Thursday, December 30, 2010

Somewhere [2010]

MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB () Roger Ebert (4 stars) Fr. Dennis (4 stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert's Review -

Somewhere [2010] is another art-house film that’s getting buzz these days, largely due to its having been written and directed by Sofia Coppola, the daughter of famed director Francis Ford Coppola. This is not Sofia Coppola’s writing/directorial debut. She’s had some successes, winning the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the comedy Lost in Translation (2003) starring Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson a movie that was also nominated that year for Best Picture. She’s also had some relative flops, Marie Antoinette (2006), even though that movie did win an Oscar for best Costume Design. Somewhere definitely plays to her strengths of writing and directing off-beat comedy.

Somewhere asks the question, what do you do if you reach all your personal goals rather early in life and reach them in spades? Steven Dorff plays a late-30 to early-40 something Hollywood action star named Johnny Marco who finds himself successful perhaps beyond his wildest dreams, perhaps even without having exerted a great deal of effort, but wondering what now?

The opening sequence sets the mood. One sees a curve in a road on a flat plain apparently somewhere out in the Mohave Desert outside of Los Angeles. One hears the rev of a sports car approaching. It’s a black Farrari. The driver slows down, turns, shifts, the engine revs as he speeds up and disappears. You hear the car engine quiet as the driver apparently approaches another turn, shift, and then hear the rev of the engine as he accelerates again. You hear the sequence again, and the black Farrari appears on the screen again after what appears to be a rather short circle. You hear the car engine relax again as the driver (off screen) turns the car again, shifts and accelerates, soon appearing on the screen once more, and the same 10-15 second cycle repeats two more times. Finally the driver, Johnny Marco, stops his car and gets out to perhaps take a new view of the same desert terrain that he’s driving around in circles for some time now. Not a word has been spoken, but the scene sets the tone for the rest of the film.

There are a lot of telling, poignant scenes with few to no words being said in this movie as Sofia Coppola lets her camera tell the story.

Johnny Marco is so bored that in one of the early scenes of the movie he’s hired a pair of blonde 19 year old pole dancers come to his rented suite in a relatively famous Hollywood retreat for the stars. Dressed in tight pink short-skirted outfits, they try to perform a rather cheesy “synchronized routine” on the poles that they brought with them. They do their routine to a song called “Who’s your hero?” Johnny falls asleep during their dance. The twins don’t seem to mind. Smiling as sweetly as they did through the whole of their performance, they disassemble their poles, put them into their tote bags and go home.

Perhaps embarrassed that he fell asleep on them, Marco invites the twins over a second time a few days later. This time they are dressed in checkered green, white and brown (plaid?) string bikinis. They’re smiling and pole dancing away again and Johnny Marco is straining really hard to stay awake for them this time. When they are done, he invites one of them over to his bed for a kiss. Of course, he gets her name wrong. She comes over for the kiss anyway, but blows a small bubble from the bubble gum that she’s been chewing into his face. Was she irritated, being playful or just vacuous? Regardless or perhaps feeling rejected, he crashes asleep again.

He wakes up to another blonde, who turns out to be his 11 year old daughter (played by Elle Fanning), signing her name on his cast. His ex had brought her over. One realizes that he’s apparently broken his arm some time earlier. Yet his 11 year old daughter is the very first to sign the cast.

The ex tells him that she’s going away for a couple of days and so to take care of daughter while she’s gone. Marco asks the 11 year old what she wants to do. The ex reminds Marco that the 11 year old has a figure skating lesson that afternoon. Marco takes her to the lesson. The 11 year old skates happily on the ice. She’s not bad but it's clear that she's not exactly "Olympic caliber." Does Marco realize that his blonde 11 year old daughter had about the same amount of talent as those 19 year old pole dancers he had in his room before? Does he realize that those pole dancers were smiling as sweetly as his 11 year old was smiling now? Does he get it, that _his_ eleven year old could be dancing in the hotel room of a 40 year old 8 years from now?

This is a remarkable, gentle yet articulate movie.

One more vignette. During the course of the movie, Marco is invited to Italy to receive yet another film award. The ex is gone again, so he has to take his 11 year old along. They are lodged in a 5 star Italian hotel of one’s dreams with their suite having its own private adjoining indoor swimming pool. The pool is exquisite, mosaics and classical statues adorn its sides. Yet, as soon as the 11 year old jumps into the pool, it is clear that it is _too small_. She can only take two strokes before she reaches the other side. Marco tries to help her, giving her suggestions of what to do to keep from becoming bored – hold your breath, now swim the distance of the pool underwater – but to no avail. The pool is just too small. Back in Hollywood, the two go to the outdoor pool of the resident hotel where Marco is staying and lie down on the run-of-the-mill aluminum and plastic cots beside the pool, sunglasses on, face skyward and the scene extends out to infinity.

It is clear that what gives happiness to the 11 year old and life to her father _through her_ are things that are available to everyone.

Somewhere is a shoe-in for a nomination for best original screenplay at the Academy Awards and Sofia Coppola could get a nomination for best director as well.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Rabbit Hole

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB () Rober Ebert (3 1/2 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB Review -
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I do believe that movies about death and dying need to be taken at a distance. Those immediately effected by tragedy need both respectful presence and space for them to slowly regain their bearings. However, movies such as The Rabbit Hole can be good for those a few steps away from those immediately grieving the tragic loss of a loved one. In the case of The Rabbit Hole, the couple in question is grieving the sudden loss of their small child. He child had run into the street after their dog and was hit by car driven by a teenager who didn’t see the child coming.

Using a both a family and a support group setting, the movie quite respectfully portrays a wide array of possible initial responses and conflicts that can occur with the sudden loss of a small child. Some will lean on their faith, while others will go the other direction and blame God for some time. Some will want to start cleaning out the house of the toys, clothes and other reminders. Others will want to keep _everything the same_ for a while. Some will come to yearn for lost intimacy from their spouse, others will simply not be ready for some time.

Anyone who has gone through anything like a loss like this will understand, but please _don’t_ try to push this movie on someone who has recently lost a loved one. The Rabbit Hole like most other movies of this genre is more for the people a few steps away from the tragedy to help them better understand the thoughts, feelings and conflicts occurring within those closer to the tragedy.

The screenplay for The Rabbit Hole was written by David Lindsay-Abaire who also wrote the stage play by the same name. The movie is directed by John Cameron Mitchell. The grieving couple is played by Nicole Kidman (Becca) and Aaron Eckhart (Howie). Strong primary supporting roles are played by Dianne Wiest (as Becca’s mom), Tammy Blanchard (as Becca’s sister) as well as Sandra Oh (as a leader of the grief support group that Becca and Howie attend), Miles Teller (as Jason, the teen who accidently killed Danny, Becca and Howie’s child), as well as others playing lesser roles of various friends and family.

As noted above, The Rabbit Hole was originally written for as a stage play. Thus while the primary roles were certainly played excellently by Kidman, Eckhart, Wiest, Blanchard and Oh, the script and direction are probably the most important here. There is deserved talk of Kidman being nominated by the Academy for Best Actress for her role. The other actors as well as director did a good job, but probably won’t receive much immediate recognition for their work here as I don't believe the film was able to completely shed its "stage feel." Still the fact that the movie was made will probably guarantee that this stage play will circulate throughout the English speaking world (and in translation perhaps beyond) for some time to come. It's a good and powerful story.

