Film Reviews: SPOTLIGHT and THE BIG SHORT

Film Reviews:  SPOTLIGHT and THE BIG SHORT

by Fr. James DiLuzio

It’s a no-brainer to review these two films together.  Each in its own way is a variation on the classic Hans Christian Anderson tale THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES.  Both waltz around an “elephant in the room:” something rotten is taking place and decisions have to be made.  Both films expose those who pretend it is “business-as-usual,” revealing the horror of the sound of silence and both reveal what happens when moral codes are abandoned to the detriment of millions directly and indirectly: disillusionment wreaks havoc with the heartland.

In the case of SPOTLIGHT, Boston Globe reporters (uniformly portrayed with excellence by a fine roster of actors, especially Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams) play the child crying out: “the emperor is wearing no clothes!” Here, we see the drama of investigative reporting as it prepares to expose the horrendous deceit of the Catholic Church hierarchy protecting pedophile / ephebe-ophile priests. They do so with a strong moral righteousness on behalf of the children and teenagers who were abused and those who could or would be.  The irony in a very brief scene as Mark Ruffalo’s reporter sees children singing SILENT NIGHT in a church’s Christmas pageant is heartbreaking. Moreover, SPOTLIGHT reflects the important role journalists play in free societies exposing abuses of power in institutions from Church to State. In that, I think it is superior to the other fine journalist-centered film ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976 directed by Alan J. Pakula).

Director Tom McCarthy keeps the pacing at an exciting pulse and he and his co-screenwriter Josh Singer keep the dialogue clear and illuminating.  Furthermore, the tone and style of the movie is not one of grand standing but of insight, sobriety and even humility as it exposes the failures of people in power. Not only is the Church guilty (beyond the hierarchy so were so many parents and clueless parishioners) but Boston’s civic leaders, lawyers and even the reporters’ own paper, the Boston Globe.  There are many meanings to Jesus’ statement “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32) and here is an excellent example of the power of truth when it is, at last, set free, however horribly delayed.  I suggest Bishops involved in the cover- up see this movie annually as part of their Lenten Penance.  But not only our bishops, but all clergy and leaders in every field of church, state, education, medicine –wherever fears of liabilities and the temptation to protect reputations could prevail at the expense of victims and the public good.  Admitting wrongs may be considered shame in social circles but in truth, and in true religion, it is deliverance toward the greater good insuring the cessation of evil and preventing future harm.  SPOTLIGHT makes it very clear how admitting one or two scandals early on (and implementing clear preventative guidelines now in place but only after the Boston Globe’s exposé) would have spared hundreds of victims and put the bishops on the humble path all people of faith should walk.

 

THE BIG SHORT takes a different point of view exposing (and explaining) the debacle of Wall Street and USA Banks.  The protagonists here also see the truth of what is going on but unlike the whistle-blowers of SPOTLIGHT, they prefer to keep the story to themselves in order to benefit by it.  What seems like a gamble to most is a matter of certainty to them: the financial real estate bubble is ready to pop.  Our heroes (irony intended) position themselves to become millionaires / billionaires by investing in what is a kind of insurance policy: when the mortgages and real estate investments fail, they’ll collect big time!  And there isn’t one character concerned for “the greater good.”  Should any one expose the oncoming avalanche none of our brilliant geek insiders would benefit.  A shred of moral thinking enters into the investors mindset:  some believe they are teaching Wall Street a lesson by using its greed against them, but this amounts to nothing more than a self-serving rationalization.  Many will suffer; a few will strike it rich.

THE BIG SHORT makes for good drama revealing subterfuge at its most manic but because it explores the complexities of the financial world, it also is a contemplative film. Director Adam McKay and his co-screenwriter Charles Randolph inspired fine-tuned performances from another great ensemble cast (Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling were stand-outs for me) and offer seasoned insights into human nature, particularly the fallibilities of materialism and greed.  Ironies abound in this film, too. For one thing, all the focus and concentration required to attend to the script only makes it clear how so much of Wall Street’s shenanigans went undisclosed.  With sadness and cynicism, the film conveys how industry insiders” bypassed moral deliverance and opted for greed.  The rest of us were unaware and/ or didn’t care. And how was it that the government and the media turned a blind eye?  Answers to that question may inspire some scrutiny regarding presidential and congressional candidates this November.

 

Movie Review: BROOKLYN

Movie Review:  BROOKLYN

An Age of Innocence Tested

It’s the 1950’s and a young Irish Lass, Eilis, played with luminosity by Saoirse Ronan leaves her mother and sister in Ireland to pursue life in the Irish section of Brooklyn.  Fighting back homesickness and fear of the unknown, Eilis navigates seasickness, Mrs. Keogh’s women’s boarding house with assorted residents (Julie Walters in top form as Mrs. Keogh) and a salesgirls job arranged by a benevolent Irish Catholic priest (a jolly and deeply humane Jim Broadbent) and overseen by a caring and classy Jessica Paré (of Mad Men fame).

