Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago [2013]

MPAA (UR would be PG)  ChicagoTribune (2 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (S. Merry) review
Spirituality & Practice (F & M.A. Brussat) review

Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago [2013] (directed by Lydia Smith) is the second film, this time a documentary, about the experience of walking the traditional 500 mile pilgrimage route The Camino (Way) of St. James from the French side of the Pyrenees across much of picturesque northern Spain (Galicia) to the Cathedral Shrine of St. James at Santiago de Compostela, the other film was The Way [2010] starring Martin Sheen and written / directed by his son Emilio Estevez (reviewed on this blog when it came-out as well). 

The countryside is lovely, the Camino is full of history.  The question that can fairly be asked is "How 'Catholic' does 'Walking the Camino' remain?"

And it could be said that "Walking the Camino" today would fall in the realm of "Religion Light."  Of the six people that the film follows, only one (a young clearly devoted French mother with a Rosary ever either in her hand or around her neck, who embarks and completes the entire Camino with her three year old (often in a stroller) in tow), maybe 1 1/2 (there's an older Episcopalian priest who's followed in the film as well as he and a friend walk it on behalf of his wife who passed away a few years back) seem(s) to begin the journey for any explicitly religious purpose. 

Yet, having said this, I do agree with the smiling Spanish Bishop (one of three spiritual consultants to the film, all Catholic) interviewed quite extensively in the film who assessed: "One may start the Camino as a tourist, but just about everyone ends it as a Pilgrim."  Why?  It's just too hard to do this trek otherwise.  It's just too much of an investment in terms of time (6-8 weeks), sweat/blisters, and (if one really wanted to do this entirely secularly) money to not become grateful for the generosity / hospitality of the MANY, MANY Catholic convents / hostels that open their doors to the pilgrims along the way.

Now don't get me wrong.  I know there are would-be ingrates out there (and I've personally known ingrates out there).   But there are a lot more easier ways to HATE THE CHURCH than to walk 500 miles constantly running-into tired but smiling people, who DON'T hate as much, to do so ;-).

And there are some lovely life-lessons that one learns along the Way: (1) No one ends this trip "alone."  Even though several of the people followed in this film BEGAN their journey expecting (even hoping for) Solitude ... it just becomes so much easier to complete it with friends found along the way.  (2) Even today, with all our advances in technology, the 500 mile journey bests the best of footwear.  Part of the journey for EVERYONE appears to be putting-up with / accepting "blisters" along the way.  (3) We really DON'T NEED a "lot of stuff."  Almost EVERYONE finds that they've "over packed."  And as people INEVITABLY _come to share_ what they've packed with those they meet along the way EVERYONE seems to find that they can get by with MUCH LESS than they started out with.  (4) The Camino made here in 2-3 months, is really symbolic of (a metaphor for) the Camino that EVERYONE does over the course of one's life (That last insight comes from one of the _initially_ most secular minded people followed in the film).

As such, I did find the movie inspiring.  In younger days, and with more time, I'd be tempted to do this kind of a journey as well.  BUT I don't have to do everything ;-) ... Still I would encourage those who are young(er) and with some time ... to take a look!  It looks like a great way to spend a summer, and I do believe it would be an experience that would change / stay with one for the rest of one's life!  Good job!

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Boyhood [2014]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L)  ChicagoTribune (4 Stars) (4 Stars)  AVClub (A-)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

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

Boyhood [2014] (written and directed by Richard Linklater) is a remarkable 12-year wonder that in a Best Picture field of potentially as many as ten films will _certainly_ deserve at least a nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars for this year with possible director and original screenplay nominations as well (and the four core acting performances weren't bad either ;-).  So what the heck did Linklater do to deserve such praise? ;-).

Well this GREAT storyteller (or at least a storyteller with a GREAT IDEA) decided to assemble a core cast to play members of a family -- the mother, Olivia (played by Patricia Arquette), the father Mason, Sr (played by Ethan Hawke) and their two children Samantha (played by Lorelei Linklater the director's own daughter) and Mason, Jr (played by Ellar Coltrane) and THEN BRING THIS CAST TOGETHER FOR A COUPLE OF DAYS EVERY YEAR FOR TWELVE YEARS TO TELL THE THEIR STORY OVER TIME.  Film's primary focus is Mason, Jr, hence the film's title "Boyhood."  However, it's obvious as this story plays out that ALL THE CHARACTERS ARE growing / changing as well.  Indeed, part of the film's multifaceted reflection on "growing-up" would be that NO ONE "grows up" in isolation, Instead, we all grow-up / change together.

