Saturday, July 30, 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (O) Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr Dennis (3 ½ stars)

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

Crazy, Stupid, Love (directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, written by Dan Fogelman) is a good if mis-rated if very painful/funny romantic comedy for married forty-somethings with families.  I say mis-rated because while I _do_ understand why many parents would want their teens (and perhaps even certain tweens) to see this movie, I do believe that an R-rating (requiring that minors see it with their parents) would probably be more appropriate.  The language alone would justify the R-rating to say nothing of many “separated/divorcing parents acting stupid” situations.

But then the “separated/divorcing parents” situations are _exactly_ what makes the movie quite surprising, indeed compelling.  Ultimately unswayed, the CNS/USCCB gives the movie unsurprisingly an “O” (morally offensive rating).  Still there is a gentleness to this movie despite its many embarrassing situations that I do believe deserve consideration by families especially those that may be experiencing some problems (and the CNS/USCCB does recognize positive elements to this movie as well, even as it ultimately goes back to it's "O" conclusion.  So parents, I'm saying please read the CNS/USCCB review as well).

So, what’s the movie about?  The movie begins with 40-something married couple Cal (played by Steve Carell) and Emily (played by Julianne Moore) finishing dinner on a night-out.  Cal asks Emily what she wants for dessert.  She answers that she’s trying to figure out what she wants.  He announces that he’d like a slice of apple pie, she announces that she’d like a divorce.

The drive home is awkward.  Emily talks mostly in tears as she is driving about how they’ve drifted apart, and that yes, she’s gone to bed with a man in her office David Linghagan (played by Kevin Bacon).  Cal remains mostly stunned and silent, until after being pressed by Emily to say _something_ he declares that he’d just like to drop-out of the car, opens the door and does so (fortunately, they were near home, going rather slow on a residential street ...).  Now stunned herself, she stops the car, goes out to him as he brushes himself off.  He tells her that he’ll move out that night, and get his things as soon as he finds some kind of an apartment.

They come home where 17-year old babysitter Jessica (played by Analeigh Tipton) is waiting for them.  She’s had a quite a night as well, as she accidently caught Cal and Emily's 13-year-old son Robbie (played by Jonah Bobo) touching himself (Emily and Cal also had a smaller 8-or-so year old daughter) whereupon Robbie confessed that he was touching himself while he thought of her.  The strangeness of her evening is trumped however by Cal and Emily’s announcement to her that they are getting a divorce.

Why would they tell her, of all people, first?  Well they were both in shock.  And besides someone had to drive Jessica home, and it would explain why Cal was doing so, since Cal is leaving the house anyway... In the car, it becomes clear that Jessica is not only stunned that Cal and Emily are getting a divorce but that she’s also kind of had a crush on Cal.  Cal doesn’t respond to this at all and probably for two reasons: One, he’s not an idiot (and is basically a good man, as is _everybody_ in this story as we progressively learn). But also two, he was in shock about what happened at dinner with his wife.  So he just drops her off and her parents house and heads off, to a bar.

At the bar, he first runs into local playboy Jacob (played by Ryan Gosling), who the audience had already seen in action in a previous scene in which he struck-out with one young lady, Hannah (played by Emma Stone) and rebounding, scored with someone else.  Jacob is everything that Cal is not. 

Trying to drown his sorrows in the succeeding days, Cal goes to the bar a few more times always to run into Jacob there as well.  Jacob is scoring and Cal is moaning.  Finally Jacob gets irritated with Cal’s rather loud and repetitive complaints about how his wife left him (and was sleeping with another guy).  So Jacob calls Cal over.  He first reminds him that thanks to his loud complaints everybody in that bar probably knows more about Cal’s life than they should.  Then, he offers to help him “recover his manhood.”  Why would he do that?  Jacob himself says that Cal reminds him of someone he knew.  In any case, Jacob pulls Cal out of his funk, gets him a haircut, advises him on buying some new clothes, and teaches him a few lines.  Soon Cal is starting to score with the women at that bar as well.

Very good.  Why would there be _anything_ redeeming about this movie at all?  It’s what follows.  There _are_ a fair number of twists and a good number of awkward situations.  But as the dust settles at the end, EVERYONE HAS BEEN CHASTENED FOR THEIR SINS (often initially in surprising ways, but when one thinks about it, not all that surprising) BUT JUST AS IMPORTANTLY EVERYONE IS STILL STANDING and ARGUABLY HAPPY and _in their proper state_. 

I’ve seen a whole bunch of Steve Carell movies over the years including 40 Year Old Virgin, Evan Almighty, Get Smart, Dinner for Schmucks, Dispicable Me, Date Night and now this one.  ALL OF THEM were fundamentally _gentle_, even when in pretty much _all of them_, Steve Carell _plays the fool_ for the others.  I _really like_ Steve Carell’s stuff.  I like the gentleness and I like fundamentally positive message of his movies: we may often be weak, we may make mistakes, but that we are fundamentally good and certainly redeemable. Good job Steve and good job rest of the cast and crew!  And yes, the other performances by Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Kevin Bacon and even the babysitter Analiah Tipton and Marisa Tomei (as one of 13-year-old Robbie's school teachers) were _all_ good to excellent as well.


