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 19 2014

The giving and receiving of grace in Nebraska

maureen


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


Jan 28 2014

Sherlock unmasked

maureen


SPOILER ALERT
Season 3 begins with Sherlock and John Watson absorbing big changes in their lives. John finds out his best friend isn’t dead, gets married, finds out he’s going to be a father, and get his old job back. Death, birth, marriage, and career change are major life events. Watson has strong adaptability, perceptiveness, and relationship skills so its no surprise he’s handling it like a Hobbit.

Sherlock is dealing with change as well. His best friend is getting married; he’s picking up his life after a lengthy absence; he’s still dealing with life or death mysteries; and, oh yes, he lied to his best friend and nearly everyone else he knows. He let them think he was dead for two years and must now deal with the effects of that deception on all his relationships, even on Molly and Mycroft, who were in on the deception. In one way Sherlock’s return from the dead simply adds to his public mystique, but the press is focused on “how he did it,” an indication that his controlled image is unraveling further. Sherlock seems to be shedding some of his mystique in order to adjust to change, not only in his circumstances, but in himself. Continue reading


Jan 19 2014

Captain Phillips comes down to character

maureen

Captain Phillips was intense. The pacing, the acting, and the story were all compelling and emotionally draining. It kept my attention from beginning to end. The conflict between Tom Hanks’ Captain Phillips and Barkhad Abdi’s Muse provide a strong framework for the narrative. Tom Hanks seemed so comfortable in Phillips’ skin that he was able to put me there as well. Abdi’s performance gave Muse a humanity and even humor, that provided a multi-dimensional shadow to Hanks’ Phillips. 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.

 


Dec 29 2012

Law and grace in Les Miserables

maureen

SPOILER ALERT

Les Miserables is a study in the conflicting motivations of law and grace.

Paroled after twelve bitter years of imprisonment for stealing bread to feed his family, Jean Valjean meets people who are pivotal in setting him on the course of grace. First Monseignor Myriel offers him forgiveness and protection even though the desperate Valjean steals from his church. In doing this he reflects redemptive, magnanimous grace that changes the course of Valjean’s life. In his new life Valjean supports the principles of grace and compassion, but has not fully integrated his attitude into his business practices.  He must face the consequences that his negligence has on Fantine. Continue reading


Jul 11 2012

Linklater’s Comedy Bernie Raises Serious Questions about Grace, Mercy, and Justice

maureen

CAUTION: LOTS OF SPOILERS

In his latest movie, Bernie, Richard Linklater pulls back the “pine curtain” and takes an affectionate look at how the small East Texas town of Carthage responded to a shocking murder in the late nineties. Bernie Tiede, a mild-mannered funeral director/Sunday School teacher/leading citizen, kills Marjorie Nugent, a rich 81-year-old widow known as the “meanest woman in town.” The town is split on the extent of judgment or mercy Bernie deserves.  Continue reading


Apr 7 2012

Blue Like Jazz is honest, funny, unreligous storytelling

maureen

Every life is a story. Blue Like Jazz is the new movie based on Donald Miller’s book, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. It opens in theaters this weekend.

The movie, Blue Like Jazz has taken considerable license to fictionalize the series of essay and reflections that make up the book Blue Like Jazz, in order to create a narrative story based on the book’s basic ideas. In fact, the movie Blue Like Jazz emphasizes the aspects of storytelling using the acronym SCCR which stand for setting, conflict, climax, and resolution, a device that links nicely  to Don Miller’s more recent projects. Blue Like Jazz is an honest, funny journey through conflict towards resolution. Continue reading


Mar 17 2012

An open letter to my young friends about the Invisible Children drama

maureen

What happened with Invisible Children may have left some of you feeling disillusioned. Some of you may feel manipulated and disappointed and maybe a little foolish. I don’t want to see you discard your idealism and enthusiasm at the altar of discernment. Learning to give is as important as learning to think. My prayer for all of us is in I Cor. 13. May we be able  “to bear all things, to believe all things, to hope all things, and to endure all things.”  Continue reading


Feb 21 2012

Downton Abbey: dealing with change and searching for significance

maureen

 

CONTAINS SPOILERS: Downton Abbey appeals to me the way Jane Austin does. It’s thoughtful reflection on the human condition and relationships makes the setting somewhat irrelevant. Nobles and servants alike deal with love, pride, fear, and the longing for significance and belonging. Yet the setting is what creates the tension in the story. Downton Abbey takes place in a time of tremendous social change. The characters are products of the social expectations and traditions associated with British peerage. The modern era is pushing against the way of life they’ve always known. Downton manages to weave social and historical perspective into its storytelling but story and characters are its heart.

Robert Crawley takes his responsibility as a member of the British peerage seriously. He feels an obligation to his servants, to the people in the community, and to the traditions of the nobility to which he was born. He is willing to lose his house to preserve the integrity of that system. His personal desires are second to his sense of honor. The butler Carson represents this same commitment to tradition on the other side of the house. Carson treasures his role and is fiercely loyal to the Crawley family. They both find significance in their roles, as does his mother Violet and housekeeper Mrs. Hughes.

Downton’s heir Matthew has made a place for himself in the modern world as a lawyer. He comes to Downton with prejudices toward the lifestyle of nobility. As he spends time learning about Downton from Robert, Matthew comes to appreciate Robert’s perspective. He is not won over by the philosophy of the peerage but by Robert’s grace and honor. Continue reading


Dec 8 2011

Admonitions to love the misfits from Dan Pearce and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

maureen


Yesterday a couple of people I know reposted the same article on facebook entitled I’m Christian Unless You’re Gay . Despite the title, the author, Dan Pearce, is not issuing an indictment against the prejudices of the Christian Church but rather a call to love others. Even if we disagree with another’s beliefs or lifestyle, even if we don’t like something about another’s cultural or religious practices, Pearce contends that hatred is not an appropriate response and does not reflect the nature of Jesus. In fact he lists admonitions to love from every major religion.

Pearce also lists groups of people who are frequent victims of rejection and disgust: “gay people, people who dress differently, people who act differently, fat people, people with drug additions, people who smoke, people with addictions to alcohol, people with eating disorders, people who fall away from their faiths, people who aren’t members of the dominant local religion, people with non-traditional piercings, people who just look at you or me the wrong way.” Maybe it’s because it’s Christmastime but as I read through Dan’s list I had this vision of the Island of Misfit Toys in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. As a sometime inhabitant of the Island I appreciated Dan’s passion and kindness. Continue reading


Sep 2 2011

Acts of grace in The Help

maureen

Hilly Holbrook is what happens when Mean Girls grow up in the mid-twentieth century South. Hilly is the firmly ensconced queen bee of 1960’s Jackson society. She sets the trends. She pronounces who’s in and who’s out. Hilly uses her influence to hurt those who offend her and advance those who follow her. Hilly seems to honestly believe her own hype. She considers herself superior to others in her social circle which is considered superior to other white people in Jackson, where white people are considered superior to black people. Hilly represents the small-minded, mean-spirited face of Southern pride.

Even Skeeter refuses to confront Hilly. College has broadened Skeeter’s perspective and shifted her allegiances but she knows how it works. Hilly’s pride has to be preserved. Aibileen, Skeeter, and Minny work under the radar to accomplish their agenda. Skeeter and Minny employ some of the same passive-aggressive tactics Hilly uses in order to undermine Hilly. The toilets and pie are funny and Hilly has it coming, but what compelled me about The Help are the powerful acts of grace. Skeeter’s determination to operate outside her comfort zone and help tell truthful stories that might contribute to change is an act of grace. Continue reading