Yet the story told, is NO "Sentimental Journey."  When we meet the characters, mom and dad in their mid to late 20s (Sam and Mason, Jr  are seven and six respectively) are fighting.  Like many a parents, they "married early." We (viewers) immediately suspect that they chose to do so far more by the circumstances that they found themselves in than by choice (We get more info, ever age appropriate, about the circumstances of the parents' meeting / marriage as the kids grow older ;-).  And indeed, by the end of that first years' segment, Olivia's had enough of her still immature / directionless husband.  So she packs her kids in the car and moves back to her mother's (Olivia's mom played by Libby Villary) in Houston.

The story recommences a couple of years later with Olivia, Sam and Mason, Jr still living somewhere in the Houston area.  Olivia's found them all an apartment, has been holding down a job and going to community college.  Sam and Mason, Jr have settled in at their new school.  And dad's come back for the first time in 1 1/2 years, having spent the time in between "up in Alaska."

What was he doing "up in Alaska?"  Well, he tells Sam (when she asks) that he spent much of it working on a boat possibly as part of a commercial fishing enterprise, along the lines of the life portrayed on The Deadliest Catch [2005-]).  Now what would a Texan be doing on a commercial fishing vessel?  It probably wouldn't be his first choice.  However, Texas is an "oil rich state" as is Alaska.  So one would suspect that a fair amount of young men without particularly large skill sets to travel between the two states looking for work in one or the other state's oil fields.  Then when "up in Alaska" if working on a commercial fishing vessel proved to to pay better, well ... However, dad also tells Sam "to tell mom" that he's on his "second actuarial exam" (looking to get a job in insurance, now that he's back in Texas again).

If there was any hope on the part of Mason, Sr (and the kids) that he and mom (Olivia) could patch things up, that's unsurprisingly quickly dashed.  Mom's got other plans.  She's studying psychology (in good part, no doubt, trying to figure herself out).  And as she starts to feel better about herself, she starts looking for a "more responsible man."

Over the years that follow, we find her in two relationships.  The first was with a Psychology Professor (named Bill Wellbrook, played by Marco Parella) who was also divorced, also with two children of Sam's and Mason, Jr's age.  She even marries Professor Bill for a while before she runs into his own demons.  Later after she herself finishes grad-school and becomes a Psychology Prof, she enters into a relationship with a returning Afghan war vet named Ted (played by Stephen Prince).  Both of these men were perhaps "more responsible" than her original husband, but end up having multiple issues of their own.

In the meantime Mason, Sr, "grows up" as well.  Though not much of a dad, except perhaps "fun to be around" when Sam and Mason, Jr were kids, he starts to make more sense (and even gain some wisdom) by the time they enter high school.  During those years, he also marry again (probably by knocking-up his girlfriend again...).  However this time, he seems to be more capable of being a responsible husband than in his first marriage.  (His second wife's parents are a gas.  Again, they're all Texans. So for Mason, Jr's 16th birthday, step-grandma buys him a Bible "with his name engraved on on the frunt" and step-grand-dad gives him the gun he received from his grandpa when he was young.).

At a point, during this part of the story, Sam asks in playful, eye rolling fashion "Dad, you're not going to become one of those 'God people' now?"  He smiles / shrugs, AND his new wife RESPONDS WITH EQUAL PLAYFULNESS from a distance, "Hey guys, you know I can hear you two!"

I know that a number of readers here might be taken aback by this incident and perhaps even be offended THAT I WAS NOT OFFENDED BY IT (see the CNS/USCCB's review of the film, though in fairness what else could the reviewer write about that incident in the film?).  However, I found this episode amusing, REAL and KIND.  (I could add that it's obvious that Mason, Sr.'s new wife was NOT CATHOLIC but of a more fundamentalist Protestant bent).  However, I saw GROWTH in the dad's (Mason, Sr's) reaction to it all.  In earlier times he was far more opinionated / judgmental.  (Interestingly, though a Texan, he was shown earlier in the story as hating Bush/Cheney and was shown later campaigning (though never-altogether seriously) for Obama / Biden).  Here, some years later, he was accepting the religious convictions of his new wife and her family and was willing to be open to the possibility that he _could learn something from them_.  IMHO, that's a BIG STEP, from the arrogant certainty of ignorance to the coming to the realization that one could learn from others.

The last part of the film, involves Mason, Jr's teenage years.  Various potential "male role models" vie his attention -- there's his mother's Afghan war vet, now corrections' officer, boyfriend (yup, he's badge-carrying "responsible"), there's his photography teacher who wants him to "bear down and do his assignments: rather than "simply follow his bliss" (Mason's Jr's becoming a fairly good photographer), and there's his boss at a random fast food place where he's got a job who's trying to teach him discipline as well.  Finally, of course, there's his own dad, who, (at least in this film) appears to prove that biology does have some sense to things after all.  Indeed, dad's "grown-up" / "matured" / "changed" along side his kids over the twelve years and IMHO proves to be Mason, Jr's best "wisdom figure" as Jr approaches adulthood, whatever his previous shortcomings may have been.

