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.

 

 

 

 


Dec 28 2016

Manchester by the Sea: muddling through tragedy

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I don’t usually recommend tear-jerkers because there is enough tragedy to deal with in real life, but Manchester By the Sea is so honest, so real, and so captivating that I think it’s worth the vicarious pain. The performances alone are worth seeing. It’s depiction of grief is profoundly genuine. And it considers three really important questions: Is there a timetable for getting over devastating life experiences? Is not moving on from our heartbreaks selfish? Are there wounds that just won’t heal?

Lee Chandler must confront all his ghosts when he returns home to deal with his older brother’s death and make provisions for his nephew. Lee is a withdrawn janitor with painful past while his nephew Patrick is a self-centered teen hockey player with two girlfriends and a terrible rock band. The back and forth between Lee and his nephew offers moments of dark humor that pain frequently creates. Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges give fantastic, truthful performances. Really, everyone playing the main characters gave spot on performances that made the film feel so real.

Lee’s story unfolds in a series of flashbacks and conversations with people from his small Massachusetts hometown. Most of them either can’t understand how he hasn’t moved on from the past or can’t stop judging him for what happened in the past. We’ve all known people who seem to take a long time to recover from grief and/or guilt, and some that never seem to. I don’t want to give this movie away, so, even with the spoiler alert, that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Manchester By the Sea is full of real people muddling through life’s hard experiences. The story builds to that expected character arc and abruptly ends mid-muddle. Because that’s the way real-life stories are. We don’t all resolve at the same time. Not every experience comes with closure. This story isn’t about closure, it’s about love. In spite of their imperfect processing of devastating events, these characters love each other.

Back to the questions. Is there a timetable for getting over devastating life experiences? I was personally affected by this movie because I think I rush this process. This movie made me pause and ask whether people like Lee hide from people like me. I realized that I can’t possible know what it takes to get over something I haven’t experienced. Nor can I know what it’s like to be someone other than myself getting over something I have experienced. So, thanks, author and director Kenneth Lonergan, for the instructive parable. I might never tell anyone to “get over it” again. At least about anything important.

Is refusing to move on selfish? Lee’s pain isolates him from people who care about him. Lee’s pain prevents him from having the relationship with his nephew that his nephew needs from him. Lee knows this but, I think for him, moving on feels selfish. For Lee to move on minimizes the loss he’s experienced and the guilt he feels he owes. Holding onto it makes it remain important. Lee doesn’t know how to process the importance of what happened in the past without allowing it to define him in the present and future.

Are there wounds that just won’t heal? Well, Frodo had to leave Middle Earth to get relief. Maybe Lee can’t survive in Manchester, at least as he is now. The film seems to build a false expectation that all this misery might be be miraculously lifted by letting go, opening up, changing attitudes, or doing something else. But the ending suggests that resolution is not that simple.

One would hope that our relationships with God define us more than the core memories and climactic experiences in our life stories. Nevertheless we all walk around with unresolved pieces of our stories. Faith is not an instant cure for heartbreak or recovery. Forgiveness does not always result in an instant lifting of guilt feelings. God applies His healing balm to our open wounds, over time, often through relationships with others, and later, to our scars. But sometimes our wounds close very slowly, and trying to put a timeline on closure only pours salt on the wound. Manchester By the Sea reminded me that love is patient and kind. We contribute to healing not by trying to “fix” each other or to rush whatever we are processing to resolution, but by loving each other in the unresolved middle of our muddles.


Jul 17 2015

5 random movies I liked on Netflix this week

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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.

 

 


Jun 7 2015

What I learned watching Netflix last week: Relationships are Hard and Forgiveness is Essential

maureen

This week on Netflix I watched Chef, Drinking Buddies, Detachment, and The Judge. Though very different in plot, character, and tone, they shared a couple of common themes: 1. relationships are hard and 2. forgiveness is essential.

Chef is a comedy about a divorced chef played by writer/director Jon Favreau, who is trying to rediscover his creative mojo with support from his son played by Emjay Anthony, friendly ex-wife Sofia Vergara and faithful sou chef John Leguizamo. Chef Carl Casper seeks personal satisfaction and creative expression through his career at the expense of time with his son. Events conspire to change that and he rediscovers who he is as a chef as he reconnects with his family and re-prioritizes relationships. Carl even get’s a second chance in some of the most adversarial relationships in his life.

