Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Transcendence [2014]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars) (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C)  AARP () Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Transcendnce [2014] (directed by Wally Pfister, screenplay by Jack Paglen) is a sci-fi-ish thriller set in the near future that explores the possibility (and some of the ramifications) of uploading a human mind onto a computer, in effect, digitizing it, making it (at least the digitized copy) as portable (and malleable...) as a computer virus or a jpeg file.

The concept and possibilities/dangers therefore will be fascinating to many, and yet also probably further in the future than the film's "near future" setting.  Why?  At minimum, a _functioning_ digitized copy of a brain from nature could not reside in just _any_ computer.  There are questions of brain architecture that would have to be resolved/simulated that would make the architecture of a computer fit for containing such a functioning digitized copy of a brain very different from the common-place computer or smart phone of today.  Hence said digitized copy of a brain couldn't just "swim across the internet" at will and "parking itself in just any given computer" at will ... So in the "real world" it would probably be PRETTY EASY to find where the digitized mind of AI-guru Dr Will Caster (played in the film by Johnny Depp) was residing.  And once one knew where said computer containing the digitized mind of AI-guru Will Caster was located, I'd be pretty certain that EVEN TODAY the good folks at the NSA (or even "Anonymous") would find a way to hack and destroy it without resorting to the (MILD SPOILER ALERT) rather Apocalyptic ending that the current story culminates in.

Still, I do find the possibilities / potential dangers raised by the very concept of "digitizing a human brain" fascinating: (1) If one could make a functioning digital copy of someone's brain, one could (obviously) make digital clones.  Yet those digital clones, from the very moment that they were created would necessarily begin to diverge from themselves.  (2) Could some law enforcement entity in the future do some kind of "MRI scan" of a captured "terrorist suspect's" brain and then "extract information" from the digitized copy of that prisoner's brain? (virtual "enhanced interrogation" /  or even virtual torture?).  (3) Could a future employer do said "MRI-like scan" of a potential employee's brain to make a digital copy "to run simulations with" to see what that potential employee would be capable of?  Could the employer then not hire the potential employee but keep the digital copy of the potential employee's "on file just in case" ... or even (unethically) use that digital copy of the potential employee's brain to do the employer's work without paying the potential employer for its services? (virtual slavery?)

Above, I've "played jazz" with basic concept behind the film, but the story-line of the film itself is not bad:  After AI-guru Dr. Will Caster is shot (and more importantly poisoned by a toxin-laced bullet) by a radical anti-technology terrorist group, his desperate wife and colleague Dr. Evelyn Caster (played by Rebecca Hall) decides to try to upload the contents of Will's brain into their computer before he dies (They were AI specialists working on advanced computers that were trying to mimic mammalian brain processes).   The radical anti-technology terrorist group tries to stop her, but ... well you guessed it ... she succeeds.

'Cept ... is the digital copy of Will's mind, really Will?  That's what Will and Evelyn's best friend and also colleague Dr. Max Waters (played by Paul Bethany) asks.  And the rest of the movie is about answering that question ... even as Will's "digital mind" becomes "bigger and bigger and bigger" (more and more capable) ... and hence, scarier and scarier ...

Now obviously _at best_ the digital copy of Will's mind IS A COPY (a CLONE).  On the other hand, since the original Dr. Will Caster died shortly after his mind was "uploaded" to the computer, "digital Will" could be (at least at the beginning) a _pretty good facsimile_.  And if "digital Will" changed/grew/evolved afterwards, well ... don't we all (change/grow/evolve) during the course of our lives?

Then theologically (metaphysically) speaking, there could be a question of whether one really could transfer the mind (and arguably the soul) of a person from a biological substrate to a digital one.  Then if one could make out of the digital copy thousands of other copies, would the soul copy/multiply/individuate as well?  The CNS/USCCB reviewer reminds readers that certainly the traditional Catholic/Christian metaphysical answer would be a rather emphatic no.  On the other hand, the book / film Cloud Atlas [2012] suggests that the final bastion of human prejudice will be against artificial sentient beings. 

My own concern would be that even if becomes possible to upload a person's mind onto a computer, WHAT ELSE WOULD THE "GOOD PEOPLE" OFFERING SUCH A SERVICE "BUNDLE" WITH THE PROCESS ... Would the "digital you" suddenly become "incompatible" with all "name that brand" competitor products/services?  Or on the other hand could the "digital you" suddenly find itself _craving_ "name that brand" allied products/services?   Would the "Good People" who uploaded and would be storing one's digitized mind become "part owners" of its contents (our memories) and therefore be able to "sell" them?  Could some NSA-like agency be able then to get a search warrant to "scan through" our digitized mind's memories stored somewhere by the "Good People" offering us this "service" of "parking" our "digitized minds" with them?