Honestly, folks, it all makes for a remarkable story and A GREAT PIECE FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION AFTERWARDS.  What does it mean to "grow up"?  What are the trade-offs to the decisions we make?  And are we willing to accept that those around us are "growing up" and "changing" as well?  Great stuff!

ADDENDUM: I do have _one problem_ with the film.  In a movie that's mostly white, fairly late in the story a young Hispanic (person of color) is added marginally to the mix.  However, the character is treated so paternalistically that I wish he had been edited out.  He doesn't play a major role in the story in any case.  Yet, the story's treatment of him is such that it may actually offend many Hispanics (and other people of color) who otherwise might have liked the film without him.  This is why I'm giving the film 3 1/2 Stars rather than 4.  (With other films, I've been punishing in regard to their treatment of race than I'm here.  But I do think that there are so many good aspects to this film that I don't want to sink it on this account here.  Still, I do fully expect that a fair number of Hispanics will find the paternalistic treatment of the ONLY Hispanic (or person of color) in the film surprisingly tin-eared / offensive).

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Sex Tape [2014] / The Purge: Anarchy [2014] / Planes: Fire & Rescue [2014] / Wish I Was Here [2014]

As part of my contribution in our parish's participation in the Archdiocese of Chicago's Campaign "To Teach Who Christ Is," I've decided to forgo seeing (and therefore reviewing here) one or two movies a weekend and instead contribute the money I would have spent to the campaign.

I'm trying to be strategic about this, picking movies that would "hurt somewhat" to miss, that is, films that are not "so bad" that I wouldn't see them anyway nor movies that I really would need to see/review or else my blogging effort would cease to be worthwhile.

As per my custom, I will try to provide links to usual line-up of reviews that I also consider as I write my own.

This week I chose to not see:

Sex Tape [2014] - MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  ChicagoTribune (1 1/2 Stars) (1 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (D+)

The Purge: Anarchy [2014] - MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  ChicagoTribune (1 1/2 Stars) (2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)

Planes: Fire & Rescue [2014] - MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-II)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars) (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C-)

Wish I Was Here [2014] - MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB ()  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars) (3 Stars)  AVClub (C)

Some of these are fairly obvious choices (Sex Tape [2014] , The Purge: Anarchy [2014]) though I have reviewed and liked Cameron Diaz' Bad Teacher [2011] and saw (cautionary) value in last year's Spring Breakers [2013] as well the original The Purge [2013].  But I have to admit I found myself embarrassed getting a single ticket to Spring Breakers last year and expected a similar expecting a similar experience purchasing a ticket to see Sex Tape (and for what end?  Spring Breakers did have a point).  Then with regard to the sequel to The Purge, I honestly don't see what message could be added in the sequel above that already present in the original that would justify it's creation.

I decided to forgo seeing Planes: Fire & Rescue [2014] also as a protest but for a different reason.  While I somewhat grudgingly had to admit that Toy Story 3 [2010] was certainly "moving" at times, as a rule, I don't like the consumerist message under the whole Toy Story, Cars and now Planes franchises: "Kids things are 'people too.'"  No they are not and they are not even like "a pet" or "gold fish."  A computer, a robot, okay ... I can start to "play" with that idea (Even though as I wrote about the (appropriately R-rated) Her [2013] even in the case of a computer (or operating system) there are fundamental differences between human and human-made intelligences... most notably that a human-made artificial intelligence would almost certainly be "bundled with adware." ;-).  So I don't like films that try to make KIDS think that THINGS are "People Too."  THEY ARE NOT.

Finally, Wish I Was Here [2014] may actually not be a bad film about parenting (and parents' involvement in their kids lives).  I just don't feel an enormous desire to see the film that I suspect could be too "out there" for my own sensitibility.  And I'd prefer to "conserve my powder" for IMHO more compelling films.

Anyway, this week, I'm choosing forgo seeing a whole bunch of films and mostly for reasons of "lameness."  Hopefully, in the coming weeks there will be a better selection of new films to see.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Marketa Lazarová [1967]

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

IMDb listing
CSFD listing* listing*

Czech that Film [official site] [2014 line-up at GSFC in Chicago]

Marketa Lazarová [1967] [IMDb] [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]*[CSFD]*[FDB]* (directed and screenplay cowritten by František Vláčil [IMDb] [cz.wikip]*[CSFD]*[FDB]* along with František Pavlíček  [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*, based on the novel by the same name [cz.wikip]* by Vladislav Vančura [IMDb] [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]* [CSFD]*[FDB]*) played recently at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago as part of 2014 Czech That Film Tour cosponsored by the Czech Diplomatic Mission to the United States.

