Philomena (2013)

his review was originally published in January 2014. Images are from the film and are not my own.

Last week a friend and I watched Philomena, a BBC film about an elderly Irish lady who has kept hidden for 50 years the secret of her pregnancy as a teen. A group of nuns bring her into their abbey to deliver the baby, but in penences for her sin and their medical assistance she is required to work for several years to pay them back and her baby boy is adopted by an American. Fifty years later, Philomonia opens up to her family about her past and her story is told to Martin, a once prestigious journalist who had a falling out with BBC and is now struggling with where to go next in his career. He rather reluctantly picks up the story and accompanies Philomenia on the search of her son.

This is essentially a "human interest story" but it is a brave one, diving into incredibly sensitive subjects, yet uplifted and sustained by the character and humour of its main actors. Judi Dench plays an ordinary person with a dark story of sadness running through her memories like a black cord. It's a testament to the grace given her that the evils she suffered don't inbitter her. Instead she is lovable, kind, and generous in her estimation of others.


The storytelling is not perfect, at times rushing moments that could have been quite moving had they more room to breath. Although the transition into the backstory was a rather creative shot, the rest of the backstory could have been more creatively integrated. Several aspects of the story felt a touch contrived or simplistic, until you realize that it is based on a true story. I wondered out loud if this project had two screenwriters and I was correct.

My response to the story was also complicated by my relationship with the Catholic Church. As an evangelical it was easy to categorize the evils and attitudes we see in the nuns as a Catholic problem. And I couldn't help but notice the lack of repentance or guilt Philomenia had over the orginal affair. It's as if the character herself adopted the stance of the filmmakers.


But to focus on those issues is to miss the point. This is an engaging story driven by powerful characters and their interactions. Especially notable is how this movie contains so many honest conversations betwen the sceptic and the believer. Martin is an atheist and Philominea has kept her Catholic belief. She continues to keep this faith dispite the fact that as the story progress it is her faith, not his, that ought to be tested. Instead of becoming more bitter towards the wrongs that were commited against her she grows in grace, both towards her persecutors and in how she answers her sceptical friend, a true testament of the grace of her redeemer.


And it is ultimately this grace, this forgiveness offered her, that she can extend to her tormentors. And so the simple Irish granny, fond of croutons and tootsie roles, can offer something that the Oxbridge-trained man of this world can not - forgiveness. This forgiveness does not from her, but from Christ,  who's image she places on the tomb of her son.

Yes, this film is not perfect. Yet even the stories we tell, something as inconsequential as the cheap romance stories that Philomena reads, have wisdom. And, like this story, they can reflect the truth and beauty of the Story-weever himself onto the plain face of his bride. "And I never saw that coming!"

Her (2013)

This review was originally published in January 2014. The images are from the film and are not my own.

This isn’t so much a review as it is an attempt to describe my personal reflections upon seeing Spike Jonze’s excellent new film Her. In case anyone wonders after reading reading my thoughts, I do recommend seeing this complex and beautiful analysis of a modern human condition and I plan on returning to it again. 

Arcade Fire’s latest album Reflektor has been playing almost non-stop. I’m a little late getting into it (the album came out just before Christmas music season) but  the timing is perfect, since Arcade Fire also scored Spike Jonze Her. And it turns out that the themes that the album and the film explore are similar, as other reviewers have pointed out. Both wrestle with a modern problem, the challenge of a relationship that is sustained by technology

The film effortlessly realizes a possible not-to-distant future where slick software is built into everyday hardware, and where the auditory is emphasized over the visual, especially in the way we use our computers.  In this world no one minds who talks to their computer while on the crowded subway, in the busy square, or even at work. And this is all captured by a shallow focus and detail rich cinematography that complements beautifully the aesthetics of that world.


The acting is equally effortless. Joaquin Phoenix plays the melancholy Theodore who, despite both his vocation as a letter writer and the long standing friendships he enjoys, finds himself alone at night in his light-filled apartment, sleepless and turning to the pale light of his constant companion, his phone.

As I watched this scene play out, I realized that I must not be the only insomniac who turns to his phone for relief. Mind you, the film was intensely personal to me in many other aspects I shouldn’t be surprised. Like how Theodore enjoys a long-standing, unromantic friendship with his friend Amy and how the person with whom he grew up and shared so many memories with is now distant and hard to reach.

