Film Review: Florence Foster Jenkins Rev. James M. DiLuzio C.S.P.

The film Florence Jenkins is not a comedy, although it has comedic elements.  It’s the story of a woman filled with romantic ideals and the finances to indulge them.  A passionate philanthropist showering the 1940’s Manhattan classical music scene with gifts and grants, Florence wants to belong, to participate in ways far beyond her means.  Not her monetary means. Her treasuries are overflowing.  No, she longs to belong as a member of the artists’ circle, to be known, to be loved not for her money but as a celebrated operatic soprano.  At last, in her waning years, she hopes to command the attention and praise she never received as a child nor as wife in her first marriage to a philandering yet fortuitously wealthy-now- deceased husband.  Poor, wealthy Ms. Jenkins.  She aspires to become one of the great sopranos in the exacting and starry heights of the opera world without a trace of talent or a wisp of capacity for self-scrutiny.  She is a wealthy version of Mama Rose from the musical fable GYPSY (by the way, was Madame Rose’s talent real or imaginary?)  and, even more so, DON QUIXOTE all rolled into one. And, like, Gypsy Rose Lee’s mom and Cervantes whose presence is everywhere felt throughout his early 17th century novel, Mrs. Foster Jenkins is a real, historical person.  Quite a centerpiece for any movie; quite a role for any actress.  And in this version, the actress is Meryl Streep offering a formidable incarnation of the complex and contradictory nature of dreamers and the tragedy of anyone who loses touch with reality.  Ms. Streep gives an honest, exquisite performance.

 

The relationship to GYPSY notwithstanding, director Stephen Frears has chosen to emphasize the DON QUIXOTE aspects of the story, focusing on its “illusion version reality” dynamic. He gives the film a sense of balance by attending equally to the two men who support Florence Jenkins as he does to the woman herself.   In that, the screenwriter Nicholas Martin brought his heroine to light in the same way Cervantes conveyed insights into his “knight of the woeful countenance” through the characters that interact with him.  In FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, one of these persons is purposefully overindulgent, the other reluctant but ultimately resigned.  And, as in Don Quixote, others in the fine supporting cast are simply cruel.

 

Hugh Grant plays Mrs. Jenkins boyfriends and platonic lover St. Clair Bayfield as the willing Sancho Panza with heartbreaking panache and Simon Helberg embodies the pianist / accompanist Cosmé McMoon with a kooky but nuanced performance that truly engages us as he transcends his disgust over Mrs. Jenkins performances and learns to love the woman despite her desperate games of make-believe.  Streep, Grant and Helberg are all excellent.  The sum total of the performances, period design and costumes (wonderful Production Design by Alan MacDonald and Costumes by Consolata Boyle), and overall direction makes this film well worthwhile even though, to be honest, the plot sags in energy from time to time.

 

In essence, the movie FLORENE FOSTER JENKINS is a love story with edge.  It poses a question that certainly will benefit all who are willing to address it: What is the best relationship between Truth, Beauty and Love?  There is, of course, no one-size-fits all balanced response to such a query, but this movie brings to mind Saint Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians: “So, faith, hope and love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

 

 

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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.    

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.

Fun and Insight with Disney/Pixar’s INSIDE OUT – a movie review and spiritual reflection

the-first-look-of-pixar-s-new-film-inside-out-left-to-right-fear-sadness-joy-anger-disgust

Disney/Pixar’s INSIDE OUT is a joyous ride through Psychology 101 fitting for children of all ages.  Well, I’ll qualify that: 8 or older.  I think it is a little too complex for the Pre-School and Kindergarten set, although it is colorful to an eye-popping degree  The heart of the story concerns an 11 year old girl adjusting from a family move from Minnesota to San Francisco.   Encouraged to be the family’s “happy girl,” as an anchor for her parents’ anxieties, Riley has nowhere to go with her feelings of loss of place, friendships, school and those deeper ones evoked as she tries to renegotiate her relationship with her parents and her new surroundings.

Enter the film’s central conceit: Riley’s” Interior Self” is personified by characters representing primal feelings: Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger and Fear.  Empowered by Riley’s parents and our cultural compulsions to be “Happy, Happy, Happy,” the effervescent Joy works overtime in limiting the impact of the others–all to Riley and her families’ detriment.  Sadness in particular demonstrates through heightened dramatic conflict a truth that Joy tries desperately never to acknowledge:  all feelings need to be acknowledged.  Meanwhile, audiences can enjoy the affirmation of our interior feelings being exposed along with all their associated thoughts and impulses in such a playful, conflicted arena as the human heart and brain.  I give INSIDE OUT an A + for originality, cleverness and success in accomplishing its noble goals.  Indeed, INSIDE OUT is a wonderful movie that will surely evoke laughter and tears most readily in most viewers.

