, Grace and Mason, both former at-risk teens themselves, work through their own relationship challenges as they try to make unconscionable situations bearable for the teens in their care, some who have been in “short term” limbo for years. Brie Larson’s Grace is a wounded healer in every sense. Unresolved issues in her past come rushing to the surface as she herself in Jayden troubled girl she tries to help. It’s the little moments with each of the kids that makes the film so good. The film’s humor and honest emotional responses keep it from being the typical maudlin “inspirational” drama. Writer-director Destin Daniel Crettion shows, instead of preaches, compassion, empathy, and restoration. While the film reveals something so broken in our society, rather than focusing on all the issues associated with the problem, it offers a glimpse of a few starfish thrown back into the sea.

 


The Babadook‘s brand of horror is psychological deconstruction rather than a gory dismemberment. Single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) was widowed by a car accident on the way to the maternity ward. Six years later her child, Sam, is a scary little kid she can’t understand or seem to help. Sam knows it’s there, that monster in the closet or under the bed, creeping out from the dark cracks in the house. It’s real and it has a firm hold on his perceptions. Amelia’s torment over her inability to rescue her son grips her as tightly as her growing realization that the Babadook is real. Writer-director Jennifer Kent uses image upon fractured image – a bizarre picture book, a series of strange film clips on the television, murky flashbacks to the accident- to lead the audience into questioning the reliability of Amelia’s point of view, and thus what we’ve seen through her eyes. Just as I felt after watching Pan’s Labyrinth, The Babadook left me questioning whether I’d just seen a horror movie,  a psychological thriller, or some combination of reality and metaphor.

In a World centers around the voice-over industry. Lake Bell wrote, directed, and stars in this funny, satirical look at competition and self-worth. Carol (Bell) is a voice coach whose competitive, egotistical father is a top dog in the voice-over world. Carol is a little uncomfortable with herself. She doesn’t want to be defined by family and colleagues who are considered more talented and successful but in many ways she’s let them define her. Though Carol wants more in her career she’s seen what unbridled hubris does to relationships so she is deliberately non-competitive and also a little naive. When Carol wins a coveted gig her relationships suffer. This is a thoughtful film about how professionals respond to one other’s success in a competitive marketplace.


From Time to Time, directed by Jullian Fellowes (Downton Abbey), is ghost story, murder mystery, and period piece set in two different time periods. I watched it because Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville are in it and because it’s based on one of the books in the Lucy M. Boston “Green Knowe” series I read and loved in elementary school. Near the end of World War 2 13-year old Tolly, played by Alex Etel (Millions), is sent to live with his father’s mother, Mrs. Oldknow (Maggie Smith) while his own mother desperately tries to get information about his father who is missing in action. Mrs. Oldknow is peculiar and a little distant, but believes him when he tells her he’s seen ghosts. Alex becomes involved in a 17th century mystery with the help of ghosts of children who lived and died at Green Knowe, the name of the house. More than anything else From Time to Time is about relationships.


In director Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, an independent cameraman who films gruesome crime and accident scenes and sells them to local news producer Nina (Rene Russo), who operates with the philosophy of “if it bleed, it leads.” Bloom gleefully applies everything he’s learned from internet self-help success videos, he’s obsessed with them, to nightcrawling.  Is Bloom devoid of moral reasoning or simply willing to cross any moral boundary to achieve his goals? Nina comes across at first as merely ambitious, but it seems that the boundaries she’s already crossed makes it easier for her make the compromises Bloom demands of her if he going to keep feeding her ratings-boosting gore. Rather than playing Lou as a easily-to-peg sociopath, Nightcrawler lets the audience observe and decide. He’s so bizarre and creepy that, like the scenes he films and sells, it’s hard to look away. In a strange way this makes the audience is complicit in the very practices the film seems to indict. It’s worth watching for Gyllenhaal’s performance alone.

 

 


Mar 10 2014

The dark territory of True Detective

maureen

HBO-True-DetectiveCAUTION: SPOILERS.

True to form the last episode of True Detective called Form and Void features the dark and grisly conclusion to a bleak, dark series about two homicide detectives unraveling a ritual murder in South Louisiana. Errol, the incestuous, Cary-Grant obsessed witch king makes an utterly creepy grindhouse villain. Previous episodes offer up a series of tantalizing possible suspects and co-conspirators, including Cohle himself. The Tuttles come off as redneck Illuminati with a long reach and powerful resources. The story ends with many of these loose ends still flapping, but Cohle and Hart’s journey resolves, and that’s the real heart of the story.

