Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 Denny Awards - Part 3 - Most Compelling Performances (Female)

Part 3/3 of my Annual "Denny Awards" ;-)
(Other Years' Awards)

Part I - Best Films
Part II - Most Compelling Performances (Male)
Part III - Most Compelling Performances (Female)

CHILD (female)

        Maggie Elizabeth Jones as Rosie in We Bought a Zoo
    Honorable Mentions:
        Khomotso Manyaka as Chanda in Life Above All
        Mélusine Mayance as Sarah in Sarah’s Key
        Elle Fanning as Alice Dainard in Super 8
        Chloe Grace Moretz as Isabelle in Hugo
        Amara Miller as Scottie in The Descendants

TEEN (female)
        Freida Pinto as Miral in Miral
    Honorable Mentions:
        Shailene Woodley as Alex in The Descendants
        Kristen Stewart as Bella Swan in Twilight Saga, Breaking Dawn, Pt 1
        Emma Roberts as Sally in The Art of Getting By
        Nikohl Boosheri as Atefah in Circumstance
        Marie Ferét as Narnel in Mozart's Sister 
        Vanessa Hudgens as Lindy in Beastly
        Lily Collins as Karen in Abduction
        Stella Schnabel as Lisa (Miral’s Israeli friend) in Miral
        Analeigh Tipton as Jessica in Crazy, Stupid, Love
        Emma Watson as Hermoine Granger Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

YOUNG ADULT (female)
        Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, in Martha Marcy May Marlene
    Honorable Mentions:   
        Felicity Jones as Anna in Like Crazy
        Zoe Saldana as Cataleya in Colombiana
        Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre
        Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
        Brit Marhling as Rhoda Williams in Another Earth
        Carey Mulligan as Sissy in Shame
        Taissa Farmiga, young-adult Corrine in Higher Ground
        Bingbing Li as Nina in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
        Sarah Gadon as Emma Jung in A Dangerous Method
        Rashida Jones as Cindy in My Idiot Brother
        Keira Knightly as Sabina Spielrein A Dangerous Method
        Katie O’Grady as Meris Canfield in Rid of Me   
        Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary in Young Adult
        Cameron Diaz as Elizabeth Halsey in Bad Teacher
        Natalie Portman as Emma in No Strings Attached
        Anna Kendrick as Katherine in 50/50

ADULT (female)
        Jessica Chastain as Samantha in Take Shelter
    Honorable Mentions:
        Sarah Paulson as Lucy in Martha Marcy May Marlene
        Kirsten Dunst as Justine in Melancholia
        Dagmara Dominczyk as Annika in Higher Ground
        Jessica Chastain as Mrs. O'Brien in Tree of Life
        Vera Farmiga as Corine in Higher Ground       
        Rachel Weisz as Kathryn Bolkovac in The Whistleblower
        Elizabeth Reaser as Charlotte in The Art of Getting By
        Kristen Scott Thomas as Julia Darmond in Sarah’s Key
        Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn

ELDER (female)
        Loretta Divine as Shirley in Madea’s Big Happy Family
    Honorable Mentions:
        Helen Mirren as the elder Rachel Singer in The Debt
        Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in Iron Lady
        Judy Dench as J.Edgar Hoover’s Mother in J.Edgar
        Viola Davis as Abileen Clark in The Help
        Angelica Houston as Diane (mom) in 50/50

HERO / VILLAIN (female)
        Milla Jovovich as Milady de Winter in Three Musketeers
    Honorable Mentions:
        Zoe Saldana as Cataleya in Colombiana
        Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
        Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mistique in X-Men: First Class
        Amanda Seyfried as Valerie in Red Riding Hood
        Emma Watson as Hermoine Granger in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
        Amanda Seyfried as Silvia Weis in In Time
        Bryce Dallas Howard as Rachel in 50/50
        Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly Holbrook in The Help
        Tyler Perry as Madea in Madea’s Big Happy Family

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2011 Denny Awards - Part 2 - Most Compelling Performances (Male)

Part 2/3 of my Annual "Denny Awards" ;-)
(Other Years' Awards)

Part I - Best Films
Part II - Most Compelling Performances (Male)
Part III - Most Compelling Performances (Female)

CHILD (male)

        Riley Griffiths, Joel Courtney, Zach Mills and Gabriel Basso as the kids in Super 8
Honorable Mentions:
        David Moreau as Wolfgang in Mozart's Sister
        Dakota Goyo as Max in Real Steel
        Asa Butterfield as Hugo in Hugo
        Karan Brar as Chirag Gupta in Diary of a Wimpy Kid II: Rodrick Rules