As I wrote in my review of the recent film Her [2013] that raises similar questions, we can be thankful that whether we were created by chance OR (as we Catholic/Christians believe) BY A NOW CLEARLY, TRULY SURPRISINGLY BENEVOLENT CREATOR we do apparently truly have Free Will.  There have been no "Name that Service Ads" appearing in front of our minds' eyes or in our dreams.  In contrast, it's hard to imagine an "electronic companion" created by some for-profit corporation that would not have some kind of "adware" bundled inside that "e-friend" or accompanying our new digitized "virtual minds."   And then honestly how much "bundled adware" or other "non/post-human functionality" could there be added to a digitized human mind before its previous "human soul" would be altered beyond recognition/destroyed.  A mechanized "transformer" being only capable of using "name that brand" products/services would definitely not be a human any more (but rather some kind of weird cyber-slave) even if it was driven by an initially human brain "uploaded" to make the mechanized thing run. 

But wow!   What kind of thoughts / concerns this film raises!  Several reviewers (including some I list above) have compared this film to the Frankenstein story where the lead character, Dr Will Caster plays the roles of both "mad scientist" and his "monstrous creation."  It's funny, but this may be the first time I've ever thought this (I turned fifty late last year): I'm happy that I'll probably be dead before most of what's portrayed as playing out in this film comes to pass ;-)

But still honestly, what a discussion piece!

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Heaven is For Real [2014]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-1)  AARP (3 1/2 Stars) (2 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 - 4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune/Variety (J. Chung) review
AARP-MfG (B. Newcott) review (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Heaven is For Real [2014] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Randall Wallace along with Chris Parker, based on the book by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent) released just in time for Passover and the Christian celebrations Easter ends a remarkably respectful Lent this year by Hollywood, one which featured other Biblically themed films including Son of God [2014] and Noah [2014].

It's a hopeful (and true) story about a little boy named Colton Burpo (played by Conner Corum) who had a near death experience of Heaven after he nearly died.  Coming to after nearly dying, he surprised everyone, including his parents (played by Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly), with his straight-forward talking of things literally "not of this earth," things about both his family history and "things of God / the Christian faith" that AS A FOUR YEAR OLD he could not have known or easily made-up, things like Jesus' Stigmata (Colton was growing up in a Methodist household, Colton's dad being a Methodist minister) or Jesus' eye color (few to no one would have invented this detail, much less a four year old, much less the color that the four year old matter-of-factly mentioned it was -- neither "really weird" nor particularly expected).  So what happened?

It's a lovely and again hopeful story released as a film just in time for our (Christian) celebration of Jesus' Resurrection at Easter.

Do Catholics / Christians have to believe the contents of this film?  Of course not (one does not have to believe ANY "private revelation").  But it does support the basic message of the Jesus' Gospel, that "God is With Us" (Matt 1:23, Matt 28:20) through the whole of our lives and that even Death does not have he Final Word, the final Word remains with God, "the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End." (Rev 22:12-13).

So in the midst of a very busy next few days (I'm writing this during Holy Week as we approach the beginning of the Triduum tomorrow) this would not be an entirely waste of time to see (but do go to the Liturgies first ;-)

But in any case Happy Holy Week and Happy Easter all!

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Elena [2012]

MPAA (UR would be R)   Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing

Official website (C. Nader) review*
O (M. Laob) review*

Elena [2012] (directed and cowritten by Petra Costa along with Carolina Ziskund) is a heart-rending documentary that played recently at the 30th Chicago Latino Film Festival.  It's about the young Brazilian director's older sister Elena who at 19 and an aspiring actress in New York had committed suicide some 20 years earlier. 

Why did Elena do it?  Isn't that ever the question?   Petra had been only seven at the time.  What she remembered of her older sister was what a seven year old would remember plus pictures, film clips, and even voice recordings of her, as Elena, self-conscious about her "bad" handwriting would often send audio cassette tapes in lieu of letters back home to her family.