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The American

MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB (L) Roger Ebert (4 stars) Fr. Dennis (4 stars)

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CNS/USCCB review -
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Recently released on DVD.

The American is one of a number of movies that I consider among the 2010's best but came out before I started this blog.

It is both a “quiet” and “dark” movie with some very nice panoramas of the Abruzzo region of Italy. Thus it is the type of movie that really would be best enjoyed on the big screen of a movie house. However, I could imagine it would work reasonably well on a nice HD TV with the lights dimmed and not much noise to help one focus on the screen.

There isn’t much dialogue in this movie as it is about Jack, a skilled, professional assassin played by George Clooney, who needless to say doesn’t talk much about his work. Indeed, The American is based on the novel by Martin Booth tellingly entitled “A Very Private Gentleman” and just about the only thing that a bystander could possibly surmise about Jack (by vestiges of an accent and _perhaps_ hints in his dress/demeanor) was that he was "probably an American.”

So it’s a very lonely life reduced to focusing on the mechanics of one's work, getting the parts together to assemble the “made to order” weapon for the particular job assigned, and then calibrating it to make sure it works. About the only people that Jack talks to in this movie are to his boss (who's simply a voice on the phone), his latest client's representative (played by Dutch actess Thekla Reuten) who does meet him personally, the town priest (played by Italian actor Paolo Bonacelli) who knows pretty much everybody in town and so notices him even as Jack otherwise successfully leads a life invisible to most others, and finally to a prostitute (played by Italian actress Violante Placido) who Jack pays not merely for the requisite sex but clearly and above all for intimacy. This is an understated story with a very little "u".

I would rate the adapted screenplay, direction (by Dutch director Anton Corbijn) and cinematography among the best of this year. I’d also give George Clooney a nod for a “Best Actor” nomination for his role.

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Monday, December 27, 2010

Black Swan [2010]

MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB (O) Roger Ebert (3 1/2 stars) Fr. Dennis (4 stars)

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CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert’s Review -

Let it be said right at the beginning that Black Swan is _not_ for everybody.

I find it to be an excellent movie. I do think that Darren Aronofsky will probably (and deservingly) be nominated for Best Director for the Academy Awards. Natalie Portman will probably be nominated (also deservingly) for Best Actress and even Mila Kunis might be nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

However, Black Swan definitely deserves its MPAA R rating and is clearly intended for an adult audience. Yes, there are various quite graphic sexual issues in the movie (without nudity however) as well as some (club) drug use. However, the _biggest issue_ is simply the movie’s _intensity_. I would recommend to parents who would consider taking their kids/teens to this movie to _please see the movie first_ and only then reflect on whether or not to take the kids. I personally do _not_ see any screaming necessity for someone under 17 to “have to see” this movie.

Ok, why then do I consider this to be an excellent movie? Well, it’s about art (ballet), it’s about excellence, it’s about a fair question that can be asked regarding excellence in any field (in the arts, in sports, in your job): How much are you willing to sacrifice to achieve excellence, to become “the best?”

This turns out to be a surprisingly universal question and _perhaps_ the arts today have come up with an interesting (and surprising) answer to the dilemma.

Referring here to the recent review that I wrote about the movie Tron, I wrote then that the first Tron movie in particular needed to be understood in terms of the conceptual art movement that began in the latter part of the 20th century. According to conceptual art theory, any work of art can be broken up into two parts: the first being the idea or _concept_ behind the work of art and then its _representation_.

Conceptual art theory suggests that sometimes the _concept_ behind a work of art can be legitimately more important than its _representation_. In the case of the Tron movies, I argued that the _concept_ behind the Tron movies exploring the analogy between the relationships of Computer Programmer/Program and God (Creator)/Man (Creature) was, in fact, more interesting than its _representation_ in the Tron movies and interesting regardless of whatever else one may have thought of those movies.

I noted in that review of Tron that conceptual art theory is actually quite _democratizing_ because, let’s face it, most of us, when asked to draw, could only represent people/things with little more than stick figures. Conceptual art theory suggests that as long as the _concept_ sought to be expressed was interesting enough, even _representing_ it through stick figures would be legitimate. Hence, many more of us could become "artists" than we ever thought possible ;-).

Black Swan looks at the other, representational, side of the equation and asks a legitimate question about the _cost of perfection_, that is, about the cost of _perfect_ representation.

Many folks _laugh_ at modern art and even specifically at “conceptual art” saying it’s a cop-out: Why not seek to produce art which is _both_ strong in _concept_ and of high quality in _representation_?

Well, the movie Black Swan points out that the cost of “perfect representation” can be _very high_. As I pointed out above, this insight has validity outside the realm of the arts, extending to athletics, to one’s job, to any “professional field.” At what point is something perfect enough? or the _cost_ of "perfection" begin to exceed its value/usefulness?

So conceptual art theory is not only “democratizing” allowing “stick figure artists” a chance to express ideas that more technically gifted artists may never think of, it is also more _humanizing_. This is because in the end, it may be better for the artist (and even for the art form) to allow a “chubbier, more stilted ballerina" on stage than to have “the best” who risks destroying herself in the process. Is "good art" (or "good" anything) really worth human sacrifice?

"What profit one to gain the whole world but to lose one's very self in the process?" (Mt 16,25)

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

True Grit [2010]

IMDb (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (3 1/2 stars) Fr. Dennis (4 stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert’s review -

The Coen Brothers are probably the best screen writers in Hollywood today. They also direct very well. As a result, hardly a year goes by without one of their movies being in contention for (and often winning) a host of Academy Awards.

True Grit is destined to be considered another Coen Brothers classic along with Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man along with other lesser but often hilarious hits. In each case, the Coen brothers enter and then thoroughly mine a distinct American subculture for story and (with perhaps the single exception of No Country for Old Men) for comedy. The Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit certainly fits the pattern.

Now True Grit as a movie has its own story. The 1969 version of the movie became the vehicle for John Wayne to finally win an Oscar after a legendary career. Still the 1969 version became such a John Wayne movie that the original story was largely lost. So enter the Coen Brothers 2010 film version which restores much of the original story and dialogue of the 1968 book/Saturday Evening Post serial by the same name written by Charles Portis.

A key difference between the 1969 and 2010 versions is that in the 2010 version, the main character of the story is not the John Wayne character Marshall Reuben J. “Rooster” Cockburn (played by Jeff Bridges in the 2010 version). Rather the main character is the 14 year old Mattie Ross (played in the 2010 version by teenager Hailee Steinfeld) who hires Cockburn to hunt down and bring to justice Tom Chaney (played in the 2010 version by Josh Brolin) who murdered her father.