TEEN (male)
        Taylor Lautner as Jacob Black in Twilight Saga, Breaking Dawn, Pt 1
    Honorable Mentions:        
        Nick Krause as Sid in The Descendants
        Freddie Highmore as George in The Art of Getting By
        Alex Schaffer as Kyle in Win Win
        Alex Pettyfer as Kyle in Beastly
        Taylor Lautner as Nathan in Abduction   
        Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

        Chris Hemsworth as Thor in Thor
    Honorable Mentions:
        Dominic Cooper as Latif Yahia / Uday Hussein in The Devil’s Double
        Seth Rogan as Kyle in 50/50
        Juan Cornet as Vicente in The Skin I Live In
        Ryan Gosling as the Driver in Drive
        Hamish Linklater as Jason in The Future
        Patton Oswalt as Matt Freehauf in Young Adult
        Austin Stowell as Kyle Connellan in Dolphin Tale  
        Ryan Gosling as Stephen Myers in Ides of March
        Justin Timberlake as Will Salas in In Time
        Ewan McGregor as Oliver in Beginners
        Ashton Kutcher as Adam in No Strings Attached

ADULT (male/unattached/no kids)
        Leonardo DiCaprio as J.Edgar Hoover in J.Edgar
    Honorable Mentions:
        Tom Hardy as Tommy in Warrior
        Paul Rudd as Ned in My Idiot Brother
        Brendan Gleeson as Sargent Gerry Boyle in The Guard
        Jean Dujardin as George Valentin in The Artist
        Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe in Moneyball
        Paul Giamatti as Tom Duffy in The Ides of March
        Michael Fassbender as Brandon Sullivan in Shame
        Daniel Craig as Jake Lonergan in Cowboys and Aliens
        Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

ADULT (male/parent)
        Alexander Siddig as Jamal (Miral's father) in Miral
    Honorable Mentions:
        Michael Shannon as Curtis in Take Shelter
        Damián Bichir as Carlos Galindo in A Better Life
        Alex Kendrick as Adam Mitchell in Courageous
        Clive Owen as Will in Trust
        Paul Giamatti as Mike Flahery in Win Win
        George Clooney as Matt King in The Descendants
        Matt Damon as Matthew Dee in We Bought a Zoo
        Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton in Real Steel
        Steve Carell as Cal in Crazy, Stupid Love

ELDER (male)
        Christopher Plummer as Hal in Beginners
    Honorable Mentions:
        Martin Sheen as Tom in The Way
        Kevin Spacey as Sam Rogers in Margin Call
        Albert Brooks as Bernie Rose in Drive
        Jeremy Irons as John Tuld in Margin Call
        Nick Nolte as Paddy Conlon in Warrior
        Andy Lau as Detective Dee in Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame
        Steve Martin as Stu Preissler in The Big Year
        Robert Forster as Scott Thorson in The Descendants
        Morgan Freeman as Dr. Cameron McCarthy in Dolphin Tale
        Anthony Hopkins as Odin in Thor 

        Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto in X-men: First Class
    Honorable Mentions:
        John Hawkes as Patrick in Martha Marcy May Marlene
        Dominic Cooper as Uday Hussein in The Devil’s Double
        Paul Giamatti as Tom Duffy in The Ides of March
        Chris Hemsworth as Thor in Thor
        Albert Brooks as Bernie Rose in Drive
        James McAvoy as Prof. Charles Xavier in X-men: First Class
        Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol  
        Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
        Justin Timberlake as Will Salas in In Time
        Andy Lau as Detective Dee in Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame
        Antonio Banderas as Dr Robert Ledgard in The Skin I Live in
        Sasha Baron Cohen as Station-Inspector in Hugo

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Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 Denny Awards ;-) - Part 1 - Best Films

Ok, this is a bit on the megalomaniacal side.  But having followed the movies for my first full year here and actually having a rather cool name for this ;-), I'm announcing my First Annual "Denny Awards" for Outstanding Achievement in Cinema ;-).

Part 1/3 of my Annual "Denny Awards" ;-)
(Other Years' Awards)

Part I - Best Films
Part II - Most Compelling Performances (Male)
Part III - Most Compelling Performances (Female)

 What do you think? ;-)

       Winner -
            Winnie the Pooh - in a year marked by surprisingly awful (and politicized) children’s films, thankfully there was Winnie the Pooh, whose only agenda was finding a pot of honey with his friends.
        Honorable Mentions -
             Kung Fu Panda 2 - gotta love Mr. Ping, Panda Po's adopted dad ;-)
             Rango - the Hollywood classic Chinatown set among gophers and lizards in a ghost town somewhere outside of Vegas ;-)
             Rio - as every lover of the song Free Bird would know, birds are meant to fly ... ;-)
             Dolphin Tale - who wouldn't love a movie about a bunch of kids who save a dolphin?

