“Pope Francis: A Man of His Word”

A documentary that lets you feel like you are in the same room with the Pope is something special. A film that affirms one’s core values is a delight. German director Wim Wenders centers his film on the sincerity and the holiness of Pope Francis. The seventy-two-year-old Wenders has directed other award winning documentaries that I have loved “ The Buena Vista Social Club” ( 1999 ) heralding Cuban Musicians. It was entrancing. His “ Salt of the Earth” ( 2014) was reviewed by me on Word Press ( May 11, 2015 ). In this documentary, Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado is lauded for his artful images and vision. We are entranced again.

Yet, Wenders considers “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word” his best film. His respect for the man and for his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, permeates the documentary.

Using straight on camera shots, Wenders fills the screen with Francis’s face. Pope Francis talks passionately about the inequality of the world’s wealth and about our responsibility to the Earth and to the poor. Psalm  53 is invoked: “ Do they not know better/ They feed upon people as they feed upon bread?” Love, compassion and unity mingle with mercy and hope for humanity. These are the words: “ Mercy, hope, humility~ whisper them in our sleep. Shout them, too.” The Pope’s eyes twinkle.

He is serious when he says, “ Serve God or serve money”. His eyes smile with tenderness “ Poverty is central to the Bible.” “ The more powerful you are, the more humble you should be.” Generosity is key. “ You can always add more water to the beans!” “We can all do with less.” He says no to an economy of exclusion. Eighty percent of the world’s  riches are in twenty per cent of the world’s hands.

Francis talks from his heart. As his recent encyclical states, we need to mend, to tend our common home. Our reckless exploitation of Earth is seen on monumental overlays superimposed over the Basilica’s facade. Image by image fills us with shame. Mother Earth is being plundered in our culture of waste. We must be her caretaker.

The dignity of work is stressed. One loses one’s dignity with lack of work. Work is seen as sacred: the most noble thing man has. Workers without rights, farmers without land , and indigenous peoples without homes all are addressed.

This is “The Who am I to judge him? “ Pope. Eight hundred years ago St. Francis tried to unite Muslims and Christians. Today, Pope Francis tells us that we are all children of Abraham. We should not be scared of the numbers of refugees. No one should be marginalized.

He asks for young, idealistic seekers to take a revolutionary path in changing the world. He leads through shepherding the world in not being indifferent to injustice and to suffering. The film can be viewed as a traveling sermon. It is one the world sorely needs.

“ Let The Sunshine In”

The French title “ Un Beau Soleil Interieur” is so much better than the English one.  And is this film French! “Let The Sun Shine In” stars  Juliette Binoche. She is an aging woman who fears losing her sex appeal, and that her love life is behind her. She somehow must like hearing , “ You charm the pants off me, but I won’t leave my wife.” for she pursues the same over and over. Being “ a back street lover” most divorcees know won’t fill the real hole, but Isabelle seems to be a slow learner.

The dating game is treated like a farce here, yet the loneliness is real. One lover must leave because he promised to bring a pizza home to his family. Some regret their lovemaking, but Juliette fools herself in saying she  just feels good. If cars are seen on screen going in circles, so is Isabelle’s love life.

She confesses to a girl friend that she never should have left her husband, Francoise. Her young daughter is staying with him now. He comes by and sleeps with her, but she criticizes his technique as not being natural. She calls his methodology  fake and chastises him for merely  repeating something he saw.  Somehow, Isabelle, the artist, knows what is real. And she tells him that “ This is not you!” Isabelle is a mess.

We see art galleries and plein air outings. We hear Etta James sing “ At last my love has come along”, but it doesn’t. Francoise tells Isabelle that their ten-year-old daughter reports that she sees her mother cry almost every night. We only see the bed hopping.

One of the best scenes has Isabelle walking up behind a man on the street and taking his hand. He is startled, but she holds on and says that this matters to her a lot. He tells her that he is taking his kids on a vacation and that he will meet her here in a month. He doesn’t rush things. Before the sun comes up, Isabelle is meeting with a psychic, played by Gerald Depardieu. He tells her that he obsesses about emotional relationships. We laugh. He tells her that the hand holder will resurface. He will want to see you again. He then shuts the door of this office. Someone more substantial is coming.  Someone authentic. His tarot reading does not say something  new is going to be something old. Is everyone feasting on the beautiful sun within, but Isabelle ?! Director Claire Denis will have to presume we know a wolf when we see it.

Credits roll, and we sigh..oh, the French.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Hearts Beat Loud”

Though I would appreciate a title reading “ Hearts Beat Loudly” , this sweet Brooklyn musical family is this summer’s special treat. Red Hook  looks like a community that could support any downed dreamer.

Nick Offerman is the bearded and plaid-shirted owner of a record shop. His name Frank Fisher fits him perfectly. He is open and wistful, still a fisher of dreams. His own recording career was cut short by his wife’s cycling death.