And so we are brought to the central message of this film: real human relationships are much messier then artificial ones, yet satisfy in ways the others never could. Theodore’s relationship with his wife Kathy stretches far into their past, as we are gradually shown through flashbacks and memories. The two grew up together, studied together, and are so intertwined as personalities and friends that their lives became inseparable. So when their marriage finally falls apart, the unraveling is so painful, it takes Theodore “three months to write the letter T on the divorce papers.” The scene where he finally finishes writing his name while she signed hers across the table was painfully real, merging Theodore’s memory with reality and showing the tragedy that is two people so joined together split apart. 


But Theodore was previously reluctant to sign those papers (“we’ve been married so long”). It wasn’t someone who encouraged him to move on, it was something. His new operating system is also his new partner and the realization of the digital relationships that kept him awake at night on his previous phone. Now to be fair, Samantha, his OS, is voiced by Scarlet Johansson, and is a captivating personality. And their chemistry together is so effortlessly realized that I had to constantly remind myself that it was just a performance. On paper too, this concept courts cliche. But on the screen it is realized with a tenderness and poignancy that is beautiful to watch. 

"You’ve always wanted a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real" Theodore’s ex claims. "I’m glad that you’ve found someone." Part of the film’s brilliance is Theodore and Sam’s relationship it is actually more complicated then that. But as captivating and satisfying as Samantha is, in the end she is just a machine. Unlike her claim that humans and computers are both evolved matter and therefore the same, the truth is, humans are distinct and separate. Samantha is a replacement, a replacement that was not meant to be.


The more I think about it, the more I think the anthem for the movie is Arcade Fire’s song Porno. The song explores the temptation that is porn and the damage it causes in relationships and in lives. Porn is a replacement of something good for something that on the surface appears satisfying. “We are only here briefly, and in this moment I want to allow myself joy” a friend of Theodore’s says in the film, but this joy that she is seeking, as layered and alluring as it is, is ultimately artificial. And when Theodore has aural sex with Samantha, it is the culmination of the aural internet sex that he experimented with online earlier, a cheap substitute for the real thing, unnatural and wrong. 

So there something to learn from this masterpiece of a movie. There is superficial matter that is itself beautiful, alluring, and complex, but it can distract us from who we should be focusing on. There are relationships that are romantic as well as long-lasting friends and these will be tested, tugged at, and even torn. But they are worth fighting for and maintaining, even in our digital age. As Arcade Fire sings,

"I know you’re living in my mind

It’s not the same as being alive.

If telling the truth is not polite

Then I guess we’ll have to fight.”

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

This review was originally published in January 2014. My opinions on the film have since crystallized and I am more a fan than before. It has gone on to become my favourite film of 2013. Images are from the film and are not my own.   

The Coen Brother's films, consistently worth our time, seem interested in exploring grace (emphasized in Oh Brother Where Art Thou), sin (No Country For Old Men), and how these two interact (Fargo).

Their latest offering again explores the balance of these two realities. Inside Llywen Davis follows a week in the life of its title character, who deserves our sympathy. Ever since his musical partner (voiced by Marcus Mumford) commited sucide, his career as a solo act has been a constant struggle. Although Llewyn is accurately discribed by a former friend as "an asshole", the root of his chilly demeanour and cruel outbursts is his grief over the lose of his friend ("fare thee well" being his anthem), as well as his struggle over the uncertainty of his future.


But these outbursts are blinding him to the grace present in his life. The first half of the film emphasizes this grace with its humour and is perhaps represented by the orange cat that alternately pursues and is pursued by Llewyn. It's only later in the film that the tone gets more serious as Llweyn's depression sets in. He is riddled by strangers and cut off from any remaining friends who care. His angst over his future felt very familiar to me and is accurately portrayed as his frustration and boredom for those he is surrounded by is with mixed with his uncertainty. "What are you doing?" is seen scratched on the wall of a roadside bathroom stall. This question haunts him and is one that I have also asked myself many times.

Inside Llewyn2

As failure continues to doge his back, we too start yearning for some sort of success for Llewyn or at least some sort of resolution or answer. Perhaps he will give in to careerist callings, following his old man at sea, "growing up, growing old, and dying"  but even that door is bared. And he embarrasses himself by a cruel outburst to some of his kindest friends and then again a fellow performer. In his heartache, he has slammed the door on any grace offered to him (along with any cats representing it).