        Winner -
             We Bought a Farm - Yes losing a parent can be terrible, but if  you stick together, make new friends, and, yes, have a little faith you can make it
        Honorable Mentions -
             Soul Surfer - Everybody faces some adversity in life, but only we can give-up on our dreams.  Don't.
             Courageous - Yes, it's true that it shouldn't be good enough to be a "good enough" parent.

        Winner -
             Super 8 - “Yes, your parents were kids once too ;-)”
        Honorable Mentions -
             Real Steel - "What can make your dad so exasperating can also be what makes him fun.
             A Better Life - Honestly, look at what your parents have often sacrificed for you.
             Trust - A serious movie about teenage girl who meets a sexual predator online and her parents, especially her father, having to have to deal with this as well.

BEST INTERGENERATIONAL FILMS (for Older/Adult Children and their Parents) - 
         Winner -
             The Debt  – “Kids, things were a bit more complicated than what we once told you...”
         Honorable Mentions -
             Beginners – “Yes your parents can be more complex than you thought...”
             Madea’s Big Happy Family – “When your ma’ (or pa’) really wants to talk to you, put aside your anger/baggage, ‘cause it’s probably important ...”
             Warrior - "Yes, your life could have been very hard but can you still open yourself up to reconciliation...?"
             The Way – “Even after death, it's possible to make peace and reconcile ...”
             The Descendants – “Parents, if your teenager starts flipping out, there’s probably a reason... and you might not want to hear it”

         Winner - 
               Thor - “To have a friend like Thor ...”
         Honorable Mentions -
                X-men: First Class - "Okay, it wasn't exactly how it happened, but what a cool movie.  And how would you use your super powers if you had them?"
               Transformers 3 - Okay, it seems like stupid movie about a kind of toy.  But why does it work?

          Winner -
               Twilight, Breaking Dawn, Part I – Yes, I’m pandering somewhat, but I’ve been surprised by the Twilight series.  It's much better than I thought.
           Honorable Mentions -
               Monte Carlo – “Dare to Dream...”
               Snow Flower and the Secret Fan – truly “Best Friends Forever...”

         Winner - 
               Midnight in Paris – “Ah, to live in another time ...” ;-)
         Honorable Mentions -
               Jane Eyre - You can never go wrong in English Lit by doing a report on Jane Eyre.
               Three Musketeers – Cool new take on this classic adventure story.  But be careful here, there were no airships in the original... ;-)
               Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame - Great adventure story set during the Tang Dynasty in China.  Again, the fire beatles probably weren’t real ;-)

           Winner - 
                 Melancholia – “What if we’ll just (more or less randomly) die and no one will remember us?”
            Honorable Mentions - 
                  Tree of Life – God’s modern-day response to modern-day Job's asking “Where are you God?”
                  Another Earth – Very creative ultra-cutting-edge metaphysical response to the question "What if I could have another chance?" The response: "Maybe there's a whole other universe out there where you/'you' have one." ;-)

            Winner -
                  There be Dragons – “You thought you knew all that there was to know about a real-life Saint...”
            Honorable Mention -
                  Of Gods and Men – Actually a film from 2010 but one which only played widely in the United States after the New Year.  Possibly the single best film presentation ever made of the rhythms of daily life in a contemporary but also traditonalist Catholic religious community.

               Winner -  
                    Something Borrowed - For the really important things in life, you really do have to stand up and "Raise your Hand."
               Honorable Mentions -
                     The Future – “Yes, what you do does have consequences and what comes next can be scary ...”     
                     One Day – “Yes, what you do (and do not do) does have consequences ...”                    
                     Like Crazy – “In the age of the Internet what’s the deal with borders anyway?”
                     Crazy, Stupid, Love – Yup, people often do dumb things when they’re in love.
                     50/50 - Cancer sucks period, but boy does it suck when you’re 25.  Thought the film was a bit hard on the former girlfriend, however. 
                     Rid of Me - Yes, your former SO (or even spouse) can really mess you up.  But there is life after the break-up. 