Hailee Steinfeld plays the role so well that I hope that she gets nominated for Best Actress for her performance. She does not necessarily deserve to win, but her performance is both spot-on and hilarious as she strings together _sentence after sentence_ of dialogue in spitfire fashion that _no_ 14 year old today would EVER say, but which appears as part and parcel in any “good” pulp-fiction western novel! She is gr8! ;-)

And this makes for the principal reason why I would recommend this movie. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THE ACTORS / ACTRESSES in this movie -- Jeff Bridges as Cockburn, Matt Damon as the young/rookie “Texas Ranger dandy” LaBoeuf (he's _so sweet_ in being _so proud_ of being a Texas Ranger :-), Brolin as Chaney, Steinfeld as “Mattee” – thoroughly own their roles and play them to the hilt.

I would also recommend this movie for young teenagers and especially young teenage girls. Go as a family. At 14-15 that might be the last time that going as a family would work ;-). But Steinfeld plays Mattie _so well_ that she _could be_ an inspiration to teens. Teens are often quiet and don’t say anything. Mattie is _not quiet at all_ and is able to convince all kinds of older, more experienced adults to do what she wants. And she does so, not through pouting, but through smiling and a spitfire dialogue that _no one_ could say no to.

Again, this is a great, “before your family completely grows up” family movie ;-).

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Fighter

MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB (L) Roger Ebert (2 stars) Fr. Dennis (4 stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB Review -
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In a remarkably spare year when it comes to movies and performances deserving of Academy Award nominations The Fighter is a movie destined to boast a sackload of them. Let’s count them:

(1) For Best Picture (goes without saying)
(2) David O. Russell for Best Director (a first for him but again goes without saying)
(3) Scott Silver and Paul Tamasay for Best Screenplay (once more, goes without saying)

(4) Mark Wahlberg for Best Actor, playing the role of Mickey “Irish” Ward of Lowell, MA struggling for a shot at making a career of welter-weight boxing despite poverty, lack of options and horrible family disfunction

(5) Christian Bale, a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actor (if not _also_ for Best Actor) playing the role of Mickey’s older and troubled brother “Dickey,” whose claim to fame as the “Pride of Lowell” was that he _may_ have knocked down boxing Legend Sugar Ray Leonard in a fight.

(6) Amy Adams for Best Supporting Actress, playing a Lowell, MA barmaid, who was once “a contender” herself with a scholarship to U.R.I. for track and field (high jump) but who had blown-it through too much partying at school and who becomes Mickey’s girlfriend during the course of the story.

(7) Finally there’s also Melissa Leo who’s also a virtual shoe-in for Best Supporting Actress playing Mickey’s chain-smoking and (in the past) very fertile mom, who insists on being Mickey’s micro-managing boxing manager.

The Fighter is probably the best of a steady stream of excellently written stories coming out of blue collar Massachusetts in recent years. Again let’s count them - Mystic River (2003), The Departed (2006), The Town (2010), Conviction (2010) and now The Fighter (2010). Add to them other recent blue collar themed movies (some already recent classics) made by Clint Eastwood on the West Coast - Million Dollar Baby (2004), Grand Torino (2008), The Changeling (2009), and even Hereafter (2010) and one sees “a trend” and a good one. These hardhitting and often painful stories are told and hopefully (with time) will be heard. The arts are often prophetic. Cumulatively, these movies express a lot of pain and betrayal being experienced on mainstreet in America. The pain is certainly there. The question becomes, what will become the response to this pain both at home and abroad.

Will non-Americans, for instance, come to see Americans as being far closer to them than they previously thought? Certainly The Fighter could have been set in almost any industrial city in the world – Gdansk / Kladno / Novosibirsk, Manchester / Liverpool, Monterrey / Sao Paulo / Bel Horizonte, Manila / Shangai or Bengalore and still ring very, very true.

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The Tourist

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (2 stars) Fr. Dennis (1 1/2 stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB Review -
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The Tourist is a movie which reminds one that there is no substitute for a good screen play and/or direction (director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is largely responsible for both).

The movie sports two of the most sought after actors in Hollywood today (Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie) and is shot in some of the most romantic and evocative locations in the world, beginning in Paris, settling in Venice with the train trip of one’s dreams in between. How could one possibly screw this movie up? Enter the screen play. It has bankers, it has Interpol, it has (Russian) mobsters. The story has twists and turns, some canned, predictable, others surprising. Again, what could possibly go wrong? The end just doesn’t make sense. Some reviewers have accused Depp of a lackluster performance. Perhaps. However, I believe that he was either given a role that fundamentally didn’t make sense or more probably was horribly misdirected through most of the movie.

The result is very disappointing. With possibly better writing and/or certainly better direction this movie could have compared favorably to the Thomas Crown Affair or even to Casablanca. Instead, The Tourist is destined to be remembered as a rare flop in the otherwise storied careers of two of Hollywood's hottest stars of our time.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Tron: Legacy

MPAA (PG) CNS/USCCB (A-II) Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

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CNS/USCCB review -
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I suspect that Tron: Legacy will be a movie that many people will probably still not like. It will probably do better in the box office and reach a wider audience than the original Tron movie because we are far more at home as a culture with computers than we were in 1982 when the first Tron movie came out.

Nevertheless, Tron: Legacy will continue to irritate many viewers because it remains true to the original by choosing to place more emphasis on concept and form than on actual or sensical execution of the story. One must recognize this as a legitimate if “avant-guardish” choice made by Tron’s makers, which promises to make the movie “cool” to some, notably to techies as well as to a generally younger crowd, while being distracting to incomprehensible to others who may miss or reject the film makers’ choice of emphasis.

To better understand what I’m talking about, consider that the basic premise of conceptual art (which became popular in art circles in the last decades of the 20th century) has been that any work of art can be divided into the object/representation (the actual work of art) and the idea/concept behind it. In conceptual art, the idea/concept behind the work of art can become more important than its representation to the point that at its extreme the object/representation begins to disappear.

A criticism of conceptual art can be that it’s a cop-out. Why not strive for art in which _both_ the object/representation and the idea/concept behind it are of high quality?

Defenders of conceptual art can respond by noting that there are times when our ability to express or represent an idea/concept may not be up to the task. This can be the result of the lack of ability of the artist (let’s face it most of us probably can only draw stick figures rather than realistic representations of people). It can also be that the whole society is as yet incapable of fully or adequately expressing/representing/realizing the idea or concept in question. So we can only do the best that we can with the limited tools and abilities that we have at our disposal _and_ producing an incomplete or imperfect representation of the idea/concept in question may be preferable to not trying at all.

From an even more general perspective, a hallmark of our postmodern era has been to approach difficult questions through team or interdisciplinary approaches, which seek to arrive at solutions through increasingly accurate approximation rather than direct mathematical solution. Arguably, the postmodern era was born with the advent of quantum mechanics where it was discovered that the structure and dymamics of matter at the molecular, atomic and subatomic level could only be arrived at through approximation.

The great triumphs of postmodernism would then be the internet itself and then heretofore unimaginable projects on it like wikipedia (conceptually related to but not to be overly confused with its evil and probably shortlived cousin wikileaks) where a _master programmer/editor_ and _elite staff_ have been supplanted/replaced by a far larger, open and even self-correcting _ad hoc team_.

