Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Midnight in Paris [2011]

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB () Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars) Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

Midnight in Paris (written and directed by Woody Allen) is a fun film that probably would be enjoyed by anyone who’s ever dreamed of living in another “golden" era.

Gil (played by Owen Wilson) is a successful but unhappy Hollywood screen-writer who's long felt that he "sold out" and would much prefer trading-in his celluloid success for some serious writing.  He finds himself on vacation in Paris with his fiancé Inez (played by Rachel McAdams) where they meet-up with her parents, John (played by Kurt Fuller) and Helen (played by Mimi Kennedy).  Future father-in-law John had come Paris on a business trip to sell "the Frogs" some stuff, but it's obvious that John hates the place.  Gil, instead, falls in love with Paris, even its rain, while the rest, including his fiancé just want get their business done, buy stuff and go back to the States.  Worse, Gil and Inez run into a couple of Inez’ friends, Paul (played by Micahel Sheen) and Carol (played by Nina Arianda).  Paul, like similar characters in other Woody Allen films, is extremely knowledgeable (to the point of arguing with a tourguide (played by Italian actress and current French first lady Carla Bruni), but (1) can’t shut up and (2) after all his fact spewing is taken away, just doesn’t “get” where he is, PARIS, and certainly doesn’t appreciate it the way Gil does.

So after a particularly awful wine-tasting party where Inez’ dad declares that anything from California’s Sonoma Valley is better the pretentious French swill that they were being served (and Paul disagees only in the details), Gil decides to “take a walk” rather than join the rest who want to go out dancing (To what? no doubt bad Anglophone music...).

Walking about, Gil finds himself at a random fountain on a random street corner in Paris when at the stroke of midnight, a 1920s-era Peugeot pulls up.  A woman holding a teetering champagne glass, dressed in 1920s flapper garb opens the window and calls him over.  She and her well-groomed partner invite him in to join them.  Inside the car, they pour him a glass and introduce themselves as Scott Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hiddleston) and Zelda (played by Alison Pill).  Gil does not believe them.  It's only when they come to the pub / dance hall that they were going to and introduce him to Ernest Hemingway (played by Corey Stoll), _that_ Gil spits out his drink.  The characters around Gil are _exactly_ like they were portrayed in the various biographies about them.  Zelda is spacy, F. Scott Fitzgerald is a gentleman, Ernest Hemingway can’t get way from leading every conversation back to bravery and honor...

Gil spends sometime talking to Hemingway about the novel he’s been trying to write, gets Hemingway to promise to take a look at it.  Sometime afterwards, Gil decides that he really ought to go home, says his goodbyes, steps out of the bar, turns the corner then realizes that he didn’t set where he was supposed to meet Hemingway to show him his unfinished novel.  Returning to the bar, he finds that the bar had turned back into an all-night laundromat.  Still, what a night!

The next evening, Gil makes an excuse to take a late night walk again, and heads, manuscript in hand, to the same fountain on the same street corner and is met at the stroke of midnight by the same Peugeot.  This time, Hemingway’s in the Peugeot.  Gil hands him the manuscript.  Hemingway turns it down saying, “Don’t ever give another writer your manuscript.  If it’s terrible, he’ll hate it.  And if it’s good, he’ll hate it even more. I’ve got someone better for you to show your manuscript to...” And so they head over to Gertrude Stein’s (played by Cathy Bates).  When they come over to her flat, she’s busy arguing with Pablo Picasso (played by Marcial di Fonzo Bo) over a painting he was making of an altogether unassuming model named Adriana (played by Marion Cotillard). 

I mention all this because Gil then hits it off with Adriana and much of the rest of the movie is about Gil balancing two relationships in two different eras until it all eventually gets resolved.  In the meantime on his midnight adventures, Gil gets to meet all sorts of other famous personalities of Paris in the 1920s including Josaphine Baker (played by Sonia Rolland), T.S. Elliot (played by David Lowe), and Salvador Dali (played by Adrien Brody).  Indeed, one of the funniest scenes in the movie involves Gil explaining his apparent time-traveling journey to Salvador Dali and two other Surrealists, Man Ray (played by Tom Cordier) and Luis Buñuel (played by Adrien de Van).  Man Ray responds “I see a picture,” Buñuel “I see a film.”  Dali, “I see a rhinoceros.” LOL ;-)

Adriana, however, is not happy in the "Paris of the Lost Generation" (the 1920s).   She dreams of “Paris of the Belle Époque” (the 1890s).  And lo and behold, one evening as Gil and Adriana are sitting ourdoors at a random café on a random street in Paris of the 1920s, a horse and carriage roll up and call to Adriana to come in.  Gil and Adriana take the invitation and soon find themselves taken by the couple inside to a "salón" of the times.  Soon they make their way to the Moulin Rouge where they meet Toulouse Lautrec (played by Vincent Menjou Cortes) and soon meet Paul Gaugin (played by Olivier Rabourdin) and Edgar Degas (François Rostain), who they find dream of “what it must have been like to live in the Renaissance.”

The movie resolves itself in typical, gentle but funny Woody Allen fashion (and yes there is a point to the tale).  Most importantly, one is left with a 100 minute masterpiece that will tickle the heart of any arts, literature and/or history student and will offer a “cliffnotes” video-stroll to _any_ high school kid struggling with a term paper about the writers and artists presented in this film.