              Winner - 
                   The Artist - hands down.  What a great tribute to the silent screen era!
              Honorable Mentions -
                    Melancholia – Yes, director Lars Von Trier called himself a Nazi and apparently had been blown-off by a Jewish girlfriend in his romantic past, but he still made one heck of a film!
                    Midnight in Paris – Yes, Woody Allen has had his own personal baggage, but boy can he still put together a story and then put it on film.
                   The Skin I Live In – Frankenstein lives, and who would have guessed ... in a castle outside of today's Toledo, Spain!
                   Rango - the Hollywood Classic Chinatown set among gophers and lizards in a ghost town somewhere outside of Vegas ;-)
                   Drive – Coolest genre film of the year, period.
                   Hugo – Martin Scorcese spends $170 million to prove that aside from a few cool novelty shots, there’s really no reason why 3D makes either artistic or economic sense.  But tell that to the TV makers who like Sony own entire Hollywood studios and are going to force us all to eventually buy 3D TVs.
                  The Cave of Forgotten Dreams – The only truly must-see 3D film ever made and then only 5 minutes of it.  Director Herzog is right.  We don’t even use our 3D seeing faculty unless we have to.  That’s why 3D films are so _tiring_ to watch.  But that apparently makes no difference to the world’s television makers.

              Winner -
                   Life in a Day - What a rich/wonderful world we live in today ...
              Honorable Mentions -
                   Page One - ... but the Internet will probably cull even the biggest/best newspapers in the business
                   One Lucky Elephant - How does one plan for a circus elephant's retirement and is it fair to the elephant?
                   Jesse / Shadows of the Lynching Tree - ... but can we finally care about all people too?
                   Cave of Forgotten Dreams - great documentary and possibly the best use of 3D ever to tell a story about a cave with 30,000+ year old prehistoric artwork that otherwise almost none of us would ever really see.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

War Horse [2011]

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars) Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

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

As I was watching War Horse (directed by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis based on the 1982 children's novel made also into an award winning play by Michael Morpurgo) it became increasingly clear to me why Steven Spielberg would have been interested in making this film.  All kinds of themes present in previous Spielberg films are present here (1) concern that E.T. [1982], Private Ryan [1998], even the Jewish captives on Schindler's List [1993] make it home safely, (2) depictions of complex heroes with their own stories who come to decide to risk their lives to help them reach safety, (3) the horror of war/terror (Schindler's List [1993], Saving Private Ryan [1998], Band of Brothers [2001]) and finally (4) war's moral ambiguity Saving Private Ryan [1998], Munich [2005]).

I write this because War Horse is not merely about a horse, even though the horse himself is important.  However, War Horse is at least as much about the various human caretakers that this poor suffering horse had over the years who helped him survive the all but unsurvivable, the cataclysm of World War I where people themselves (never mind the animals) were being gunned-down and gassed like roaches on a monstrous mechanized industrial scale.

In the midst of this slaughter, Joey the horse, passes from one temporary owner / caretaker to another and yes, makes it -- beaten, bruised but survives.  And through the sufferings of this poor horse the whole horror of that awful war is expressed.  Much of course happens as this horse passes from the care of Albert Narracott (played by Jeremy Irvine) and his parents Ted and Rose (played by Paul Mullan and Emily Watson respectively) to British Cavalry officer Captain Nichols (played by Tom Hiddleston) at the beginning of the war, then to two young German brothers, Gunther and Friedrich (played by David Kross and Nicolas Bro) in the German army after Captain Nichols is presumably killed in a Cavalry charge, then to a young Belgian girl named Emilie (played by Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (played by Niels Arestrup) who find the horse on their property one day, then to Brant (played by Rainer Bock) a German sergeant responsible for horses moving heavy artillery equipment when the German army comes back to requisition him and to finally two soldiers, one British, one German (played by Himmerk Schoenemann) who find the horse one day trapped in barbed-wire in no-man's and come-out of the trenches in order to set him free.

It's a lovely story and often often a very sad one for what happens to both the humans and the animals portrayed in the film during the course of the war.

The last incident when the two soldiers, one British and one German, come out to save the horse is an artistic expression of a phenomenon that occurred repeatedly on all fronts during the whole of World War I.  My grandparents' generation (in my family, my grandfathers and great uncles served in both the Austrian and Russian armies) had many similar stories about kindness shown by common soldiers on both sides of the trenches during the war.  World War I was still a war where most of the common soldiers really didn't see a purpose in the conflict and often just wanted to survive, _not commit mortal sin_ and go home.  Hence the British soldier's comment to the German one reassuring him: "I'm a terrible shot, and I'm absolutely certain that I'll come home having shot over the heads of every single German soldier I've ever seen," was almost certainly a sincere one.  During the first Christmas of war in 1914, French, German and British soldiers sang Christmas carols to each other over the trenches.  None of the common people on any of the sides really wanted that war.

