Saturday, June 25, 2011

Bad Teacher [2011]

MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB (O) Roger Ebert (2 Stars) Fr. Dennis (2 ½ Stars)

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

The first and most important thing that folks should know about the comedy, Bad Teacher (directed by Jake Kasdan, written by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg), is that it certainly deserves its R-Rating, and its makers would probably consider the Catholic News Service’s “O” (for Offensive) rating as a badge of honor.

I say this because while I would imagine that many/most older teens and especially college students/young adults (some of whom would either be teachers, studying to be teachers or certainly have friends who are teachers or studying to be teachers) as well as older adults (ie parents) would certainly enjoy this movie, there is at least one Something About Mary-like scene in Bad Teacher involving bodily fluids that I certainly would not want to be a parent feeling the need to explain to their 14-15 year old.  So parents, _you are warned_: the R-rating here is absolutely appropriate and no, this would _not_ be a “family movie.” 

So then, why make or review such a movie at all?  Well, because Bad Teacher is often very, very funny.  Why?  Because the makers of this film did try to portray a true “teacher from hell” (awful teacher) and ... most viewers would agree, they probably succeeded ;-).

The movie begins with a small, very small “faculty gathering” at the end of the school year wishing departing 7th grade teacher Elizabeth (Liz) Halsey (played by Cameron Diaz) “all the best” after 1 year of teaching as she leaves John Adams Middle School (JAMS) to get married.  They give her a $37 dollar gift card (“almost $40") to Boston Market.  She thanks them, apologizes for “not being particularly engaged” in her work that year, because,  well “she was planning her wedding ...” and then heads off to the parking lot where she hops into her red Mercedes sports car, burns rubber as she speeds backing-up out of the parking-lot, cutting off a school bus packed with her former students in the process.  She comes home, only to find her rich fiancé (along with his mother) waiting for her to dump her.  Damn ...

Three months later, she’s back teaching 7th grade at JAMS, driving a used red Neon, ready to start the school year ... Has she changed, learned from her experience?  Well, she convinced herself that her fiancé dumped her, not because she was using him for his money, but because her breasts weren’t large enough (if they were large enough, presumably, _he wouldn’t care_ if she was using him for his money ...).

So she decides to get a “boob job.”  When she finds out that this would cost her over $9,000, money that she does not have “on a teacher’s salary,” she gets really mercenary about getting the required money.  No, she doesn’t stoop to (outright) prostitution for it.  But truly anything else goes: Stealing “excess money” collected from the annual “school car wash” which she took responsibility for after finding out how much money it had made the previous year (no doubt, she believed that she “earned” the extra money the carwash made with her taking it over);. taking (extorting?) money from parents by promising special attention and “tutoring if need be” for the kids whose parents, well ...

She was just one _really bad_, utterly self-absorbed person, who actually “chose a career” in a field that most people would consider a “helping profession.”  Why would she have done that?  Certainly, not to actually teach for a living.  She probably went to college with hopes of meeting a (really rich) guy to marry, one who could buy her that red Mercedes convertible to drive.  And she had _almost_ succeeded ... Having failed the first time, "older but retooled" she was hoping get "back in the game."

The other faculty are a hoot as well.  There’s Elizabeth’s rival at the school, Amy Squirrel (played by Lucy Punch) who’s also single, also looking for a guy, but who sees her "secret weapon" with regards to both men and her students to be her "downhome cutsiness and creativity" -- “ice breakers," "games," “craft projects,” etc.  Then there’s Russell Gattis (played by Jason Segal) a decent-looking (but not superbly "fit") 30-something “gym teacher,” who’s single but who none of the single women teachers at the school take seriously because, well, he’s a gym teacher.  Instead, both Amy and Liz have their eyes on nerdy but apparently from a rich family “new-meat” history teacher Scott Delacorte (played by Justin Timberlake).  And there’s sweet and also single Lynn Davies (played by Phillis Smith) who again neither Liz nor Amy take seriously because she's, well, "rather large."  Ever-optimistic but out of touch, Principal Wally Snur (played by John Michael Higgins) tries to lead a cheerful ship.  And there are a whole bunch of other bit-part teachers present as well, some of whom organized a pretty awful “lounge rock-band” that plays the local suburban “Best Western” circuit. 

Some of Elizabeth’s seventh graders also have stock personalities of note.  There’s suck-up Sasha Abernathy (played by Kaitlyn Dever), cool girl Chase Rubin-Rossi (played by Kathryn Newton) and chubby Garrett Tiara (played by Matthew J. Evans) who’s in love with Chase and doesn’t have a clue that there’s no way at all that she’s ever going to be interested in him.  Here Liz, tries really, really hard to straighten him out to that fact, no doubt because she saw herself as  Chase when she was in 7th grade as well.

So the cast offers much comic potential and, with often wildly exaggerated crudity, largely delivers.  There’s a scene in which a startled, ever-baked cookie wielding Sasha finds her teacher, Liz, smoking a pipe in her Neon with the windows rolled up in the school parking lot between classes.  Liz answers her stupefied student by lifting up a random piece of paper she quickly finds on the passenger seat of her car, while still trying keep the smoke in her lungs and saying: “Hey, it’s medicinal, I have a prescription, see ...” Would one expect to catch a real teacher smoking pot in the parking lot between classes?  ONE WOULD HOPE NOT.  But then, Liz, is one really, really bad, awful teacher.  And so it goes ... and you get the picture. 

Clearly, Bad Teacher is _not_ for everyone.  It _glories_ in being awful.  Clearly it deserves its R-rating.  It _seeks_ to shock and offend.  As I noted at the start of this review, there is a scene or two that I really would not want to be _either_ parent or teen watching the film together.  That said, it is a very funny film, funny because we would hope it could not possibility be _that_ true.

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Friday, June 24, 2011

Cars 2 [2011]

MPAA (G) CNS/USCCB (A-1) Roger Ebert (3 ½ stars) Fr Dennis (3 stars for technical quality 1 star for message)

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

Cars 2[2011] (directed by John Lassater and Brad Lewis, screenplay by Ben Queen, story by John Lassater and Brad Lewis again as well as Dan Fogelman) is a PIXAR movie that I went to see with some unease.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve liked a lot of PIXAR movies over the years including Finding Nemo, WALL-E, Up and (grudgingly again) Toy Story 3

Why my problem with the Cars (as well as the Toy Story) films?  Well, I just find myself uneasy (and suspicious) watching man-made, commercial (read sellable) objects so personified as they are in such films.  Why doesn’t it bother me to watch talking fish in Finding Nemo or talking barnyard animals in the Shrek series, I do not know.  I also admit that I loved Robin Williams’ Bicentennial Man about a sentient robot who sought to become more and more human, I absolutely loved the dog-collar devices in Up that allowed us to understand what dogs were thinking and I even had little problem with the robot approaching consciousness in WALL-E who discovered that he was lonely.  With his beeps and whistles, WALL-E reminded me a lot of R2D2 of Star Wars

Where I seem to draw the line, however, is when things that kids (and adults) routinely buy (or have bought for them) suddenly are given super human personalities.  Yes, a kid would give a doll or even action figure some personality as well.  But it would be _the kid_ doing so him or herself, _not_ the company manufacturing (or representing) the toy doing so for them.  With regard to the cars in Cars, they _are_ charming and are given personalities often associated with people who would be driving such cars in real life.  Yet, there is consumerist propaganda here - if you want to be perceived as cool, _buy_ a cool car.  To be sure, there’s _some_ backpedaling here from total crassness of that message.  Mater (voice by Larry the Cable Guy) the “hick” tow-truck is presented as a loveable hero in the Cars movies. (Lightning McQueen (voice by Owen Wilson) is the race car that Mater the humble tow truck keeps in-line and they become best friends in the first Cars movie). Still, I do voice my protest against a series of child-oriented movies (Cars and Toy Story in particular) which have a part of their message saying in effect “the things you own are ‘people’ too.”  No they are not.