Enter Tony, an Italian American plumber from the neighboring Italian quarter whose sweet and tender disposition and attentiveness to Eilis is remarkably portrayed by Emory Cohen.  The chemistry between these two is utterly captivating.  Watching so honest, so genuine an interplay between the two almost-soon-to-be-maybe lovers is heartbreakingly beautiful.  Anyone with any dating history is bound to recollect the joys and vulnerabilities of his or her own early romance.  If you have experienced them, you may find yourself shedding a tear of gratitude for those blessed early encounters.  If not, you might sigh deeply over what might have been. Romanticized as they are, these two young people are not perfect, but I’ll let you enjoy witnessing their imperfections for yourselves.  That’s part of the fun.

The film’s third act teeters nervously on a potential fall from grace both before and during Eilis returns to Ireland.  Once back in her homeland, she finds herself torn between Tony (who represents, among other things, the life she’s begun in Brooklyn) and the familiarity of her home turf.   Family and friends attend to her homecoming with considerable fanfare and Eilis finds herself a sudden celebrity on account of her new, confident persona and Americanized sensibilities.  See how beautifully Ms. Ronan conveys her enjoyment of her new-found acceptance from people who hadn’t paid much attention to her before.  Enjoy and empathize as you watch Eilis basking in the esteem of others, toying with the advances of a never-would-have-been—otherwise potential flame (Domhnall Gleeson, absolutely right!) as she negotiates allures and temptations she may never have imagined.  Ms. Ronan’s performance takes your breath away.

But, in truth,  all the actors offer outstanding performances.  There is not a fake or phony word or expression to be found. You’ll also enjoy Eilis’s relationships with her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott also perfect!) and their mother (Jane Brennan, excellent) that not only justify Eilis’s homesickness but add layers of meaning about family and the importance of intimate relationships in every aspect of life.  To all this, I must add that John Crowley’s direction is, well, impeccable and cinematographer Yves Bélanger creates just the right atmosphere in both Brooklyn and Irish locales.  I urge you all to take a trip to Brooklyn.    

Homily for Ash Wednesday 2016 (Really a “Sermon”)

ASH WEDNESDAY 2016

Fr. James DiLuzio C.S.P.

Is there anyone, who can tell us what Ash Wednesday is all about?

Well, it’s about Death.  Nothing brings us down to earth as does the reality of death. It is one of the most essential common human denominators.  Rich or poor, good or evil, death is in store for everyone.  It puts every one’s life in perspective.  Think about our anxieties over our bank accounts and levels of success. Death levels the playing field.

Jesus invites us to be liberated by death. Coming down to earth, he shared in our common humanity and taught us that in life and death we must ground ourselves in our common dependence on God.  Through his passion and death, he delivered us from all of life’s illusions.  He keeps us mindful that trusting in God is the only way to die and therefore the only way to live.   For all of life is embossed in the pattern of Jesus: dying and rising, dying and rising: from evolution to the change of seasons and the stages of human life—we have to trust in this eternal pattern which, in turn, will strengthen our trust Christ is with us through it all.  Rooted in Christ, our Catholic faith insists that death is but a new birth to an ever expanding eternity in a communion of saints whose perfection continues to perfect itself in compassion for and solidarity with the lives in heaven and on earth.  Ash Wednesday invites us to live the same way.*

Ash Wednesday is also about sin; another form of death.  GRACE is at work in our willingness to acknowledge our sins.   This is part of the truth that sets us free.  To acknowledge our sin is to die to sin.  Confessing sin admits that we live in debt to God in whom we live and move and have our being and whose mercy and forgiveness alone continually restore us to life. In turn, this glorious Season of Lent reminds us that if we truly believe in God’s mercy and forgiveness, we are obliged to cultivate these same virtues toward others as much as toward ourselves.  Mercy offers hope and blesses those who give and those who take.  Just like Communion.

Today we willingly let ashes be smeared in the sign of the cross on our foreheads, as part of our effort to let this truth sink into our consciousness: Death is humbling, therefore death is good. Dedicating our days to prayer, alms giving and lives of restraint will keep us on guard against sin and fear, and deepen our trust in to live more fully now and life in the world to come. Amen.

And that’s what Ash Wednesday is all about, Charlie Brown.

*See how Christianity is in sync with Judaism by reading this passage from Isaiah 58: 6-7

“This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; . . . Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not tuning your own back on your own.”

And here is something similar in the Koran 4:17 : “As for those that have faith and do good works, We shall admit them to gardens watered by running streams, where, wedded to chaste spouses, they shall abide for ever. To a cool shade We shall admit them.”

