Nov 11 2017

Lady Bird. Senior year. The struggle is real for mother and daughter alike.

maureen

I was lucky enough to see Ladybird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig at the Paramount during the Austin Film Festival a couple of weeks ago. If you get a chance to see this, go.

Coming of age is a universally awkward, confusing, embarrassing and harrowing experience for teens and for their parents. Sometimes characters in stories that everybody has experienced in one way or another get lost in the meta-ness of the story. Not here. This is Christine’s and Marion’s story. Gerwig, Ronan, and Metcalf speak them into being with such true voices that I felt like an aunt standing on the sidelines watching a family drama unfold. I know them. I love them. I’m laughing at them and with them. These are unique people and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to address the angst and agony or the hopes and dreams floating around a girl’s senior year.

High school senior Christine (Saoirse Ronan) is trying to figure out who she is, so much so that she changes her name to Lady Bird. She is determined to escape the mundane town she’s lived in all her life. Her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) is trying really hard to help with practical, realistic advice but also fighting to retain a little protective control over her daughter for just a little bit longer. Marion and husband and father Larry (Tracy Letts) are also facing financial pressures that play into Christine’s college decision. Letting go is harder for Marion than for Larry.  Surrounded by drama Larry just wants to support the two women he loves and make the fighting stop so he can read.

The writing is so funny, but continuously genuine and believable. The pace is quick in the first half of the film, the way a senior year rushes by. The second half, though still funny, takes some serious turns and slows down a bit, letting us experience the growing tensions and the confusing second-guessing that happens as graduation approaches.

I’m happy to see Lady Bird is doing so well in the “specialty” or “art” house theaters. The script, the acting, and the directing are ridiculously great. I really loved it. This is Gerwig’s first time directing. At the interview after the movie she is just as real and approachable as her characters. I hope she tells lots more stories. And, at some point I hope Gerwig lets us revisit this family. I seriously need to hang out with the Macphersons again.


Jun 29 2017

Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table is another Netflix biopic worth a look

maureen


As a foodie and lover of New Orleans, the documentary Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table was a great Netflix find. Oscar and Emmy nominated director Leslie Iwerks chronicles the life of Ella Brennan, owner of famed New Orleans restaurant Commander’s Palace. This documentary covers a lot of bases. It’s a clinic on success in the hospitality industry. It’s a feminist tale about women who excel and lead through dedication, confidence, and hard work. It’s a story about family relationships. It’s a revealing look at how cuisine evolves. It’s another powerful Katrina recovery story. It’s about starting over when life is a mess.

Told through a series of interviews and voice-over narration the documentary serves as an entertaining overview of Ella’s life. 18-year-old Ella Brennan started out working in her brother’s bar on Bourbon Street and became an international influence on cuisine and mentor to some great chefs including Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. So many of the sub-plots in Ella’s real life story could have been documentaries of their own.

My favorite thread running through this documentary was Ella Brennan’s self-education. She knew nothing about food when she got started. She read. She talked to people who knew. She traveled to places where popular cuisine was being developed. She tried out new ideas. She formed relationships with influencers and shared ideas. Success doesn’t seem to be about the fame or the money for her. Her motives appears to be that she wants to offer customers a great dining experience and nurture creativity and community among her employees. Ella Brennan, even an 91, seems to be genuinely interested in continuing to learn and grow. Anyone who wants to be successful in any field can learn from Ella’s example.

I loved the restoration cycle in her story as well. Brennan’s is a famous New Orleans restaurant. From the early 1950’s until 1974 Ella Brennan poured herself into making it one of the best restaurants in the world. Just as Ella was going through a painful divorce she was fired from the restaurant that bore her family’s name. She started over as a single mother in her 50’s with Commander’s Palace, which was far from a palace when she took it over. She built that into something even greater. It was heavily damaged by Katrina. Ella, then in her 70’s, was a driving force in rebuilding it with other family members. Eventually Brennan’s came back into the family and Ella walked back in after 40 years.

Where you stop telling a story determines its genre. So many people make tragedies of their own stories by setting themselves up for failure or quitting in defeat. Stop Ella’s story at being 18, uneducated, and a woman and you get a story about the path of least resistance. Stop Ella’s story at being fired and you get a story about failure and family villains. Stop at Katrina and you get a disaster story. Stop at the pinnacle of success and you get a shallow fable. It’s refreshing to watch a story in which someone’s attitude and choices tell a story about an abundant and successful life. The last scenes in the film show Ella, at 91 is still not through learning or telling her story.

 

 

 

 


Dec 28 2016

Manchester by the Sea: muddling through tragedy

maureen

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.


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.