Having said all this, what else to I think of Cars 2?  Well, from technical and creative perspectives, the movie is outstanding.  Different styles of cars are given different personalities.  Foreign cars are given foreign accents.  Michael Caine, for instance, voices a “British spy.”  What’s the car representing him?  Well a sleek, silver Triumph Spitfire sports car that one could imagine James Bond driving.  Organized crime-like “thugs” are represented by “loser” cars like the AMC Gremlin, AMC Pacer, the Yugo.  And the evil, bespeckled German scientist (voice by Thomas Kretschmann) is represented by an old East German Trabant (incidently, possibly the worst mass produced car ever made).  Italians are represented by Fiat-500s, Frenchmen by Peugeots, the Queen of England at the end of the movie by a Rolls Royce.  

What’s the movie about?  Well, it’s topical - about fossil fuel vs biofuels.  Again, the movie pedals and backpedals in so many directions during the course of this movie on this topic that by the end it probably doesn’t offend anyone much, except irritating adult viewers with such a crass attempt to, in fact, not offend.   

Would I recommend the movie?  Ok, I’ll go out on a limb.  No.  It’s a well made animated film, as Pixar’s generally are.  But bottom line, the movie’s about consumerism, and even about the fuel that drives our consumerism.  And no, “objects” are not people, and all fuels are _not_ the same.

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Monday, June 20, 2011

My Perestroika

MPAA (unrated) Fr. Dennis (4 stars)

IMDb listing -

My Perestroika (directed by Robin Hessman) is a remarkable documentary in which five ordinary Muscovites who were all young adults at the time when Soviet Communism collapsed were asked to recall the tumultuous events of their lives from their Soviet childhoods to the present.  Since I was also a young adult at that time, I found the documentary particularly fascinating because all these folks are basically my age, except that they literally grew-up “on the other side of the wall” during the Cold War.

The five -- a businessman (today), a married couple who are both high school history teachers, a musician, and a single mother who’s today an employee of a vending company – all recalled the stilted conformity of their childhoods, when everybody was a pioneer (the Communist version of the scouts) in grade school and a member of the Communist youth organization COMSOMOL in high school.  The young men then all served in the Soviet army and everyone either went to the university or to work, but in any case understood that it was probably to their benefit to join the Communist Party. 

That’s how it was at least until the ascendancy of Gorbachev in 1985.  In 1982 when Leonid Brezhnev died, the five remembered that pioneer groups all over the country play acted funerals for Brezhnev, so that even if the children could not participate in the actual funeral of their leader, they could at least pretend that they were there.  The five also recalled that just like in there are writing or science competitions in grade schools everywhere, in the Soviet Union there were regional propaganda poster competitions in grade school as well.  COMSOMOL projects were remembered as being both somewhat boring but also activities that at least “kept everybody busy.” 

The three men, however (and as far as I could tell, except for the married couple, none were friends or knew each other), all recalled the clear break with the past that came with the early Gorbachev years.  All three men recalled “entering the army while being in one nation, and returning to a completely different one.”  (The phraseology that they used actually sounded very much like that used by U.S. servicemen returning after serving in Vietnam in the mid/late 1960s.  At that time, the United States also seemed to change almost overnight).  One of the men recalled walking through the Arbat (a famous pedestrian district in Moscow) just after finishing his military service in 1987 and seeing youths "dressed as punks, even punks with full mohawks” and the authorities not bothering them.  That had been unheard of previously.  The man who today was a businessman recalled that near the end of his military service in 1985 he had petitioned to join the Communist Party and was refused because the selection committee was worried that upon leaving military service “he may commit a crime” (post traumatic stress?) and that could make the Party look bad.  He noted with some pride/glee that later in 1987 when he was studying economics in the university he was asked to join the Party and then (still smarting from their refusal to accept him 2 years earlier) he told them “to go to hell,” noting that _by then_ "it was okay to say that" ;-).

To a person, all five enjoyed the new found freedom of Gorbachev’s Glasnost era and beyond, though all noted that with the beginning of the Gorbachev era the economy basically collapsed, that the stores were suddenly empty.  The couple that today teach history in particular enjoyed that particular time (and most of the time since).  During the 1991 attempted coup against Gorbachev the two had responded to Yeltsin’s call to come defend the Russian Parliament Building (the Russian White House).  Even though the wife recalled that at least one of her professors then had called the young crowd that had defended the parliament building at the time as “a drunken mob, ” since she had been there she could not but chafe at that uninformed description recalling it instead in glowing terms as “the purest expression of freedom experienced in Russia until that time.”

What of the years since?  Most recognized the corruption and criminality of the Yeltsin era.  One recalled the Yeltsin era as “a giant pipeline that just sucked Russia’s money out of the country.”  The woman who now works for a vending machine company had apparently landed a rich boyfriend/fiancé at the time, who ended up being murdered along with his driver in an apparent mafia style hit.  In a day she and her daughter “lost everything” from living well to living “literally on the street” with no job, no home, and little future.  Eventually a friend got her the vending machine job that she holds to this day.

Regarding the current Putin era, all but one of the five in the documentary were _proud_ that they _did not_ vote in the last Russian election.  And the woman who worked in the vending machine job voted not for Putin’s candidate Medvedev but for (ultranationalist) Zhirinovsky in what she herself likened to a protest vote (so that I knew that my vote counted).  All were convinced that the last Russian election had been rigged or a foregone conclusion.  All considered “the only real elections” in Russia to have been in the 1990s. 

The two history teachers also chafed at the new Russian history books that were being published by the Putin government, the husband noting that “perhaps there is a place to teach patriotism, perhaps even in school, but our history department will never teach patriotism rather than history again.”  And throwing a frisbee with his son at what appeared to be his family’s dacha (summer cottage), he added that perhaps the internet will ultimately secure Russia’s democratic future.  “With the internet, it’s very difficult to maintain a monopoly on information.  And information is important.  Our young people are smart.  They are all potential hackers.  They know how to bypass any firewall.  I don’t know how to do that.  But our young people do.”  I honestly hope he’s right.