He has been a widower raising his daughter ( Kiersey Clemons) for seventeen years. His mother, played beautifully by Blythe Danner, is exhibiting signs of mental decline, and daughter Sam is gearing up for pre-med classes in far away California. He has wonderful friends like the local bartender, Dave ( Ted Danson) and his vintage record shop landlady,Leslie ( Toni Collette).

Still things could be better. His mother is picked up for shoplifting, his store is going under, and Sam is growing-up too fast. Writers Brett Haley and Marc Basch hit just the right tone for this bittersweet indie. Frank can’t seem to locate Sam’s needed birth certificate, yet he has her dried imbilical cord at hand. Sam and Frank have a history of jam sessions. It is through these that we see Sam fall for Rose ( Sasha Lane) and her song lyrics have dad putting their session on Spotify. Frank calls them “ We Are Not A Band” after Sam’s rebuttal to him about singing and songwriting together like he and her mother used to do. Their song goes viral and decisions must be made.

Dave tells Frank that “ we always don’t get to do what we love.” He is an old actor himself, now bartender. Yet, my favorite scene maybe in the coffee shop where Frank is buying strawberry woopy pies for Sam. He hears their song in an indie mix over the sound system, and runs around yelling “50,000 people are listening to our song”.

There are lots of side stories like life. Leslie really likes Frank, and he does not seem to notice. When he speaks of “ getting his button shirt on” and toasting the demise of “ Red Hook Records” we love this guy. His memories consist of the first time Sam got a Groucho joke, and of a growth chart marked on the wall of the shop. He accepts Sam lesbian relationship by saying, “ when life hands you conundrums, you turn them into art.”

Rose, herself, gets her aphorisms from comic books. As she teaches Sam to ride a bike ( a no-no under Sam’s Dad ), she intones:” You gotta be brave, before you can be good.” More than a coming of age film, “Hearts Beat Loud” is about the music of life.

 

 

 

 

 

“Hereditary”

For me, the horror genre always gets compared to “ The Sentinel” ( 1977) . John Carradine as an old, blind priest guarding the gates of hell is at the top of the scale as my  terror barometer. “Rosemary’s Baby” and “ The Exorcist”, likewise. Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” is obsessed with the same evil, yet a family’s unraveling makes this film more of a psychological foray into the psyches of the spawn of a witch mother/grandmother rather than pure devil power. The acting is terrific. The cinematography artful. The screenplay, a tad dodgy.

Toni Collette is the vulnerable Annie, a diorama artist working out her painful childhood. We are not certain that she is a reliable narrator of her past, but her husband, Steve, (Gabriel Byrne)  we come to trust. He is patient and protective. His love is being put to the test by Annie’s almost psychotic behavior. Their two children, Peter ( Alex Wolff) and Charlie ( Milly Shapiro) orbit the Graham family home like disembodied teens. Their matriarchal grandmother has just been buried, but not for long.

The horror in their world is a trap. The circumstances and the situations they find themselves in impossible to dodge. A voiceover from the secretive and private 78 year-old Ellen Taylor Leigh tells the family that “ our sacrifices will pale next to the rewards.” Can you sell you whole family’s soul to the devil ?

The horror tropes are here, too. There are the flies, the decapitations, the apparitions, the hex signs and seances , and  grave desecrations.  But the slow build-up to the inevitable is what keeps the audience tense. Amid the histrionics and the loneliness, we see a family crumble.

Annie’s miniature representations of catastrophic family events are more creepy than healing. When a grocery store encounter leads to a friendship with a grief group member, ( Ann Dowd )  Annie becomes even more vulnerable. Pills, work pressure, sleepwalking, and guilt lead to temper tantrums and loss of control. When Annie’s sweater sleeve bursts into flame, we are ready for the worst. There is still a body in the attic.

Pawel Pogorzelski’s photography ingeniously has Annie’s dioramas morph into real rooms. Nightmares of ants crawling over Peter’s face and sketches of his gorged out eyeballs ready us for his demise. The final scene I did not like. Peter looked too shell-shocked to be sacrificed willingly.

 

 

“First Reformed”

The only thing good I can say about Paul Schrader’s new film is that my husband would now like to try the body to body mystical -travel -sans -elevation game. Otherwise, Schrader’s  screenplay is a mess. “First Reformed” tries to deal with theological questions about the meaning of life and our stewardship of the Earth, but ends up with a guilty, physically and mentally-ill alcoholic trying to make his suffering mean something. He copies Thomas Merton only in that he writes a daily journal. He tears out the pages he does not like when he feels they were written in delirium. Pride gets in his way. He tells us in one of the frequent voice-overs that “this journal brings me no peace.”