I’ve been a Woody Allen fan since my college days.  I’ve long explained to friends that Allen’s movies (especially in recent years) are a “hit or miss” affair with about ½ “hitting” and the other half, well ... In this case however, I believe that he hit a bulls-eye.  Indeed, as amazing as Woody Allen's career has been, I do believe that this film is _certainly_ one of his best.  And it may well be that in the future it'll be said that Midnight in Paris was the capstone of his career.  I'll still be going to Allen's films as they come out, but it's hard for me to imagine that he'll do any better this one.  Congrats!

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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-II) Roger Ebert (2 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

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

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (directed by Rob Marshall, co-written by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, et al) is the fourth in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which was famously born of a popular Disney theme-park attraction.  As such, part of the attraction of these films always been wondering if their creators could “pull it off” or with each sequel continue to do so.   Like many others, I personally believe that the first Pirates of the Caribbean (The Curse for the Black Pearl) movie was a wonder and the subsequent ones, less so.  I don’t believe that On Stranger Tides was the worst of the four movies in this series.  That dubious honor I believe goes to the the third movie At World’s End.  The second movie, Dead Man’s Chest, was okay as I believe was On Stranger Tides

My single biggest criticism of the series since the original, Curse for the Black Pearl, has been _terrible_ editing.  The creators of this series could learn a bit or two from the Silvester Stalone Rocky series, which also extended an initially unlikely but then enormously successful original movie into a series with five sequels.  The stories were often very thin and predictable, but the editing was often the best in the business keeping the films on pace and every scene in them having a clear purpose.   In contrast, the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels had often circled and meandered seemingly forever (I believe the worst in this regard was the third film, At World’s End, where I honestly was wishing “would they _just get there_” already). 

Additionally, the ligthing in this movies has often been very dark.  I do realize that half the day is night, often there is fog on the sea, and often the most action on the sea happens during storms but I’ve found the persistent dark lighting most of these films, especially in the sequels to be very burdensome.  And anecdotally I can report that not a negligible amount of viewers end up falling asleep during parts of these films.

More positively, I do believe that the films’ creators have mined well the “lore of the seas” for their stories – ghost ships, sea monsters, voodoo priestesses, cannibal tribes (in previous episodes) as well as mermaids and the search for “the fountain of youth” in this one.  I just wish the stories could be told with better lighting and with tighter scripts ;-).

In this episode then of the series, On Stranger Tides, Jack Sparrow (played by Johnny Depp) finds himself back in England about to be tried (and hanged) for piracy while a rival Barbossa (played by Geoffrey Rush) holds a piece of paper declaring himself “legit” as a “Privateer for the Crown” rather than a pirate anymore :-).  Yes, that was true!  England did hire private captains in those years to attack Spanish shipping on behalf of the English crown and the main difference between such “privateers” and pirates was simply that they had a “piece of paper” (a contract) allowing them to do so and that they limited the targets of their raiding to enemies of the English crown (ie left English shipping alone...).

Anyway, as always, Jack Sparrow finds a way to weasel out of his legal predicament and soon both he and Barbossa find themselves on quest – for the Fountain of Youth – that they discovered that the Spanish (archenemies of the English at the time) were on.  Barbossa actually appears mostly after Blackbeard (played by Ian Shane) who he finds is on this quest already.  Jack Sparrow initially all that interested as meeting-up with Blackbeard would be awkward for him as he seemed to have had an earlier fling with his ½ Spanish daughter Angelica Malon (played by Penelope Cruz), worse just days before she was going to take her vows to enter the convent. 

Much ensues.  Many of the characters from the previous Pirates of the Caribbean movies are not present in this film, notably Elizabeth Swann (played by Keira Knightly) and Will Turner (played by Orlando Bloom).  However, I do believe that addition of Penelope Cruz’ Angelica was not a bad one.  Then there was also the mermaid Syrena (played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey) as well as a young hunky English protestant missionary Philip (played by Sam Claflin).

Regarding the PG-13 rating.  I think that the movie’s rating was appropriate to probably a little overly conservative.  Yes, the mermaid was topless, but she’s _always_ discreetly covered.   Compare this to other recent PG-13 fare like Suckerpunch (set in a brothel/insane asylum where all the female protagonists dressed in provocative/slutty costuming throughout) and Limitless (which glorified the use of performance enhancing drugs even to the point of graphically portrayed addiction to them).  In comparison, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides runs like a somewhat dark/rainy Little House on the Prairie episode.

All in all, the elements for yet another good story are present in On Stranger Tides and I do believe it basically works.  I just wish that lighting was brighter and the script had been tighter and we could have gotten out of the theater in 2 hours rather than, with the inevitable 20 minutes of advertisements for upcoming attractions, nearly three.

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Friday, May 27, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2 [2011]

MPAA (PG) CNS/USCCB () Roger Ebert (3 ½ stars) Fr Dennis (3 ½ stars)

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

Kung Fu Panda 2 [2015] (directed by Jennifer Yuh, cowritten by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger) is a well-written, well-animated (3D once again IMHO utterly unnecessary), well-voiced sequel to the first Kung Fu Panda movie written, directed, voiced and animated by the same team.