Very good, but how does this all apply to the Tron movies? Tron is strong in concept. It seeks to call attention to the relationship between a programmer (creator) and the computer programs (creations) that the programmer creates.

In the Tron movies, a human being (a programmer or more generally a user) finds himself sucked into a computer video game and to his surprise encounters the programs operating within the computer anthropomorphized, that is, represented _as people_. The programs inhabit and travel among well designed chips that look like complex cities. Games or contests played out on the computer screen appear to the programs inhabiting the computer as if they were being played out on a large stage or playing field. And one quickly learns that the "people" to avoid are those representing the computer system’s “security programs” (the computer system's "security police"/Gestapo/Stasi/ICE) especially if one finds oneself to be an unexpected “intruder” in the system.

The analogy is imperfect, and while technical marvels in themselves, many people will find the “special effects” in the Tron movies to be irritating to impossible distractions.

Still, the concept behind Tron series is compelling: Could we see ourselves as “computer programs” living in a universe “a physical device/computer” created by a programmer (creator) living outside of the device?

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

MPAA (PG) CNS/USCCB (A-II) Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 stars)

IMDb Listing -
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert's Review -

I’m really happy to say that with the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third installment of the Chronicles of Narnia series based on C.S. Lewis’ books by the same name, that I believe I’ve finally found my footing in the series, grasp and appreciate (IMHO) much better what C.S. Lewis was trying to accomplish in this children’s series and, as a result, liked it very, very much ;-).

I say this because after generally liking the first installment, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I didn’t particularly like the second, Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia. And I write this as something of a life-long C.S. Lewis fan, who’s read a rather wide variety of his works from his adult parables, The Screwtape Letters / The Great Divorce, to his great apologetic work Mere Christianity to his autobiographical reflections, Surprised by Joy / A Grief Observed. However until the first Narnia movie had come out, I had not even realized that he _also_ wrote childrens’ books (what an unbelievable talent!).

As a result, I do confess that I approached the Narnia series rather skeptically. And I do believe that if you’ve ever read Mere Christianity, an excellent, well argued defense of Christianity, you’d understand my skepticism. It’s just so hard to imagine that someone could write so well in one way or even several ways to be able to write well in another. After all, Oxford and Cambridge philosophers, lay speculative fiction readers and 10 year old children are all very different audiences!

So I approached even the first installment of the Narnia series unconvinced that he could really pull it off. And as is often the case, if one approaches anything skeptically, one does find flaws. For instance I thought the extended battle sequence at the end of the first installment (an installment that I generally liked) was either needlessly long or somewhat dated. I was able to excuse it (somewhat) because I realize that C.S. Lewis was writing the Narnia series in the years immediately following World War II and that there was a need at the time for both society in general and for kids who grew up in that violence to process or come to terms with the traumatic events that had just happened all around them. However, 60 years later, I thought that the extended battle sequence could actually invite young viewers and their sincere Christian parents to look for conflicts around them (or story-telling remedies to them) that may be misplaced.

In the case of the second installment, I found the harping on the story’s younger brother Edmund’s jealousy of his older brother Peter to probably not be worth an entire episode. And I found the symbolism to be, at times, rather heavy-handed, even if somewhat “pro-Catholic” ;-). Edmund, the younger, is a very English name, Peter the older brother evokes the Papacy and Rome ;-). Symbolism of this kind is ever present throughout C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series. At times, it is even surprisingly “pro-our side,” though, _to me_ expressed in a somewhat dated, heavy-handed manner. However, be that as it may, after the introductory episode, one simply needs to appreciate that each subsequent installment is simply part of a greater whole. Further kids are the primary audience, parents reading to their kids (or watching with their kids) are the secondary audience, and so one has to let C.S. Lewis “play” while weaving his tale.

C.S. Lewis’ clear focus on the kids in the story endears me more to the story with each episode. And I confess that one of the things I enjoy most about the Narnia series are the creative ways that C.S. Lewis invented for transporting the children from their world (of World War II torn England) into the world of Narnia. In the first installment, that gateway to Narnia was found through walking though a closet (a wardrobe). In this third installment, the gateway is between the two worlds is equally creative and endearing ;-).

Then the messages for child viewers are also good. Yes, there is good and evil (the primary point of the first installment), jealousy can get you into all kinds of trouble (the primary point of the second installment) and temptation can come in many unexpected forms (possibly the primary point of this third installment). These are all good lessons, especially when tempered in positive language. Lucy is briefly tempted in the third installment to be jealous again of her older sister and she’s told by Aslan, the lion, “Don’t be jealous of your older sister. Instead, just focus on becoming what you’re supposed to be.” What a lovely message! And in a line it expresses what the entire 2 hour previous episode was largely about :-).

But then, in this line is expressed the grandeur of the Narnia project. It is a series of books (films) which “talk to each other” and together express a whole. The books are already available. The movies will be coming out in episodes. Together, they give a nice Christian family with small kids much to talk about and look forward to.

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Love and Other Drugs [2010]

MPAA (R) USCCB (O) Roger Ebert (2 ½ stars) Fr. Dennis (3 ½ stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert’s review

There are a number of things that a person ought to know about the movie Love and Other Drugs prior to going to see it.

First, it is not really a “romcom” (romantic comedy). It’s about Maggie Murdoch (played by Anne Hathaway) who is suffering from Parkinson disease and Jamie Randall (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) who is a good-looking, smooth-talking underachiever, who finds himself progressively falling for her perhaps precisely because her suffering with the disease makes her more than he expected.

Second, while much has been made of Anne Hathaway’s nudity in the picture, if that’s what would bring you to this picture, you’ll probably be disappointed. Yes it’s there (and yes, she is normally gorgeous). But the nudity in this picture is so matter-of-fact, so simply part of the story (it’s a romance after all) that you’d have to go out of your way to search for it and focus on it or it will pass you by.

It seems, in fact, director Ed Zwick’s intention to declare that the REAL PORN (and the real Comedy...) in this movie is to be found in the slick salesmanship by reps of pharmaceutical companies who vend drugs that, yes, do actually help people and can even save their lives, but sell them using hard sale techniques that would be more fitting of a car salesman pitching a red hot camero to a 40 something who may have gone to the auto dealership in hopes of simply checking prices on a minivan. And, we find, according to director Zwick’s opinion anyway, that truly everyone – from the receptionists, to the nurses, to the doctors at the end of the journey – can be manipulated, seduced and bought.

So this movie becomes Jerry McGuire meets Children of a Lesser God. Well acted and with several levels of messaging, I do believe it is worth seeing though obviously not for younger viewers. But even for the adults if you were expecting a light movie here, that it is not.

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Monday, November 29, 2010


MPAA (PG) USCCB (A-1) Bill Zwecker (4 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb Listing -
CNS/USCCB Rating -
Bill Zwecker Review -,disney-tangled-review-112410.article

More than meets the eye ...

Tangled is a Disney adaptation of the Grimm brothers’ fairytale of Rapunzel a golden haired girl who gets locked up in a tower by a witch to keep her separated from the world. Despite this, a young man eventually comes by, Rapunzel lets him into her house, and here the real story of both of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale and Disney's Tangled really begins.