Our reverend goes through all the footwork of religious service: he , ironically, counsels others in hope and despair; he ladles in the soup kitchen; he leads prayer circles; and he makes house calls to pregnant woman in distress over their husband’s depression and eco-terrorist plans. The audience is sympathetic to a point with the daily and lonely grind of a churchman.

And our churchman has a backstory. He sprung from devout stock, was married, had a son, whom he counseled to enlist in military service. The son was killed in Iraq, and Toller’s marriage dissolved in his alcoholism and grief. Reverend Toller was reassigned to a small clapboard church in upstate New York. A museum place from Underground Railroad days with a handful of parishioners, the church is a country of its own, an exile for the emotionally damaged Toller.

The cinematography is stark and telling. One chair, one desk, one candle on a bare wood floor. Loneliness is here, yet the chiaroscuro facial lighting is so Ingmar Bergman that we feel like screaming “copy-cat” instead of breathing in rhythm with the greats.  I do not understand the rave reviews this film has received. I can do stark and barren, even appreciate it, but I am an outlier in thinking this is a poor screenplay.

There is some nuanced acting from Cedric Kyles as he plays the mega-church minister Rev. Joel Jeffries. He is worried about Rev. Toller’s depression. Rev. Jeffries counsels his colleague: “ Even Jesus took a break from the Garden, ( of Gethsemane) once in awhile.”

Phillip Ettinger is a fine actor in the part of Mary’s husband, Michael. He has been imprisoned for his activism. We understand him. He intones in his talk with the reverend that “One-third of the natural world has been killed in your lifetime.” His anthropocene take on the second half of this century is laudatory. Even with Ethan Hawke’s voice overs, Rev. Toller is more difficult to fetter out. He is needlessly derisive to the choir director, (Victoria Hill) who is attracted to him. He meanly says, “ I despise you. Your concerns are petty. You are a stumbling block. You are hovering.” Rev. Toller has no trouble biking with the thirty-three-year-old Mary. Even Ethan Hawke’s good acting can’t save this film, or the crazy Rev. Toller.

Director-writer Schrader used old-fashioned credits at the film start. Another tip-off that the ending is going to be arresting, but in this case we just wonder why Rev. Toller did not flinch at any kind of embrace since he is wrapped in thorny wire. This brings me to Mary, the pregnant widow, whom the reverend is so obviously smitten by. Amanda Seyfried has this role, and she is horrid and wooden. She does not cry enough after her husband kills himself. She can’t wait to have Rev. Toller pack up Michael’s things. She has her plan to stay in Buffalo with her sister and have her baby before her husband’s ashes are tossed out of a plastic bag.

The eco-conversion of Rev. Toller is unconvincing. He borrows Michael’s passion, because he has none. He tells us that the petty ailments of a forty-three-year-old make him ill-tempered. Hawke’s seems much older than that and much sicker. He tells us that he has found another form of prayer. Really? In killing?

And what is up with the barbed-wire dramatically found at the last minute to supplant the suicide vest. A crown of thorns for the un-Christ-like sufferer does not work except to turn this film into a horror show of Liquid Plumber. Ingmar Bergman copy-cat filming with chiaroscuro facial lighting and long, white robes is boring. The dolly-rolling-camera technique in the framing of the church edifice and of Michael and Mary’s home is meaningless. The static shots with bare lightbulbs overdone.

Yes, love can make the world go round, but “ Cat People” (1982) was a better movie.

“On Chesil Beach”

“ On Chesil Beach” is a not so unusual story about a six-hour marriage. If you ask friends if they know of any marriages that did not survive the honeymoon most can name two. Try it. What is unusual about the  novelist’s Ian McEwan’s screenplay is that it reorders how we think about love.

The film begins with calm seaside views and rather disjointed music. We think the pebble beach scene and the rock and roll tempo don’t match. Alas, neither do the expectations of the virginal Eddie and Flo.

In a series of flashbacks, memory pieces, we are introduced to two young Oxford students, their love at first-site encounter, and their family histories. The build-up is too slow, but the personalities of both Edward’s artist mother ( Anne-Marie Duff) and Florence’s  teacher/father  ( Samuel West ) add emotional nuances that are intriguing as we watch our protagonists circumvent and effectively deal with difficult parents and middle and upper-class divides.

In a time frame beginning with the early nineteen sixties and touching on 1975, thirteen years later, and then 2007, thirty-two years later, we get to surmise the onward progression of our characters’ lives and of their regrets.

Award-winning theatrical director Dominic Cooke directs his first feature film with “On Chesil Beach”. His entire cast, at the top of their game, show 1962 sexual repression and cultural conformity  in re-robing nakedness, in marking cricket lines, and in turning music pages one corner at a time. Rules shine in the piece: spontaneity be damned.