There’s a lovely gentle humor running through these young kid, family-oriented movies.  My favorite character remains Panda Po’s (voice by Jack Black) more or less obviously adoptive father, the noodle shop running Goose named Mr Ping (voice by James Hong).  That almost certainly Mr Ping could not possibly have been Panda Po’s actual father was a running gag through the first movie (even though it was obvious that Mr Ping cared deeply for his much larger, far furrier and certainly far larger/fatter son, and that Po never knew anyone else other than Mr Ping and presumably Mr Ping’s long deceased wife, as his parents).   Note simply that there are a lot of Chinese children that have been adopted over the years by American couples and that most of the time, they don't look much at all like each other (kinda like Po and Mr Ping) even if they certainly love one another (again much like the two in the Kung Fu Panda stories).  Panda Po’s origins and who Mr Ping came to take care of him is developed/explained nicely in this, the sequel.

Then there are the lovely paradoxes so much part of traditional East Asian spirituality (and which are actually part and parcel of _most_ spiritual/religious traditions even Christianity).  These include that the fabled “Dragon Warrior” master “destined to save Kung Fu” would turn out to be an overweight panda named Po, when so many _seemingly_ worthier candidates could be found, frustrating Shifu the Red Panda master (voice by Dustin Hoffman) who had to train Po, as well as some of Po's initial rivals including the Tigress (voice by Angelina Jolie), Mantis (voice by Seth Rogan), Viper (voice by Lucy Liu) and Crane (voice by David Cross) This made-up much of the story in the first Kung Fu Panda movie.

In this movie, a rich, spoiled, young peacock, Lord Shen (voice by Gary Altman) who had everything, but wanted more, and turned a substance (gunpowder) which previously brought joy (fireworks) into a weapon (a dragon headed cannon) is warned by a soothsayer water-buffalo (voice by Michelle Yeoh) that he will be defeated by a “great warrior” who is “black and white’ (Panda Po) who had obviously lost his parents somehow and had been raised by a kind, well meaning, goose (Mr Ping). 

There is much for young children and their families to learn as this story plays out, and if the story is expressed in an East Asian narrative form, (1) the lessons are easily translatable into Christian language as well “the last shall be first and the first shall be last" (Mt 20:16) and (2) the story is a reminder of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate that “the Catholic Church does not reject anything that is true or holy in these other [South and East Asian] religions” (NA#2). 

This statement of the Second Vatican Council may not be altogether appreciated by Christians and Catholics of European or Latin American ancestry, but is of enormous importance to South and East Asian Christians and Catholics from nations like Korea, Vietnam (with large Christian and Catholic populations), China, Japan and India (with smaller but often very ancient Christian and Catholic populations) and even the Philippines (overwhelmingly Catholic but with a culture and sensibility that is still profoundly East Asian) where the need to integrate one's faith with one's cultural origins is a matter of day-to-day life and necessary for maintaining an internal peace/equillibrium. 

A point is also made in this sequel that no matter how difficult or sad one’s previous life may have been one has the choice of responding positively toward the future.  This too carries a Christian equivalent where Jesus told his disciples "do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gahenna" (Mt 10:28).  Again, no matter what our past may have been, we always have a choice of how to respond regarding the future.  We can choose to live in hurt, but we can choose to let go, or even and especially to forgive. 

Hence this story which is so beautifully expressed with an East Asian idiom has a message that is easily translatable into Catholic/Christian language as well and so I do hope that well meaning Catholic/Christian parents would not fear taking their kids to the film, because it is lovely (and probably because you're taking your kids to Tae Kwon Do or Karate classes anyway ;-). 

Finally, it remains interesting to me how so many spiritualities (in this case an Eastern one) talk of both searching for inner peace and yet also of external conflict and how often the interelationship between these two realities (the internal and the external) show up both in our ancient stories/Scriptures like the Book of Revelation or in the Islamic concept of Jihad and in more modern stories and films, perhaps most notably in the Jedi spirituality of the monks in Star Wars.  I’ve mentioned a number of times as I’ve reviewed a number of recent, more young-adult oriented “Apocalyptic” films like Suckerpunch or Priest.  Don't get me wrong, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a kids film while the other two are _certainly not_ (oriented to older teens and young adults).  Still the theme of external conflict being present even in the midst of the search for inner peace is present in all three.  And this theme may give adults something (a paradox, even a koan perhaps) to contemplate as they watch this film with their smiling, 3D glasses-wearing kids.  Happy viewing to all ;-)

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011


MPAA (PG-13) CNS/MPAA (O) Mike Philips (1 1/2 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB Reviews -
Mike Philips' review -

Priest (directed by Scott Charles Stewart, screenplay by Cory Goodman, based on the graphic novel series entitled Priest by Min-Woo Hyung) is a movie that many movie critics and many Catholics would certainly find much objection to.  Yet, as I often do in the case of movies like this, I found both the movie and the concept behind it far more intelligent than its critics would like to make it out to be.

Priest is based on a graphic novel series by the same name created by South Korean writer Min-Woo Hyung.  The graphic novel series’ mere existence underlines several points.  First, about 1/3 of South Korea’s population is Christian and about 1/3 of that is Catholic.  Catholicism has made definite inroads in South Korea’s cultural imagination and that has gotten expressed in some surprising ways, including in this particular graphic novel series.  We should feel so lucky if America’s teens would generally find priests _so cool_.

As is often the case in comic books and graphic novels, the story in this movie is written in _broad strokes_ and must be taken symbolically.  Man is presented as having been fighting from the beginning of time blood-sucking vampires, that is Evil.  This Evil could not be defeated until the Church came along with its priests trained in combating “Vampires” (Evil).  The Priests succeeded in this “Battle” so well that Evil was consigned to “Reservations” and locked-away from the general populace.   Subsequently, the Church disbanded the Evil fighting force of the Priests and became complacent.  So Evil began a comeback, something that the Church leadership in the movie initially sought to deny.