In 1998 as part of marking the Centenary of Czech language cinema, the film was voted by over 100 Czech film critics as the greatest Czech language film ever made.  In 2011, a digitally restored version, premiered at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival (the Czech Republic's premier international film festival).    It was this version with English subtitles that played here at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

That the film received the distinction of being "the greatest Czech Language film ever made" is not without its controversies and caveats:

First, the film is rather unique (for Czech / Czechoslovak cinema) in style.  Released in 1967 almost exactly at the midpoint of Czechoslovakia's Communist Era (1948-1989) and just as a new generation of Czechoslovak film-makers (those of the far more Western-European influenced Czechoslovak "New Wave" [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]*) were beginning to come to their own, it would be immediately obvious to viewers/critics that František Vláčil's [IMDb] [cz.wikip]*[CSFD]*[FDB]* influences came "from the East," that is, from the epic works of Sergei Eisenstein [IMDb] [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* (Alexander Nevsky [IMDb] [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]*, Ivan the Terrible [1944, 1958] [IMDb - Pts 1 - 2] [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]*) and Vláčil's Russian/Soviet contemporary Andrej Tarkovsky [IMDb] [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* who released Andrej Rublev [1966] [IMDb] [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* at about the same time as Vláčil released his film.

Then epic cinema costs money and resources.  Marketa Lazarová [1967] [IMDb] [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]*[CSFD]*[FDB]* was by far the most expensive Czechoslovak film made up to that time and (adjusted to today's currency values) possibly ever.  To make such an investment in a film -- it was filmed over two years with multiple sets with, by legend, the actors even asked to live during the two years as their characters (in frontier-like medieval conditions) -- generally requires that the project have the "appropriate pedigree."  And it did: Vančura [IMDb] [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]* on whose book the film was based was a Czech Communist martyr of the Resistance to Nazi Occupation, and Vláčil [IMDb] [cz.wikip]*[CSFD]*[FDB]* cut his teeth making films in the 1950s for the Czechoslovak (Communist-era) army.  As such, it would not be entirely inappropriate to put the film (at least initially) in a similar category as the infamous (and also necessarily "state sponsored") late-Nazi era monstrosity Kolberg [1944] [IMDb] [en.wikip].

However, all this admitted, Marketa Lazarová [1967] [IMDb] [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]*[CSFD]*[FDB]* remains a remarkable and arguably great film.

First, making epic period or even sci-fi drama _inevitably_ costs money.  Just ask James Cameron [IMDb] (Titanic [1997], Avatar [2008]), Steven Spielberg [IMDb] (Saving Private Ryan [1998], Lincoln [2012]) or Peter Jackson [IMDb] (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy [2001, 2002, 2003]).  Would _anyone_ seriously question the artistic validity/value of these films (as well as those of the Russian Soviet-era film-makers mentioned above)?

Further, American viewers will certainly appreciate director Vláčil's [IMDb] [cz.wikip]*[CSFD]*[FDB]* "method-acting-like" insistence that the actors in his film "get into the mindset" of the characters that they were playing to the point of his wanting his actors to _live like the characters that they were playing_ for some time both _before and as they filmed_.  (The Method was based on Russian born Constantin Stanislavki's system of "emotional memory recall" that influenced both Hollywood and Soviet-era film-making preparation).  Since the story of Marketa Lazarová (Vančura's book [cz.wikip]* / Vláčil's film [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]*) took place in the still largely lawless/pagan Czech hinter/borderlands at the time that  these lands first entered into recorded history (around the 1300s), IT WAS IMPORTANT TO THE DIRECTOR THAT THE ACTORS COME TO UNDERSTAND WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO LIVE IN THAT STILL WILD, STILL LAWLESS TERRITORY AT THAT STILL RATHER SAVAGE (MEDIEVAL) TIME.  Hence the need for actors' quite radically imposing preparation.

The story had a further resonance to the Czechs of the time in which it was written (in the decade just before WW II) and later when it was filmed (still only two decades after that War) because the lands in question WERE EXACTLY THOSE WHICH CAME TO CALLED THE GERMAN/CZECH CONTESTED "SUDETENLAND" (and the story actually helps explain WHY the lands came to be settled in the way that they were -- by Germans at behest of the Czech king TO HELP BRING ORDER TO THAT VACANT / LAWLESS TERRITORY).

All this is then to help setup the actual story being told in the film:

It is the story of a (legendary) Marketa Lazarová (played in the film by Magda Vášáryová [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) a daughter of a Czech nobleman named Lazar (played by Michal Kožuch [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) who had settled his family in this lawless, borderland region (presumably at the Prague-seated Czech king's behest).  And the region _was_ wild.  In the opening scene, two Czech-robber knights attack a German bishop and his entourage passing through from Prague back to his See in (German) Saxony.