And as one who grew-up “on the other side of the wall” at the same time that they did, I do wish all five of them well.  We too have something to learn of their own “suspicion of unbridled patriotism” as well.  For none of us is without flaws or perfect, but we all do wish to be (and remain) free.

Finally, I deeply appreciate Robin Hessman's presentation of these five remarkable (and ordinary) Muscovites to audiences around the world.  This is documentary film-making at its best.  None of us can travel everywhere.  But through attempts such as this, we get a chance to get to know each other better nonetheless.  Thank you!

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Jesse / Shadows of the Lynching Tree

Fr. Dennis (4 stars)

Official Website

Shadows of the Lynching Tree, a documentary written and directed by Carvin Eison played recently at the African Diaspora International Film Festival at Chicago’s Facet’s Multimedia.  According to Eisen, it is still not a “completed” work, though IMHO (and to the others present at the screening) it is largely complete.  Eison hopes to have it ready for general release by 2012. 

He says that in its final form, the documentary may be renamed as Jesse, to highlight the two Jesses in the principal incident presented in the documentary – Jesse Washington, a 17 year old youth who was lynched (tortured, set-afire and hung) in Waco Texas on May 16, 1915 and Jesse, a 10 year old child taken by his father to the lynching in James Baldwin’s short story Going to Meet the Man in the anthology by the same name available at

As awful as lynchings (the summary executions of mostly black men by mobs of white people throughout the United States during the 100 years between the end of the American Civil War in 1865 and the collapse of the Jim Crow Laws of the still Segregationist South in the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement) were, the special horror of these “events” was their often “carnival nature.”  WHITES TOOK THEIR KIDS TO THESE EVENTS.  THEY SMILED, ATE ICE CREAM (as documented by pictures of that era) WHILE BLACKS WERE TORTURED SET AFIRE AND KILLED.  Often the crime for which the blacks were tortured and murdered in this way was “sexual” in nature – a black man having sex with a white woman.  Often this was presented as rape.  But whether this was actually the case, and today it is generally understood that these cases generally _didn’t_ involve rape (but simply intermingling of black men and white women), the black men were tortured and strung-up just the same.  And often enough, there was no “intermingling” at all, but a black person, male or female, simply became perceived as “uppity” in the local community and had to be “shown a lesson.”

Eisen notes in the documentary that in more recent times, the hanging noose may have simply been replaced by bullets, like those which cut down Martin Luther King, Jr in 1968 and, yes, like President Barrack Obama has been threatened with ever since declaring his intention to run for President and since winning his office.

Yes, Jesse / In the Shadows of the Lynching Tree is a dark, deeply disturbing documentary that makes one wince everytime one sees a white kid captured in photographs of that time playing, smiling, and yes, eating ice cream on “lynchin’ day.”  But I do deeply agree with the movie's director, Eisen that we’re not going to be able to talk honestly about America’s past (or _present_) without asking ourselves what drove this or drives hatred toward people like Barrack Obama today.  Is it simply that many of us continue to believe in one way or another that “black people ought to stay in their place?”

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The Art of Getting By

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

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

The Art of Getting By (written and directed by Gavin Wiesen) is a gentle teen oriented movie that would be my current candidate for this year’s “surprise movie of the summer.”  It’s still early, so there may be other “surprising movies” that will be released this summer, but it’s hard to imagine a movie of this kind topping this movie this year.  I only hope that The Art of Getting By will not be forgotten come Oscar time because IMHO, Wiesen deserves a screen-play and perhaps even a directing nomination for this effort.  It may be too much to ask for Freddie Highmore and Emma Roberts playing the two teen protagonists in the film to similarly get nominations, but I found their performances to be dead on/excellent as well.

Okay, what’s this movie about?  Entering his high school senior year, George Zinavoy (played by Freddie Highmore) discovers that “he’s going to die sometime.”  No he’s not facing any immediate ailment, neither does he feel particularly sick.  He’s just discovered his mortality – as only a teenager could – and it depresses him.  “What’s the point ... of doing anything?” spending his days doodling, quite creatively actually, all over his high school textbooks.  Trigonometry teacher, Mrs Grimes (played by Ann Dowd) smells a dodge and reports him to Principal Martinson (played by Blair Underwood) who gives him a lecture.  English literature teacher, Ms Herman (played by Alicia Silverstone) tries to get him to engage him.  Art teacher (played by Jarlath Conroy) has seen such attitude before and basically ignores him in his funk.  At some point Principal Martinson suggests that George pay special attention on “careeer day” to Dustin (played by Michael Angarano) a graduate of the school, who’s become an artist.  Dustin about 10 years older than George takes him under his wing, sort of, but it’s clear from the outset that Dustin doesn’t exactly have things figured out much either. 

It’s also clear that there’s some trouble at home, with mom, Vivian, (played by Rita Wilson) concerned about George’s future and stepdad Jack Sargent (played by Sam Robards) “trying” as well, but not too much (as George isn’t exactly his kid anyway ...).

Who _does_ come to provide “light” to George’s darkness is Sally (played by Emma Roberts) a much more outgoing and quite attractive high school senior, who George inadvertently/ backhandedly “saves” one afternoon.  Standing on the rooftop patio of the upscale school, somewhere in Manhattan, staring out into the nothingness of the horizon, he’s not exactly doing much.  Emma’s up there as well, facing another direction, smoking a cigarette.  A teacher comes up, smells the cigarette, and says “Hey, who’s smoking up here?” (It’s obviously against the rules).  Sally quickly puts out her cigarette and tosses it away.  George, depressed “rebel” that he is, actually pulls out a cigarette and lights it .  Sally doesn’t get it, neither does the teacher.  But the only one holding a lit cigarette is George.  So George “takes the fall.” 

From that point onward, Sally finds George interesting enough to make a friend.  It helps, actually, that depressed as he is, he appears to be the only guy in the school who doesn’t seem to be interested in hitting on her. 

Sally has her own problems.  Her randy, well kept, still bombshell-looking late-30-something early-40-something mother, Charlotte (played by Elizabeth Reaser) seems to be dressed one nightgown or another throughout the whole of the movie and far more adept at giving advice on how to get over a hang-over than most – parents or teens – would be comfortable with.  Sally had been a “tag-along” to her mother’s upscale affairs for most of her life.  I suppose one could give Charlotte some credit – she _could_ have dumped Sally off at “grandma’s” long ago.  Instead, Charlotte kept Sally around as part of her life, perhaps like a prized Persian cat or otherwise pet with a pedigree. 

Most of Sally’s other friends are dollar-sign in the eyes seeing strivers as well.  So good-ole depressed George is actually a breath of fresh air for her as well.

So then, this is the set-up to a teenage angst/growing up movie easily of the caliber of The Breakfast Club or Dead Poets’ Society.

Parents should be warned that while the language is not bad and, no, the two teenage protagonists _don’t_ sleep together (given the above description of her mother, one could understand why Sally wouldn’t be particularly interested in jumping into the sack with her only real friend, and George is, well, George, throughout most of the movie ...).  There is however, typically teenage sexual banter that may make some parents uncomfortable.  I’m not sure if most teens below the upper grades of high school would get this movie much less kids below their teenage years.