Disney does play with the story. There are aspects of the Disney story that some parents will not like. However, the Grimm Brothers version(s) of the story are quite pointed in their own right.

At its core, Rapunzel is the story of a young girl “growing up,” and it is cautionary tale to over-protective or even resentful parents who may try to impede their girls from doing so.

Hence, as is often the case when it comes to “Fairy Tales,” the kids will like the story (which Disney in characteristic fashion portrays in stunning and beautiful fashion) However, it is a story that _only_ the teens, young adults and _perhaps_ the parents will really understand.

There’s a lot more to this story than initially meets the eye. (A great article on the Rapunzel story can be found on wikipedia). That all can be good. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself being called “a witch” by your teen after seeing the movie. Of course there are times that teens may call their parents things similar to that anyway ;-). And it seems that even in the fields and forests of Germany hundreds of years ago, the same stories and conflicts were being played out as well. Happy parenting. ;-)

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Monday, November 22, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Part I [2010]

MPAA (PG-13) USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 ½ stars)

IMDb Listing -
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert’s Review -

I have to confess that this “review” will expose _my limitations_ as a movie reviewer. Up until starting this blog, I wasn’t much of a Harry Potter fan. I realize that half the world is, but Harry Potter did not grab me at the beginning of the craze and then it seemed rather late to jump on the bandwagon. So I hadn’t read any of the Harry Potter books, nor seen any of the Harry Potter movies. Yet, I realize that there will be all kinds of folks/parishioners/etc now who’d like to read a review of the latest Harry Potter movie since I’ve started my movie blog. So what to do?

Since I know that I’m _not_ the only one who’s never seen a Harry Potter movie and it’s not completely too late because there will be one more movie installment that will come in July, I decided to go to see the current installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Part I, “as I am” – a complete Harry Potter neophyte – on behalf of those who like me hadn’t been yet touched by the Harry Potter craze.

What then can I say about the movie? The story telling is very good. The Harry Potter stories are set in a world that’s very much like ours (same clothes, same cars, same diners, etc). Yet it is also a world that isn’t like ours because magic is possible and there are various other races inhabiting Potter’s world (elves, etc) that of course don’t exist in our world. The cinematography is excellent. It makes me want to drop everything and go to Scotland sometime. The scenery is both real and at times mildly enhanced to give at times a positively enchanted feel. There is also a wonderful innocence about Harry Potter and his group of friends that make it child-family friendly. And as has been noted by other movie critics over the years, the Potter’s “band of friends” is happily diverse, boys, girls with even an elf, etc thrown in, reminding us that good comes in all shapes and colors.

So if you’re like me, who for whatever reason has previously missed the Harry Potter train, I would suggest the following: (1) don’t be afraid of the Harry Potter product. It’s good and family friendly, but (2) before going to see _this movie_ in the theater (where you’re going to pay a bundle of money to see it with your family without knowing really what’s going on) rent a couple of the earlier Harry Potter movies and watch them with your family at home. That way you’ll get up to speed. You may even be able to catch this one sometime later, be it in the theaters or on DVD, and you’ll be ready for the next/final installment that will come out in July.

Having taken one for the blog here (without seeing a previous Harry Potter movie beforehand) I am now taking my advice as well, having already sent out an order to the first installment of the Harry Potter series to start getting myself up to speed by the summer.

All in all, I liked Harry Potter installment currently playing in the theaters and appreciated both the movie’s innocence and positive message on friendship. As such, I’d recommend it to families wishing to see good, friendly family fare.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

Morning Glory

MPAA (PG-13) USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (3 ½ stars) Fr. Dennis (3 ½ stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert’s Review -

Morning Glory is another movie that's _not_ very complicated but _works_. Rachel McAdams plays Becky a young, optimistic, hardworking to workaholic producer of an early morning news show at a New Jersey television station who gets downsized. Work is all she’s known for years and so she’s disoriented. Her mother doesn’t give her much support “When you were eight, your dream of making it in television news was adorable. When you were 18 it was positively inspiring. Now at 28 it’s becoming a little embarrassing. Dear don’t let it become sad or pathetic.”

Undaunted, Becky goes through a series of embarrassing interviews with no luck in finding new work. Finally on recommendation from her previous boss that she was “the best morning news producer that he’s ever fired,” Jerry Barnes (played by Jeff Goldblum), the director of IBS Network News with far and away the worst network morning news program in the business, takes a chance on her as the new executive producer of the show.

Becky has her work cut out for her. She has to get a thoroughly demoralized and everyone out for themselves staff to work as a team and improve the ratings. Both competent and bouncy and ever optimistic, she sets herself to work. When the male co-anchor of the show gives her lip at her first staff meeting, she summarily fires him (though always with a smile) for insubordination.

This, however, requires her to go searching for a male to co-anchor with veteran of the show Colleen Peck (played by Diane Keaton). After going through a good deal of demo tapes of possible co-anchors for Colleen with her co-producer, she stumbles on an old tape of Mike Pomeroy (played by Harrison Ford) a Ted Koppel-like legend who was simply riding out the rest of his contract in semi-retirement at home after his hard (and presumably evening) news show had been cancelled. Since Pomeroy was a childhood hero of hers and her dad’s and despite the advice of just about everyone around her, she decides to pursue him to take the co-anchor slot. She finds in his contract with IBS that until his contract expires he is obligated to accept any legitimate news job that the network offers him. So she offers him the co-anchor job at IBS’ morning program and he _can’t_ say no.

He is, of course, a crotchety old prima-donna who sets off Colleen Peck as well, since she's something of a prima-donna too, though less so than Pomeroy.

Much ensues from hereon in. There are many, many funny situations and many, many funny lines. The best line of the movie? Pomeroy trying to refuse a direction he receives from the bouncy, ever smiling though tough as nails Becky: “Miss, I had my hand shot through while reporting in Bosnia. I pulled Colin Powell out of a burning jeep. I put a cold damp cloth on the forehead of Mother Theresa as she kneeled down to care for famine refugees during a cholera epidemic. There is no way I’m going to make potato salad on this show!”

Again, this movie treads familiar ground. What makes it work is both the writing and then the spot-on acting by both the headliners in this film (McAdams, Keaton, Ford, Goldblum) as well as the rest of the cast.

Morning Glory is a feel-good movie that most who play in it would be proud of. And I do think that Becky offers a GREAT role model for today’s 20-somethings: Just because you’re happy (and hopefully you are when you're young) does not mean that you can’t be both very skilled and very tough.

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MPAA (PG-13) USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (3 ½ stars) Fr. Dennis (3 ½ stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert’s Review -

Unstoppable is not a complex story or a particularly original one.Trains been literally with us since the beginning of the motion picture era. Indeed, the very first movie to tell a story, The Great Train Robbery (1903). produced by Thomas Edison (inventor of the movie camera) himself, involved action and fighting on a train. Then one of the most iconic sequences in motion picture history, the “Damsel in Distress” tied to a set of railroad tracks before an onrushing train appeared first in the movie The Perils of Pauline (1914). These scenes have been repeated countless times in countless variations in Hollywood films since. And it’s because these stories work. There’s something primal and compelling about a large runaway machine. Sometime the runaway vehicle is an airplane (the Airport movies), at other times a bus or metro train (Speed). This time, it was a runaway freight train.