Ok, let’s go to our world.  The world really was an awful place before the arrival of the Church/Christianity.  The Church/Christianity did, in good part, civilize the world.  Perhaps we did become complacent and Evil did make an attempt to re-enter the world (through among other things, the priestly sex scandals of recent years, a scandal that the Catholic leadership initially tried to paper-over/deny).

Thus I do think that the movie’s essential point regarding the Church is an interesting one: “If the Church’s purpose is largely to fight Evil and it ceases to do so (papering it over/denying its existence) then what good is the Church?”  And the movie shows the Church (and indeed Humanity) as being saved by its individual Priests who continue to fight Evil.

As I wrote in a review of another recent heavily stylized “Apocalyptic” movie, Suckerpunch, I do believe that a danger in this genre of storytelling is that the struggle against Evil is _externalized_ when virtually every religious tradition, including Christianity, has told us that this struggle is, above all, internal.  Even Jihad in Islam is supposed to be an internal_ battle.  However, apocalyptic literature has always been popular, witness here the enduring popularity of the Book of Revelation that ends our Bible, or more recently the Left Behind series.  On a symbolic Good vs Evil level, these stories speak to us.

So would I recommend this movie?  If the movie is to be taken as a “The Church is to be hated” sort of way, OF COURSE NOT.  However as a call to the Church to take seriously its mission of combating Evil, yes, I would recommend this movie.  And I do believe that a lot of good, sincere, YOUNG Catholics are going to see this movie and _like it_ and I’d like to give them permission to do so, to yes, dare to believe that Catholic priests can be cool, fighting (spiritually please) Evil.

Indeed, I do believe that many who’ve liked Bladerunner, The Matrix and/or the Book of Eli would probably like this movie as well.  There are even shades of the Star Wars movies, if actually MORE CATHOLIC in this movie (than in the Star Wars movies) and I’ve long believed that the most compelling contemporary _pop-cultural_ presentation of why someone would want to give-up marriage and family was given in the Order of the Jedi Knights of Star Wars who took a vow of celibacy to focus on their mission of keeping the Universe in Balance on behalf of "The Force" and for the benefit of all.

I do understand that I may be a dreamer here.  I understand that many critics simply don’t like or don't understand movies like this (and don't wish to).  I also understand that many in the Catholic hierarchy would not particularly appreciate as being portrayed self-serving and complacent.  But I do believe that movies like this have much more positive in them than meets the eye.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

There be Dragons [2011]

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Fr Dennis (3 1/2 stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review

I found There be Dragons (written and directed by Ronald Joffé) to be an excellent film about the early years of St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of the Opus Dei movement.   Since just about everything regarding the Opus Dei movement tends to produce extremely strong reations both pro and against, I do believe it is useful to put this film into the context of both the other films made by Ronald Joffé and other hagiographical films (biographical works about saints) made in our time.   

Ronald Joffé had previously directed the Oscar nominated films The Killing Fields (1984) about a New York Times reporter seeking to find his Cambodian translator after the fall of Cambodia to the Communist Khmer Rouge, as well as The Mission (1986) starring Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons about the suppression of the Jesuit Mission to the Guarani Indians in Paraguay in the late 1700s.  He also directed the 1995 remake of  The Scarlet Letter starring Demi Moore.  An excellent interview with Joffé regarding his decision to make There be Dragons about the St. Josemaria Escriva can be found in the National Catholic Register.  I do believe that a number of the themes/concerns present in these previous works can also be found in There be Dragons.  These include Communism both in its ideal (The Mission) and its documentable historical excess (Killing Fields), discerning the best path for the individual / the weak to combat (The Mission) or at least witness against (The Killing Fields / The Scarlet Letter) the horrific abuses of the Powerful.  Even the use of the figure of “a common man”/”reporter” to tell the story of the heroic deeds of “the Saints / Martyrs” can be found in both The Killing Fields and The Mission and is certainly present in There Be Dragons.  So Dragons is not the work of an ideological hack.

Then, I do believe that it is useful to compare There be Dragons to other hagiographical films of recent memory including, A Man for All Seasons (1966 directed by Fred Zinnemann and both the play and screenplay written by Robert Bolt) about St. Thomas More, Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972 directed and cowritten by Franco Zeffirelli) about the early years of St. Francis of Assisi, Bernadette (1988 directed and cowritten by Jean Delannoy) about St. Bernadette of Lourdes, as well as the influential films (in Catholic circles) produced by Paulist Media, Romero (1989, directed by John Duignan, written by John Sacret Young and starring Raul Julia as the slain Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador) and Entertaining Angels (directed by Michael Ray Rhodes and John Wells and starring Moira Kelly as Dorothy Day and Martin Sheen) about Dorothy Day of New York co-foundress of the Catholic Worker Movement during the Great Depression.  Included in this category could even be the Gandhi (1982, directed by Richard Attenborough, written by John Briley and starring Ben Kingsley as Mahatma K. Gandhi of India) and Seven Years in Tibet (1997 directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud screenplay written by Becky Johnston based on the book by Heinrich Herrer and starring Brad Pitt as Herrer a “recovering sinner” living and working in Tibet in the presence of the Dalai Lama during the years of WW II up until the Chinese occupation (or re-occupation) of that country). 

All these films can help one appreciate both the various characteristics that do make one come to stand-out as a Saint and also various techniques used by writers and film-makers to tell the Saint’s story. 