For her part, teenage Marketa is seen growing-up, somewhat naively, in lovely, lush, pond-laden countryside, still somewhat "pagan." (Early in the film, she comes upon an ancient (oak? / linden?) tree still adorned with various pagan fetishes.  Later, she skinny dips in a nearby pond ...).  But she's also very much impressed by the serenity/beauty of a then still "recently constructed" (only "a generation or two in the past") nearby hill-top Convent of nuns.  Indeed, there is a scene in which Lazar is negotiating on behalf of Marketa the dowry price for her eventual entry into the Convent, which she very much wished to do.

HOWEVER ...  then she gets abducted and raped by one of the thieving Czech robber-knights named Mikolaš (played by František Velecký [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*).  And to make the point, that he's both a villain and "in charge," he _nails_ Marketa's father to the door of his citadel in crucified form.

Eventually this (and other crimes) are avenged.  The stage is set for the eventual resolution of the lawless situation existing in these lands (As mentioned above, historically, the actual Czech King Vaclav I came to INVITE ethnic German settlers to settle in these frontier-lands to bring order to them).  Finally, Marketa escapes to briefly fulfill her dream of entering into the Convent.  BUT ... (1) she comes to find the life of the nuns "too wordy" (boring ;-), and (2) by then she's pregnant with her rapist's,  Mikolaš', child.  So she leaves ...

What then to think of this "epic drama" of her "simple life"?  Well, the film notes that "stories like Marketa's were often left unknown" outside of the immediate vicinity in which they happened and only "retold at the hearths of local women going about their chores," needed to be searched-out in a "manner not unlike a dowser looks for water beneath the earth with a dowsing rod."

The story is certainly part Communist era propaganda ("We COMMUNISTS aim to make grand Epic Tales of stories of common people that nobody else would...").  Indeed, Marketa first comes on screen in the film as a veritable cinematographic incarnation of the French proletarian/peasant girl in Jules Breton's painting "Song of the Lark."

HOWEVER, like the works of the Czech director's Russian Soviet-era influences, this film is also _obviously more_ than "just propaganda."

Consider simply that this story (told in both book and film, written and directed by Czechs) was about arguably THE ORIGINS of the Sudeten Crisis, which so traumatized the Czechs / Sudeten Germans in the years around World War II.  YET THE STORY DOES NOT PORTRAY MOST OF THE CZECHS PARTICULARLY WELL (There are Marketa Lazarová, her father and the nuns who are portrayed well, but the rest, including her rapist ... Mikuláš, are often portrayed quite badly).  On the other hand, the Germans (the German bishop as well as several others) are portrayed as being QUITE HONEST.  THEN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH is ALSO PORTRAYED QUITE POSITIVELY.  Okay, Marketa eventually leaves the Convent, which had been portrayed as her childhood, if perhaps "naive" goal.  But the Convent was portrayed throughout the story as quite literally as "a shining beacon on a hill."

So as expensive as the film was, made during the height of the Czechoslovak Communist era, with both the director and the writer of the book on which it was based carrying "impeccable" Communist era pedigrees, the film was also truly a work of art.

Hence, the film probably deserves the title, "Greatest Czech language film (thusfar) ever made."  But as all else in the story (of both Marketa Lazarová and then of the film itself), IMHO it's all "more complicated" than it would seem ;-).  But then THAT TOO need not be bad!

Good / great film!

Note: This film is available through the rent-by-mail service offered by Facets Multimedia in Chicago, as well as for purchase and streaming at a reasonable price through

 * Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Colette [2013]

MPAA (UR would be R) (6/10)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CSFD listing* listing* (M. Spáčilová) review* (A. Prokopová) review* (V. Míšková) review*

Czech that Film [official site] [2014 line-up at GSFC in Chicago]

About writer Arnošt Lustig [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]* [NYT Obituary] [] [IMDb]

Colette [2013] [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]* (directed and screenplay cowritten by Milan Cieslar [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]* along with Arnošt Lustig [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]* [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]* the author of the novel Colette: Dívka z Antverp (Colette: A Girl from Antwerp) on which the film is based, and Ladislava Chateau [FDB]*) is a Holocaust themed film that played recently at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago as part of 2014 Czech That Film Tour cosponsored by the Czech Diplomatic Mission to the United States.