Hence, I thank Steven Spielberg who grew-up certainly hearing many similar stories (as well as then stories of the horrors of the universally much more "bought-into" and hence crueler Second World War) for making this film.  9/11 did a lot to our country.  But I'm certainly of a generation (as I suspect that Steven Spielberg is) who still REALLY wants to "Give Peace a Chance" and remembers that for most people "War, what is it good for? Absolutely Nothing."

Finally, parents should note that the battle depictions in War Horse are at least as intense as those in Saving Private Ryan [1998] or Band of Brothers [2001].  Hence the PG-13 rating is fully appropriate and younger children should probably not be taken along to see this film.

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We Bought a Zoo [2011]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review
We Bought a Zoo (directed and co-written by Cameron Crowe along with Aline Brosh McKenna based on the book by Benjamin Mee about his experience of actually buying the Dartmoor Zoo in rural England after his wife's death) is a somewhat hokey, certainly formulaic but still very nice family movie about Benjamin Mee (played in the movie by Matt Damon) and his kids, 14 year old Dylan (played by Colin Ford) and truly sweetie-pie 7 year-old Rosie (played by Maggie Elizabeth Jones) who buy a farm (in the movie in rural Southern California) following the death of their wife/mother Catherine Mee (appearing occasionally in dreams and conversations, played by Stephanie Szostak).

Both grieving and starting on such a surprising project as a result offer inevitable challenges, that provide the nuts and bolts material for the project.  Yet, make no mistake about it, the film is about coping the loss of a loved one and struggling to find a future afterwards. "The Zoo" becomes an obvious metaphor not unlike Forrest Gump's "box of chocolates:" In life you don't know what's coming and you meet a lot of "interesting animals" (people) all of which need some care.  And lest there be too much actual equivalence between people and animals, we hear the initially skeptical older brother of Benjamin, Duncan Dee (played by Thomas Haden Church) declare quite sincerely near the end of the film: "You know, I do love the animals, but I really love the people."

And the Dees meet plenty of wonderful if at times eccentric people along the way -- including chief zoo-keeper Kelly Foster (played by Scarlet Johannsen) and her daughter Lilly (played by Elle Fanning), zoo designer Peter MacCready (played by Angus Macfadyen) and even state inspector and chief "villain" in the story Walter Ferris (played by John Michael Higgins).

Again, the plot is often very predicatable but it is also quite respectful of reality.  For instance, everyone probably expects a romance to begin between widower Benjamin Mee and Kelly the zookeeper.  After all, Kelly is both very nice and, well, "looks like Scarlet Johannsen" ;-).  But (if this is spoiler, so be it...) this does not happen, as it probably would not happen in real life.  Instead, it is obvious that the Dees have still a lot grieving to do, and they all make _some_ but still incomplete progress along the way.

As such I have to say that I really liked this movie (and was actually surprised how much I liked it).  It's sad, but it's also happy and it makes for a nice reflection on the life that we're given and which often doesn't necessarily go the the way that we'd like but ... if we step back a bit ... we can hopefully find that we're generally given quite a lot in life and certainly plenty of opportunities to make lots and lots of friends.

Indeed, even with that kind of rudimentary reflection we could perhaps appreciate that we really do have "someone up there" who is looking after all of us ;-).

As a final note to parents: while the subject is clearly about the loss of a loved one, which can be intrinsically hard for young kids to deal with, this film has been made with very, very gently, with a great deal of sensitivity.  So I wouldn't be afraid to take anyone to this movie.  The subject matter may not be something you'd want to take your kids to over the Christmas holidays.  However if you or your friends have lost someone close to you, recently, the film could be useful to you.  And I certainly wouldn't be afraid of taking kids really of any age to this film.  It's really done quite well.


First, in the Servite Novena of Our Lady of Sorrows, there is a line has long struck me, noting that "throughout her life Mary chose do to what God wanted her to do and not necessarily what she had wanted to do."  Yes, like in the case of the family of this movie, there are occasionally events that happen in our lives that we'd wish didn't happen (times when we don't even have a choice but to respond/accept what happens).  And there are also times in our lives that we do have to make choices between what we'd really like to do and what'd really be for a greater good, for the sake of loved ones, country, community, and yes for God and Church.  (One thinks here of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life [1946]).  Often what makes us truly Great are the times when we make the choice to do what is truly Good ...