It's clear that Elena had a depressive personality.  Artists of all types are also notoriously moody.  New York, the home of the United States' "serious artists" is arguably chock full of them.  Recent films about tortured artists in New York include Black Swan [2010] (for which Natalie Portman won an Oscar), A Late Quartet [2012] (which costarred the brilliant and tortured in life Philip Seymour Hoffman, who recently died of a drug overdose) and Frances Ha [2012] (which starred the ever-smiling even if her characters face sooo much failure and pain, Greta Gerwig).

Further, this is an IMHO quintessentially Brazilian story, where family history already carries with it a great deal of suffering/pain. Though born out in the provinces in "Mines Gerais" Elena and Petra's mother had already been in her youth an aspiring artist.  She then married dashing young man who had come back from studies in the United States a convinced Leftist and Che Guevara supporter.  Together they had joined the Brazilian Communist Party and IF NOT FOR HER MOTHER BEING PREGNANT WITH ELENA WOULD HAVE ALMOST CERTAINLY JOINED THE EMERGING "BRAZILIAN COMMUNIST INSURGENCY" OF THE 1960s FORMING ON THE BORDER WITH URUGUAY WHERE THEY WOULD HAVE ALMOST CERTAINLY BEEN KILLED.  Instead, the Communist leadership had convinced them "guerrilla warfare" was NOT good for a young couple with a child and convinced them that they could play "a different role" away from the fighting.  ALMOST ALL THEIR FRIENDS WHO JOINED THE BRAZILIAN COMMUNIST GUERRILLA FIGHTERS HAD BEEN KILLED OR EXECUTED IN THE YEARS IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING ELENA'S BIRTH.  The irony, of course, that Petra and her parents ALL owe their lives to ELENA who grew up to kill herself is again just heart-rending.

Then from what I've experienced of Brazilian families (my religious order, the Servites, has a significant presence in Brazil), distance especially for young women, from their families is REALLY, REALLY HARD.  So even though Elena initially went ENTHUSIASTICALLY to New York to study performance arts (acting and dance), and even made some connections -- she apparently reported back home that she met people like Francis Ford Copolla -- soon she found herself deathly homesick, quit everything and went home to Brazil.

So what did the family do?  Again, something IMHO quintessentially (if they have the means) Brazilian: both mom and younger daughter Petra accompanied Elena back to New York to LIVE THERE WITH HER TO SUPPORT HER so that she'd complete her studies.

Of course, Elena was a mess.  And despite a family that loved her and clearly wanted to support her, she spiraled inward and eventually took a bottle of pills and killed herself.

What could have been done?  Elena had apparently gone to get help.  She was on lithium in the months before she died.  This was apparently just before Prosac and similar anti-depressant drugs had come-out.  

She was above all a very sensitive person, an artist type in a family with both perhaps predispositions toward sadness/depression and then a family history (the friends around the parents who were all killed) with much to feel sadness / depression about.

So how does the director tell the story of Elena's life and her death.  Beautifully.  She interviews people who knew her as a friend and as a student.  She uses those audiotapes of her reports back home.  She uses old 8-mm and Super-8 movie clips of her when she was young and then performing at school in New York.  She also uses the metaphor of water (see the poster) showing Elena as simply feeling overwhelmed.

Does the film glorify her suicide?  It's a question to ask.  I'd say emphatically no.  If anything, the film so clearly expresses the sadness of the family that lost her, misses her and has experienced her suicide as a very big hole left by her in their lives.  They do go on, but they wonder why (she did it) and wish (for both her and their sake) that she was still with them.  No it's not a glorification of suicide at all.  The film just shows it to be a big, sad hole, for everyone it touched.

* Foreign language webpages are most easily translated using Google's Chrome Browser.  

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Patagonia of Dreams (orig. Patagonia de los Sueños) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 - 4 Stars)

IMDb listing listing*

Official website* Interview (English) w. Director

Patagonia of Dreams (orig. Patagonia de los Sueños) [2013] [IMDb] [CCh]* (directed and co-written by Jorge López Sotomayor [IMDb] [CCh]* along with Gerardo Cáceres [IMDb] [CCh]* based on the Diary of Chantal Rouquaud*) is a Chilean / Argentinian film that played recently at the 30th Chicago Latino Film Festival.  The film played at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival last year.

Set in Buenos Aires and Patagonia of the latter part of the 1800s, it would be fair to compare the film to the famous Hollywood Post-Colonial "Colonial epic" Out of Africa [1985] as the issues / conflicts present are remarkably similar:

(1) In each case a European couple or family already of some means sets out to another land (actually under the jurisdiction of another European/Western power) to make (or re-make) their fortune.

