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 Lee is a withdrawn janitor with painful past while his nephew Patrick is a self-centered teen hockey player with two girlfriends and a terrible rock band.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.

 

 

 


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


Jul 25 2013

Pacific Rim was conflict on an intimately enormous scale

maureen

Pacific Rim is another of the many apocalyptic movies out this summer. I was intrigued by the science in this movie, but mostly I enjoyed the action and the wholesale destruction that makes this a summer blockbuster. Because Guillermo Del Toro directed the visual style is artistically interesting. Since Pacific Rim is a summer blockbuster and not Pan’s Labyrinth his themes aren’t too ponderous but I found a few to ponder nonetheless.

Much of the action takes place in Asia with obvious tributes to Japanese monster movies, especially Godzilla. The name, Kaiju is a reference to the stable of monsters from Japanese film. Del Toro says that Goya’s painting The Colossus and George Bellows‘ boxing paintings were also inspirations for the look of the film. There is an intimacy in boxing and wrestling that is not present in other types of combat. Their weapons are their own bodies. For me, this idea of internal, intimate engagement was the most intriguing theme. Continue reading


May 11 2013

State of Play: Who can you trust?

maureen


May 7

In State of Play a reporter, Cal McCaffrey, is investigating a possible suicide by the aide of Congressman Stephen Collins, who had been his college roommate. Collins approaches him for help after it becomes public that the married Collins had been in a relationship with his aide. To further complicate matters, McCaffrey had an affair with Mrs. Collins and the three had been friends in college. Pretty much everyone’s relationship status could be marked “complicated”, except cub reporter Della Frye played by Rachel McAdams. Continue reading


May 3 2013

Criterion: Rashomon and the moral ambiguity of humanity

maureen

May 3

Rashomon, a 1950 Japanese film by director Akira Kurosawa, is a favorite of directors and a film school staple. A samurai and his wife are attacked on the road by a bandit who rapes the wife and allegedly kills the husband. There are four witnesses to the murder, the three people involved and a woodcutter who witnessed it in secret. They each give differing accounts. Everybody lies, even the spirit of the deceased samurai and the supposedly disinterested woodcutter.

The story takes place several centuries ago and is told as the woodcutter, a priest, and a ragged stranger take refuge from the rain at the dilapidated city gatehouse called Rashomon. The priest and woodcutter had testified at the trial of the bandit. The priest had found the wife hiding in his temple and woodcutter had testified to finding the body, not to witnessing the crime.  The action switches between the telling of the story at the gate, the forest where the attack took place, and the open air court. If the conflicting stories of the wife and bandit weren’t interesting enough, through a medium, the samurai also testifies. The woodcutter insists that a spirit can lie because he, too had witnessed the murder and knew what happened. His testimony is suspect in the eyes of the stranger because he suspects that the woodcutter stole an expensive dagger, the missing murder weapon in the wife’s story, from the scene of the crime.  Continue reading


Nov 3 2012

Looper takes the journey through past, present, and future full circle

maureen

SPOILERS Looper is more than a stylish, time-travel thriller. It explores how the past affects the present and the present affects the future. Joe’s well-financed self-centered existence involves fast vehicles, drugs, impersonal sex, and the occasional murder of an anonymous bad guy from the future. In the movie mobsters 30 years in the future send their targets back to 2044, where those targets are killed by paid assassins called loopers. Joe eventually must decide whether or not to “close the loop” and kill his future self, who is sent back. Even before this confrontation Joe’s in-the-moment lifestyle is wearing thin and he is beginning to recognize the devastating effect his choices are having on his spirit.

Joe’s journey takes him out of the city where he meets farmer, Sara, and her troubled son Cid. Joe recognizes his desire for a real relationship, for family, for something deeper than a superficial life full of compromise and violence. Sara’s love for Cid arouses memories of Joe’s own mother and forces him to confront the choices and circumstances that led to his becoming a looper. Joe is faced with decisions about how much his past should inform his present, and the impact that his present decisions are having on his future. Looper also raises the question as to whether knowing the future makes any difference in present decision-making. Is present happiness worth sacrificing the future? Someone else’s future? Is future happiness worth compromising the present? Continue reading


Jul 24 2012

My The Dark Knight Rises Review

maureen

SPOILER ALERT

The Dark Knight Rises was a credible end to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. On the whole it was a great movie and I liked it a lot. Certain elements were incredibly well done and really satisfying. Even the storytelling choices that I didn’t like made sense. I can’t say they were bad choices, just that I wanted something else.