As for the spiritual dimensions of the film, I invite you to consider the many ways psychology and spirituality intersect.  The tremendous benefits of psychology and the advances in the behavioral sciences notwithstanding, there are deep spiritual roots in the value of tears.  After all, the phrase “It’s alright to cry” didn’t have its origin in the 1960’s.   Jesus conveyed this 2,000 years ago in his admonition “Blessed are those who mourn.”  For those who take the scriptures beyond their face value (I hope we all do), it is clear Jesus is highlighting here far more than basic grieving of the death of our loved ones, important though that is.  Building on his Jewish heritage as recorded in the PSALMS, Jesus acknowledges the benefits of lament, complaint and frustration over all kinds of “deaths” – failures, tragedies, disappointments.  His statement makes evident that tears, in fact, are prayers.  Tears also are indications of healthy bodies and healthy relationships—two essential LIFE criteria!

To cry with and for others reflects the reality that we all belong to one race, one humanity.  When we cry with others, we may find gratitude in the fact that we have cultivated relationships of trust and that there are those with whom we can express ourselves freely. When trust brings forth a wellspring of tears, we have a little bit of heaven on earth, a deeper experience of God’s compassion for the human condition through one another.

When we cry alone we are in fact reverencing our bodies and the way God made us; tears shed in solitude invite us to embrace the outright loneliness that is a universal aspect of the human condition.  In the great paradox of being, even experiencing loneliness unites us to everyone on the planet.  To quote an ancient Native American proverb: “Each soul must meet the morning sun, the new sweet earth and the great silence alone.”  Ironically, accepting our aloneness can bring us to a place where we are more humble and more compassionate in the company of others.  Loneliness is not alienation unless we make it so.  Being alone offers opportunity to encounter God Himself/Herself.

However and wherever we find release of our emotions through tears, we increase our ultimate capacity for JOY.  As we and/ or others acknowledge our hurts, fears, angers and all of their composite sadness without judging or dismissing them, Joy is in the offing.   “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of JOY.”  (Psalm 126: 5)  You will experience both watching INSIDE OUT.

To explore the film’s psychological dynamics further, read this excellent article in the NYTIMES SUNDAY REVIEW, July 3, 2015:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/05/opinion/sunday/the-science-of-inside-out.html?rref=opinion&module=Ribbon&version=origin&region=Header&action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&pgtype=article

Disney’s CINDERELLA

Let’s cut-to-the-quick: With its beautiful Art and Set Direction, outstanding Costumes, lush Special Effects (a perfect pumpkin-turned-coach sequence), and a gorgeous waltz-laden score (composer Patrick Doyle a most excellent choice!), the film deserved a superior script. Having chosen “Courage and Kindness” as the film’s central theme, (the values Cinderella embraces from childhood) seasoned screenwriters Chris Weitz and Aline Brosh McKenna could have been far more clever and less heavy-handed in their set-up.* The result: the first third of Disney’s CINDERELLA is ponderous and overly simplistic up to and including the Stepmother and her daughters’ arrival. The early scenes with the child Ella (to become Cinderella) and her parents are superficial. Her mother’s story would have been better served in the form of memory (or even flashback) instead of the short moments provided here to portray her dying words to her daughter. Moreover, the writer’s attempt to convey Cinderella’s apprehension regarding her father’s remarriage lacks sufficient motivation until we actually meet them. With no nuance, no subterfuge –even in the presence of Cinderella’s father!–the characters as written provide no sense whatsoever as to why Cinderella’s father would have chosen them or tolerate their behavior! Worst of all, the script handicaps Cate Blanchett’s captivating performance as the calculating Stepmother with far more caricature than depth. Her two poignant motivational scenes arrive a bit too late and they feel more like inserts than part of an organic whole. Anticipating those scenes, I would have welcomed a little more guile and giddy manipulation from the Wicked Stepmother earlier on. Instead of the abrupt way she banishes Cinderella to the attic, for example, I could easily have accepted Stepmother sending Cinderella on an errand to allow the stepsisters moved into Cinderella’s room! And, alas, in regard to style and pacing, I expected more from Director Kenneth Branagh whose HENRY V and HAMLET remain among the most outstanding modern Shakespeare films. He does a fine job, however, in the scenes between Cinderella and her Prince. Indeed, Branagh makes “Love at First Sight” believable. Overall, once Cinderella’s father is out of the picture, the pace quickens, the performers take flight and the magic begins.

Kudos to all the actors! Lily James is an enchanting Cinderella. We need and want her in every scene. As noted, Cate Blanchett is a wonderfully menacing and wounded Stepmother and I liked Holliday Granger’s and Sophie McShera’s buffoonery as the selfish step-sisters. As the Prince, Richard Madden is fittingly charming and understated. Helena Bonham Carter makes for a most bewitching and fun-filled fairy godmother in both her old lady and youthful guises. Oh, what fun had her role been expanded! Still, what we have in CINDERELLA is, in the end, enough to be good. Once our impatience to “get to the magic” is addressed, a grand time at the ball awaits.

*FYI: Weitz’s best films are IN GOOD COMPANY and A SINGLE MAN; McKenna is best known for THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA.