Still for juniors and seniors in high school as well as for the college aged, I would think that The Art of Getting By would be a really great, easily relatable movie.

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Saturday, June 18, 2011


MPAA (unrated)  Fr. Dennis (4 stars)

IMDb listing -
Official Website -

Arugbá (written and directed by Tunde Kelani) a Yoruba language film with English subtitles from Nigeria played recently at the 9th Annual Chicago African Diaspora International Film Festival held at Facets’ Multimedia in Chicago between June 17-23, 2011.

As I’ve written here before with regards to the widely regarded South Korean movie Shi (meaning Poetry) and the recent Egyptian film Sheherazade tell me a Story, one of the joys of going to the movies is that for the price of admission (or rental) one can travel to widely varied places and times.  If then, a film comes along which is written, directed and produced elsewhere, it’s all the more remarkable/authentic.  This is because it comes from the time, culture and place where it was made with the people of that time, culture and place (or at least the director coming from that time, culture and place) telling their own story.  Such is the case with the acclaimed movie Arugbá coming from Nigeria, which earned 9 nominations at the 5th African Movie Academy Awards in 2009.

Arugbá takes place in a provincial town in contemporary Nigeria.  Whatever else the law may or may not have said or whether or not a nominally elected government existed, the town is presented as being run by a local “king.”  This fact, reminded one that “kings” and “chiefs”/“nobility” everywhere had their roots in basically mafia-like structures.  What made a “king,” “chief” or “nobleman?”  Such a person was/is simply the strongest/street-smart person around.  In the Godfather movies, these people were called “Dons.”  In Arugbá, they are called “kings” and their advisors “chiefs.”

In the case of this story, the “king’s” name was Adejare (played by Peter Badedo), and yes, he lived in the biggest house in the neighborhood, held court in his living room, often holding a traditional staff/scepter in his hand and sitting in a rather comfortable chair.  His advisers kept tabs on what’s going on in the neighborhood and reported to the king.  The system was financed through extortion/corruption.  There was no particular need to "bang heads" too often, except if someone for some reason suddenly decided not to make the customary payoff or a “chief” suddenly became too greedy and didn’t properly report/share his extortion earnings with the "king."  (Both kinds of incidents happen during the course of the film).  In the movie, no one really questioned the system.  It was simply ingrained in the people of the town, even though everyone, _including the king_, was fascinated with Barack Obama’s campaign and election in the United States.  Still no one asked, “Hey, who exactly ever elected our king?”

Living with this kind of "day-to-day disconnect" was presented in the film as occurring in many other areas of life.  It became clear, for instance, that this traditional culture valued women’s virginity before marriage.  Indeed, the movie in good part revolved around a traditional festival in the town in which an Arugbá (a ceremonial virgin) from the town played a vital role.  On the other hand, it was made clear in the movie that it was very hard for women pursuing any kind of education to maintain their virginity through the course of their studies because the men of the town considered unmarried women fair game to simply take (and therefore rape).  Here there was more opposition to the status quo by young women, who tended to stick together, organize themselves into all women’s clubs and so forth.  But it was clear just how difficult it was to protect themselves.

The story’s primary protagonist Adetutu (played by Bukola Awoyemi) was a university student, hence obviously bright and already quite educated, but also of some years.  It was clear that in that society it was favored for women marry early (while their virginity could not be questioned).  But this also meant that most women had only minimal education.  So one could imagine the relative surprise in the town when Adetutu arrived to sign-up to play the role of the Arugba in the town’s festival _even though she was of university age_.  The “chief” responsible for the festival’s planning didn’t believe her and later neither did the “king.”  But she was wishing to prove a point, if with great difficulty, indeed many points, in a culture that would have liked very much to find excuse to dismiss a still young (but older than most of the young mothers/wives) but educated woman as “useless.”  And yes, she did have a sincere love interest, Makinwa (played by Segun Adefila).  He wanted to join her all female dance troupe (again, that’s how the young unmarried women organized to keep themselves safe).  But she had to keep at a distance so that she could both (immediately) have the role of the Arugba in the traditional festival and (later) finish her studies prior to getting married. 

Finally the attitude of fatalism played out in the movie with regard to AIDS.  A NGO came to the town to setup an AIDS testing clinic and treatment center.  The king and the chiefs didn’t mind as long as they got their cut.  But the big problem was that many people didn’t want to get tested.  Indeed, many died as a result of AIDS without ever knowing that they had it.  A particularly touching if somewhat inevitable story in the midst of the film (given the sexual behavior of the men described above) was that of a woman who had been a virgin when she had gotten married (at a very young age) and remained completely faithful to her husband throughout her marriage.  Despite this, she found that she was HIV infected through the promiscuity of her husband. 

Still, in the midst of so much denial and political apathy, the beauty, _color_ and richness of the culture was also presented in the film.  Even the poorest of people dressed in wonderfully colored clothes.  The music was beautiful and intricately choreographed dance so much part of the soul that it seemed all but effortless. And as dysfunctional as the government was portrayed, the society functioned and given that expectations were very low, it arguably flourished.  Most people were portrayed, almost certainly truthfully, as being basically happy most of the time.  And yet present was the repeated theme of societal apathy and resignation in face of endemic corruption and social ills (especially with regard to the treatment of women).   

Finally, a some words on how Christianity was portrayed in the movie.  Christians appeared twice in the movie.  The first time, at the beginning of the movie a somewhat crazed (understood by bystanders to be despondent) Nigerian came to the local square with a Bible in hand, preaching a fire and brimstone to whoever would listen: “Repent, for judgement is at hand.”  Most of the people appeared to dismiss him as being crazy, but at least one woman noted that he was simply despondent since his wife had left him for a rich man in Lagos (the capital).  The second time that Christians appeared was somewhere in the second half of the movie.  In this case, a missionary couple arrived in the town, and asked for permission to build a church.  As with the NGO asking to build an AIDS clinic in town, neither the “king” nor the “chiefs” had a problem with the missionaries building a new church in town, as long as they used “approved builders” (as long as they got a cut...).  From the expressions of the missionary couple as one of the chiefs negotiated the deal them, it would seem that they “didn’t have a clue” as to how the town (or society) worked.  And that is something that Christians and missionaries perhaps ought to take note of – each society has its ways of doing things (for good and ill).  It behooves missionaries to learn how the society works as well as both the society's positive and negative values and then, yes, uphold the good and challenge the bad.  

All in all, I found Arugbá to be outstanding film, well deserving its acclaim and its nine African Movie Academy Awards nominations and I was happy to have been able to see it here at the Chicago African Diaspora Film Festival this year.

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The Green Lantern

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (2 ½ stars) Fr Dennis (1 Star)

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

The Green Lantern (directed by Martin Campbell and screenplay co-written by Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg) is based on the Green Lantern comic book series.  The series appeared in its first incarnation in the 1940s as part of the All American Comics franchise.  All Americans Comics eventually merged with two other comic book companies to create DC Comics, which became the chief rival of Marvel Comics.  In the decades following, the Green Lantern series has been repeatedly reworked and reintroduced by DC Comics.  During this rather complex history many of the elements and characters appearing in the current movie were introduced and developed.  As in the case of many/most comic book based movies, the movie’s screen-writers themselves tweaked the characters and plot elements into their current form.