Viewed in the context of these other Saint’s lives, if one had doubts about St. Josemaria Escriva’s “qualifications” to be a Saint, I think that they can be dispelled.  I do also believe that St. Josemaria Escriva both in life and after-earthly-life, exhibited the same “lightning rod” nature of many of the Saints (and non-Christian/secular ‘saints’) listed above.  It's not easy to be "neutral" about these people.  For instance, it was all but inevitable that St. Thomas More would have to be put to death under Henry VIII.  (Four centuries later, rather than put another excrutiatingly irritatingly honest man to death, Mahatma Gandhi, the British chose to leave India rather than fight (and sin) to continue to dominate it).

Then while finding someone to play Oscar Romero proved not altogether hard (and it was Raul Julia’s true role of his lifetime), it proved _extremely hard_ to find someone to play Dorothy Day.  Why?  Dorothy Day was an ex-Communist, Catholic convert who had earlier in her life had an abortion which she immediately regretted, and when she got pregnant a second time she had both herself and her child baptized and later in the 1960s came to compare the advent of the Birth Control Pill to the H-bomb.  From the mid-1930s onward she spent her life feeding the poor and on during the 1950s when New York City would hold atomic bomb drills, not only did she and her community not participate, they publicly went to Central Park to play volleyball instead.  Almost _no Hollywood actress_ was brave enough to play her though Moira Kelly finally did (and did a great job) even though Martin Sheen was more than happy to play Peter Maurin, who helped Dorothy Day co-found the Catholic Worker as well.  I doubt that many Hollywood actors were lining up to play St. Josemaria Escriva "in his early years" either, though Charlie Cox did so, and again, did a great job.

So what of Josemaria Escriva’s life do we learn that make him compelling as a Saint?  Obviously, I’m not going to list everything or even most things to not ruin the movie for the reader but I will list some.  First, he knew something of _failure_ (economic and otherwise) early in life.  His father went bankrupt several times when he was growing up.  At a time currently when up to 40% of Americans have a negative networth (owe more than they own) someone who knew something of economic failure (and survived/transcended it) becomes already a compelling figure. 

Second, Josemaria Escriva was clearly formed during the Spanish Civil War (something that the bulk of the movie is about).  But the movie portrays Escriva as someone far more complex than what could be assumed.  At a time when priests and nuns were being _rounded-up and shot_, (my own Order has a recently beatified martyr Sr. Maria Guadalupe Ricart Olmos, OSM of Spain who was executed by the Reds during the Spanish Civil War) and Escriva himself had to spend a number of years _in plain clothes_ conducting his priestly ministry, the movie did portray him as someone who _did understand the Communists_ as well.  He did disagree with their methods but he did not deny the fundamental injustices that they were fighting.  Finally, Escriva is presented in the movie as _despising careerists_ in the Church _and_ actually refusing the protection and “mentoring” of a Bishop in Valencia who could have made the initial years of his fledgling Opus Dei community much easier than it turned out.  Instead, Escriva and his community arguably chose to “go it alone” _in much the same way_ as Dorothy Day and _her community_ did in New York during roughly the same time (Amazing, isn't it?)  I find that these surprising and _compelling_ bits of information about St. Josemaria Escriva make him an interesting and challenging saint at a time when _we_ often dismiss those we disagree with out of hand, without realizing that the justice of their arguments as well.

Indeed, like Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon became an interesting “topic of conversation” over the years with Franciscans, it will be interesting how There be Dragons comes to be seen by Opus Dei in the years and decades to come.  Will it be seen as a source of renewed inspiration?  Or will it come to be seen as a story that Hollywood didn’t get quite right?

Folks, honestly check back in five years ;-).  In the mean time, here's an excellent review of the movie from Opus Dei's American website.  And yes, I would recommend the movie to all teens and adults.  There is something to be learned here for all people of good will.

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Saturday, May 7, 2011

Something Borrowed

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (L) Roger Ebert (2 stars) Fr Dennis (3 stars)

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

It should be said at the beginning that like many other recent so-called rom-coms, Something Borrowed (directed by Luke Greenfield, screenplay by Jennie Snyder based on the novel by Emily Giffin) is not really all that light or funny.   On even short reflection, however, this should not be surprising.  After all it is about at least two young people (and possibly a third) who make a critical relational mistake.  Perhaps they did so inadvertently, perhaps they were somewhat “forced” into it by both their “upbringing” or “circumstances.”  Nevertheless our decisions (or indecisions) have consequences and that’s what this somewhat cautionary tale is about.                                           

Rachel (played by Ginnifer Goodwin) and Dex (played by Colin Egglesfield) had spent an entire year of law school studying together.  Yet, due to shyness, insecurity (“Could he/she really like/love me?” or perhaps “I don’t want to ruin this great friendship that we have”) both decide (internally, without discussing the matter with the other) not to pursue the matter further.  Things come to a head, when Rachel’s louder, somewhat bombastic friend Darcy (played by Kate Hudson), who knows Dex from Rachel’s much talking about him, runs into them in the midst of a “celebratory _non date_ dinner” to mark the end of that intense year at school.  She challenges Dex to ask Rachel on date (all this is in the movie’s trailer).  Rachel responds “oh no, we’re just friends.”  Darcy, somewhat unthinkingly responds “Ok, then Dex ask me on a date.”  Somewhat disoriented by the sudden urgency of the matter Dex dutifully asks Darcy on a date (in front of Rachel).  She accepts.  Rachel steps out to the bathroom, when she comes back D&D are talking away.  Rachel, then excuses herself to go home.  Dex even follows her out the door to check if “everything was okay.”  Rachel responds “Oh sure, I’m fine, who knows where it will lead?”  And five years later, when the movie takes place, this exchange led all three of them  into a really big ditch.  Darcy and Dex are about to get married and only under that matrimonial gun do the real feelings start to come out in this triangle.