True Detective‘s mysterious King in Yellow references a Robert Chambers story about a play that elicits madness and despair in those who see it. The story Cohle and Hart live as they work their case contains enough bizarre evil to induce similar responses. Cohle’s philosophic nature and nihilistic outlook make him particularly vulnerable to emotional and spiritual damage. Hart’s proclivities run to the more standard tropes TV cops use to cope. He cheats on his wife, drinks too much, and is disconnected from his children. Hart ends up in a place something like despair in which he’s lost his family and left his job after exposure to yet another urban legend horror, the baby in the microwave.

Cohle and Hart’s determination to close the case appears to be part-destiny and part obsession. In spite of a serious rift between them, when Cohle shows Hart the horror inducing videotape of one the victims, he’s in. This tape is used to induce former cop Steve Geraci. While immediate exposure to the tape loosens his tongue, Steve does not seem permanently traumatized by his experience, displaying the same self-interest after they finish with him that he has before. He tells them Sheriff Childress is the one who closed the case. Interviews in previous episodes suggest that Errol might be a Childress and possibly an illegitimate child of one of the Tuttles.

After making arrangements to unveil their evidence should they not come out alive, Cohle and Hart follow their leads to Errol’s house. Earlier the episode treats us to scenes of Errol’s Psycho-Louisiana-style domestic bliss. Cohle and Hart’s journey lead them into the heart of Carcosa where the evil is as thick as hot, humid swamp air. Continue reading


Apr 15 2013

Brennan Manning and his Ragamuffin legacy

maureen

Back in the 90’s I listened to the music of Rich Mullins and Michael Card a lot. Both musicians were greatly influenced by Brennan Manning’s book The Ragamuffin Gospel. Mullins was so impacted by the ideas in this book that he named his band The Ragamuffin Band and now the working title for the upcoming movie about Mullins’ life is A Ragamuffin’s Legacy.

That legacy extends to so many of authors and artists of the past thrity years. Apparently some of the members of U2 read Manning. I see Manning’s influence in the works of Phillip Yancy and Donald Miller and in worship lyrics like “beautiful, scandalous night.”  Michael W. Smith wrote the forward to the stack of copies of Ragamuffin that sit in our living room waiting to be given away.  Like Mullins and so many others, I am part of that Ragamuffin legacy.

Reading The Ragamuffin Gospel challenged me to reconsider some of the practices and attitudes I was bringing into my relationship with God and into how I communicated the message of grace to other people. Manning called out my “imposter” and started me on the road to recovery.

I struggle with fear and insecurity the way Brennan Manning struggled with alcohol. What if I believe the wrong thing, say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing? What if I get crossways with the people who define “the wrong thing”? What if I give someone the wrong impression of Jesus? What if God’s grace has limits and I’ve exceeded them? What if I lose love? I spent long periods of my life, sometimes years, frozen in place because I was afraid. To paraphrase Ragamuffin, I had “confused my perception of myself with the mystery that I really am accepted.”

Ragamuffin helped me to experience God’s love without the fear. Even after my personal relationship with Christ took an emotional and intellectual turn, it took years for me to be vulnerable and authentic with some of the people in my life. I still have lapses of insecurity. I flounder around socially and relationally, especially when I am outside my comfort zone – and lately it seems that I am always outside my comfort zone. More than anything anyone else has ever said to reassure me, Brennan Manning gave me permission to proceed in my scandalous imperfection.

 


Mar 14 2013

Silver Linings Playbook and wounded healers

maureen

May 5

Silver Linings Playbook is about two people who are both facing emotional challenges. Both Pat and Tiffany face mental health issues that concern their families and friends. Both are experiencing pain and loss and making destructive choices to deal with those. Continue reading


Dec 7 2012

Flight portrays a balancing act for alcoholics and other flawed human beings

maureen

Flight was tough to watch. Denzel Washington’s Whip was a believable, heartbreaking drunk. Denial and rationalization are hallmarks of addiction and Whip is a master. His careful, studied movements suggest the perception of control that is not there. Most drunks are certain they aren’t that drunk. Most drunks are pretty sure they are functional until they hit the floor. Whatever grand deed he may have accomplished, Whip is just like most drunks. Continue reading