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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Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

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

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

I confess that I did not like Oliver Stone’s first Wall Street [1987] movie. I agreed with Stone’s anger and sentiment that the ethos of Wall Street was one of unbridled greed and that the investment hot shots of that time had convinced themselves that “Greed is Good.” Still, precisely because I had such a low opinion of Wall Street, I had little interest in paying to see a movie that would only support what I already believed and would only get my blood pressure up.

So why did I go see this second Oliver Stone movie on Wall Street taking place today, twenty years later? Well, I’m twenty years older. So is Oliver Stone (who co-wrote and directed the first movie and now the second) and so is Michael Douglas (who played the iconic villainous investment mogul Gordon Gekko in the first movie and does so again in the second). And having seen the movie, it is clear to me now that all of us have mellowed with age.

Now Stone’s condemnation of the excesses of Wall Street remains in the second movie and perhaps it is more savage than in the first and it comes from a stunning extended response given by Michael Douglas’ Gekko to a question asked him at a presentation Gekko is shown as giving to an auditorium full of finance students at a university in New York. In his response, Gekko declares that the excesses for which he had been sent to prison had become “legal” and that financial crisis of our time was caused by “everyone drinking the same cool aid.” Still despite this blanket condemnation, the overall tone of the second movie is softer and more human than the first.

Even in the first movie, Stone tried to complement the story of the big-shots on Wall Street personified by Gekko, et al, with the lives of “regular people” personified in the portrayal of the parents of the young “up and coming hotshot” Bud Fox (played by Charlie Sheen), including Charlie Sheen’s father Martin Sheen who played Bud Fox’ union card carrying airline mechanic dad. But in the first movie, the contrast of the two worlds (investment banker Gekko’s world on one side and the world of Fox’ parents on the other) seemed to me to be too shrill and contrived.

In the second movie, Shia LaBeouf plays the role of the neophyte on Wall Street, Jake Moore. However, Jake is portrayed as being someone a bit more mature than Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox of the first movie and one who had been exposed to a wider (and often better) set of mentor figures than Fox. Moore’s more rounded character is the first of many softening improvements over the first movie. A second improvement over the first movie comes in the character of Jake’s mother played by Susan Sarandon, who I believe is possibly the second movie's most compelling character. Introduced in the movie as a former nurse turned real estate agent who had gotten quite adept at “flipping” houses and condos for a profit during the past housing boom, she seemed lost in the new realities following the housing boom’s collapse. And it is LaBeauf’s character plays her conscience even near the beginning of the movie, when she still hadn’t grasped the new realities of the economic downturn, chiding her: “I used to be so proud of you when I was a kid. My mother saves lives for a living! What could be better than that?” Her journey in this movie is at least as important as that of Gekko’s and fills-out the true significance of Gekko’s condemnation of the current economic situation given above.

All in all, if the devil was entirely _outside_ “us” (and in the person of Gekko) in Stone’s first "Wall Street" movie, the devil (Gekko) turns out to not be entirely bad and arguably redeemable in the second and one comes to appreciate that there is plenty of evil (and good) to spread around. And as one who has matured some as well over these twenty years, I do believe that such new insight (and acceptance) does come with age.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Town [2010]

Ratings - MPAA (R), USCCB (O), Roger Ebert (3 stars), Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

Set in the working class neighborhood of Charlestown in Boston, I knew that The Town was going to be popular among the Anglo parishioners in my parish. Having now seen the movie, I do think that its universal themes dealing with loyalty, friendship, community and parting of ways would probably strike chords among older and working-class audiences across the globe.

The Town is a “genre movie,” hence the story is presented in a form with discernable “conventions” (rules) and the story is presented in an exaggerated manner for effect. I say this because on the surface this movie is about a crew of bank robbers who work for a local mafia which controls the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston.

Now why would one have sympathy for any of these people? This is especially since during the course of the movie, the members of this crew of bank robbers wound an awful lot of people, smash an awful lot of cars and other property, and seem to be enjoying an enormous streak of luck in getting away with it all. So what’s going on? Why do we sympathize with the apparent thug-protagonists in the story? And most importantly why, despite the violence and mayhem, we can more or less be certain that the vast majority of the smiling, popcorn eating parishioners from my parish (often sweet rosary praying grandmothers, though with their own stories) watching this movie will not turn to a life of violent crime as a result of watching a movie like this?

It’s because the story speaks to us on a level below the superficial and why I believe that this movie would be understandable to working class and generally older audiences across the globe: The protagonists in this movie feel trapped. They are making a living in a manner which is obviously dangerous and illegal, but most of them don't see a way out. The frustration of the people in the story is most clearly expressed by Krista the former girlfriend of the MacRay (the movie’s main protagonist). At one point in the movie, she sobbingly asks: “Why is it me who always gets used?”

MacRay, who is the leader of the bank robbing crew and is played by Ben Affleck (Affleck also wrote and directed the movie) comes to see a way out of his dead-end and rapidly closing situation. But he has to deal with and navigate through feelings of loyalty to his neighborhood and crew. Anyone who has ever loved his friends and his community even though everything was “not right” would understand.