What I liked best:

1. Catwoman. She is a character who speaks to the present rather than operating entirely off her back story. This makes her decisions much fresher. She is a beautiful picture of the battle between the new man and the old man. She seeks transformation on her own terms but struggles with the actual journey. Catwoman’s transformation and story arc are perfectly played. 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


Jun 26 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter seriously serious?

maureen

SPOILER ALERT

Not since Snakes on a Plane has the title of a movie made we want to see it as much as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I got what I expected. I’m not saying I wasn’t entertained. I was. The historical details like Lincoln’s mother dying or his job as a shopkeeper lend enough historical accuracy that it actually makes it harder to suspend disbelief. Suspension of disbelief has no power over this movie. It takes a silver bullet through the brain of reason. Once that’s done, it’s a decent ride.

The vampires are the dark, devouring, bloodsucking villains they are supposed to be. No romance here, just scary bad guys who have the advantage of thousands of years experience in fighting and manipulation. Abe Lincoln is believable in appearance and personality. He reacts in much the way one would expect Abe Lincoln to react if he were confronted with vampires. Abe’s sidekicks are decent.The stage was set for an awesome girl fight but Mary Lincoln was as bland as a hospital diet. That was disappointing. Continue reading


May 5 2012

Being a game-changer in the Hunger Games, the Roman Empire, and maybe planet earth

maureen

Warning – spoilers. The Hunger Games invites comparisons to other totalitarian dystopian movies like Gattica or V for Vendetta, with some Truman Show and Rollerball thrown in. But Sparticus and Gladiator, both set in that real-life dystopia we remember as The Roman Empire, seem like more appropriate comparisons. Characters from the Capitol sport names from the ancient world like Senica and Caesar. The name “Panem” comes from the Roman phrase “bread and circuses”, used by leaders of the empire to describe their strategy for keeping the Roman public happy.

The citizens of the urban seat of government called The Capitol are sheeple who simply accept the games as entertainment and never consider what it would be like to be vulnerable to the lottery. These people have all they need. They cooperate to maintain their well-fed, comfortable, fashionable lifestyles. The government feeds them information and attitudes via media.

The totalitarian government exerts control over the Districts by establishing a cultural/political tradition that calls for each District to offer up two teen “tributes” chosen by lottery to participate in what amounts to a reality-tv-gone-worse death match. The producers of the televised event and the government are one in the same. The government uses the lottery to illicit fear and continue to exact revenge for a nearly 80-year-old attempt at rebellion by the districts. The government also controls the flow of information and resources to the districts. Hunger, poverty, and lack of independence create a sense of helplessness and despair that fuels cooperation. 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


Oct 25 2011

Moneyball, belonging, and the measure of worth

maureen

Based on the true story of the Oakland A’s 2002 season, Moneyball looks at how baseball accords worth to its players. Faced with the loss of star players and Oakland’s very tight budget, general manager Billy Beane uses a statistical approach called sabermetrics to recruit undervalued players. Sabermetrics was developed by statistician Bill James who challenged the use of  individual players’ stats such as RBI’s as predictors of team success. Beane hires economics major Peter Brand to analyze statistics using James’ formulas so that he can make data-driven decisions about players. Brand says “Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players, your goal should be to buy wins. In order to buy wins, you need to buy runs.” Based on Brand’s recommendations Beane recruits players who have the potential to get on base.  

Oakland’s managers and scouts  feel threatened by the change, and doubt  the validity of Beane’s method. Not only do the traditionalists dislike having their assumptions challenged, they fear that reliance on pure analysis undermines the heart of baseball. For them the romance comes from remarkable plays and individual prowess that make legendary baseball heroes. Billy Beane understands. At one time in his life he was just such a hero. He says “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” Continue reading