There are other stock elements in this story, the initial mutual mistrust between the young and the old, employees competing in “hard economic times” and the “big corporation” as crooked, unable to see beyond the bottom-line. Again these elements work because they ring true.

What makes a film like Unstoppable work is decent acting and then good editing. All the main actors in the movie play their part – Denzel Washington (playing Frank the old, suspicious engineer), Chris Pine (playing Will, the young, assistant engineer tired of being treated like a neophyte), Rosario Dawson (playing Connie, the super-competent but always overlooked hispanic woman dispatcher at a rail yard control center), Ethan Suplee (playing Dewee the unthinking screw-up in the rail yard whose missteps set-up the rest of the story), Kevin Corrigan (playing the federal inspector who happens to show up at Connie’s control center for a routine matter when the crisis first starts to unfold), and Kevin Dunn (playing Galvin, the middle level manager terrified of how this was going to look to the senior management). None of these roles are particularly difficult to play, but all the actors played them well. Then action and editing carried the rest.

Unstoppable is not a complicated movie, but it works and proves that it’s possible to spin a very good story even out of very familiar elements. Done as well as it is, it’s a movie that’s almost guaranteed to entertain.

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Friday, November 12, 2010


MPAA (PG) USCCB (A-II) Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr. Dennis (2 stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert's Review -

Tonight, I went to see Megamind. I’ve tended to be more of a Will Farrell fan than pretty much everyone that I know. And I’ve liked most of the animated movies that have come out in recent years and Megamind did quite well in the box office last weekend. However, I was not very impressed with Megamind.

To be sure, the movie had its moments, but it seemed to me Megamind was too much of a retread of a lot of those recent animated movies. In How to Train Your Dragon, the boy protagonist Hiccup’s side-kick was, well, a dragon. Megamind (voice by Will Farrell) had a sidekick as well, a somewhat ugly-looking fish named Minion (voice by David Cross). Speaking of minions, Despicable Me’s, Gru (voice by Steve Carell) had a legion of absolutely adorable “evil minions.” Megamind also had legion of minions, which looked more mechanical and somewhat more evil, but they just seemed to be a play on or small development of Despicable Me’s minions.

Then Tina Fey’s character Roxanne Richie looked and sounded a lot like Sharon Stone, Brad Pitt’s character Metro Man (the “Good Nemesis” of the more Evil Megamind) looked kinda like George Clooney. Even Megamind himself (voice played by Will Farrell) who didn’t look much like Will Farrell or any other famous actor, had a lot of lines that sounded more like things that Ben Stiller would say than Farrell. (Stiller is an Executive Producer for this movie). Jonah Hill’s character Tighten, however, looked almost exactly like an animated Jonah Hill. One wonders if there were some problems in casting this movie...

Then the plot and theme are also further confused. The main theme seemed to be a variation of Despicable Me's again: that it's not all that easy (or fun) to be completely Evil. Despicable Me was a rather straight-forward story. Megamind goes through a fairly large number of plot twists, not all necessarily bad. However, it makes for a rather messy movie.

All in all, I’m not sure if this movie is going to be remembered as the “best work” or any of the people involved -- Farrell, Fey, Jonas, Pitt, or Stiller helping to pay for it all. And I don't think the movie compares well to other recent animated movies like How to Train Your Dragon, Despicable Me, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, or even G-Force.

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Monday, November 8, 2010


MPAA (R) USCCB (L) Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 ½ stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert’s Review -

Initially, I found Conviction difficult to watch. Don’t get me wrong, the movie was excellently done. However, since one knew what was going to happen, it felt like watching a coming trainwreck: Kenny Waters (played by Sam Rockwell) a problematic man in his 20s, still stupid, reckless, and immature to be sure, finds himself accused of murder. And he finds that he has a boatload of townspeople, acquaintances and former girlfriends who could testify that he was erratic and at times violent.

Then the movie felt both very, very real, and very, very sad. Kenny’s sister, Betty Ann (played by Hillary Swank) remains utterly convinced that her problematic brother was innocent. What to do? Their family was always a mess. Both Kenny and Betty Ann spent time in multiple foster homes growing up. There was no dad to speak of, their mother who had nine children with seven different men, was no help.

Indeed, despite all this, up to this point Betty Ann had made something of a life for herself. She was married and had two small boys. But she simply refused to give-up on her brother. With no resources to speak of to continue to pay a lawyer, she decides -- in her mid-late twenties -- to first finish college and then GO TO LAW SCHOOL in hopes of finding a way to prove Kenny’s innocence. In probably the saddest line in the whole picture, even Kenny confesses that he doesn’t see much hope, telling Betty Ann during a prison visit: “Innocent or guilty, who really is going to care about a scumbag like me?” Yes, his previous life had made it difficult to have great sympathy for him but being something of a low-life “good ole boy” doesn’t make one a murderer.

The rest of the movie is a chronicle of Betty Ann’s struggle to prove Kenny's innocence. Obviously, she succeeds in the end. This is a Hollywood movie afterall and despite the R-rated language and somewhat gruesome crime evidence actually feels like a Hallmark Channel or Lifetime Channel movie.

But by the end of the movie, I found it to be very thought provoking: Would YOU do this for a loved one? Would you sacrifice so much of your life (16 years) to, yes, save a family member, but she was in the midst of creating new family with a husband and two kids? Would there be any point where you'd stop? I found these to be great questions which came to mind as the movie approached its conclusion, because it was so clear that this was not a cost-free "project." Betty Ann sacrificed a lot during the course of those 16 years.

Finally, a word about the rating of this movie. Conviction is rightly Rated R. There is language, there is blood, but most importantly, I simply don’t think a child or young teenager could really grasp a movie like this, nor would I want to inflict it on a child or young teenager for no just reason. IT IS A PAINFUL though VERY THOUGHT PROVOKING movie to watch. As such, I would truly tend to recommend this movie to only to adults. This does not mean that it is a bad movie -- I thought it was one of the best acted movies that I've seen all year -- It's just NOT for most kids or young teens.

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Monday, November 1, 2010

Inside Job

MPAA (PG-13) USCCB (not rated) Roger Ebert (4 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb Listing –
Roger Ebert review –

I believe Inside Job to be a fairly good documentary directed by Charles Ferguson on the run-up and aftermath of the current financial crisis. It explained for the “layman” what derivatives, cdo’s (collateralized debt obligations) and cds’s (credit default swaps) are, and how the concoction and marketing of these “complex financial instruments” to investors the world-over led to the 2008 crash.

As perhaps could be expected, the documentary’s thesis was that the crisis was not an accident, that its arrival could have been predicted beforehand, that its root cause was a deregulationist ideology that entered American mainstream under Ronald Reagan and has largely continued (with some ebb and flow) under every administration, Republican or Democrat, since (though the GW Bush administration was the most reckless since Reagan’s) and finally that this deregulationist ideology resulted in “freeing” the financial services industry to become increasingly irresponsible until it drove the U.S. economy over a cliff.