Yes, like most movies of this kind, Something Borrowed’s characters, especially those surrounding the lead three are somewhat exaggerated.  They are “types” more than people.  Still some of the psychology behind all three of the lead characters is presented, making the movie certainly more realistic but (at times) also much more painful to watch.

I do believe that there are a number of rather good messages present in this movie. 

First, and foremost, younger folks, _please_ don’t let your otherwise “shyness” or “niceness”/”decency” become an obstacle to your asserting yourself when it’s really important.  Dex was not a random guy for Rachel (and vice versa).  Yet, in an instant both proved capable of throwing away an entire year of memories/history, for what?  To be “nice” to a friend Darcy, for whom (at least initially) Dex was _exactly_ a “random guy” who could have been replaced rather quickly by her if she had been indicated to “lay off” by either Dex or Rachel.  Instead, neither Dex nor Rachel took responsibility for their own lives and feelings and in a vacuum, Darcy “took over.”

This is not to say that Darcy’s unreflectiveness (both in her relationship with Dex as her fiancé and Rachel, who she almost certainly sincerely continued to consider her best friend) is an attractive trait.  She plays the elephant in the china shop.  Still, nature abhors a vacuum and if Dex since Rachel chose to abdicate responsibility for their own lives and happiness, Darcy was there to fill the space.  But “Darcy” could have been “work,” stupid diversion,” video-games, etc.

Second, the institution of marriage _is valuable_.  Its very permanence / seriousness forced ALL THREE to confront the demons present.  Without the impending wedding, Darcy and Dex could have continued to simply “live together” indefinitely in unreflective ambiguity essentially forever with no one except unreflective Darcy being happy but without any crushing need to finally resolve the situation.

Third, true friendships survive blowups.  Without revealing the ending, it seemed rather clear to me that even if the chess pieces were moved around a bit (and there were other “side characters” involved as well), it seemed clear to me that all three of the friendships involved in this triangle were going to survive if perhaps somewhat redefined.  If you truly love someone, if you’re truly a friend to someone, you want the other person to be happy.  So yes, friendships survive blowups.

But of course, there’s much to discuss/reflect on in this movie.  I found Something Borrowed to be be a very good young adult movie, reminding me of St. Elmo’s Fire from "my time,” perhaps better.  I found Kate Hudson's playing of  "party girl" Darcy particularly compelling.  Hers was a character with a lot of unspoken problems really, among them being that she seemed to _always_ have a drink in her hand... (something that someone of my age no longer fails to notice ...) 

I’d certainly recommend the movie to the 20 something crowd.  In one's 20s one is making (or not making) key decisions that will effect the rest of one's life.  And if there’d be _one piece_ of advice in line with the spirit of this movie that I'd like to offer the 20 somethings of today, it is in the words of one of the great bards of my generation, Bruce Springsteen: “If there’s something you need, if there’s something you want, you’ve got to raise your hand.”  It’s a great song that Springsteen always sang with a smile, fits the spirit of this movie, very, very well, and it’s absolutely true.

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Jumping the Broom

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert’s review

I found Jumping the Broom (directed by Salim Akil, story by Elizabeth Hunter with the screenplay co-written by her and Arlene Gibbs) to be a lovely movie about two African American families meeting for a wedding of the spirit and caliber approaching that of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Moonstruck.  Yes, there are differences in all these movies but there are also many similarities.  And ultimately families are families.  All have their traditions, their stories and occasional secrets.  And occasions like weddings do flush them out.

What I found utterly endearing in this movie was that BOTH the bride and the groom explicitly appealed to God for help during the course of the story; the bride near the beginning and the groom near the end.  Further, during the whole of their courtship and engagement, the bride Sabrina Watson (played by Paula Patton) wishes to remain a “good girl” (no sex) because she made a promise to God and her fiancé Jason Taylor (played by Laz Alonzo) lets her keep her promise. 

Two comments here:  First, I find _both points_ (that the two would both ask God for help in times of crisis, and that the two would abstain from sex prior to marriage) _completely believable_.  And second both points underscore a truth about the African American community that often goes unnoticed and certainly goes underappreciated outside its bounds: African Americans make-up the single most church going ethnicity in the United States.  And even among those who do complicate their lives and end-up in jail (and the poorer strata in _any society_ always make-up disproportionately those who find themselves in jail), everyone of them has an mother, grandmother or aunt who is praying for them. 

To the story.  While driving home from another schmuck that she had been dating, Sabrina asks God to find her a man, and tells God that he’s gonna have to give her a real sign.  Well even as she finishes her little prayer/complaint, she _nearly runs over Jason_ who was trying to cross the street.  Feeling about guilty as one can be for grazing him with her car and knocking him to the pavement, she runs over to him apologizing profusely.  And they start a conversation ... ;-)

Five months later, they’ve been dating for some time and hitting it off.  Sandra, an accountant or financier of some sort gets a job that would result in her moving to China for some years.  Jason tells her to take the job, but then drops on his knee, with a ring in hand and asks her to merry him.  She says yes.  But now they have two months to put together a wedding

That’s the story’s setup.  Of course, since the wedding is so rushed, friends and family of both parties believe that Sandra must be pregnant.  And both Sandra and Jason have to tell "the curious" that no this wasn’t the issue.  The larger difficulty, however, was that the families hadn’t yet met and both families have their problems.