But all is not lost for Llewyn. Forgiveness is offered by those whom he shortsighted, complete with the reappearance of fuzzy toms. Although he longs to be called home and "fly away to the one he loves," retribution for his cruelty will come knocking (or in this case punching). The film leaves him with hope for his struggling art, if he will learn to listen to the artists he shares his stage with (and especially one with curly hair and a harmonica). Hopefully he is realizing that the people around him, although often equal to him in asshole status, also provide the forgiveness, friendship, and grace that they both desperately need. Hopefully the "au reviour" he gives at the end is to that former lifestyle of shortsightedness and selfishness


As I walked home from the theatre, the freezing wind blowing at my scarf bound face like it did Llywen's, I reflected back on my day. "Aching pain" had filled my, both with the people around me and my career. But as I reflected on my frustrations, I was brought back to the graces that were given to me that day by the same people. Like Llewyn's cat, it encouraged me to keep singing and keep on hoping as I too travelled the "green, green rocky road."

12 Years a Slave (2013): Reflections on the Film

This review was originally published in December 2013. The images are from the film and are not my own.

I went into this film expecting a harrowing experience, but excited none the less to see a challenging work of art. And as I watched it I found critiques, both positive and negative, hard to make due to the nature of the film’s subject matter. But there is a line in the film where Solomon says that he trusted those who kidnapped them because they were artists. And so even artists deserve correction.

The acting in the movie is, for the most part, outstanding. Chiwetel Ejiofor hits both the highs and lows, and is especially evocative during the lows. Michael Fassbender creates a character who is evil but not just a caricature (unlike the kidnappers who felt like side characters in a Tintin book).


The cinematography contributed powerfully to the story, not just the lighting (one scene right after Solomon is kidnaped shows his face in darkness and his captors face illumiated with light) but also the visual imagery (Solomon tightly winding his violin until it snaps right after Patsy’s brutal whipping). The music also added to the story, full of tension and grace without being distracting. (I was surprised to learn it was compared by Hans Zimmer. I'm used to him being bold or bombastic, not subtle and creative like this time.)


Steve McQueen’s previous works include Hunger and Shame, and he once said that both were part of the same story. They are concerned with human extremes (one with physical violence, the other with sexual violence; interesting that both of these themes come into play in 12 Years a Slave) and this film seems equally fascinated with human extremes. Many have said that the unflinching shot of Solomon hanging from a nose while his feet try to keep their bearing in the mud is a picture that describes the rest of the film - an unflinching look of a man stuck in an unnatural situation, in which he tries to avoid making false moves that will take his life. And the movie is more then anything else fascinated with this situation. Perhaps if it were a documentary the evils portrayed would have been more horrifying, but as an audience member we know that we are seeing actors subjected to these emotions and these acts of physical violence. And I wasn’t quite sure how to handle that.


What fascinated me more were the scenes with Benedict Cumberbatch’s character (another terrific acting job, what a repertoire this man is building for himself!) who plays an Anglican minister caught up in Solomon’s story. He and his wife have a conscience - you can see it in their eyes and in their actions. But they are part of a slave-owning and racially biased culture, so how can they reconcile the two?

Perhaps I can relate. I see our modern day evils, some of which are equal to the evils portrayed in the film. I look with compassion, but in the end I am part of a culture that endorses and has built its economy around it. The men of history who stand out, men like Lincoln and Wilberforce and Martin Luther King, were those who didn’t care about what the culture said and acted anyway. 

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

This review was originally written in December of 2013. Images are not my own.

At one point in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug the dwarves cover the famous dragon in melted gold, only to see him burst out of the simmering liquid, flap his magnificent wings and cause the night sky to be littered with thousands of gold stars. It's the most impressive shot of the film and I suppose can be used as an analogy, the filmmakers being the dwarves who have almost smothered the living creature that is the book in their quest to gain more box office gold. It's a shame that the movie did not break free of its lugubrious additions, adding some more stars to the night sky that is the Tolkien Myth.

The Desolation1

At one point in the movie a character talked about the elves "feast of starlight" and I thought it was a good description of what made the Lord of the Rings trilogy such a formative part of my generation's imagination. It's full of bright stars; music that will never leave me, moments of sacrifice and character that have formed mine, living people of all sizes who continue to take root in my mind, battles and horrors as real as our own, and a landscape paired with photography that allowed us time to look around and soak it in. And the first Hobbit film had echoes of these stars, scenes that took their time to introduce characters with humour and detail and shots that were beautiful and memorable. But these echoes were muddied by underdrawn additional characters and overwrought moments of peril. There is no doubt that our kid in a candy store, Peter Jackson, went overboard stretching the slender book to three films.