American cinema has a long “noir” tradition of “hard boiled” movies about the fallen city and getting by (and finding a way out) through street smarts. In recent years a numbrer of movies of this style have been set in Boston (Mystic River, The Departed and now The Town). Clint Eastwood, who directed Mystic River, adds others including The Grand Torino and even The Changeling. If you liked any of these movies, you will probably like The Town. And given the arc of the story, if you liked the movie Shawshank Redemption, you’ll find many similarities.

Yes, this is a very violent movie. There is some sex. However, it is a movie that also tells a story, one that a lot of people, who will never become criminals, will relate to.

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The Social Network

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

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

Many people pick The Social Network about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (played in the movie by Jesse Eisenberg) to be a contender for "Best Picture" at the Oscars this year (and Justin Timberlake to be a nominated for "Best Supporting Actor" in his role as Sean Parker, the 20-something founder of the infamous music downloading site Napster, who in the film befriends and mentors Zuckerberg).

The key scene in the movie falls right at the beginning. Harvard computer science student, Mark Zuckerberg is in a bar with his Boston University girlfriend, Erica Albright. Focused on himself, and rambling on and on about his plans and only peripherally refering to how these, his plans, could "benefit her," he seems utterly clueless that she's considering breaking-up with him. She does. And she ends with the words: "What's really sad is that you're going to think that people don't like you because you're a nerd. But that's not the reason, it's because you're an asshole."

At this point, we don't know enough about Zuckerberg to tell if he really was an asshole, but the moviegoer is invited through the rest of the movie to deliberate internally and render his/her verdict.

Does the Zuckerberg character do assholy things? Yes, he certainly does. He goes back home, writes a slew of nasty and immature things about Erica on his blog, including disparaging (and almost certainly untrue) things about her bra size, things that certainly wouldn't serve at all to win her back, if that was his hope. So he certainly becomes an asshole to her. He also does or _plausibly_ does other assholy things to all sorts of other people throughout the arc of the story.

But was he / is he really an asshole (or a real asshole)? The movie leaves this up to the moviegoer to decide.

Now I do find a certain "Hollywood defensiveness" in this movie, that the movie seems to need to say "Yes, he's smart and yes he's got his billions, BUT ..."

And it does this in many ways:

(1) Zuckerberg is portrayed throughout the movie as being somewhat creepily obsessed with the girl who dumped him. If that is true, then yes, he _is_ a sick jerk. But it also seems to me to be unlikely. Afterall, the guy was dumped like in his sophomore year in college. Most people get dumped at least a few times in college (or otherwise) and _go on_ with life.

(2) Zuckerberg's portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg playing him as exhibiting symptoms of ausperker's syndrome / mild autism. This makes his character perhaps more compelling and perhaps more pitiable, but is it true??? Actual footage of an hour long interview with Zuckerberg available online doesn't seem to show the autism-like behavior that Eisenberg displays playing him in the movie.

(3) Finally and to its credit in the movie, Zuckerberg, who was portrayed early in the movie as being obsessed with being accepted into one or another of Harvard's exclusive student clubs (as a means of acheiving a better life), says that with Facebook "everybody gets to be the gatekeeper of his/her own club." It's an interesting insight into Facebook and it is true -- everyone can choose to "friend" or "unfriend" anyone who requests becoming "friends").

And here could be the crux of a "Hollywood defensiveness" regarding Zuckerberg -- Hollywood is built on status. Here's a guy who's made billions, more than ANYONE in Hollywood has ever made, and who did it through a means (creating Facebook) which undermines (not just for Zuckerberg, but for EVERYBODY) the status pyramid on which Hollywood has stood -- If thanks to Facebook, you are really (using Seinfeld's words) "The Master of your own Domain (club/page)" why would you care what Lyndsey Lohan or Shia LaBeouf did or did not do anymore?

So is Zuckerberg an asshole? Perhaps, but it also sounds a little like the former "in crowd" complaining that "the nerd" actually made good ;-).

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Those who know me know that I'm an avid moviegoer and over the years I've been asked by a good number people to start a blog like this giving my thoughts on the various movies that I've seen. So here it is.

I will always try to put up links to the USCCB's movie review page and Roger Ebert's movie reviews as well.

My view of the movies that I see will naturally come from my own "sitz im leben," that is from my own experience of being a rather well traveled, multi-ethnic Catholic priest, who has always had an interest in "inculturating" the message of the Gospel in our time and place.

Since my time in the seminary, I've liked movies because "going to the movies" is one of the few "mass experiences" (outside of going to Mass/Church) available in our culture AND one which isn't particularly time consuming.

In 2-3 hours the experience of seeing a movie is over and the movie is ready to be discussed (again, not unlike the length of time of a Mass or Chruch Service, though the Mass/Church services are generally somewhat shorter). In contrast, the time needed to read a good book or to follow a television series is generally larger.

I also believe that all art is meant not only to be consumed but to be discussed, be it over a few beers or, in our times, over the internet ;-).

So that is why I am happily starting this blog. May God bless this endeavor and help us to better understand the world in which we live in and thus better to understand how to apply the Gospel in our times.