Movie Review: THE REVENANT

Movie Review: THE REVENANT

Fr. James DiLuzio C.S.P.

The vagaries of nature often wreak havoc in the minds of believers as they try to reconcile the hardships and challenges nature inflicts on the human condition with our insistence on a loving, merciful God. The best possible explanation comes from centuries of theological discernment and debate, but it is a simple one: God honors God’s creation on its own terms: Nature will be as Nature needs to be, i.e., based on the aptitudes and limits of its essence and design. Most every believer acknowledges these days that “Nature” is not God’s moral agent of reward and punishment because ancient biblical understanding was framed in a more primitive mindset.  Nature simply is what it is for God allows the material world to exist within its own laws and limitations.  Occasional interventions notwithstanding.

The same applies to human nature, particularly regarding man’s inhumanity to man.* The suffering we inflict upon one another through God’s gift of free will certainly vindicates God from any blame.  God’s grace may empower and expand the good we chose but the evil we display grounds itself in our freedom to act against conscience and inherent moral codes of the human psyche.  A psyche illumined and informed by the collective (and, for believers, God-inspired) wisdom on display in the Ten Commandments, Jesus’ Beatitudes, teachings of Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed and many, many more.

Spiritual reflection is inherent in THE REVENANT.  God is an ever present but silent force in this narrative because of the way director Alejandro G. Iῆarritu’s tells his story.  The film, the script and the scenery all evoke questions about faith, morality, nature and humanity.   The movie is more than just about one person’s survival (or inability to survive—no spoilers here) in part because characters invoke Christianity and in some cases a false understanding of Christianity in key scenes.  There’s an implicit sense throughout the film that not only is the protagonist’s life at stake, but so, too, his soul.  All the characters hang in the balance between good and evil, with many if not all tipping the scale to the dark side as we, the audience, look on and ponder survival of the fittest and so much more.

 

THE REVENANT is a fascinating cinematic exploration of one man’s attempt to survive the cruel, dark impulses of the human heart and will in the context of all of nature’s menace.  Is it revenge that animates him or something else entirely? The man in the question is Hugh Glass, an historical American figure of the 1820’s western expansion and fur trade, played by Leonardo DiCaprio employing all the tools of the great method acting tradition with aplomb. In a captivating performance, Leonardo reveals the inner struggles of a man confronting fears and prejudices, hate and greed on grand display among the warring French and American fur traders and native American tribes for whom betrayal, scapegoating and murder are often excuses for living.  Furthermore, Hugh has many inner demons of his own, while, at the same time his courage, intelligence and his love and devotion toward his son Hawk and the memory of his martyred wife gain our respect and admiration. In many silent stretches of struggle, victory and defeat, DiCaprio keeps us in suspense and awe.  He deserves his Oscar nomination.

And amidst all the human conflict, the magnificent vistas of Wyoming’s majestic mountains, trees, sparkling rivers and roaring waterfalls alternately cast their spell of beauty, grandeur and indifference just as God seems to do at times.  THE REVENANT (the word means “ghost” or “one that returns after death or a long absence”) is an adventure story turned into theological reflection.  I dare anyone who sees it not to be steeped in deep thought about life, nature and survival—and the choices between fully living and mere existence.  At times the visuals are raw, the tearing of human flesh, the gutting of entrails human and animal—the result of arrow and gunfire, fire and stone.  And much has been written about Hugh’s battle with a mother bear ferociously defending her cubs after his unwitting encroachment.  (Extraordinary computer generated images.) But the whole offers a profundity much greater then these individual parts. The film is slowly paced, contemplative and for that, it stands alone among most modern cinema with the exception of the works of Terence Malik whose visuals also convey spiritual dynamics and questions of God and Nature (TREE OF LIFE).  The crucible of Hugh Glass we see on the screen also serves as a test to viewers’ ability to pay attention to detail, to focus one moment at a time, to surrender the impatience that can occur when accustomed to so many fast paced action adventures.  Good for the soul.

THE REVENANT features stunning cinematography, seamless editing and evidences first-class direction.  Great acting, too, not in any way limited to DiCaprio alone. Antagonist Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald is a perfect foil for Glass and there are compelling performances by Domnhall Gleeson as Captain Andrew Henry (government agent in charge of the trader’s security), Forrest Goodluck as Glass’ son and Arthur RedCloud as a benevolent Native American.  The latter three provide some welcomed moments of compassion and attempts toward a greater good.  The film’s conclusion offers possibilities of transcendence but remains ambiguous. A perfect opportunity to engage in conversation and debate with others about the worlds without and within.

 

*Fellow feminists be warned: there is only one woman in this film and she is featured briefly in flashbacks and in visions. Appropriately she reinforces a multi-layered theme–a “revenant” inspiring the “revenant” aspects of the title character.