None of those arguments are particularly surprising, even if they are well catalogued in this documentary. Perhaps less known to the public was the corruption of the investment rating services like Moody's and Standard and Poor's, which were paid apparently only if they gave good ratings to the financial services companies and the products those companies sold. As such, all the investment and insurance firms that went bankrupt, were bought out at the 11th hour at firesale prices or were taken over by the federal government -- Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley and AIG -- had moderate (A2) to excellent (AAA) ratings just days before their collapse. Dragged before Congress in the aftermath of the Sept 2008 crash, the executives of these previously highly respected rating services defended their ratings services saying that their firms were merely "giving their opinions" of the soundness of the other firms and the riskiness their products, which investors could presumably "take or leave." Indeed...

Where the documentary really strikes new ground is in its condemnation of the nation’s business and economics schools (Harvard, Colombia, UC Berkeley, etc) which the documentary argued have also been corrupted by Wall Street money. A good portion of economics professors’ income comes from speaking engagements to, testifying on behalf of, and writing position papers for Wall Street firms. Since these are the professors who are teaching the next generations of economics and business majors in this country, one is left fearing that it make take as much as a couple of generations for the nation to get out of this financial mess as the same ideological mistakes that caused this current crisis will be repeated over and over again especially since there is good money to be made in lying on behalf of rich patrons.

The documentary ends by noting that many of Obama’s economics advisors -- notably Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner (who used to work for Goldman Sachs), Lawrence Summers (former Clinton advisor and Harvard University President who has been one of those who’s made millions of dollars a year in speaking fees to Wall Street firms while technically serving in academia), and recently re-appointed Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke -- come from basically the same group of people who brought about the 2008 collapse and that this does not bode well for real change in the way Wall Street operates.

Where there is power and money there is inevitably corruption. But I do think that this documentary does make one pause, because it shows that the trail of corruption goes all the way to the economics and business schools teaching our nation's next generations of economists.

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Friday, October 29, 2010

Hereafter [2010]

MPAA (PG-13), USCCB (A-III), Roger Ebert (4 stars), Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert’s Review -

I liked Hereafter. But then I’m finding that the movies I go to, I already generally expect to like (for one reason or another) even before going to see them. It’s the movies that I make a point of not seeing that I’d probably give low ratings ;-).

Having said that, I’m more or less certain that this movie is not for everyone and not for every situation. I would think that this movie would not be particularly good for a “first” or even “early date.” Why?

Well, the movie is rather sad. That ought not to be altogether surprising, since Hereafter is about death and the hope of many of communicating with loved ones who have died. Of the three stories that are interwoven to make the tale, the story of the young boy in London who misses his brother who dies early in the movie is particularly sad. The other two stories are about a French journalist (played by Cécile De France) who survives a tsunami in Asia and is changed by the experience. Finally there is George Lonegan, San Francisco psychic (played by Matt Damon), who is tormented, really, by having an apparent ability since childhood to communicate with the dead. George finds this not necessarily a blessing, as a sweet and somewhat desperate/lost young woman who wishes strike-up a relationship with him finds out (again, Hereafter is really _not_ an “early in the relationship” date movie).

Is the movie respectful of the topic of death and “the hereafter”? I do believe it is, as one would expect that from a movie directed by Clint Eastwood.

Eastwood, however, can’t seem to resist making a cheap-shot against an over-confident, tin-eared type of Christianity, which in this movie, is represented by a preacher that the young boy found on YouTube. In perhaps a well-meaning though somewhat oblivious way (to the loss felt by those mourning the loss of a loved one) the Preacher confidently proclaims “Concerning death? Well, if you believe in Jesus Christ, you have nothing to worry about.”

The tone in that very short “YouTube” clip is certainly cheap. It was picked or even _manufactured_ to make the point that death is nothing to be jargony or flippant about.

However, obviously, as a Catholic Priest I do fundamentally agree with that Preacher – that Jesus came here and rose from the dead to show us that even death does not have the word, that the final word belongs to God. And that this God is a God who both sees the falleness/brokeness of this world and who loved us enough to try to assure us that despite all the pain and injustice in this world, that’s not the way it is supposed to be and that none of these things, not even death has the final word.

This message, which I do believe, in fact, to be fundamentally the Gospel of the Risen Jesus Christ, is completely compatible with this movie without invoking any of the arrogance that Eastwood seems to object to.

As for the movie's portrayal of the “hereafter” itself, it is portrayed in a staccato fashion that is respectful of pretty much everyone who’d believe in an afterlife and in the justice and mercy toward the innocent dead that would demand it.

All in all, with the exception of the cheap shot toward _a type_ though certainly not all of Christianity, I think the movie was well done, and could promote some good discussion about life, death and the need for justice and mercy both in this world and in the next.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Paranormal Activity 2

MPAA (R), USCCB (A-III), Roger Ebert (1 ½ stars), Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb Listing -
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert’s Review -

I enjoyed Paranormal Activity 2 for a number of reasons. First, I had seen and enjoyed the first Paranormal Activity movie when it had come out. Second, I was rather in awe of the first movie’s story telling on such a low budget. That entire movie had been made for something like $15K, which I found amazing. The second movie preserves the low budget feel and again tells the rather simple (horror) story well with minimal equipment or camera work. Finally, I had been directed to the first movie last year by one of our young people in the parish. And so I went to see it simply for the sake of better appreciating what young people are watching these days.

Paranormal Activity 2, is a horror movie. So if you don’t like horror movies, you will not like this one. Second, it is a low budget movie. As such the movie has limitations, which may bother some people. Everything takes place on the grounds of a suburban home in Southern California. Extensive use is made of footage from both hand-held (often jerking) “amateur” video cams as well as footage taken from off-the-shelf “home security cam” equipment. The extensive use of such “low brow” equipment to tell a story may irritate some viewers (though fascinate others, like, in fact, me).

I think that the use of such footage draws the viewer into the story for two reasons. First, it gives _the story_ a “documentary feel.” Second, the repetitive use of the “security cam” footage invites the viewer to play close attention to the soon familiar repertoire of surveillance cam shots to try to catch any and everything that may have changed ever so slightly from day to day (or night to night) in the scenes. I do think it’s brilliant, and serves to tell _this_ kind of (horror) story very, very well. It builds suspense and really makes one jump when things start to happen.

Regarding the story itself, it is to have taken place at the same time as the first movie Paranormal Activity took place. As such, the actors playing the young couple Katie and Micah in the first movie appear in the second. Those viewers who saw the first movie learn a little more about Katie’s family’s past, as the second movie is ostensibly about Katie’s older sister’s family. The plot itself is rather thin, but enough threads have been revealed (and, more to the point, left untied) to offer grounds for further volumes to be added to this story destined to grow to be a rather large (and wildly profitable) franchise.