Perhaps uneven (see even the Czech reviews above) and arguably experimental in various aspects (for instance, the version of the film that was presented at the GSFC was _dubbed_ by European actors in English), the value of the film to American/Western audiences would be two-fold: (1) The film introduces in a new way the contributions of Czech Jewish writer, and Holocaust survivor, Arnošt Lustig [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]*[NYT Obit] to American/Western audiences, and  (2) the film offers a "small country" perspective (and perhaps a peculiarly Czech one) to the experience of the Holocaust, one which Western and perhaps particularly American audiences would find unfamiliar and perhaps even somewhat unnerving: 

For very early in the story at a 1973 New York "first meeting of the parents" dinner of two young first generation Jewish American lovebirds, both children of Holocaust survivors, the father of the future groom _encouraged by his future daughter-in-law_ asks her mother: "So being that I've been where you've been (I'm also a Holocaust survivor) can I ask you ... how did you make it?  How did you survive?"  Taken aback by the question (the reason why the father of the groom was asked by his future daughter-in-law to broach the question was that her mother _never talked about it_), she answers, "Well, like all of us survived ... by a series of 'little miracles.'"  She went on to explain how one time an SS-officer had tried to take her to the side and rape her, and she "pushed him so hard that he fell into the mud."  and that seeing what was happening "even the other guards stepped to her defense."

It's immediately clear that the father-of-the-groom was unconvinced but he didn't push the matter further.  After dinner though, as he and his son walk home, he tells his son that her story was a lie, perhaps even a noble one, but a lie nonetheless.  Why?   Because "if she had really defended her honor in that way against that SS officer, she would have almost certainly been shot right then and there."

The father then says goodbye to his son, goes back to his flat, and ... as a writer, spends the rest of the night, inspired to write ... The rest of the story follows:

What follows is the story of two _young_ but in every other aspect, utterly ordinary European Jews, one Czech, from Prague, named Vili, short for Vilhelm (played by Jiří Mádl [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) and the other Belgian, Colette (played by Clémence Thioly [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) from Antwerp.  And the two met in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Now, How??? did they even meet?   The vast majority of Jews arriving at Auschwitz were immediately "processed," that is, stripped of their remaining possessions (including of their hair and the clothes on their backs) and then led into the showers where they were gassed-to-death and later cremated.  Well, by sheer luck, Vili _was recognized_ ON THE RAILROAD PLATFORM, THERE, IN AUSCHWITZ as he disembarked from the train (from the cattle car that he was in) by a Czech-Jewish friend who he had known from Teresienstadt (another Nazi concentration camp though that one located on Czech soil).  THAT FRIEND was able to pull Vili aside from the rest of the arrivals and have him put subsequently on a "work detail" (rather than be sent to be gassed in short order like the vast majority of the other arrivals).

Some months (?) later, when Colette arrived at Auschwitz being "young," she was initially separated from the rest of her family for work (to death...) in a quarry (rather than for immediate gassing), and later, by chance, she caught the eye of a young SS Officer (played by Eric Bouwer [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) who simply desired her as a mistress (today, post-1990s-era-Bosnian-conflict, we wouldn'd call her a mistress anymore but rather a sex-slave).

Both Vili and Colette eventually come to be placed in a "sub-Camp" named "Kanada" where their jobs were to "process" the belongings left-over by the Jews (the vast, vast majority) who were simply stripped of everything that they had left when they arrived (including, even the hair on their heads and the clothes on their backs) before being gassed.  It is in this little "Niche in Hell" that Vili and Colette (and a small group of other Jews around them) survived.

How?  Well ... by being forced to methodically purloin the belongings of those who had already been gassed, they (by luck) came into possession of "currency" (stuff) that they could secret and exchange to extend their lives.  For while EVERYONE OF THEM was ALWAYS under the gaze (and quite literally "under the gun") of utterly drunk-with-power SS-guards (and their collaborators) and could be summarily shot AT ANYTIME, BY ANYONE OF THEM if anyone-of-them suspected that they might be "stealing," THESE GUARDS THEMSELVES BENEFITED FROM THE PETTY THEFTS OF THEIR PRISONERS.  Why??  Because all the possessions that Vili and Colette and the others "processing" the belongings of the arriving Jews discovered and immediately turned-over to their Nazi overseers "went to the Reich."  HOWEVER, if Vili found a tin-of-meat (or even an apple or orange) stashed in a bottom of a suitcase, or, more significantly, Colette found _a piece of jewelry_ THAT HAD BEEN SOWN INTO THE HEM of a piece of clothing by its previous owner AND THEY DECIDED TO QUICKLY HIDE THE DISCOVERED ITEM FROM THE IMMEDIATE VIEW OF THE GUARDS, THEN THIS ITEM (be it a tin of meat, a flask of schnaps or vodka ... or a jewel) BECAME SOMETHING THAT ONE COULD USE TO TRADE WITH OTHERS (with other prisoners AND WITH THE GUARDS) FOR ... FAVORS.  Since the guards, stood "at the top of the food chain" in the Camp, they did not mind this kind of petty corruption taking place, BECAUSE THEY COULD TAKE THIS UNDECLARED STUFF HOME WITH THEM (out of the Camp).  Everything that was "officially found" WENT "TO THE REICH."  The items that were _initially secreted-away/stolen by the prisoners_ eventually "floated up" to the Guards, who then were able to take the stuff out of the Camp FOR THEIR OWN (STILL PETTY ... but it probably ADDED UP... ) ENRICHMENT.

