Novitiate

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

Novitiate

From beginning to end, Novitiate stirs a flood of questions and reactions. Because the movie is so beautifully filmed, acted, written, and directed, the audience is free to think only about the compelling issues raised. That earns a salute for writer/director Margaret Betts who avoids all the excesses that might have weakened the film.

Part of the movie unfolds before the Vatican II conference called by Pope John XXIII in 1962 to address the spiritual renewal of the Catholic Church in the modern world, the first such assessment in 100 years. Part two unfolds after the conference as we watch Mother Superior Marie St. Claire (Melissa Leo) cling to the principles she has been teaching for forty years.

Upset by her parents’ vicious arguments, young Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) tells her mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson) that she is going to enter training to be a nun. The new group trains under the rules laid down by their defiant Mother Superior, who tolerates no deviation of any kind. They are ordered to leave the outside world for an interior one, giving their love only to Christ. The comfort of human touch is forbidden, sign language replaces talking.

After eighteen months, some have been expelled, some are weakening, Cathleen remains dedicated. She has traded the chaos of her parents’ violent arguments for what she loves about the church – “It’s peaceful.” At 17, she tells her mother “I’m giving my life to Christ.”

That’s where the postulants and the audience are before Vatican II. Forced to explore the loss of thousands of churchgoers, Vatican II assembles to address the survival of the Church in the modern world that celebrates the exploration of ideas. And then, Vatican II addresses just that. When Mother St. Claire receives the new rules for the Church from Vatican II, she tears them up and continues as usual. Her insistence on the old ways and her denial of the new, contradict the beliefs of civilized society and of democracy. We watch the erosive effect of forbidden touch and enforced silence on Cathleen. Wherever any of our affiliations lie, the questions of the Church in the modern world are compelling.

Genuinely fine acting lets us sink into thinking about the dilemmas. It is the majestic, if tragic performance by Melissa Leo as the Mother Superior that rivets us as she stands against her newly modernized Church. Margaret Qualley silences us with her quiet, serious performance as the devoted 17 year old searching for her future. Actor Denis O’Hare’s Archbishop, who delivers the news of modernization to the Mother Superior, is almost lighthearted in his calm acceptance and delivery of the new rules. Julianne Nicholson is tough but restrained as Cathleen’s devoted but worried mother.

It’s hard to imagine anyone of any age who won’t be absorbed by the determination of this movie to explore the role of the Catholic Church in today’s world when all the obvious questions are presented to us with such skill.

This review was posted on November 12, 2017, in Drama.

LBJ

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

LBJ

For young people, LBJ is history. For people old enough to remember, that history jumps alive. Director Rob Reiner, screenwriter Joey Hartshorne, and actor Woody Harrelson have caught the essentials of President Lyndon Johnson the raw boned, essentially insecure man who was always proving his power.

The filmmakers have done a remarkable job of filming Johnson in a very narrow time frame with great originality. The entire film unfolds between the 1962 convention when John F. Kennedy became the Democratic nominee and asked – to the disgust of his brother/advisor Bobby Kennedy – Lyndon Johnson to be his running mate. From that point forward, the story unfolds in an intriguing mixture of actual news broadcasts and scenes from the new movie.

Why did JFK want LBJ as his running mate? Perhaps because he had decided to focus on Civil Rights and he could neutralize Johnson by removing him from his power as Senate leader and tuck him away in the powerless vice presidency. The Kennedys underestimated their rival.

The footage of the Dallas assassination and Johnson’s ascendency offer a sharp look at the inner workings of his mind as he gains the job he had always wanted. We watch him battle Georgia’s Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins) over the Civil Rights bill he has seized surprisingly as his major goal. The arguments between Russell and LBJ show us yet again the depth of the everlasting gulf between South and North.

The acting? It’s good. Woody Harrelson gives us Johnson’s raw, nasty nature despite being too short to lean over opponents with LBJ’s threatening battle stance. With his facial expressions nearly lost in heavy makeup, he is convincing as the man so famous for manipulating opponents. Standing beside him, Jennifer Jason Leigh is genuinely effective as she gives us Lady Bird’s odd combination of strength, affection, and loyalty to her unpleasant husband.

In a revealing scene, Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl) confronts Johnson after the assassination of his brother with “You’ve made me politically irrelevant.” LBJ’s telling reply: “You’re looking to ’68.” This was a marvelous one scene capture of Johnson’s constant preoccupation with politics as personal power.

The takeaway here lies in the skillful intercutting between the news broadcasts of Johnson’s ascendency in Dallas and his insistence – against all advice – on returning to Washington immediately. He is sworn in on the plane with Jacqueline Kennedy to his left and Lady Bird to his right. He has become president shortly after John Kennedy died in the hospital. The man tucked away in the vice presidency is in charge.

The short two year time frame here is designed, acted, and directed with skill. A presidency that lasted just two years had been filled with bright men determined to bring their young strength to government. When LBJ asked a devastated Ted Sorenson to write his inauguration speech, tears were shed in the audience by those who remembered. Those of us who do remember must realize this happened 71 years ago.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : LBJ
Word Count : 500
Running Time: 1:38
Rating : R
Date : 5 November 2017