Second, an image that has stuck with me for years since my time in the Seminary where we did study pastoral care for the dying and grieving has been understanding our lives as a web of relationships (and this before the internet became so much a part of our lives;-).

The loss of a loved one makes a tear in this web.  The size and scope of the tear depend both on the role that the loved one had in our lives prior to his/her death and then the circumstances of the death.  The sudden, violent death of a loved one is often the hardest for survivors to overcome.  Yet eventually our web does mend.  The web will show a scar as a result of the loss and the size of the scar will again depend on the importance of that loved one in our lives and the circumstances of his/her death.  But our lives will eventually continue anew.

The above insight is not my own.  It comes from a book that I read during my time in the seminary, but I no longer remember the name of the book...  But I do think that many who've experienced the untimely death of a loved one (as indeed, my family had.  I lost my mother when I was 22 and I'm approaching my mother's age when she died) will appreciate the value of the "web", "tear" "mending" "with a scar remaining" imagery in the metaphor.

And the family in this movie was clearly trying to find a way to "mend" the tear caused by the loss of their wife/mother.

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The Darkest Hour [2011]

MPAA (PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing - - review / discussion -
(Russ. orig. / Eng. trans.)

The Darkest Hour (directed by Chris Gorak, screenplay by Jon Spaihts, story by Leslie Bohem, M.T. Ahern and again Jon Spaihts) is an American conceived alien invasion sci-fi/horror movie set almost entirely in Moscow.  I found the idea to be both interesting and potentially problematic.  How would the film-makers pull it off?

I did find the setting of an alien invasion movie in a non-American city interesting because I had been studying at my Order's International College in Rome the year that Independence Day [1996] had come out and I know that the film didn't go over well once one got past our nation's fair borders. Already known at the Seminary that I liked films, I was greeted by a fair number of rolling eyes that fall by our college's non-American students saying: "So you Americans are going to 'save us all' from 'alien invasion' one day and on your Independence Day no less.  What if this invasion never comes?  Or we don't particularly want to be 'saved' by you?  Do we still have to be 'grateful'?"

Then a few years later Bruce Willis' Armageddon [1998] came out, a film extolling the innate goodness of oil-drillers and the inherent "wimpiness" of the French, Paris showed-up on screen only long enough to be blown-up by a shard of an asteroid (Oh, how the American Right hates the French ...)  So an alien invasion film set in Moscow could have gone in a lot of directions ... and, yes, I've taken a fair amount of hits for the United States over the years, both in grad school and then in the seminary where I was often the only native born American in the program (and _I'm_ a son of immigrants ...).  But I do like America and in good part for reasons expressed _nicely_ in this film.

Fortunately, the film-makers chose to _not_ have "Americans save Russia" but instead chose to create a film that certainly is still clumsy at times from a Russian point of view (see the review and discussion - Russ. orig. / Eng. trans. through tried hard to underline the virtues of both American and Russian ingenuity (IMHO rightly identified as a characteristic of both peoples) as the survivors of the alien invasion sought to fight back. 

So what is the scenario then?  Ben (played by Max Minghella) and Sean (played by Emile Hirsch) are two software engineers from America who come to Russia to plug a "foursquare" type social networking site only to find that their Scandinavian partner Skyler (played by Joel Kinnaman) had stolen their idea and passed it off to the Russians as his own.  When they protest, he simply tells them "Welcome to Moscow."  However Ben and Sean's site is already online elsewhere and two American tourists Natalie (played by Olivia Thirlby) and Anne (played by Rachael Taylor), who know the site from the States happily use it to find some of the club hot spots in Moscow as well as to run into Ben and Sean at one of the clubs.  Skyler's there too ... hitting on one of any number of Russian models at the club.  True Ben and Sean are still pisse-off at Skyler but between the Lights, the pulsating Hip Hop (both English and Russian) dance music, the two young American women that they meet and all the other beautiful people present, Ben and Sean are getting over it.

Then suddenly the lights go out.  Yes, one of the Americans calls out derisively "Moscow!"  But soon it's clear that the power outage has nothing to do with any perceived flaws with Russia's electrical grid.  Instead, all across the sky these orange glowing orbs are gently dropping toward earth.  And they seem to do two things: (1) they quickly short-out electrical devices and (2) they quickly reduce any living organism including humans to ash.  So it quickly becomes pandamonium when these strange orange-glowing entities hit the ground.

The five characters mentioned above manage to escape the initial onslaught.  How they did so (why they were so lucky) isn't initially clear, but it becomes clearer as the story progresses.  Initially, the five are content to hide.  Eventually though, they have leave their hiding place in order to eat. When they do so, they gradually come into contact with other, Russian, survivors.