This then became the world / "economy" in which Vili and Colette found themselves in (and even "fell in love" in).  And they do find that EVEN IN HELL, JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING, even tantalizingly, the _possibility_ of eventual freedom (if one was just able to figure out who to bribe, with how much, at what time...) WAS "FOR SALE."

Honestly folks, I get this.  I'm not necessarily proud of it, but I do.  It's a "small country" approach to survival.  I know that "Big countries" -- the Russians, the Americans, heck even the Germans / Brits prefer "sweeping epics" with "cowboys" (or "cossacks"), or even "Lawrence of Arabia" on horses, fighting off Evildoers as "partisans" (like the Bielski brothers of Beolorussia, whose actual, though rare, exploits have been made into the Hollywood film Defiance [2008]) and so forth.  But those are stories of the Powerful.

Presented here, quite sincerely, is a "small country solution" for survival: "What do I have to sell?  What can I get a hold of to sell?  Where can I hide?  How I can be(come) 'valuable' in some way until the storm blows over?"

As such, unnerving as this story may be, I do believe that it does contribute to the memory of the Holocaust, and it is a story written by someone, Arnošt Lustig [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]* [NYT Obituary], who really was there.

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes [2014]

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

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

Let's face it, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes [2014] (directed by Matt Reeves, screenplay by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback based on the 1963 novel [amzn] by Pierre Boulle [IMDb]) like the original novel, the 60s-70s era movie franchise and then Rise of the Planet of the Apes [2011] which rebooted the series for the current day, are ALL BASED on the _inversion_ of a horrible racial epithet: 

The original novel and the Hollywood movie franchise that quickly followed were all created in the context of the post-WW II rolling collapse of the previous (white-dominated) colonial order as a result of the successes of both national liberation and civil rights movements of _peoples of color_ the world over (from India, to Algeria, to Jamaica / Fiji to the Congo to the Deep South in the United States).  Given that only a generation before, white people of both Europe and the Americas had considered themselves self-evidently superior to the "darker" races, this collapse was experienced as a shock to many.  With regards to Africans in particular, it had not been uncommon for white people at the turn of the 20th century to consider Africans (blacks) to be closer to the apes (which also natively resided in Africa) than to themselves.  Yet by the 1960s, "OMG, the Africans were coming" to rule their own countries across the continent, "What was the world coming to?"  This then was the racial (racist) hysteria in which first Boulle's novel and then the 60s-70s era Hollywood movie franchise came out. (Remember there were even "Black Panthers" (!) "roaming" America's streets at the time ...).

Why then resurrect this film-franchise now?  Well, when we have _serious_ (in terms of power) American political figures like Sarah Palin _resurrecting_ American segregation era racist terms like "shuckin' and jivin'" to describe her piques with America's first (and presently ONLY, ... EVER ...) BIRACIAL President Barack Obama, well ... racism and racial fear is ALIVE AND WELL in the U.S. today. 

Both the novel [Amzn] and the subsequent film-franchises [IMDb] take the racist epiteth "They're just Animals (Apes)" and INVERT IT ... Both imagine a world in which arguably "the Apes" are MORE THOUGHTFUL / CIVILIZED than arrogant (and mostly white) "people."

And so then it is here, in the current film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes [2014], set ten years after a human-made virus, but which (because it was being TESTED on chimps) came to be called "simian flu," had escaped from a laboratory and nearly wiped out humanity (the subject matter of the previous film Rise of the Planet of the Apes [2011]).  Two communities, one Ape, one Human, are presented as consolidating themselves, in the San Franciscao Bay Area -- the human community, in the post-apocalyptic remnants of San Francisco; the ape community, led by previously genetically engineered Caesar (played with help of CGI by Andy Serkis) in the Redwood forests north of the city. 

Could the now _two_ "intelligent species," one (Human) radically diminished and the other (Ape) rising coexist?   The Humans, tattered remnant though they are, remain _often_ stuck in their previous prejudices.  The Apes, however, find themselves having to deal with their own memories / rivalries: Caesar actually had _good_ memories of Humans (a human family which treated him well, as genetically enhanced, he had learned from them how to communicate through sign-language and later even voice).  On the other side, there was another Ape, named Koba (played with help of CGI by Toby Kebell) who only remembers Human (scientists) as having causing him excruciating pain as they experimented on him.  Who to follow?  The wiser, and more serene/happier Caesar or the more angry/vengeful Koba?

Much therefore plays out.  And the Humans as well have a range of reactions to the surprisingly intelligent (and arguably ascending Apes).  While MANY still cling to their pre-bio-apocalypse sense of superiority vis-a-vis "the Apes," others like Malcolm (played by Jason Clarke), his post-apocalypse girlfriend (played by Keri Russell) and his somewhat moody/perhaps still shell-shocked teenage son (apparently born before the apocalypse) seem to be more accepting of / perhaps even partially awed by the rise of this new community of intelligent Apes.

