REVIEW: Calvary

7 08 2014

Summer 2012 has been uncommonly rife with spiritual themes, from “The Immigrant” to “I Origins” and even “Wish I Was Here” all delving into faith issues on a personal scale.  Writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary” expands even further, taking a look at the institutional level of religion through his protagonist, the unconventional Catholic priest Father James (Brendan Gleeson).

McDonagh imbues James with a unique brand of wisdom, partially due to his unusual path to the priesthood.  Father James was a normal man who even fathered a child, only finding his way into the cassock after the death of his wife left him reeling.  This background in the realm of the worldly leads him to be a more patient, understanding paternal figure for the small Irish town he oversees.

Such purity of intent makes him a perfect target for one villager, who comes to confession in the first scene of “Calvary” announcing his plans to make Father James a sort of sacrificial lamb.  This mysterious man, who was repeatedly sexually abused by a Catholic priest as a child, seeks the blood of an innocent man to atone for the sins perpetrated against him.

McDonagh doesn’t shy away from looking into the effects of priests’ sexual misconduct, both for the victim and for the church at large.  In that respect, “Calvary” goes quite a bit deeper than 2008’s “Doubt,” although that’s not necessarily a fair apples-to-apples comparison.  (The latter film takes place when the scandals were only just beginning to enter public consciousness, while “Calvary” takes place in the present.)

Sadly, McDonagh doesn’t always play to the strengths of the story and character.  The opening scene would appear to indicate that the film will follow Father James as he deals with this threat on his life.  Yet for the most part, “Calvary” just provides a rather episodic snapshot of his odd bunch of parishioners.

The film is still interesting in these portions, largely because of Gleeson’s nuanced, deeply felt performance and the wide variety of interactions he can have over the course of a week.  But the large bulk of “Calvary” does not seem to be pushing the action towards its inevitable conclusion, making the film feel a little unfocused and meandering in the process.  McDonagh’s finale arrives with a bang, though it could have been a sonic boom had the whole plot been building behind it.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Flight

24 11 2012

Denzel Washington has wowed audiences by playing both sides of the hero-villain spectrum.  Just look at the two performances that earned him Oscars.  1989’s “Glory” saw him as an almost angelic soldier fighting in the first all-black company in the United States Army, while 2001’s “Training Day” had him as a cop so devious and corrupt you wanted to jump through the screen and put a bullet through his head.

In “Flight,” Washington plays in the shades of grey of Whip Whitaker, an alcoholic pilot who becomes a hero after steering his malfunctioning plane to safety with his unconventional wisdom.  The catch is that Whitaker was high on cocaine and drunk as a skunk when he did so.  Of course, the public blindly adores him in a way reminiscent of Sully, the pilot who landed his vessel in the Hudson River and had a memoir in Barnes & Noble faster than you could say “American Airlines.”  But Whitaker has plenty of baggage that he can’t come to grips with and can’t compress into one of the overhead bins.  (Sorry, the puns with “Flight” are just endless.)

Because it’s a Denzel Washington performance, it’s fascinating to watch.  He owns the screen with a commanding presence rivaled by few in cinema these days.  But because Washington has such well-known and well-defined extremes, it’s fairly easy to tell what he thinks of Whitaker.

While he may have the moments of tough, firm leadership that Coach Herman Boone exhibits, Whitaker is clearly more in the model of a Frank Lucas or an Alonzo Harris.  It’s impressive that Washington can convey meaning through the mere iconography of his stature; however, in a movie like “Flight” that depends on our shifting judgements of the protagonist, that strength becomes a liability.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (May 28, 2010)

28 05 2010

I’m officially out for summer! Senior year, baby! It’s time to celebrate with the first “F.I.L.M. of the Week” of summer vacation! This calls for a comedy – something like “Mrs. Henderson Presents” ought to do the trick. Starring the always incredible Judi Dench in her third of four Oscar-nominated performances of the ’00s, the movie tells the story of a widow with nothing to do but create a stir. Set against the backdrop of British boys going to fight in World War II, director Stephen Frears provides some drama if you’re looking for a little of that as well.

The movie opens with the funeral of Mr. Henderson, where his widow (Dench) is dealing more with boredom than grief. She scoffs at the idea that she should stop her life to observe a period of mourning. After trying her hand at the conventional hobbies of older women, she discovers she needs to be entertained in more lively and energetic ways. Along with the help of Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), Mrs. Henderson opens a theater that revolutionizes the business in London first by presenting their shows non-stop.

But the second way is what the movie concerns itself with the most, and that was Mrs. Henderson’s bold decision to present nude girls in the show.  Using some skillful connections associated with her status, she gets permission to let the clothes come off as long as it remains art – which means that the girls had to be in tableaus when exposed.  It’s clear that Mrs. Henderson has a reason behind doing this other than making money or creating controversy, both of which she manages to do anyways.  The reason becomes more clear as the crowd that packs her theater becomes less of the musical theater group and more young men, most of whom are heading off to fight a war.

“Mrs. Henderson Presents” is one of those gems that does have something to offer pretty much everyone.  It’s well-made, well-acted, and very entertaining.  It has great vaudevillian music and some spectacularly choreographed sequences on the stage.  Dench is funny and poignant as the outrageous Mrs. Henderson, and she and Bob Hoskins mix very well.  As foes, foils, and friends, they play every scene with the right energy.  Not to mention, this movie isn’t sore on the eyes (if you get what I’m saying).