Help is offered. The minister tries to get Flo to voice her fears; Edward’s father tries to engage his distraught son. Actors Saoirse Rowan and Billy Howle are brilliant in showing how sexual fears of inadequacy impede physical intimacy. A sense of humor is not something that comes easily for neophytes in any new endeavor.

Innocence and inexperience are a given, but Flo’s problem-solving solution is most frustrating. How can she say she is no good at something she has never tried? How can she be so incurious and unventuresome when it comes to her own body and that of her chosen lover? I did not register any abuse or past trauma in McEwan’s screenplay, yet what else could it be? Could the rather clinical sex manual she references be that traumatizing?

For all her charms, Saoirse Rowen has a difficult time making us take her side. Her extreme sense of control even to the point of  strongly suggesting that she remove her own stockings, was more pathetic than funny. While Billy Howle had all my sympathy with his fumblings, an older man sitting behind us emoted, “ It’s about time!” in pure disgust and frustration. Other viewers will recall their own “first time”, and it is here that the film succeeds. “On Chesil Beach” succeeds in  not in showing fumbled touching, but in orchestrating truly touching scenes.

We see Howle and Saoirse sharing the events that made them feel like independent movers in the world, grown-ups. For Flo, it was buying her own single train ticket at thirteen; for Eddie, it was defending a Jewish friend from racist remarks. We hear the kind, but uppity, Flo tell how Eddie is not like anyone she has ever met. “He knows birds, always has a history book in his pocket and a pencil stub…and does not know a beignet from a croissant.”

If Florence’s mother thinks Ed is a “ bit of a country bumpkin”, Ed thinks Flo is a tad “ square” with her classical music. He is an “rock and roll” enthusiast. Their courtship does not seem stilted, yet there are dating episodes where everybody is making out at the movies, but them. They share goals, and there is a wonderful Mozart piece where octave changes are taught. In their physical relationship, Flo understands that Ed is always advancing, and she is always backing away. Yes, Florence looks mildly terrorized, but more priggish. Ed is still recoiling from two waiters laughing at him, but can still ask, “ What is it, darling?” when Flo hesitates with “ it sort of tickles”. Flo ends up running two miles down the beach.

Edward flaring temper leads to one of the most painful honeymoon arguments ever seen, thus our title, “On Chesil Beach”. Verbal stones are thrown. “It was unfair of you to run out like that!” She responds with how “ unpleasant and revolting” it all is. And a great octave leap has a humiliated man making a decision he will later come to rue.

The ending of this film seems improbable and a tad manipulative, yet it gets the emotion that it wants from the audience. Could patience have saved the day? Five kids with the cello player seems like he might have a technique down. We wish Ed had ten children in tow.

 

“You Were Never Really Here”

Watching Joaquin Phoenix work is reason enough to see this film. Jonny Greenwood’s score is another.

Scottish director Lynne Ramsey films like “ Molvern Callar” ( 2002) never tell a story chronologically. In “You Were Never Really Here” , Phoenix does want he does best, plays a reality-taxed, wracked individual with  acute visceral feelings. He is a PTSD sufferer, who is hired to rescue  a U.S. Senator’s thirteen-year-old daughter. As Joe, he has flash backs to childhood abuse and war atrocities. Child sex rings and sex traffickers add to the taut tone. The tenseness is charged with a wavering electric current that keeps the viewer apprehensive throughout. We long for ennui, or at least a respite from sound whispering voices and plastic bags pulled tightly over faces.

Back exits, trash cans, police sirens, late night terminals  and wet alleyways predominate. Joe’s abode with his dementia-ridden mother ( Judith Roberts) offers no respite. It, too, becomes a murder scene. Weird scenarios play out. His mother watches “Psych” alone and plays “gothcha!” games on him. We see his battle scars as he puts her to bed. City dogs bark as he cleans up her water logged bathroom. He chastised her for the 1972 cream cheese in the fridge, and polishes silver with her. He likes green jelly beans. It is hard to see him as a vigilante, a killer for hire.

The Senator is as creepy as Joe’s weapon of choice, the hammer. His daughter Nina ( Ekaterina Samsonov) must be retrieved. He wants the kidnappers/brothel owners hurt. He wants Nina for unfatherly reasons we glean. This tawdry storyline drags us in more than most viewers will wish to be. Jonny Greenwood’s score and Joaquin Phoenix’s dazzling performance makes the horrific vice psychologically edgy. Joe respectfully buries his mother in lake waters, and we recall the scene where they sang old show tunes together. As Phoenix floats submerged in the waters stillness, we wonder if this netherworld will bring him peace. Can a murderer gain our empathy? Can a soldier’s bizarre suffering make him something to be feared? While author Jonathan Ames may consider his protagonist an avenging angel, most will see Joe as a damaged Marine and former FBI operative, who has kind underpinnings though he is a trained killing machine.