Out of Africa [1985] is based on the memoirs the Karen Denisen (played in that film by Meryl Streep) who at the beginning of her story married a Swedish (lesser) baron named Bror von Brixen.  She soon moved with her new husband to Kenya (then British East Africa) where they wished to (re)establish a name for themselves with a coffee plantation.

Patagonia de los Sueños [2013] [IMDb] [CCh]* is inspired by the diary of Chantal Rouquaud (played in the film by Juanita Ringeling [IMDb] [CCh]*) who at the beginning of the story was the 17 year old daughter of M. and Mde. Rouquard (played by Martín Neglia [IMDb] [CCh]* and Alessandra Guerzoni [IMDb] [CCh]*).  The family though "already-of-some-means" back in France had emigrated to Argentina some years earlier in hopes of "increasing their station" there.  At the beginning of the story, we learn that M. Rouquard has staked the family's fortunes on establishing a "fish processing" operation out in the coastal wilds of Argentina's southern Patagonia region, to the distress of the 17-year-old Chantal who had been looking forward being a young and sought-after "belle of the balls" back in B.A.

(2) In each case, arrival out "in the colonies" (Kenya / British East Africa for the Von Brixens), Patagonia for the Rouguauds was a shock.  In both cases, they found themselves among truly tiny communities of Europeans/Westerners (white people...) in lands that, naturally, had belonged other NATIVE populations. What were the white European colonists doing there?

That's a very good question noted Patagonia de los Sueños [2013] [IMDb] [CCh]* director present at the film's screening and part of the reason why he made the film (not in any way to "glorify" Chile / Argentina's expansion Southward into Patagonia during the late 1800s but rather to put it in a general context of other Western/European colonial expansions occurring at the time all across the globe.

What made the Rouquauds feel that they deserved to go down to Patagonia to start a fish processing enterprise on land nominally conceded to them by Argentina but had clearly been inhabited by others since time immemorial?  What made the Von Brixens feel that they deserved to leave their smaller possessions in southern Scandinavia and try luck with a coffee plantation on land nominally conceded to them by the British Colonial authority but was on land that was inhabited by native Kenyans since time immemorial?  For that matter, what made the artist Paul Gauguin feel that he could to leave everything (including his own wife and kids) in France and "reestablish himself" on the French colonial "possession" of Tahiti and spend the rest of his life painting half-naked native Tahitian women on land nominally controlled by France but in reality had belonged to the Tahitian Polynesian people since time immemorial?   What made countless Europeans from 1500 through to the end of World War II leave their native lands and "try their luck" with all kinds of commercial ventures big and small on "other peoples' lands" and requiring various levels of immorality (ranging from simply setting-up a Mission or trading post on land that was initially largely empty but certainly _never_ previously "theirs" to displacement/marginalization of the native populations to enslavement to genocide) to do so?

Yet, of course, I write my blog from CHICAGO, today a city of 2.5 million and a metropolitan area of 8-10 million which started as a simple trading post founded in the 1780s by Jean Baptiste du Sable of African (Haitian) and French descent who thought it a wise idea to set one up near the mouth of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan (about 100-200 meters from where the AMC River East-21 Movie Theater where I saw the current film stands today ;-).  A few miles upstream, the Chicago River comes within a mile of the Des Plaines River, which flows into the Illinois River and then into the Mississippi.  So Du Sable's trading post (and modern Chicago) fell on the crossroads of a shipping route that could extend from the North Atlantic (the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in Canada) down the St. Lawrence River across the chain of the Great Lakes and then by means of this geographic accident of the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers coming so close to each other all the way down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.  Is North America a better place because Du Sable had the foresight to setup a trading post here in what subsequently became the metropolis of Chicago?   And while it is true that Native American tribes who used to live in the Chicago area were eventually forcibly removed / wiped-out (as a consequence of the Blackhawk War) that was not an inevitability but rather a subsequent choice by the American government that eventually took definitive hold of the region.  (The same could be said of the fate of the the native peoples of Patagonia on whose lands the Rauguauds initially set-up their still quite little fish processing facility.  It wasn't necessarily inevitable that the Argentinian government would unleash a campaign of genocide against the native peoples on their lands, or the Chilean government would marginalize the natives onto North American style reservations).    