Movie Reviews with Spiritual Concepts # 1: THE SKELETON TWINS

Movie Reviews with Spiritual Concepts Volume 1

September 13, 2014:  THE SKELETON TWINS

Franciscan priest and popular spiritual guide Richard Rohr often uses a phrase “Unless we transcend our pain, we will continue to transmit it.”  To “transcend our pain” is to allow God’s unconditional love to compensate for the conditional love we experience from ourselves and others.  If we don’t, the “transmission of pain” can be apportioned to others and to ourselves equally.  The masochistic dimensions of this truth are displayed in all of their grandeur in SKELETON TWINS, the story of adult fraternal twins Milo and Maggie perpetuating childhood fears and unhealthy choices instilled in them through seriously warped parenting and other forms of abuse.  Existential pain runs amuck in this film which begins with each twin’s respective suicide attempt and continues with the shadow of despair evident in the characters’ behaviors and in the dark gray lighting in much of the film.  Yet, this sad story offers sustained appeal and intrigue through the excellent artistry and chemistry shared by the two leads Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as Milo and Maggie whose acting skills are comparable to their comedic talents evident in their years goofing it up on Saturday Night Live.  Furthermore, the script itself provides periodic and most welcomed comic relief without which we would sink into something akin to Ingmar Bergman induced despair.

There is truth in the concept that as adults we continue to work out our childhood traumas, doomed to recreate the patterns of the past until we address them head-on.  Indeed, childhood responses to life, love and their challenges continue in perpetuity until the day we decide to re-orient ourselves to the realities of the present and realize that before us is a panorama of alternate ways to interpret our life situations and the choices available to us.  And although life’s situations will often continue to evoke those same old childhood feelings, we liberate ourselves with the knowledge that with the help of God and others, we can work through them. THE SKELETON TWINS explores how the deep bonds of sibling love (in this case fraternal twins) offers the possibility for psycho-spiritual health, but this brother and sister suspend pursuit of these possibilities long into their adulthood and throughout the course of the film.

The film’s director, Craig Johnson, evidences his artistry by cultivating sympathy for Milo and Maggie with moments of recognition that affirm the ways childhood hurts and longings echo through our adulthoods.  As Milo and Maggie respectively search for pain relief, viewers can identify readily with this ongoing challenge.  True to today’s sensibilities, the wounded characters seek sexual fulfillment but not without attempts for genuine connection with others on deeper levels.  For her part, Maggie’s marriage is a study in opposing dynamics, the cohabitation of cynicism and hope, the latter incarnated at times to comical extremes by her husband, Lance, played convincingly by Luke Wilson.  The contrast culminates in heartbreaking scenes up to and including the film’s climax.  What makes love fulfilling or so sadly unfulfilling for this couple?  Is it their respective pasts (although Lance’s is never explored) or their basic frailties?  Or is it their lack of virtue or genuine inability to cultivate virtue in one another? Milo’s quest is even more pain-wracked.  He longs to regain a lost love that from the onset was fraught with dishonesty and manipulation. While the script makes us fully aware of the pain that motivates his search it could have served us better by exploring the multi-facet dimensions of such an unhealthy bond.

THE SKELETON TWIN is an artful film, consistent in its plot, character development and imagery.  The autumn setting coupled with the anticipation and experience of Halloween support the overriding affect of the twins’ macabre childhood and their respective adult dances-with-death.  “Faith” is never one of the character’s conscious pursuits, nor is it ever named as one of their options, but the ark of the film still resonates with echoes of Saint Augustine’s oft-quoted statement ““Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee”

Are Milo and Maggie capable of naming their truths without continually fleeing in fear or wallowing in life’s absurdities?  Will they find peace (if not a conscious contact with God) through one another?  Although it does in part, the film won’t answer these questions for you fully or even, for many, in a satisfactory way.  Still, if you enjoy watching and/or are intrigued by characters searching for meaning and meaningful relationship in a story more serious than comic, more dark than light, with excellent acting, this film is for you.

Other reviews of THE SKELETON TWINS:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/12/movies/kristen-wiig-and-bill-hader-star-in-the-skeleton-twins.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar%2C%7B%221%22%3A%22RI%3A8%22%7D

http://variety.com/2014/film/reviews/sundance-film-review-the-skeleton-twins-1201064119/

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_skeleton_twins/

http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20483133_20843565,00.html

Articles about THE SKELETON TWINS:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/07/movies/fall-arts-preview-kristen-wiig-and-bill-hader-star-in-the-skeleton-twins.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar%2C%7B%221%22%3A%22RI%3A8%22%7D&_r=0

Still More on BEGIN AGAIN

One more observation: the music sessions in BEGIN AGAIN show Anglo and African Americans working in harmony. Is MUSIC and pursuit of livelihood in the music industry the only place where different ethnic groups engage as equals? One of the many tragedies of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, MO, is that there are no Anglos in the funeral photos. Even our churches more or less exclusively consist of one group or the other. A sad state in our country and in the Christian Churches, too. What can be done?