Jan 17 2017

A Monster Calls is a tearful wonder

maureen


Feelings can seem like big, uncontrollable monsters. Especially for chlidren who have less experience and context with which to deal with traumatic events. In A Monster Calls a boy processes his mother’s fight with cancer and the changes that means to his life with the help of a large tree-like monster.

Conor is described as “not quite a boy and not quite a man.” He clings desperately to the hope that his mother will recover. He’s afraid of his distant and perfectionist grandmother. He’s afraid of being disappointed again by his father who has a new family in a new country. He’s afraid of the relentless bullies who make his life at school miserable. He’s afraid that his own conflicted feelings about his mom’s illness make him a bad person. No wonder he needs the strength of a monster to face everything he’s experiencing.

The cinematography creates a dreamlike, dark, and beautiful backdrop for Conor’s agony. There is this fantastic talking Yew tree creature in the middle of Conor’s brutal reality. Movies like this are a hard sell. It’s sad. The main character is younger than the maturity level it takes to really embrace the difficult themes. I compare the monster, and the film itself, to The Iron Giant. It’s visually appealing with a compelling story and a unique perspective that will probably draw a limited audience. Though it’s much more serious, I also see it as a sort of companion to Inside Out in that within it’s fantastical premise is an analysis of raw, authentic human emotion.

For me, the film is full of truth. Life is messy. Every character is flawed and hurt and angry and disappointed and loving all at once. These flawed people love each other and hurt each other at the same time. These are not perfect, selfless kind of heroes, but human and authentic, aching, vulnerable, selfish and miserable.  There is no hero or villain. There is no moment of victory. There is simply acceptance of the reality that is and realization that even in loss, love remains. 


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.


Jul 20 2014

RIP James Garner and thanks for The Notebook

maureen

NotebookR.I.P. James Garner. I loved him as Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford, but he won my heart as Duke in The Notebook. Duke is the epitome of the faithful husband. Garner’s nuanced performance makes profound lines that could have come across as maudlin or trite completely relatable.

The film begins at a nursing home as the elderly Duke reads a story from a notebook to an elderly woman patient. Suffering from Alzheimer’s, Allie doesn’t know Duke is her husband and has no memory of their life together. The love story that Duke reads sometimes seems vaguely familiar to her. As Duke reads the film flashes back to the action in the story.

SPOIILER ALERT: (Do yourself a favor and see The Notebook. Even if you are a guy. Not only the acting really fine, the directing and cinematography is amazing. The repetitive use of water and birds as motifs is masterful. And the romance is far deeper than your average Rom Com. It’s about the stuff that happens after happily ever after that defines real love.) Continue reading


Jan 12 2014

The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis is a journey

maureen

SPOILER ALERT. Inside Llewyn Davis begins and ends with the same scene outside a folk venue in 1960’s Greenwich Village. A flashback then picks up Llewyn who, while leaving his friends’ apartment after a night on their couch, accidentally lets out their orange tabby. Finding he’s locked himself and the cat out of the apartment Llewyn picks up the cat and continues his journey.

The audience is filled in on what’s happened up to this point, the event that has put Llewyn on this particular journey. He’s grieving the loss of his friend and music partner Mike and trying to restart his career as a solo folk artist. He sleeps on couches, has no winter coat, struggles with bitterness and tries to maintain what he considers his artistic integrity.

The Coens do love their mythology. O Brother Where Art Thou was a retelling of the Odyssey. A Serious Man was their take on the Book of Job.  “It’s never new. It never gets old. It’s a folk song,” Every story is a journey. And every journey is different. That’s what the Coens do. They take an archetypical pattern and make it individual to every single character they create. So many of the stories they tell involve some sort of journey, whether physical or internal. While the plot was loose, my take on Inside Lleweyn Davis is that it is yet another journey. 

Llewyn is a former merchant marine, several of the songs in the film refer to journeys, and specifically to the sea. We find out late in the film that the cat’s name is Ulysses (Roman name for Odysseus). At one point in the film Llewyn stands in front of a movie poster of The Incredible Journey, a movie about the long trek of two dogs and cat finding their way home. I read one review that compared Llewyn’s journey to that of Leopold Bloom of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Plausable. 

Llewyn has lost his singing partner Mike to suicide. He discovers he has a child he’s never seen. He has another about to be aborted. He is facing a crossroads in which he must choose to continue his dream of being a folk musician or move back into the more lucrative career of merchant marine. His father is dying. He keeps pushing the wrong buttons in his relationships with family and friends.  Llewyn’s quest takes him around the Village, to his family in Queens, and on a road trip with an aging jazz musician and his beatnik poet driver. Throughout this trek he continually carries and loses the cat.

Apparently the Coens added the cat after they’d written the movie. Whether its meant as a symbol or narrative device, the cat does hold this loose episodic narrative together. The Coens tend to trust their audience enough to leave some things up to interpretation.  Does the cat represent Llewyn’s psyche? Is it his shadow? Is it the herald of change? Does it represent his fleeting music career? Is it there to reveal that the heart beating inside this melancholy, irritable, self-absorbed character is larger than it appears? At some point during the film it seemed all these things. 

Llewyn’s story is like a folk song. A bleak journey of a suffering regretful man. So many of the songs in the movie are about loss. Songs like Fare Thee Well, Five Hundred Miles, and The Last Thing on My Mind are about lost love. Hang me o hang me is also about loss.  In the song, Queen Jane, a woman dies in childbirth. And so the film ends before Llewyn’s journey leads him to any sort of resolution. Llewyn sits beaten in the alley outside the venue listening to the future of folk singing inside. It’s left to each member of the audience to conclude whether he abandons the folk scene for the open sea or continues to plug away at his craft. Either way, I hope he got himself a cat.

 

 


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