My takeaways: Forgiveness is a reset. When both parties are amenable, forgiveness can move any relationship into mutually beneficial, mutually transformational experience. Flow, self-actualization, personal fulfillment – whatever you want to call that sense of completeness and happiness we all hope to find in life – involves satisfying relationships not just professional success.

Drinking Buddies is a comedy that explores the line between friendship and romantic involvement, fear of commitment, and honesty in relationships. All of these themes play out as an undercurrent to the action and the dialog, which, in a refreshingly naturalistic approach taken by director/writer Joe Swanberg, was all improvised by the cast who were given the general story arc. Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake M. Johnson) are co-workers in a Chicago craft brewery. Each is in a relationship with someone else. Luke has been in a relationship with Jill (Anna Kendrick) for six years and considers Kate a buddy. Kate is in a less serious relationship with Chris (Ron Livingston). A weekend at a lake cottage confirm that Luke and Kate have much more in common while Jill finds herself attracted to Kate. The four individually grapple with serious questions: What do I owe someone in a relationship? What do I owe myself? What constitutes cheating? Do like-minded people necessarily make the best partners?

My takeaways: Part of the work in any relationships is accepting that everyone and every relationship is complex, fluid, and flawed. Alcohol definitely enables the flawed aspects. Part of the work in a romantic relationship is being willing to commit not only physically but emotionally to that one other person.

Detachment is a drama starring Adrien Brody as Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher who is a perceptive and gifted communicator but instead chooses to stay aloof and uninvolved. As much as Henry’s personal baggage compels him to remain detached, his compassion and passion for troubled young people wins out. Detachment is set in a big-city school populated by frustrated teachers and administrators (played by a really great cast including Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner) caught in big-city education bureaucracy and politics. Many care but can’t understand the apathy and animosity of their students. My one problem with this film, perhaps the one that earned it that green splat on Rotten Tomatoes, is that it takes the opposite approach from Drinking Buddies and is heavy on telling rather than showing. That said, teachers sometimes have to tell because students don’t always see the subtext. Besides some of Henry’s rants are incredibly perceptive and well expressed. Detachment is sad and dark and offers no easy answers.

My takeaway: Baggage is unavoidable and no excuse to withdraw. Sometimes the relationships that are the most trouble are the ones that carry the most opportunity for personal growth and tangible grace. Open up.

The Judge is a courtroom drama starring Robert Downey Jr. as Hank Palmer and Robert Duvall as his estranged father Judge Joseph Palmer. Hank is a successful lawyer in Chicago who doesn’t believe he can ever atone for his past failures or earn his father’s approval. Now he must defend his father in court. Directed by David Dobkin, this film is packed with relationship dysfunction and difficulties: How do grown children deal with a parent who might be losing mental function? How do families explain complex situations to a mentally challenged member? How does forgiveness keep working when the consequences are life-changing and on-going?

My takeaway: Stop trying to atone, ask for forgiveness when needed and forgive when asked. Accept where the relationship is right now, even when it’s tense, without burning bridges or laying down ultimatums. Give relationships space to heal and grow. Keep showing up.

 

 

 


Jul 31 2014

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is so good. Go see it.

maureen

Watching Boyhood is a reminder that all our lives are a series of seemingly insignificant vignettes that both reveal and shape who we are. Boyhood follows an episodic narrative style. It is driven by character and theme rather than plot. Shot over a 12-year period, scenes play out like a series of snapshots that communicate the mood and tone of what is happening each year.

It’s no accident that photography plays an important role in the film. Boyhood is like watching time-lapse photography. The audience sees Patricia Arquette’s hairstyles and weight fluctuate as she ages 12 years in a little under three hours. Ethan Hawke’s face develops lines. Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater grow up before our very eyes. Continue reading


Mar 26 2014

Saving Mr. Banks makes me wish I could watch flashbacks of other people’s lives

maureen

Saving Mr. Banks is the story of Disney filmmakers collaboration with Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers to make the film. Mrs. Travers, as she insists on being called, is brusque, annoying, and controlling. She has very definite ideas about how she wants the story told and, uncharacteristically, Walt Disney, played by Tom Hanks, bends over backwards to meet her demands in order to get the film made. It is hard to imagine anyone less playful than Emma Thompson’s dour Mrs. Travers. Her vision for the film is as serious and unsentimental as she is while Disney is playful and positive. His aim is to provide joyful experiences for people at his theme park and in his films. Naturally their visions clash. Continue reading