(3) As in the case of the experience of the Von Brixens in Kenya (British East Africa) the experience of the Rauguauds in Patagonia was one where there was international tension in the air.  Not only was there the question of the morality of "coming from far away" to "establish themselves" on "other peoples' land", there was competition between "Great" or "Regional Powers" over the land.  In the case of the Von Brixens, the competition was between the British in what today is Kenya and the Germans whose East African possessions became today's Tanzania.  In the case of the Rauguauds, the tension was between Argentina and Chile, who both claimed large portions of Patagonia and even the British who had a colony on the Falkland Islands / Malvinas (over which there was the (in)famous 1982 War between Argentina and Britain).

(4) If there is a lot of subtext to both stories -- colonialism, the mistreatment of the native peoples as a consequence, international rivalry, even the role of women (as both Out of Africa [1985] and Patagonia de los Sueños [2013] were told an basis of recollections by (then) relatively young women of their experiences of "colonial life" that wasn't necessarily chosen ... both probably would have preferred initially to stay in their native lands if they had been given a choice, instead they had to obey the men in their lives and try "to make the best of things" when they go there -- both stories are ultimately about the individuals present in the stories.

In both cases, there scoundrels, and there were noble types. Both Out of Africa [1985]'s Karen Denisen von Brixen (played in that film by Meryl Streep) and Patagonia de los Sueños [2013] Chantal (played by Juanita Ringeling [IMDb] [CCh]*) matured as a result of their experiences in the colonies.  And both found their soul mates out there: Karen von Brixen found the dashing bush pilot Denys (played in the film by Robert Redford), while Chantal found the German born ethnographer/artist Thomas Ohlsen (played in the film by Ariel Canale [IMDb] [CCh]*) whose drawings of the Tehuelche people of Patagonia remain among the best records of their way of life in the early years of contact with the Europeans/the West.

All in all, North American and European viewers who like history would probably find this historical drama about the Rauguaud family's experience in Patagonia of the late 1800s fascinating and its viewing might inspire discussions about the nature, circumstances and legacy of the European/Western Colonial Era in general.  Again, what (besides simply "Manifest Destiny" arrogance) drove so many Europeans to seek both better lives and even fortunes all across the globe at that time? 

* Foreign language webpages are most easily translated using Google's Chrome Browser.  

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Friday, April 11, 2014

Draft Day [2014]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB ()  ChicagoTribune (2 1/2 Stars) (2 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  AARP (2 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (B. Newcott) review (B. Tallerico) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Draft Day [2014] (directed by Ivan Reitman, screenplay by Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph) is a "sports film" really "sports front office film" that a lot of middle-aged men are probably going to relate to. 

Sonny Weaver Jr (played by Kevin Costner) is the (fictionalized) GENERAL MANAGER of a PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL TEAM.  This would seem like the DREAM JOB for millions of "fantasy football" fanatics and other sports fans across the country and even across the world.  'CEPT (there's always a 'cept...) and here there are a whole bunch of 'cepts:

(1) He's the general manager of the Cleveland Browns, an NFL team that's been mediocre for decades,

(2) He's Sonny Weaver, JUNIOR, the son of the (fictionalized) LEGENDARY CLEVELAND BROWNS COACH, Sonny Weaver, SENIOR who as General Manager AT THE PLEADING OF HIS MOTHER (SENIOR'S WIFE) HE (JUNIOR) HAD TO "LET GO" the year before (because of a heart conditon).  It was probably a good call as dad died quietly at home only a few days before (presumably of a heart attack) but thankfully NOT before millions of viewers at an NFL Game.  YET MANY CLEVELAND SPORTS FANS ONLY REMEMBER THAT THIS "UNGRATEFUl, NOBODY SON" "FIRED" HIS OWN DAD THE SEASON BEFORE "FOR NO GOOD REASON..."

(3) The new coach Penn (played by Denis Leary) that he was given (presumably under pressure from the team's owner Anthony Molina (played by Frank Langella), who one gets the sense didn't particularly like Weaver, Sr EITHER, is a prima donna who was recently fired from Dallas (where he had won a Super Bowl... though with a team he had inherited rather than built-up himself).  But owner Molina seems to like Penn because "at least he makes a splash" something that the Venerable and VENERATED, "Old School, "X-s and O-s" Weaver, Senior hadn't done in years and owner Molina has his doubts that Weaver, Jr will ever do either.  Draft Day's coming up (the film's title) and Molina more-or-less makes it clear to Weaver, Jr that unless he "makes something happen", "makes a splash" that he'll be gone...