Sandra’s family (mother played by Angela Bassett, father played by Brian Stokes Mitchell and aunt played by Valerie Pettiford) is moneyed, probably from the Caribbean and lives on Martha’s Vineyard (where the Kennedys live).  While Jason himself had gone to college and is an accountant/broker at Goldman Sachs, his mother (played by Loretta Divine) works for the Post Office and lives in Brooklyn, NY.  Jason’s father is deceased. 

While both families are black, they come from different socio-economic worlds.  And while this is manifested in the movie in many ways, it comes down to the famous African American ritual “jumping the broom,” at the end of the wedding.  Jason’s mother simply can not imagine a wedding without this little ritual, which goes back to slavery times in the United States. Sandra’s family on the other hand notes that their family actually owned slaves at some point (again, probably in the Caribbean somewhere).

Much ensues, various secrets and family demons (on both sides) get exorcized.  And it all ends happily in the end.  But as the preacher, Reverend James (played by T.D. Jakes) tells both Sandra and Jason as they sit down with him a day (_only a day_) before the wedding, marriage even in the best of circumstances is a trial for both.  Again, the movie does end well, and both families had their issues that needed resolving.  Yet, the movie is a good reminder that marriage is serious business and at times various issues and secrets have to be confronted. 

I liked the characters and liked the movie.  Yes, the particulars in the film are at times exaggerated but the point made that a wedding/marriage isn’t simply a party is indeed true and true for all.

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Friday, May 6, 2011

Thor [2011]

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-II) Mike Phillips (3 Stars) Fr Dennis (3 ½ stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Michael Phillips review

Two things to say at the outset about Thor [2011] (directed by Kenneth Branagh, screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, and Don Payne, story by J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich), Marvel Comics’ latest comic book (by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby) to be brought to the big screen:

First, Thor is a movie that’d be worth spending the few extra dollars to see in 3D.  With rare exceptions (last year’s Avatar and more recently the documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams), I’ve generally thought 3D to be a gimmicky waste of money.  Five minutes into this movie, however, I was regretting that I let my "cheap Czechoslovakian heritage" ;-) get the best of me and not splurging to get the 3D experience here.  I say this because the scenes from Thor’s realm of Asgard and that of the Frost Giants must have been absolutely awesome to behold in 3D.  (Note to self and others: When a film is about an alternate world filled with sharplined objects like towers/skyscrapers or even icebergs, it’s probably worth the money to see this in 3D where available).

Second, OMG, can one think of _any_ actor or actress at _any_ time who’s had the kind of year that Natalie Portman has had over the last 12 months?  She’s been in FOUR films released over the last six months: Black Swan, No Strings Attached, Your Highness and now Thor.  In the course of the year, she’s gotten married and is about to give birth to her first child.  But what a way to bring the curtain down on one’s “young adult” years!  I don’t think that _anyone_ since Harrison Ford was cast in a relatively short space of time as both Han Solo in the Star Wars series and as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark has _any_ actor or actress had similar good fortune in casting. 

Wonderful.  Now what’s Thor about?  The movie is inspired by Marvel Comics' Thor (appearing first in 1962), itself inspired by Norse Mythology, with significant updating and adaptations.  Thor, of course, was the Nordic God of Thunder (for whom Thursday or Thor’s Day is named).  The young and still arrogant son of Odin (in German Wotan, for whom Wednesday or Wodin’s Day is named) the King of the Nordic Gods, in the Marvel Comics' imagination, Thor was cast down to earth without his ability to use his prized Hammer until he became “worthy” of its power once again. 

In the comic book series, the period of time between his banishment and his redemption was much longer (10 years) than in the movie (a few earthly days) and the trajectory of his earthly life in between was more complicated.  In the comic he came down to earth as a cripple, who eventually became a medical student where he met his love interest Jane Foster a nurse.

In the movie, Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth) crashes down to earth somewhere in New Mexico, without his powers to be sure, but still as one heck of a hunk; good natured, immature, but certainly with a stop-you-in-your-tracks godly physique.  That’s how (in the movie) _astrophysicist_  Jane Foster (played by Natalie Portman) meets him.  She was out in the New Mexico desert with her team -- grad student (?) Darcy Lewis (played by Kat Dennings) and older, mentor-like scientist Erik Selvig (played by Stellan Skarsgard) -- in a RV-like vehicle searching for tornado-like “wormhole” phenomena, when suddenly such an astrophysical phenomenon does occur and out of the sky crashes, good ole Thor.  And Jane Foster, driving her RV like a tornado chaser, knocks him over with her car.

Knocked-out on the desert floor, this 6', flowing blond haired and bearded, nothing but pecks, biceps and six-pack abs, godlike stranger appears to be in need of help.  And Darcy “self-lessly” ;-) offers to perform CPR on him “I _totally_ know how to do CPR...”  Jane, who had grazed him with her car is there first however and she’s the first person that Thor sees when he wakes up a few moments later. Thus begins the rest of the movie in which Thor needs to be redeemed and then return to his realm of Asgard to help save his father Odin (played by Anthony Hopkins) against a plot perpetrated by Thor’s brother Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston) who set-up Thor for his banishment and then proceeded to try to take aging Odin’s throne for himself. 
And if scenes of Asgard and the battles with the frost giants on their planet of Jotenheim are Epic, indeed, Awesome [TM], the Thor’s time on earth are mostly _just plain fun_.  Afterall, here’s a good natured, but supremely confident (and for good reason, because he _is_ drop your jaw, turn women’s knees into mush studly) Norse God, Thor, strutting around some nameless hamlet in New Mexico (remember Roswell happened in New Mexico) without actually having much of a clue as to what to do.