Mar 19 2014

The giving and receiving of grace in Nebraska

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Director Alexander Payne says he shot Nebraska in black and white because “this modest, austere story seemed to lend itself to being made in black and white.” Modest and austere is a good description of the settings and characters in Nebraska. The word I think of is “real.” It was so real that filming it in black and white actually helped distance me from the stark reality of aging portrayed in the film.

The film begins with Woody, an elderly man in early stages of dementia shuffling down the road with one of those “you may be a winner” promotional letters, determined to make his way to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. Since he can’t drive anymore, he’s just going to walk. 76-year-old Bruce Dern plays Woody with authenticity and understatement. Woody isn’t a joke or a villain. He’s an average small-town retiree who is frequently grumpy, drinks too much, and has typical relationship issues with his wife and grown sons. Aging hasn’t made him this way, he’s always been this way. With aging the filters deteriorate so that we become more obviously the people we already are.

Woody’s practical, outspoken wife Kate, his successful son Ross, and non-so-successful son David are real human beings struggling to deal with the effect of aging on family dynamics. Woody’s irrational behavior and unsteady reasoning make it hard for Kate to live with him. She, in turn, keeps calling her sons for help with their dad, which is disruptive to their lives. Like so many families, this family is having to make some dreaded “decisions” about dad, who always before had the autonomy to decide things for himself. It’s a frustrating and painful time for any family whose lived through this. Watching Nebraska is like walking through it with friends or neighbors. The emotions and situations are absolutely spot on.

Younger son David, who is between jobs offers to take his dad to Lincoln in hopes that he’ll stop fixating on the letter once it’s clear he’s not a winner. He also sees it as an opportunity to spend some time with his dad. Their road trip involves a series of little episodes that are sometimes amusing and often frustrating for David. They spend a weekend in Woody’s hometown where old wounds and rivalries are rekindled. Thinking he actually won some sort of sweepstakes, Woody’s relative and old friends embrace Woody as a celebrity and possible benefactor. Kate and Ross join David and Woody for a family reunion and a revealing walk through Woody’s childhood home.

Throughout the movie David begins to understand and appreciate his father as a person rather than seeing him with all the labels attached. Alcoholic. Distant. Grumpy. Inconsiderate. Disappointment. Sucker. Inconvenience. Failure.

Family relationships always have baggage. By the time a parent reaches the point where a child has to step in there might be forty or fifty years worth of baggage. Imagine unforgiven offense, patterns of hurtful behavior, personality flaws, painful memories stuck to the baggage like those vintage labels on suitcases. To a great extent we define ourselves and others by those labels. If we are willing to peel off the labels we’ve placed on others because of past experiences and see who is under there, we actually create margin for change to happen in those relationships.

Nebraska gently nudged me to reminder that healing comes with forgiveness. Perspective happens when we experience someone else’s story as a participant instead of a spectator. Nebraska reveals how simply walking through an experience with another person changes the relationship. The characters don’t experience big character arcs or life-changing epiphanies. In fact, none of the characters change that much from the beginning of the movie to the end, but how they see one another does. In this film I saw a picture of the giving and receiving of grace.

 

 

 

 

Many


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.

 


Jan 26 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild, poverty and preservation

maureen


I have been thinking about Beasts of the Southern Wild for two or three weeks, trying to decide how I feel about it.The accents carried flashes from my childhood in Louisiana, something was vaguely familiar in the fierce independence of the characters. But, like foggy childhood memories, the images in Beasts is full of non-sequiturs and child-like wondering. I have more questions than answers about the community it portrays and the perspective on poverty it presents.

Telling the story from 6-year-old Hushpuppy’s point of view and using the aurochs created a surreal fantasy in a brutally realistic setting. The aurochs are both a metaphor for the extinction of Hushpuppy’s community, the storm, her father’s illness and her fight for survival and yet they appear as real, threatening beasts pounding toward Hushpuppy’s fragile home. 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