Thus in the movie, Hal Jordan (played in the movie by Ryan Reynolds) a hot-shot American test pilot working for Ferris Aerospace (the daughter of the founder, Carol Ferris (in the movie also a test pilot and played by Blake Lively being the movie's love interest) receives a green ring along with a green lantern from a dying alien named Abin Sur (played by Temeura Morrison).   After saying “the Green Lantern oath,” the green ring transports hall to an alien world in another part of the universe where he discovers that he has been selected to serve as part of the Green Lantern Corps whose purpose is to police the universe on behalf of a group of super-intelligent aliens called The Guardians of the Universe.  All this derives from the 1950s DC Comics relaunch of the Green Lantern series.  

The principle antagonist a monster named Parallax, who appears in subsequent versions of the story.   Parallax had been one of the Guardians of the Universe, but he had been seduced by the power of the emotion of Fear, breaking away from the Guardians who maintained the universe together by their Will.  Fear it turns out, has a corrosive effect on the Will, hence why Parallax (which paralizes and consumes other beings) became an enemy.  The Green Lantern's universe presupposes a kind of "emotional electromagnetic spectrum" in which among other color representations, the Will is represented by Green, and Fear is represented by Yellow.

Most adults will _rightly_ find all this talk of “The Will” disturbing as it evokes memories of the infamous pre-World War II, Nazi-era propaganda film The Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl, a film which arguably made World War II possible. 

And a teenager ought to quickly appreciate that “The Will” standing alone, without being tempered by other attitudes/emotions like compassion, justice, mercy and love becomes simply arrogance and a prescription for Nazi-like crimes.  Consider simply that someone may _wish_ that someone become his girl friend.  But if he proceeds to try to simply overpower her (by imposing _his_ Will on _her_) then his actions approach/become rape.

So there are real problems with this movie.

Movies like this are not a total loss as they often invite audiences to imagine realities larger than themselves.  However, the disturbingly bipolar (Fear vs Will) presentation of the world is indeed a scary one and one which most teenagers seeing this movie, upon reflection, ought to reject. 

Catholics and other Christians ought to understand that in our understanding of the universe, God created the universe and sustains it, _not_ through his Will but through his Love.   “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16), “My commandment to you is love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12), “In the end, these three remain: faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13:13).

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Friday, June 10, 2011

Super 8

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (3 ½ stars) Dennis Kriz (3 1/2 stars)

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

Super 8 (written and directed by J.J. Abrams and produced, not surprisingly, by Steven Spielberg) is a reminder that before science fiction began to “grow up” in the 1960s-70s with Star Trek, Star Wars, there were the 1950s era sci-fi horror flicks like The Blob

Watching 1950s-era movies like The Blob, The Thing, Invaders from Mars, etc in the late 1970s was something of a “Father-Son” inter-generational affair.  Whether my friends and I actually watched these movies with our parents on newly invented VCRs (or watched them, mouths agape or smiling ear-to-ear munching on newly invented microwave popcorn lying down on the "shag" carpet in the basement or “family room” while our parents were happily doing other things) when “dinner” came around and we all sat around the family table, these kind of films always gave _all of us_, parents and kids, something to talk about.  Cheesy, gory or scary as these films often were, our parents generally thought them to be “safe” as they remembered watching them as teens themselves in drive-ins or in sticky-floored movie theaters with lousy plush/satin-covered chairs and they brought back good memories.

I write all this because, I do think that aspects of Super 8 are somewhat anachronistic (that the military would come in and try to seal-off/occupy a small town to cover-up a “deep dark secret” is much more of a 1950s plot device than a 1970s one).  Still, I do believe that J.J. Abrams did this purposefully to produce a similar inter-generational experience today. Today’s kids get to watch with mouths agape (thank God, _not_ with 3D glasses on this time) a fun 1950s style horror movie with obvious homages to legitimate 1970s-era sci-fi films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET, while their parents get to reminisce about growing-up at a time when the songs of ELO or The Cars did rule the airwaves (or were encased in beloved but goofy-looking 8 track cartridges); when owning a walkman (by today’s standards an almost dinosaur-like precursor, both in size and technology, to the ipod) was really, really cool; when dad (obviously) owned the _only_ motion picture camera in the family and these fun but noisy and clumsy devices used 8mm or Super-8 film that could be spliced at home (ah, “splicing” film with dad was fun ;-) to remove all the out of focus or “lens cap shots” from the film of “last year’s family vacation,”); and when truly _no where in the world_ was it possible to get a film developed (or really get _anything done_) “overnight.” ;-). 

As I reminisce, I remember that when I was in 6th grade (1975?), a group of us actually did film a necessarily _silent_ 8mm rendition of Jason and the Argonauts as an end of school year project complete with a friend’s “rubber/inflatable canoe” serving as Jason and the Argonauts’ boat and another friend’s fleece floormat from home serving eventually as “The Golden Fleece.”

Ah, what a time... ;-).  So it is clear to me that the setting and structure of this film was designed in good part to give today’s parents and kids something to talk about.

The film itself follows a classic Spielberg, ET-style, trajectory:

A group of middle school kids (6th-9th grade) from a small non-descript steel town in eastern Ohio in the late 1970s are playing around at the end of the school year, filming a (zombie) horror movie, that they are inventing as they go along.  There’s Charles (played by Riley Griffiths) a somewhat overweight and certainly somewhat overbearing kid who’s the ringleader and director of the production (Hey, it’s his family’s camera initially. And if he is rather overbearing, what else were the others going to do that summer?  He was the only one with “a plan” and the plan was fun).

There’s Charles' best friend Joe Lamb (played by Joel Courtney) a somewhat sensitive kid, who lost his mother that winter to an industrial accident at the steel mill and who “does the make-up” for his friend.  Make-up?  Well, it’s not exactly “girly make-up” that he’s working with.  He’s specializing in “gross make-up,” you know, to make people look like zombies.  Still his dad (played by Kyle Chandler), a deputy in the local police department is somewhat “concerned” and would really like to send his son to a “sports camp” for the summer.  Joe doesn't appear to be excited about that prospect ...

There’s Cary (played by Ryan Lee) who’s the kid who’s always playing with matches and fireworks, who therefore scares most parents and even a lot of the kids, but who makes for _the_ "perfect special effects guy."  He's also strange looking enough that he gets to play most of the zombies, etc in Charles' film.

There’s Martin (played by Gabriel Basso) the tallest and "put glasses on him" the most mature-looking kid in the group as well as one with some “stage presence” who therefore plays the lead actor/detective in Charles’ film.

There’s Preston (played by Zach Mills) who’s a “tag-along.” So he gets to “at least hold the boom” (be the group's nominal sound man) as well as play random non-zombie extras in the film. 