This second film expanded what was wrong of the last one. Moments of starlight are present in The Desolation of Smaug, but are quickly overshadowed by melted, melted something, but certainly not gold. Martin Freeman stands out and it is a shame that we did not see this hobbit in an adaptation worthy of his performance. Cumberbatch's Smaug was a feast to behold, when we could, and the Swedish Beorn was terrific, although his time on screen was far too short. And some of the new locations, including Laketown and it's characters, were very enjoyable, full of details.


There is a rumour that Warner Brothers is planning a middle earth theme park, and after seeing this movie I fully believe it. The studio must have asked Mr. Jackson to supply them with scenes they can turn into amusement rides and the director was happy to oblige with one set piece after another. Ride the barrels down the rapids with Biblo and friends! Ride the pulleys and rivers of fire to catch the dragon with melted gold!

I understand that for three movies some thing have to be added and I was okay with many of these additions, in particular Gandalf's quest into the identity of the Necromancer. But the thrilling additions lumbered instead of thrilled and left me bored and checking my watch.


Maybe I'm getting older. The films that inspire me like the night sky's are those that are creatively told, full of fascinating characters beautifully recorded by photography. This Hobbit has taken a children's story beloved for generations that is filled with starlight, and tuned into a Saturday morning cartoon. Saturday morning cartoons are popular, as this movie is sure to be and the producers will be glad to claim their gold. But it will not form the imagination of a generation and will easily be forgotten in a couple years.

Of Gods and Men (2010): A Capsule Review

Post originally written in May of 2013. Images are not my own.

The village is nestled amongst mountains and forests, the monastery perched at its peak. The nine members of the monastery live a life that is centred around their lives of worship but they involve and include the Muslim community of the village they call their own. They farm their crops, worship their God with ages-old chants and hymns, cook, eat and clean. But they also study and write about their faith and the faith of the village they are in, and daily meet, counsel, and serve their local community, dispersing medicine, footwear, and advice, even joining them to celebrate their Muslim ceremonies. All the while they remain distinctly Christian. They are a true picture of a body of Christ living and serving in a secular culture.

Of Gods and Men1

And yet this life is not without its darkness. There are forces in the world who hate the church and its faithful work in the world. In this picture of a film, those forces are Muslim extremists who make their way towards the village, slicing the throats of those who don’t abide by their rules. The story of this film is about this threat and how the brothers choose to respond.

Of Gods and Men2

It is told with a quite, honest, and steady camera, less affectious then Terence Malick’s, simpler then Lech Majewski, in a sense perfectly matching the patient lifestyle of its subject.

There is a scene halfway into the film that is often described by its admirers. They brothers are in the midst of wrestling through the decision of whether to stay in the village and risk certain death, or to flee to their former homes, lives, and safety. They bring their thoughts before some of the village elders, confessing that that they feel helpless "like birds on a branch. We may be leaving.” After a pause, one of the villagers responds, “We are the birds. You are the branch. If you go, we will loose our footing.”

I had been enjoying this film up until that moment, but from then on it resonated on a whole new level. Just the other week, having left work for five days to attend a family funeral, a colleague and friend told me that “work feels soulless without you.” This film became a commentary on my role in living out my faith in what is my village.

Of Gods and Men

This group of brother lived their Christian walk with honesty and devotion, before each other, their fellow man, and their God. The film is an honest look at the evening of their lives, and it is one that spoke volumes into my own situation. I hope to return to it, and I hope that it becomes part of the fabric of my life.

To the Wonder (2012)

Post originally written in April 2013. Images are not my own.

To the Wonder maintains the eternal significance of ordinary people depicted in Malick's previous film, The Tree of Life, but it is more anchored in the biographical details, ignoring dinosaurs and nebulas and beaches full of angels. It is a very real, honest film.

The film centers around Maria and Neil, a couple who meet in Pairs, the city of love. The passion of that city is echoed in the way they caress each other. But moving from the romance of Pairs to ordinariness of Oklahoma they have to face the equally messy details of life together. Can their relationship be sustained by their caresses and touches or is the foundation of their love stronger and deeper? Intersecting their storyline is that of Father Quintana, the priest of their local parish, who is also wrestling the foundation of the love that he is pouring out to his community.