However, returning to the camera techniques used to tell the story, I’ve seen three movies now (the Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and now Paranormal Activity 2) that made use “off the shelf” video equipment to “tell a story,” but in each case, the story told was a “horror story.” It would interest me if the same techniques could be used to _effectively_ tell other kinds of stories. As such, R-rating (mostly for language) notwithstanding, I would recommend this movie to young people, even high schoolers (so long as they are not too sensitive to “horror type” movies, or their parents did not object to them) to _inspire them_ to perhaps pick-up their home video cam, digital camera or even their iPhone to see if a different kind of story could be largely told using that kind of equipment?

An “avantguard” / “techie” drama troupe (even one at a high school or college) could really have some fun.

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Monday, October 18, 2010


Ratings - MPAA (PG-13 ), USCCB (A-III), Roger Ebert (2 stars), Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert's Review -

RED (“Retired and Extremely Dangerous”) is a spy caper with an ensemble cast of both younger and older actors (Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfus, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Marrin, Karl Urban, et al) which asks the question: can one (even a spy) ever really retire?

Frank Moses (played by Bruce Willis) gives it a shot. We find him at the beginning of the movie at his nice suburban home looking down his nice snow covered suburban street sometime before Christmas and realizing that he forgot to put up his Frosty the Snowman decoration that makes him fit in with his quiet new neighbors. Such appears to be the quiet life of a retired CIA assassin.

Frank finds himself so bored that he’s taken to ripping-up his monthly U.S. government pension check just to give him an excuse to talk to a cute sounding customer service rep, Sarah Ross (played by Mary-Louise Parker), at the U.S. Government Pension Headquarters in Kansas City, to complain about his check “getting lost again” to ask her to have the Pension Office send him another. While Sarah enters the request into her government issue computer, he makes conversation...

As we watch this scene play out, it becomes pretty clear that this has become a routine, that they’ve gotten to know each other, and that Sarah, 20-something, with headset on, sitting in front of her government issue computer in her government cubicle with a romance novel at her side, which she apparently reads during breaks, doesn’t particularly mind flirting with a retiree who she doesn’t expect to ever meet. In fact, when Frank broaches the matter of meeting (saying that it turns out that he’ll be traveling through Kansas City later in the month), Sarah initially shoots him down, saying that it would probably be a really bad idea. With some convincing, and apparently nothing else except for romance novels going on in her life, she ends their conversation with a still largely hypothetical and very tentative “yes” which could be “easily” retracted back to a “no.” In a sense, she continues to “play nice.” Afterall, what are the odds that he’ll really come out Kansas City anyway?

Well things happen. A group of assassins come to Frank’s house and with high powered rapid machinegun fire quickly reduce his quiet suburban house with a Frosty the Snowman on the front porch into heaping ruin. Frank, former CIA assassin that he is, escapes, and gets it into his head that he “must save" Sarah now from “certain danger” (afterall, those who wanted to kill him would “know” that she’s pretty much the only one that he ever talks to anymore). So he does come out to Kansas City to “rescue her,” and the rest of the story begins.

The adventures that follow carry Frank and (at least initially) abductee Sarah (who presumably due to Stockholm syndrome, her fondness of romance novels, and let’s face it, not much else was going on in her government cubicle life, comes to like the adventure of it all) to revisit all kinds of friends and colleagues from Frank’s past life, from the CIA (Freedman and Malkovich) to the former KGB (Cox) to MI-6 (Marrin).

Together, the older spies reminisce of a “simpler time” when despite the occupational hazards of sudden violent death (and society living under the constant threat of worldwide nuclear annihilation) at least it was clear who your friends were and who were your enemies (and it was even possible for enemies to become friends) as opposed to today in the post 9/11 world when the reverse could be true and those who thought they were “friends” could discover themselves (through any number of betrayals or treacheries) to be enemies.

And the movie also becomes a battle of generations between the “Old Spies” and the “New,” with the “Old” being able ("of course") to teach the young whippersnappers a trick or two ;-).

All in all, I found this to be a _fun movie_ with some _great comedic performances_ (by Willis, Parker, Cox, Malcovich among others) with a good deal of shooting and glass breaking but few people actually dying.

For those of us who grew up during the Cold War, the movie _may_ actually serve as an entré to explaining to the youngsters what it was like to live then and the many ways that the world has changed since.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Easy "A"

Ratings - MPAA (PG-13), USCCB (O), Roger Ebert (3 1/2 stars), Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert's Review -

I confess, I really enjoyed “Easy A,” and for a number of reasons. Yes, this is not a movie to recommend to a child or teenager, if you’re concerned about instilling “a good example” or a “good set of role models” to them. But understanding that _this is a movie_, and arguably, though in a convoluted way _even a morality tale_, it is above all meant to be taken as _untrue_ (and arguably dangerous) but, from a distance, _fun_. How’s that for a disclaimer ;-)

The plot is a comedy of errors which begins on the front steps of school one sunny Monday morning, when high school student Olive (played marvelously by Emma Stone) lies to her best-friend Rhiannon about how she spent her weekend. Rather than admit, horror of horrors, that she spent the entire weekend at home studying (rather than coming over to Rhiannon’s house and having to deal with Rhiannon’s oddball still stuck in the ‘60s parents), Olive lies, saying that she went out on Saturday night “with a college boy.” Since the boy was, of course, away at college most of the time, Olive would never ever have to actually present him to Rhiannon or anyone else.

What could go wrong with such a simple white lie? Well the texting driven gossip mill takes over and by the time Olive makes it to her first class that Monday, she’s lost her virginity to that college student. That would not be necessarily the end of the world (especially since it was not true) and the gossip mill would probably be onto something else by lunch break, except that the school finds itself in the midst of a “culture war,” and Olive, who was previously largely “invisible” at school, suddenly becomes a very public “Exhibit A” example of “fallen womanhood” among those who would like to see more righteousness be brought back to the school (the previous year’s campaign resulted in the school’s “blue devil” mascot being replaced by a “woodchuck”).

It turns out that Olive is reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” in her English class, and since she sees no way to fight her new found reputation (and actually kind of likes it since, as noted , she was previously “invisible”) she decides to start wearing embroidered “A”s on her blouses.

She also finds that with her new “reputation,” she could help a number of the downtrodden ones at her school. Specifically, she helps a gay friend of hers, who’s being harassed at the school for his perceived homosexuality, by very publicly taking him to a room at a party at a friends house and (behind closed doors) loudly _pretending_ to have sex with him. After doing this favor for him as a friend, she soon finds herself effectively running a “fake prostitution” business by allowing a succession of “nerds” (for a price, paid through a succession over ever more outlandish sets of gift cards - to Home Depot, Radio Shack - and coupons to Ralph’s grocery) to _lie_ about _fake_ sexual exploits with her.

Needless to say, it all eventually spins out of control and it has to come to an end, and does so in a dramatic homage to John Hughes and the various teenage dramas and comedies that he produced in the 1970s-1990s. (If you’re appalled by the plot here, how did you feel about Tom Cruise’ role in the movie Risky Business?)

Again, this movie is not Dostoyevsky, but it is an amusing look at high school and the gossip mill in which what one actually did is less important than what others thought you did. And it _may_ serve as a lesson to anyone who actually believed stories told “in the locker room” (or today told in a torrent of text messages) as being “gospel truth.” Folks, people embellish and lie.

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