(4) Ma' (played by Ellen Burstyn), who after all convinced her son to fire her husband/his own dad (perhaps for dad's own good, but ...) continues to have a larger influence on Junior's life than perhaps she should... 

(5) In this pressure cooker, Weaver, Jr, divorced, adds _his own_ peccadillo by sleeping with one of his higher-ranked (but still...) subordinates, the team's lawyer (and responsible for keeping the team under its salary cap) Ali (played very nicely by Jennifer Gardner).  Near the beginning of the film, she informs him that she's/they're pregnant.  Now there is something genuine between them.  HE'd like to bring her out into the open (almost everybody knows that there's something between them anyway).  But this is an office romance.  Now ("Draft Day...") doesn't seem to be a good time.  BUT WHEN EXACTLY WILL IT EVER BE "a good time?"

So if you thought that your life was complicated ... ;-)

Okay, so it's "Draft Day" the day each year that the NFL teams go through the roster of eligible college athletes AND VERY PUBLICLY SELECT THEM TO THEIR TEAMS in the NFL. 

Cleveland's first round pick is #7.  The team has its sights on two players -- a linebacker Vontae Mack (played by Chadwick Boseman) who's a great player, will help build the defense "but won't make a splash," and Ray Jennings (played by Arian Foster) a running back from Florida State, who "plays with heart" whose dad played for Cleveland before, but who in recent weeks had gotten arrested for "assault and battery" in some sort of gang fight "back in the hood" back home. 

But then the Seattle Seahawks, who have the #1 pick, call with an offer that's hard to refuse, which would give Weaver/Cleveland the #1 pick and presumably a future star QB Bo Callahan (played by Josh Pence) from Wisconson.  But Cleveland already has a QB in Brian Drew (played by Tom Welling), who okay, hasn't necessarily performed to expectations (he's been injured) but Coach Penn likes him (and HATES ROOKIES...).  So what to do...?

And in fact, what would you do...?  And remember, in the pressure cooker of "Draft Day" ALL KINDS OF WHEELING AND DEALING, TRADES AND NEGOTIATIONS CAN TAKE PLACE ...

How can one "at the END OF THE DAY" end up FOR ONCE with "the team that one wants?"

Isn't that the question? ;-)

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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Trip to Timbuktu (orig. Viaje a Tombuctú) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing

Official Website

Press articles*

Trip to Timbuktu (orig. Viaje a Tombuctú) [2013] (screenplay written and directed by Rossana Díaz Costa, an assistant professor of Communications Sciences at the University of Lima) is a Peruvian film telling the story of two young people Ana and Lucho, who grew-up, middle class, in Lima during the Guerrilla War in Peru of the 1980s-90s between the government and Shining Path and MRTA guerrillas. 

The film was shot largely in the seaside Lima neighborhood where Ms Diaz Costa grew-up, with most of the actors being her students as well as children from the neighborhood. The film played recently at the 30th Chicago Latino Film Festival

The film serves as a very good reminder to viewers of the tens of millions, probably hundreds of millions of people across the planet growing-up in immediately recognizable middle class circumstances -- both Ana's and Lucho's parents were educated, their fathers both worked in offices "downtown," and both Ana/Lucho, as they matured, entered University.  However, neither family was "super rich" either: Ana's family did have one, older somewhat beat-up car.  Neither family had "servants." And Ana's grandparents (presumably Ana's father's parents) lived with them in their townhouse home throughout the whole of the story that spanned Ana's childhood and into young adult years -- and yet their circumstances were also _different_.  In the case of Ana / Lucho, they grew-up in Peru during a very brutal insurgency. 

That insurgency did wear on everyone's lives: One simply had to travel everywhere, at all times, "with one's papers."  Curfews came to be imposed and even largely followed out of common sense (no one in his/her right mind wanted to be "outside on their own" in the countryside or a neighborhood they did not know long after dark.  People learned the difference in sounds between harmless celebratory fireworks and gunshots, explosions and even artillery rounds (There's an excellent and very unnerving scene at the beginning of the film that drives this point home).  Electricity routinely went out across city and countryside depending on what substations and transmission facilities were attacked and when.  Lucho's father was wounded as a result of a car bomb explosion downtown one day...