Finally, there’s the “love interest” Alice Dainard (played by Elle Fanning).  She’s a couple of years “older” than the rest.  Though still not old enough to have a license she can still “legitimately drive” (well, she knows how to, sort of, better than the rest ...) and as "an older woman" both Charles and later Joe have serious crushes on her.  A somewhat brooding teenager – she’s growing up at home without her mother and an troubled, alcoholic father, Louis Dainard (played by Ron Eldard) – she nonetheless as an innate (dare one say, “God given” talent) to “light-up” to _perfectly_ fit into _any_ role that she’s given by Charles (to the surprise and jaw dropping admiration of _everyone_ of the others in Charles' group, hence why _everyone_ really gets to have a real crush on her).  Charles casts her as Martin's wife in his picture, but she also plays a really awesome zombie afterwards ;-).

So this group finds itself filming a scene for Charles’ movie late one early summer night (a day or two after school let out) at a rather abandoned train station some ways outside of town (Alice was needed to drive them to the location).  They are filming a tear driven scene where Alice expresses her concern for "husband"/detective Martin’s safety and Martin in turn is trying to convince "his wife" Alice to leave town while he brings the town’s “zombie threat” under control.

Suddenly, a mysterious train is suddenly seen speeding along the tracks toward them.  Not wanting to waste the potential shot (hey it's "production value" and let's face it, with _no money_, scrapy/imaginative/'resourceful" Charles has to "take" whatever shot that drops into his lap), Charles has the two redo this tear-jerker scene while the train speeds by.

As the train approaches the station, however, a pickup truck suddenly appears and its driver appears to purposefully put the pickup directly in the way of the oncoming train.  A HUGE accident and train-derailment ensues, which gets caught on the kids’ film.  Much ensues afterward... ;-)

Parents, the PG-13 rating is appropriate.  There is some marijuana drug use and heavy drinking alcoholism portrayed among the older teen and 20-something adults in the film (but not among middle school heroes of the movie).   Nevertheless, I do believe that Super 8 is a movie that a whole family would enjoy.  The really young kids will have most of the movie pass them by, while the middle-school and above kids/teens would probably enjoy it quite a bit.  And parents and even grandparents will be able to reminisce about what it was like “back in the day...”

Finally, if this movie would inspire a few teens to pick-up their digital cameras and attempt making a movie or two with their friends over the summer, then certainly this movie would have more than fulfilled its "mission."  Happy dreaming! ;-)

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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Mountains and Clouds / The Senators Bargain (How Democracy Works Now)

MPAA (unrated) Fr. Dennis (4 stars) listing

Official Website - How Democracy Works Now

Mountains and Clouds and The Senators Bargain are two parts of a recently completed 12 part documentary series entitled 12 Stories: How Democracy Works Now (directed by Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson).  The two films played recently at the Chicago’s 9th Annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Facet’s Multimedia in Chicago. 

Both stunning and exasperating, the series documented the struggle and ultimate failure of Congress to pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform between 2001 and 2007.  What makes the series stunning is the access that the film makers, Camerini and Robertson, were able to secure to tell the story.  They had the full cooperation of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) as well as their staffs and then access and cooperation to a wide range of coalitions and interest groups on the outside. 

The result is a must-see primer for anyone who seeks to become seriously involved in a legislative campaign for change.  And yet it can also seem exasperating.

Discernable in the series appear to be at least 4 levels on which a serious campaign has to be waged:

At the top are the Members of Congress (Senators and/or Representatives) themselves and as Michael Camerini pointed out in the forum discussion following the film screening, in the United States today, it all comes down to getting to the magic number of 60 Senators on your side.  60 Senators (out of 100) are needed to close debate on an issue.  Without attaining this magic number an bill can not be brought up for a vote. 

Below the Senators/Representatives are their staffs.  This documentary series focuses above all on them (as well as the some of the lobbyists/strategists of the various interest and lobbying groups with whom they interact).  The staff members are the work horses.  Yes, they are given general direction by the Senators / Representatives for whom they work, and at key moments the Senators/Representatives step-out to “seal the deal."  Yet, the staff members are the ones who are talking to /setting up appointments with the staffs of other Senators/Representatives as well as with other representatives of the various outside interest groups.  And they are the ones manning the switchboards and keeping track of the e-mails received from constituents, keeping tabs on the pulse of the constituents back home.

Below the staffs are the various interest and lobbying groups.  And they are important, because they understand how a particular policy or piece of legislation would effect their interest and they do therefore help Congress to write better legislation even if there are generally competing interests fighting for the Senators/Representatives ears.

Finally, below them are grass-roots constituents.  In something of a surprise to me, it became _clear as day_ in this documentary series that phone calls and e-mails from constituents _do_ have an _enormous impact_ the success and failure of legislation.  So if you ever doubted the value of responding to an appeal by an advocacy group for a cause that you believe in to e-mail or call your Senators/Representatives, PLEASE DON’T.  Your voices _are being heard_.  And indeed, it was clear as day that Comprehensive Immigration Reform was defeated precisely because its opponents were far more organized/vocal in bombarding Congress with e-mails and phone calls than its proponents. 

The other surprise (though perhaps less so on reflection, because even Senators/Representatives are people) was that “the giants at the top” (those elected Senators/Representatives) CAN BE VERY PETTY.  A good part of the Mountains and Clouds episode (the title not coming from any actual mountains and clouds but from a large modern metal statue gracing center of the atrium in the Hart Senate Office Building ...) dealt with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) trying to placate aging Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) who became a distracting obstacle to the immigration reform bill over a perceived slight on an unrelated issue. 

Indeed, I watched _with my jaw dropped_ as this incident played out: Sen. Kennedy telling one of his staff members to make sure that Sen. Byrd had a comfortable seat, make sure that he felt comfortable, had a cup of coffee, etc, etc, when Sen. Byrd finally came in to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the Immigration Reform (at Sen. Kennedy’s invitation) so that Sen. Byrd could finally publicly air his grievance against the process.  It was basically a turf issue, and Byrd, who was head of the Senate Appropriations Committee felt slighted when the Senate had blocked a $15 billion request for Homeland Security that he said would have paid for the Border Security portion of the Immigration Reform proposal at the time.  Sen. Kennedy and Sen. Blackburn were trying to tell Sen. Byrd “all in good time” and wanted the rest of the bill to be settled first, but Byrd felt “slighted.”

I asked the two makers of the documentary at the forum discussion following the screening what they made of Sen. Byrd’s antics, asking them if they (like me watching him in the film) thought that he may have been simply senile.  They answered that Sen. Byrd did feel himself to be an “elder statesman” in the Senate by then (he was in the Senate for over 50 years) and that he did like to portray himself as a “defender of the traditions/ways of the Senate." But they also said that his behavior had a purpose. As a conservative Democrat he was opposed to Comprehensive Immigration Reform in any case.  However, the perceived "slight" _gave him an excuse_ to cause proponents of the measure problems.  Indeed, Shari Robertson, one of the documentary’s film makers, concluded her answer to this question by saying that it _is_ instructive for people to know that if they wish to lobby Congress for change, that they are going to be dealing with Senators and Representatives with egos and hence to come prepared for that. 