There aren't many.  They initially run into Vika (played by Veronika Ozerova) who's their age as well as Sergei (played by Dato Bakhtadze) who's a bit older.  Initially, none of them really understand why they "were lucky" to survive, but they start to piece things together and Sergei is certainly the first who really understands it.  Note to the readers here, the reason isn't metaphysical like in Steven King's, The Stand [1994].  Instead, the reason is more down to earth.  The gathering and growing group of survivors beginning to organize themselves into a group of  "21st century partisans" also begins to figure out the aliens' weaknesses.

The story thus evolves into a reasonably good puzzle needing to be solved _and_ more problematically to some of the Russian viewers and reviewers of the film (see again the review and discussion - Russ. orig. / Eng. trans.) something of an analogy to the Russian/Soviet experience of surviving and defeating the Nazi invasion in 1941.  Then too, the Russian/Soviets were initially overwhelmed by the invaders.  But slowly they came to figure out the weaknesses of the invaders and to defeat them.

The movie ends only as the survivors begin to see how the alien invaders could be defeated.  So the film has been made in a manner that allows for sequels.  The ending also offers the possibility that these sequels could take place in other places in the world besides Russia (or the United States).  So the creators of this film have created an "alien invasion" story that's _truly global_ with heroes coming from everywhere, and could continue to be told for many episodes to come.

As a result, I do applaud the makers of the film for attempting to create a series in this genre that could be truly inclusive of the whole world and certainly I will be watching to see whether the film-makers come through in actually doing so in the years to come.


A truly excellent book on the Russian/Soviet experience of World War II is a book by British historian/journalist Catherine Merridale, Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army 1939-1945.  Published only in 2006, it is easily of the caliber of Cornelius Ryans' Longest Day [1959] / Bridge too Far [1974] or Steven Ambrose's Band of Brothers [1992] (which were about Western Allied/American experiences on the Western Front during WW II). Merridale's book provides the English language reader probably the best available description of life in the Soviet army on the Eastern front during the war.

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin [2011]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-I) Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars) Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

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

The Adventures of Tintin (directed by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by Steven Moffot, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish based on the famed cartoon series by the same name created by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi who wrote under the pen name of Hergé) is finally a truly great animated feature film both in terms of technique and story in a year of often very dismal ones.  The film represents Steven Spielberg's entry into 3D film making.  As such, it is certainly technically excellent (as was Martin Scorcese's recent film Hugo).  However, if both of these films are going to be remembered as "setting the bar" on a purely technical level to a new high, I consider Spielberg's Adventures of Tintin to have a far more enjoyable story than Scorcese's film.  Indeed, Tintin reminded me a lot of Spielberg's beloved Indiana Jones series with Tintin targeted to a somewhat younger audience.  Indeed, between Super-8 (released this past summer) and this film, I would say that Spielberg knows well the soul of a 12 year old.

So what's the story about?  Tintin (voice by Jamie Bell), a boyish looking reporter with a trusted white dog named Snowy, sees and buys a beautiful replica of a 17th century "Man of War" sailing warship named "The Unicorn" from a street vender.  Neither he nor the vender think much of it as Tintin hands over his cash to buy the replica at a modest and fair price.  Yet almost immediately after purchasing model boat, not one but two separate people offer to buy the boat from Tintin at several times the price he had just paid for it.  The exasperated street vender sighs: "Just my luck, I've been trying to get rid of this model boat for years and the minute I sell it all kinds of people are now fighting to buy it!"  The first potential buyer of Tintin's newly acquired model boat warns Tintin that if he doesn't get rid of the boat quickly, it will only cause him trouble.  A second inquirer, a sinister looking-sounding man by the name of Sakrine (voice by Daniel Craig) promises Tintin after he refuses to sell it to him that he'll get the boat from him one way or another.  The question, of course, is why all the fuss over a model boat?

Intrepid Tintin takes his boat home, puts it on a cabinet in his room and then head-off to the library to read-up on the boat.  He finds that "The Unicorn" had been commanded by a Sir Francis Haddock (voice by Andy Serkis) on what had proven to be "one of the most cursed voyages in [maritime] history."  Apparently, the ship had been carrying an enormous load of treasure only to be attacked and sunk by pirates, Haddock had been the only survivor.  But afterwards, "no one of the descendants of Haddock had proven to be of any worth."  Finally, there was a legend that Haddock had somehow hidden the information regarding the lost treasure in a manner that "only a true descendant of Haddock" could find it.  It becomes apparent that somehow this model boat sported some sort of a clue.  But what would the clue be?  And how to go about finding "a true descendant of Haddock" to figure it out?  When Tintin and his dog return home, of course his flat had been ransacked but it becomes clear that the boat itself wasn't what the burglars were looking for.  So what was it that they were trying to find?