Yet this was not a "The Communist insurgents were bad ..." sort of a film.  Ana, Lucho and their friends/families, all knew where they lived, where as Lucho put it: "Half the country is dirt poor..." 

It's just IT DIDN'T MATTER what anyone thought or did.  THE BOMBS WENT OFF EVERYDAY -- 1, 2, 5, 10 -- A DAY ANYWAY.  The authorities were AFRAID OF EVERYONE -- because in the middle of the insurgency EVERYONE FIT _SOME_ PROFILE whether being "a poor Communist peasant" or a "rich Communist hippie" or a "rich Communist elitist," or even "the (faux) naive wife/daughter of a rich Communist hippie or elitist" ... the only thing that kept one "safe" at a police/military checkpoint was keeping a smile, keeping one's hands up / visible and "having one's papers in order."  And being pulled out of a bus and "taken to the the station" for NOT "having one's papers in order" was a LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCE for all. 

In response to this constant pressure of truly "living in a war zone," what many Peruvians who could did (and many others who could not at least imagined) was to leave Peru for destinations "far away" (hence the film's title ...)

So this is a pretty gut-wrenching film.   Yet it is quite soberly done and could serve millions of 30-40 something year old Peruvians across the world as a means of explaining to their non-Peruvian friends or their own children what it was like to live and grow-up in Peru in the 1980s-90s.

Honestly, an excellent film!

* Foreign language webpages are most easily translated using Google's Chrome Browser.  

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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Stoker of Delirium (orig. Fogonero del Delirium) [2011]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing listing

Official Site

Alejandro Colunga: Stoker of Delirium (orig. Alejandro Colunga: Fogonero del Delirium) [2011] (directed and cowritten by Gustavo Domínguez along with Jorge de la Cueva based on the original script of Dante Medina) is a feature length (90 min) documentary piece from Mexico that played recently at the 30th Chicago Latino Film Festival.

Commissioned originally by the University of Guadalajara and a Mexican National Fund for the Promotion of Fine Arts, it is about the life and art of Guadalajara native Alejandro Colunga one of Mexico's most influential and interesting contemporary artists. 

For those who like surrealist art, the documentary itself is a delight.  For example, Colunga's childhood is presented through surrealist imagery inspired by his own art, employing both animation and masked and costumed actors in the process. 

The result is magical, at times somewhat controversial, but certainly insightful, getting to the playful and iconoclastic spirit of the artist underneath the work.  Thus we see masked mariachis playing their instruments in a windswept graveyard following Colunga's father's death when the artist was young.

To most readers of my blog, the most controversial scene in the film for some would be that of the 6-8 year old Colunga's experience of the the Celebration of the Mass: The Virgin Mary and many of the Saints turn into trapeze artists and other carnival characters during the Consecration.  Offensive?  Could be.  But put yourselves back into the mind of a ten year old and in the scene the young Colunga _isn't_ portrayed as laughing at the Mass or the Angels and the Saints but rather IN AWE OF IT ALL.  (I myself remember being in AWE of all the images -- the Angels, the Saints, the images of Jesus struggling on his way to Calvary -- all about St. Procopius Church back in Chicago where we'd go to Czech Mass whenever my grandmother (who didn't speak a word of English) was with us.  Priest's and choir's voices would echo through the Church anyway, so I couldn't understand a word ... but there was _plenty_ to look at, all around.  So _honestly_ I can relate to the image in the film ...

Throughout the film, various family members of Colunga, friends, patrons as well as Colunga himself were interviewed to give insight to the various stages of his life.  (Interestingly, he studied architecture, mathematics and other more technical fields in his life before entering into the field of art which he claimed he "didn't study at all" ;-). He also spent a brief period in the 1960s as part of a Guadalajara rock band ;-) before returning back to painting and handicraft/sculpture. 

So who is he then?  One would certainly recognize him as a "great" thoughtful, iconoclastic/playful artist of today for whom Mexican folk-flavored surrealism would certainly be an _ideal_ form of expression. 

The film is certainly not for all, but for those who do love art, especially contemporary art and the freedom that it often expresses, this film will probably be for you. 

The film also serves the purpose of reminding viewers (and indeed the world) that Mexico does have truly rich tradition in art and one that did not simply begin and end with Diego Rivera and Frida and the "Muralists" of the 1920s-40s. There are some GREAT artists like Alejandro Colunga living and producing some very insightful and often quite funny / entertaining contemporary art right now.

In any case, I found this to be a great and fun film!

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