The ego issue came up again in the Senators Bargain episode when in 2007 Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) made what appears to have been a critical error during the Senate debate of the very complex (and very fragile) Comprehensive Immigration Reform measure by seeking to end debate on the measure too quickly.  To be sure, dozens of amendments had been considered and voted on.  Most of these amendments were rejected but some, already severely weakening the bill had been accepted and many more amendments were still pending.  As such, Sen. Reid may have sought to bring the debate to an end to “save the bill.”  However, the result was a disaster.  Not only did he not get the 60 (out of 100) votes to end debate on the bill, he didn’t even get a majority 50.  Why?  Because _a lot_ of Senators voted against “cloture” because they were felt slighted once more.  Indeed, in the press conference that followed, Sen Kyl (R-AZ) who had worked out the “Grand Compromise” for the bill with Sen. Kennedy blasted Sen. Reid’s stupidity noting that Sen. Kennedy _knew well_ the importance of just letting everybody have their say.  And Sen. Kennedy, again one who served in the Senate for 40 years agreed.

After several weeks of behind the scenes work by Sen. Kennedy’s office (and _all those staffers_) the bill was resurrected for one final try (something of a gargantuan feat in itself because most bills _die_ after a failure of a cloture vote).  However, after a compromise had been worked out on the number and choreography of amendments, the Bill failed a second cloture vote _anyway_, largely because grassroots opponents to the bill kept-up pressure on Senators to oppose the bill without a similar effort in support of it. 

But then, many expected supporters of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill saw the bill so weakened that they began to walk away from it.  In a very powerful scene near the end of The Senators Bargain episode, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) called in the representatives from Sen. Kennedy’s office as well as representatives of various groups that have lobbied in favor of Comprehensive Immigration Reform.  Then noting that, yes, the bill would offer a pathway for legalizing the status of the 12 million undocumented aliens currently in the United States, but in return the point system proposed (by Sen. Kyl) in the bill to regulate future immigration applications into the United States would _all but guarantee_ that _the vast majority of the 500 million Latin Americans_ living south of our borders would _never_ qualify for getting an immigration visa to the United States, Sen. Menendez asked them, “Tell me why I should support this bill?”  The staffers and proponents of the bill could only answer “It’s the best that is possible now, and in the future we could fix its difficulties.”

It would seem that the loud, organized opposition of anti-immigration/nativist forces on one side and the bleeding away for reasons to vote for the bill on the part of pro-immigration forces on the other appeared to seal the bill’s doom.

Still, what an incredible job on the part of the film-makers of this documentary series in showing how Washington (democracy) works!  And I would definitely recommend the series to _anyone_ interested in advocacy.  The entire series can be purchased through the film-makers How Democracy Works Now website for the (current) price of $150, which is not an exorbitant price for an advocacy group.  Individuals could look to see if they could check out the series at a public library.

But again, what a _great_ documentary series for _anyone_ considering getting involved in advocacy to see!

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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Out in the Silence

MPAA (Not Rated) Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 stars)

IMDb listing
Official Website

Out in the Silence (directed by Dean Hammer and Joe Wilson) played recently at the 9th Annual Chicago Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Facet’s Multimedia in Chicago.  It is about documentary film-maker Joe Wilson coming back to his hometown of Oil City, Pennsylvania to document the case of a teenager C.J. Mills who had been so harassed at his high school for coming out as gay that he was forced to leave it in favor of being schooled at home.  Joe Wilson, who had grown up quietly gay in the town before leaving it as soon as he left for college, had come to hear of C.J.’s case from C.J.’s mother who wrote him after Joe Wilson had put an announcement in Oil City’s local paper following his recent (gay) marriage to Dean Hammer with whom he lived happily for years in Washington D.C. 

C.J.’s story presented in a very gentle way in this film will nonetheless certainly cause a veritable spectrum of immediate reactions in a whole host of people hearing/reading about the film.  I would note here simply that while the Catholic Church, obviously, does not support gay marriage and considers homosexuality to be an intrinsically disordered condition, it nevertheless opposes mistreatment and _most_ discrimination against homosexuals.  Whether or not this position is ultimately tenable is definitely not for me or anyone else to necessarily argue here.  However, my point is that the Catholic Church, while honestly having doctrinal issues over morality of gay sex (or any sex that isn’t open to the possibility to creating life) and therefore opposes gay marriage and finally gay adoption (yes, one position links to the next and down this three rung chain), it nevertheless _also_ recoils (I believe) with _sincere_ revulsion at the thought of violence perpetrated against gays.  Ah, if the writers of the Book of Leviticus only knew of penguins...

Having personally dealt with pastoral situations in which practicing Catholic families had to deal with children coming out as gay – and I am truly happy and I do believe even the whole Catholic Church similarly rejoices that the VAST MAJORITY of Catholic parents (and ALL of them, 100%, that I’ve _ever known_ or worked with in this situation) come to ACCEPT THEIR GAY CHILDREN -- I don’t think it is a bad thing for Catholics to see a movie like this, because this movie deals with real life.

All of us believe what we do (and largely as a result of our origins and upbringing) and the vast majority of us wish to be as good as we can be.  But I think ALL of us are also sickened at the thought of a 16 year old being beaten-up for ANY reason, be they that he/she was black, Jewish, Arab, or gay.  All of us instinctively understand (and again THE CATHOLIC CHURCH UNDERSTANDS) that there’s something deeply wrong with that.

As such, no matter what one may think/believe regarding homosexuality in a doctrinal/theoretical sense, this movie's worth seeing because most of us probably want our kids / young people to be happy and certainly no one wants to see 16 year olds being terrorized or beaten-up.

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Monday, June 6, 2011

Tree of Life [2011]

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-II) Roger Ebert (4 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

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

Tree of Life (written and directed by Terrence Malick) is a movie that has certainly created a buzz among film critics.  Very long, explicitly religious and rather strange, it has been suggested as being something a “mainstream”/“liberal” “answer” to Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ.  I’m not sure if that description is either particularly correct or particularly useful because I’m not sure if “liberal”/”conservative” are particularly useful terms in talking of a God who _one hopes_ is BIGGER than the _faddish_ peculiarities of American political discourse. 

It would seem to me that the buzz created by this movie is indicative of a legitimate thirst in the artistic/better educated communities for God Talk that goes beyond tendencious slogans like “God hates government sponsored health insurance.” 

That this movie stands _so alone_ -- I’d compare the movie _more_ to Martin Scorcese’s Last Temptation of Christ than to Gibson's Passion of the Christ – only underlines the God Talk "Desert" that we find ourselves in.  And here it must be said that Church leaders both Catholic and Protestant are as much responsible as anybody for sucking water out of religious discourse in contemporary American film. 