To the Wonder1

Malick’s eye is what drew me into film and it is what kept me captivated. Pairs is easy to photograph, but when the camera turns to Oklahoma, the director’s brilliance is especially apparent. The setting is so much like the town I grew up in; endless sky and new houses with fresh carpets, oil wells and cheap motels, tall golden grasses at the edge of the never-content suburbs. So ordinary, so easily tossed aside while lived in, until the camera sees it anew and breathes it with significance. This drawing of attention to the beauty in our peripherals is what I try to do with an iPhone and Instagram every day and it was stunning to see it done by the master.

But these details are laden with biographical and spiritual weight. The story of the rise and fall two lovers whose relationship was birthed, but not sustained, by passion is contrasted by the relationship of a priest with his community and his God. Maria and Neil are shown with honesty and heartache. They know they should commit to marriage, but can’t due to a religious rule, or their own fear of failure, or both. An especially real portion of their tale comes when Maria, spurred by the advice of a friend, commits adultery in an Econo Lodge Motel. Never has a sex scene been with infused with such gravity and danger. Such an act was wrong, and Malick wants us to know it. Maria repents to her now husband and the way he wrestles with forgiveness is achingly real. Their relationship was based off passion and his trials reveal this foundation.

To the Wonder2

Quintana has his own doubts. The loneliness of his life of outpouring is reveled as he visits the dirty houses and broken bodies of destitute people, Bible in hand, speaking truth and comfort into the lives of his flock. All that giving takes its toll and the shepherd cries out to his God in a beautiful monologue. In the end his strength is shown to be found in the one he serves. “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me” he prays as the camera shows him visiting those in locked cells. “Christ at my right, Christ at my left. Christ in the heart, thirsting, we thirst. Flood our souls with your spirit and life, so completely that our lives may only be a reflection of you.”

To the Wonder3

This is a film honest in his portal of faith and relationships. It offers warning to those who go at them lightly and comfort for those afraid of insignificance. Although at times some certainty could been used (or maybe some ice water in the face of a voiceover too enraptured with self-love.) But ultimately it is a film about the fabric of daily life and I hope becomes part of the fabric of mine.

The Great Dictator (1940)

Post originally written in April 2013. Images are not my own.

I've recently fallen in love with the artistry of Charlie Chaplin's work and am making my way through his masterpieces (all available online for free, although for some reason with Russian subtitles). The folks who are familiar with The Great Dictator likely know it for its passionate speech at the end, but apparently the film has historical significance. Filmed during the days of US neutrality, Chaplin was putting his head and his fortune on the line to make such bold statements about Hitler.


Chaplin has said that he would not have made a comedy about the Nazis had he known what horrors were taking place. Seeing it from our side of history, many of jokes fall flat thanks to the painful sting the images bring up, images like Jews being forced to scrub sidewalks or being lead into relatively jolly concentration camps. And as this is Chaplin's first major talkie,seeing him in the new medium takes some adjusting. But the humour is still highly entertaining, especially  the fake German language that he concocted for the dictator, or the one upmenship contest between the dictator and his Italian peer, Napolioni. The humour is of all types, typical in a Chaplin film, from simple but perfect slapstick (plenty of paint thrown in faces) to a graceful and beautiful sequence of the dictator dancing with a balloon globe, gleeful at the thought of the world being his.

The plot centres around the fiery dictator, Hynkal, and his identical counterpart, a Jewish barber. Chaplin plays them both and their physical similarities drives much of the story and, for me, much of the movie's depth. Although the two look identical, initially their characteristics are foreign, one a fiery diplomat, the other a bumbling barber. But as the film progresses we start to pick up mannerisms in the dictator that bring him down to the level of the peasant (a slip or bungling social error). The barber, on the other hand, will do things like occasionally wield his sharp knife in a manner that makes you think he could do more then cut hair with it.


It's as if Charlie Chaplin was saying "I am not as far removed from either of these two characters as I would like to think. I have what's in me to rise to utter villainy, or I could settle to be a humble fool." It's only at the end of the film when the two characters receive the predictable flip-flop of being mistaken for each other that the director merge his two personalities. The humble fool rises from his collapsing chair and becomes the passioned statesman, giving his famous speech about looking up and fighting for the bright horizon. Although I disagreed with much of the speech's conclusions, it was hard not to be stirred by another stunning Chaplin ending.


Although the film was influential in turning the popular opinion of Hitler around, and was later used to boost war moral, it should not be considered propaganda, but a thoughtful and enjoyable piece of art to be enjoyed through many more changes of world order.