In one scene, he enters into a pet store asks the attendant: “Get me your finest steed, fine man.”  The gum chewing teenager working in the store responds, “All we have here sir are dogs, birds and cats.” Somewhat bemused but still supremely confident, Thor replies, “Then get me a dog big enough to ride.” Jane catches up to him just before the now _really confused_ teen replies and offers to take him to where he wants to go with her RV.  

Then at one point, a group of Thor’s friends from Asgard come down to earth looking for him.  They look like the Barbarians of the Capital One Credit Card comercials.

All in all, I found the this movie to be _wildly entertaining_ ;-).

Given Thor’s Nordic roots, both the Marvel comic book series and the movie could have been “problematic,” as the Nazis used to be great fans of Norse Mythology and Richard Wagner.  Yet the trajectory of both the comic and the movie was one of Odin teaching Thor a lesson about self-control and, indeed, compassion/humanity (hence why Thor was sent down to earth).

I could count only one possibly racially problematic scene in which the blond and studly Thor wrestled with and defeated a very large African American U.S. Service-man as Thor first tried to recover his Hammer.  Discovering the Hammer, the U.S. army had put up a guarded perimeter around the hammer as it tried to study it.  The scene recalls the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones trying to recover the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis is confronted by a large brutish German serviceman who challenges him to a boxing match that Indiana Jones through some trickery and luck was able to win.

Yet, Thor was very well cast, with people of all races cast as various Norse Gods.  Indeed, the Guardian to the portal used by the Norse Gods to travel among the nine “realms” (Earth, Asgard and Jotenheim being three of them) was played by an African American.

Further, it is abundantly clear that Jane Foster of this movie is an independent woman, who’s clearly smarter than Thor but who’s attracted to Thor for his eye-candy physique and somewhat goofy personality rather than his “dominance.”  And the movie leaves open the possibility that _she_ will figure out (_on her own_) how to make it to Thor’s realm of Asgard before Thor figures out how to get back to earth.

While Thor will not be for everyone, I would imagine that teenagers and twenty-somethings as well as _anyone_ who’s ever liked graphic novels and comic books would probably like this movie.  I certainly thought it was an absolute blast ;-).

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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

IMDb (unrated) CNS/USCCB () Roger Ebert (3 1/2 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1664894/
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert’s review - http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110427/REVIEWS/110429983

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a documentary written and directed Werner Herzog and filmed in 3D about the paleolithic art found in the Chauvet Cave in Southern France discovered in 1994. Carbon dating of the charcoal outlines of the animal figures drawn on the cave’s walls date back to 30,000-32,000 BC making it the oldest known repository of representational art found anywhere. The story of the Chauvet Cave and its art is fascinating and it is worthwhile to read-up on it prior to seeing the movie.

The cave is closed to tourists because changes in the temperature and moisture of the cave’s environment by heavy human visitation would have detrimental effects on the cave walls. As such, the only way that most people will ever experience the art present in these caves would be through photographs and films like Herzog’s. Herzog’s choice of making this film in 3D is a good one as the cave walls, floor and ceiling are _not flat_ and the 3D experience makes one immediately appreciate how the paleolithic artists made use of the contours of the cave to enhance the representations (mostly of animals) that they drew.

What was the cave used for? Interestingly, while scratch-marks on the walls indicate that bears periodically inhabited the cave, humans apparently never made use of the cave for living. Instead, the cave seemed to have a reflective/spiritual purpose evidenced by the cave drawings and perhaps ceremonial one evidenced by a bear skull found lying on top of an altar-like rock and evidence of torches or fires having been lit by it. In one of the most memorable scenes in the documentary, Herzog was able to help the viewer appreciate how shadows would appear to "dance" along the walls as a person or group of people danced (or otherwise moved) before a fire. Having noticed this "dance of the shadows" phenomenon when he began his filming in the cave, Herzog noted that he was immediately reminded of a famous "dancing with the shadows" scene Fred Astaire’s Swing Time.

All this reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s famous work Primitive Mythology in which Campbell sought to ascertain the earliest indications of a spiritual life in humans and our animal kingdom cousins. Specifically, he noted that chimpanzees appear to enjoy twirling around (approaching dancing) just for the heck of it (just for the joie de vivre). He also noted that the acquisition of fire appeared to have had a truly profound (and even guilt producing) effect on the human psyche, suggesting that even the Christian concept of "original sin" may have its roots in human acquisition of fire.  Finally, he noted that a bear cult (evidenced by the purposeful placement of a bear skull prominent spot in a cave) appeared to be among the oldest forms of archeologically attested worship. Herzog offers the viewer of his documentary the opportunity to imagine all three of these phenomena – the interplay of dance and artificial light/shadows in the service of some kind of bear skull / animal worship – taking place in this cave.

In the end, Werner Herzog reminds us that we can only imagine how the cave was experienced by the early humans who would visit it over 30,000 years ago. The cave becomes, therefore, truly a Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

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