In the name of everyone who’s ever actually read Nikos Kazantzakis' book The Last Temptation of Christ or seen Scorcese’s movie, I’d like to declare the obvious: the “last temptation” _wasn’t_ any kind of “sexual experience with Mary Magdalene.” Instead, the Temptation coming between Jesus’ words ON THE CROSS of “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46) and “Into your hands I commend my spirit" (Lk 23:46)  was TO GET OFF THE CROSS (after all, HE WAS GOD, HE COULD HAVE DONE THAT) and lead a normal, simple, happy life. 

The book Last Temptation of Christ and the movie that it inspired were _great_ (and _fun_) explorations of possible back-stories to the Gospel texts that we have, that _could_ give joy/spiritual nourishment to _anyone_ who’s ever really enjoyed “chewing” on God’s Word, that is Scripture.  Instead, both the book and especially the movie were condemned.  The result has been a near 20 year creative drought.  Afterall, why would a mainstream director _want_ the career risking hassle of putting out an overtly religious work?  So the ONLY overtly religious explorations in American film produced in the last 20 years were occasional SAFELY CONSERVATIVE productions.  Even then the producers of _these productions_ were shelled, if not by the religious community then by America’s creative community, as Mel Gibson and Roland Joffé (director of the recent movie There be Dragons) could attest. 

So whatever else one could say about the Tree of Life, at least it offers the possibility of breaking this generational drought in religious exploration in American film.  And I’d like to take this opportunity to tee-up and aim for a home run here: I’d like to challenge the film community to take this film as a starting point, and take _also_ the artistic insights of the likes of Salvador Dali (a not-insignificant portion of whose work had an obvious religious dimension [1],[2],[3]) and James Joyce [1] [2] (to some extent the latter has been used in movies like the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? and more recently A Serious Man) and go out to produce a new generation of religiously grounded films. 

I can think of at least three religiously based films that are crying to be made:

A film based on the life of the biblical Jacob, who went through most of his life as arguably _a con man_ but one, as one reads his story, who _didn’t have_ much of a choice.  Yet _this_ was the one whom God eventually blessed with a new name, Israel, that is “one who wrestles with God.”  

A film based on the life of the Joseph of Genesis, who had every right to just hang himself in prison after having been betrayed once by his Brothers and again by the wife of his Master/Boss.  And yet, there in the Darkness of the Dungeon that he found himself in, with arguably ONLY his Dreams as his company, he was able to slowly rebuild his life and then to the extent that he actually ended up Saving the Brothers who betrayed him in the first place.  Reading that take on Joseph’s life, it actually starts to look NOT ALTOGETHER DIFFERENT from that of the young teenage girl who after the death of her mother was “sent into an insane asylum” by her step-father which formed the foundation of the story-line for Zack Snyder's recent movie Suckerpunch that was roundly panned by critics, though interestingly not necessarily by the Church.

Finally, a film based on the life of Saint Patrick, the rich Christian boy (Patricius was probably derived from Patrician, meaning upper class in Latin) from Britain who was kidnapped by still pagan Irish raiders (perhaps in hopes of extorting a ransom), who after his escape _decades later_ had _every reason to be bitter_ and to _hate_ those Irish raiders for stealing what would have been the “best” (young adult) years of his life.  Instead, he _chose_ to make lemonade out of the lemons that he was given, became ordained as a priest after he escaped and found his way back to Britain, AND RETURNED to Ireland to convert the very people who had so thoroughly damaged his life. 

There are countless other stories that one can think of once one starts going and I mention these three in part because one wonders what the creative community of today could achieve with them if the free-form techniques used by Terrence Malick to make the Tree of Life (based on the Book of Job) were applied to them.
Okay now, to the actual movie ... Malick’s Tree of Life begins with a quotation from the Job: “Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its size; do you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it?  Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid the cornerstone, While the morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4-7). 

The beginning sequence of the movie featured two people, a woman in the 1950s, Mrs O’Brien (played by Jessica Chastain) and a man, Jack (played by Sean Penn), a generation later calling out to God about the difficulties in life that they were facing.  The visual response was slow, awesome and long.  About 5-6 minutes were devoted to the age of the dinosaurs alone..., who we are eventually reminded (again visually) were destroyed in more or less an instant by a meteor strike. 

That sequence ends with Jack calling out to God “when did you speak to me first,” which begins heart of the movie.  Presented initially are mostly images of Jack’s birth and early experiences, playing with his mother, playing with blocks, playing with mud, playing eventually with a new younger brother and encountering also his father Mr. O’Brien (played by Brad Pitt).  Much happens afterwards.  The movie closes _without_ it being altogether clear what exactly were the crises that Mrs O’Brien faced or her son faced a generation later.  But most viewers will probably get the point.

The Tree of Life is an _awesome_ movie in the proper sense of the word.  It won’t necessarily be for everyone.  Indeed, I can’t think of _anyone_ that I would immediately recommend this movie to in my mostly “meat and potatoes” ethnic parish, though after to some reflection I would recommend it to some and perhaps to some of their adult children.  But I do believe the movie to be brave and it could become the inspiration of a lot of brave and reflective film-making in the future.   Thanks Malick for making it!

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Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Green Wave

MPAA (Not Rated) Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing -
Official Website -

The Green Wave (directed by Ali Samadi Ahadi and co-written again by Ali Samadi Ahadi as well as Oliver Stoltz) is a well produced film about the nationwide protest movement born in Iran during the 2009 election.  The movie is one of the selections currently playing at Chicago’s 9th Annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival being held at Facet’s Multimedia in Chicago.

Having witnessed the revolutions of the Arab Spring this year in Tunisia and Egypt as well as continued protests and conflicts in Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen, the Green Protests in Iran in 2009 may seem like ancient history to us today.  Yet, it was the young people in Iran who first converted social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube into platforms for organizing their opposition, “Green” movement, which were used so extensively in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere throughout the Middle East to do the same this year.

The Green Wave weaves interviews with opposition figures including Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi and Shadi Sadr as well as younger leaders, often in exile, including Mitra Khalatbari, Payam Akhavan, Navid Akhavan and Pegah Ferydoni with poignant animations of testimonies posted by Iranian young people on blogs and twitter feeds during the height of the protests and subsequent crackdown in which far more people were killed on the streets, and subsequently arrested, tortured and killed in prison than most people outside of Iran are aware. 

There is the reason for why the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran did not succeed, the people were terrorized back into submission. 

Still the cracks in the regime appear to be there.  In a particularly poignant testimony, a member of Iran’s religious police confessed to having blood on his hands, having participated in the beating deaths of three young boys during the crackdown on the protests.  Disturbed, he along with others in his squad asked their mullah chaplain what they should do to get forgiveness.  The mullah chaplain assured them that they killed only infidels who had it coming to them.  Yet, this member of the religious police confessed that since the killings he’s stopped praying convinced that he had done wrong and that Allah knew ... Similar stories trickled out of Argentina during and after its “Dirty War” with the Communists in the 1970s (LA Times, Mar 8, 1995).  Good, fundamentally honest even patriotic people can’t be convinced to kill the innocent forever to keep a regime in power.  And the next Presidential elections in Iran are only 2 years away in 2013 ...

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