And as with the original novel [Amzn] and subsequent movie-franchises [IMDb], the film offers viewers much to think about as they contemplate and challenge within-themselves their inevitable prejudices in our world today.  Good film!

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Mother Joan of the Angels (orig. Matka Joanna od Aniolów) [1961]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
Filmweb.PL listing* article

Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema: [MSP Website] []

Mother Joan of the Angels (orig. Matka Joanna od Aniolów) [1961] [IMDb] []*[] [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* (directed and screenplay cowritten by Jerzy Kawalerowicz [IMDb] []*[] [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* along with Tadeusz Konwicki [IMDb] []*[] [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* based on the novella* by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz [IMDb] []*[] [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]*) is an award winning pre-Enlightenment era period piece that would remind American viewers of In the Name of the Rose [1986] or perhaps of the Salem Witch Trials depicted works as Arthur Miller's 1953 stage-play The Crucible.

Though the film is set in a remote village in 17th century Poland, it is based on an incident that took place at an Ursuline Convent in Loudun, France in 1634.  That incident has been also the subject of a book by Aldous Huxley entitled The Devils of Loudun [1952] and a subsequent British horror film The Devils [1971] [IMDb] directed by Ken Russell.  The current Polish film (made before the British one) played recently as part of the series Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema (in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center).

Now on the surface, a film about a convent of apparently demonically possessed nuns and a priest sent over by the Church exorcise them would seem like a strange or even eyes-rolling tendentious film to be made under a Communist regime ("See how stupid and the backward the Catholic Church was (is)...").  On the other hand, the film could be read in almost exactly the same way Arther Miller's play was.  After all, The Crucible was _nominally_ about the 1692-93 Salem Witch Trials but was actually inspired by the 1950s McCarthy Era anti-Communist "witch-hunt" taking place in Hollywood at the time. So ... while nominally (and as certainly explained to the censors...) the current movie was about the Catholic Church of the 17th century (and the censors would hope ... "of the current time" ...) it was made in the context of a Totalitarian (Communist) Regime which was both still quite convinced of its own Truth and (still) quite violently obsessed with maintaining ideological purity ... Hmm...  ;-)

So, in the current film, a priest named Fr. Jozef Suryn (played by Mieczysław Voit [IMDb] []*) is sent by the Church hierarchy to deal with a remote convent of rebellious, indeed "demonically possessed" nuns.  His job was expected to be difficult as the previous priest sent up to deal with the nuns had apparently become "infected" by the same demonic plague that effected the nuns and was subsequently denounced and burnt at the stake by the Church's authorities for witchcraft -- the stake and the pyre still standing quite prominently between the convent and the village that existed just below it.

The villagers, unafraid of the nuns' "possession" and mostly just bemused by the spectacle of watching "the higher ups" -- on one side "dancing" and even somewhat promiscuous nuns, on the other side, far more austere (why? they wonder) Church authorities trying to bring them back into line -- really did not expect Fr. Jozef to fare much better than the previous guy.   Indeed, the village innkeeper (played by Zygmunt Zintel [IMDb] []*) and his rather buxom fortune-telling daughter (played by Maria Chwalibóg [IMDb] []*) tell him as much.  The local priest, Fr. Brym (played by Kazimierz Fabisiak [IMDb] []*), introduced to Fr. Jozef (and to us, the viewers) as he takes two little orphans (or they his?) out to play, past the above mentioned remains of the stake/pyre on which the previous (and failed) Exorcist had been burnt, ALSO tells Fr. Jozef to just be careful and take care of himself.

But Fr. Jozef has a job to do.  So he goes up to the Convent to meet with the Mother Superior, Mother Joan of the Angels (played by Lucyna Winnicka  [IMDb] []*), a smiling nun who freely admits to the priest that she's possessed by eight demons, and even lists them for him.  Further, it's obvious that she doesn't seem to mind (being "possessed").  Hmm...

Now she has some scruples.  When she does fall in love with Fr. Jozef (and _he_ certainly falls for her...) she does not want to give in to _that_ temptation.  So for a good part of the film, the two do castigate themselves and this is the 17th century Catholic Church, so the two are both flagellating themselves (each in their own quarters).  But clearly this can not stand ...

The rest of the film follows.  But it's clear as day 30 minutes into the film that no one is going to "exorcise" anyone (successfully anyway).  So, what's the solution?  Well, what do you think?  Again, like Arthur Miller's The Crucible, this is clearly a film intended for dual interpretation (and a challenge to both groups addressed).

NOTE: The film is available through Facets Multimedia's rent-by-mail service and for purchase on for a reasonable price.

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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