This all sets up a great scavenger hunt / mystery for a preteen mind and sets Tintin and his dog on an adventure spanning seas, continents and deserts (again, Indiana Jones with a cartoon face and a cute dog comes to mind ;-).  Among the people he meets are two "Interpol Agents" Thompson (voice by Simon Pegg) and Thomson (voice by Nick Frost) who are also "on the case," as well as a very "unworthy" seeming descendant of Sir Francis Haddock, also a captain (and also voiced by Andy Serkis) who when we meet him seemed to need to be drunk in order to think straight.  Much ensues ... Ah to be 12 again ... ;-)

Readers here would perhaps find interesting that review for the CNS / USCCB notes that The Adventures of Tintin originally appeared in the children's supplement of the Belgian Catholic Newspaper Le Vingtieme Siecle in 1929.  And Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film that he became so enamored by Tintin since first hearing of him one year at the annual International Film Festival in Cannes that he's since "read every single book in the Tintin series and has even bought a Tintin and Snowy t-shirt."

I have to hand it to Spielberg, he knows how to please!  In a year of often very politically tendacious "kids movies" and a plethera of similarly forced/gimmicky "3D" forays, Spielberg made a 3D animated film WORTH WATCHING and probably worth paying the 3 extra dollars per ticket for the glasses.

Note: I continue to seek out 2D showings of 3D films.  However, from what I've saw, I could appreciate that THIS FILM could probably be worth seeing in 3D.  The shots in the film clearly lended themselves to taking advantage of the "depth" that 3D offers.

Still, I do hope that this 3D "fad" will soon come to an end.  Both 2D and 3D representational art have been with us since we began to paint on rock faces and cave walls and sculpt little figurines out of wood/flint.  Yet it's always been easier and cheaper to simply paint ... But as far as 3D films go, The Adventures of Tintin is certainly one of the better ones.

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Friday, December 23, 2011

The Artist [2011]

MPAA (PG-13) Roger Ebert (4 Stars) Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert's review -

The Artist (written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius) is a truly creative "film lover's" movie and certainly one of the best films of the year.  Black and white and SILENT, it gives today's film-goers an opportunity to reflect on the essentials in acting, film-making and story-telling in general.  Indeed, the movie certainly confirmed for me the truth of the cliché that "90% of communication is non-verbal."

Certainly, The Artist is a "novelty piece."  I would hope that there would not be a flood of silent movies being released in coming years as a result of this movie's success.  However, The Artist is a reminder that a compelling story can be told without recourse to words.

What then is story told in this movie?  It is the story of a fictional silent screen actor named George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin) for whom only the sky seemed to be the limit at exactly the time when silent films were about to be replaced by talkies.  At this point, at the height of his stardom, he accidently runs into Peppy Miller (played by Bérénice Bejo) a "nobody" actress who had just come into town and was struggling to get even a job as an "extra."  Not thinking much of it at the time, George kinda liked her (apparently for both her innocence/freshness and her spunk).  After a joking impromptu dance number that he does with her in front of his Producer/Director Al Zimmer (played by John Goodman), he inadvertantly gives her "her big break." Peppy Miller's career takes-off like a rocket-ship.

Valentin's career however is coming to an end even if he doesn't realize it initially.  Zimmer breaks the news to him: The future is in talkies.  Unwilling/unable to adapt, Valentin's star all but vanishes as public interest in silent films almost completely disappears in a matter of a couple of years.  What can he do?  He honestly does not know.  BUT ... Peppy never forgets the kindness that George showed her when she was just starting, so ...

I loved the _nice_ story.  (The trailer for the film was actually misleading.  The actual story of the film was far nicer even "hokier" than the trailer implies).  I also loved the gestures, the facial expressions, and the non-verbal acting in general in the film.  And if you do see the film, you'd probably agree that I'm not off base when I say that George Valentin's dog (Uggie apparently is his name) ought to get consideration for a "Best Supporting Actor" nomination ;-).

All in all, this film is probably not for everybody.  Kids would probably find the film boring, as would many non-film lovers.

But if you do like "chewing" on films, and wondering "what makes a film work?" then I think that this true "film lover's film" would be for you!  Congratulations writer/director Michel Hazanavicius and cast!

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