Given some of the controversy surrounding one of the subplots in this film involving (off-screen) teenage sexting, I was wondering if someone like Chris Rock should redo this movie in a couple of years, perhaps even having a white wife (and hence mixed race children).  I say this because the people who end up suffering the most as a result of morality laws tend to be black men. As of a few years ago, there were black male minors in jail for having been caught with white girlfriends in sexually compromising situations for which it'd be next to _impossible_ to believe white male minors would find themselves serving time.

I personally think that sexting is unbelievably reckless (and yes, sinful). But given technology and teenage hormones, I find it to be almost inevitable (among teens). But it horrifies to me to hear of teenage lives destroyed by something (and again, often enough _black teenage lives_ destroyed by something) that wasn't intended to destroy anyone.

In any case, I liked this movie, definitely_not_ for its sexting. Rather, I liked it because, as in the case of many Steve Carell movies, at the end of this movie EVERYONE was left standing, and EVERYONE was basically happy. There were no "goats", no "villains." Carell finds/makes movies like this over and over again. And that I believe is a wonderful thing!

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Friday, July 29, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens

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

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

Cowboys and Aliens (directed by Jon Favreau, screenplay by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman and others, based on a graphic novel by Scott Michael Rosenberg the same name, and at least partly supported by Stephen Spielberg, who served as one of the film’s executive producers) has one of the most audacious and clearly _intentionally unreal_ plot-lines of a major American motion picture made in years:

Stock characters (Cowboys, Indians, Outlaws, Lawmen, shop-keepers, womenfolk, youngsters and even a cute and very faithful dog) from a typical  American pulp-Western story (set in the l870s in the American South-West) are confronted by a sudden, unexpected but existential challenge posed by a foraging/data-collecting/mining expedition (representing an advanced guard?) of a technologically superior alien race from outer space.

Similar stories of an otherwise divided humanity uniting to fight a common (alien) enemy have been put on film before, notably Independence Day and Signs.  Interestingly enough, I’ve probably enjoyed Cowboys and Aliens the most, precisely because it was so obviously a parable and set sufficiently back in time to be “safe.”  For instance, I remember a number of Servites (members of my religious order) from Latin America scoffing at the “message” of Independence Day finding offense that its climactic battle was fought on “The Fourth of July” and led by the Americans (how convenient ... as a propaganda piece, "Big Brother America leading the rest”).

In Cowboys and Aliens, the “cowboys” find themselves being suddenly treated as badly (or worse) by the technologically superior space-aliens as they were treating the technologically inferior “Indians." Both groups find themselves needing to cooperate to confront the new existential threat.  Indeed, even the “cowboys’” vocabulary changes as the threat presents itself, with the cowboys starting to talk about the need protect “their people.”  This of course is the message and echoes a famous speech made by Ronald Reagan at the United Nations during his presidency in which he noted that all our world’s differences would probably fall quickly aside if we were to face an existential threat from an alien race. 

The performances of the various human characters are excellent – Daniel Craig playing the Outlaw Jake Lonergan, Harrison Ford playing Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde, a crusty Civil War veteran turned rancher a with no-good lout of a son Percy (played by Paul Dano) and Dolarhyde's right-hand man, if Indian born, named Nat Colorado (played by Adam Beach) who Dolarhyde took under his wing, when he saw him orphaned.  (Nat was far more responsible and a better “son” to Dolarhyde than Percy ever was, but Dolarhyde could never bring himself to call him that because of his “Injun past.”).  There’s the Sheriff John Taggartt (played by Keith Carridine) his spunky grandson Emmett Taggartt (playe by Noah Ringer).  There’s a plainspoken, gunslinging preacher named Meacham (played by Clancy Brown) and hapless Saloon owner named Doc (played by Sam Rockwell) and his devoted if initially probably far more capable wife Maria (played by Ana de la Reguera).  There’s Black Knife (played by Raoul Trujillo) a young but wise for his age Indian chief  leading a local and recently decimated band of Apache Indians.  Finally, there’s Ella Swensen (played by Olivia Wilde) a beautiful and mysterious character who seems to know more about the alien threat these humans are facing and how best to defeat them (and who as is often the case in the sci-fi/horror genre turns out to have a special role to play).

Yes it’s a story.  Yes, it’s a preposterous one.  On the other hand, perhaps precisely because Cowboys and Aliens is so preposterous, I found it quite easy to enter and watch.  All these characters are symbolic and the whole story plays out around a town called Absolution – as classic and symbolic a name as one could come-up with for a good ol’ Cowboy and Indian Western story even if, in this case, it is mashed-up with “space aliens.” ;-).

Finally, while Cowboys and Aliens is certainly a preposterous story, I would note that in current UFO lore there _is_ place in New Mexico called Dulce Mountain where supposedly there’s an underground base from which space aliens have been conducting abductions/animal mutilations for decades if not for centuries. As I watched the movie, I could not help but think that, _fictional_ as it is, that it was at least partly inspired by these stories and Indian legends.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Conan Can't Stop

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

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert -

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (directed by Rodman Flender) is a documentary which followed Conan O’Brien on his nation-wide comedy tour after his having been been first promoted and then 6 months later deposed as host of NBC’s Tonight Show

Much has certainly been written about his drama involving the transition of the hosting of the Tonight Show from Jay Leno to Conan O’Brien and then six months later back to Jay Leno.  However, what interested me first in the story and then in this documentary is that the Conan-Leno-Tonight Show saga doesn’t appear to me to be an isolated one but one which has played out in other areas in contemporary culture.  Indeed, I noted and wrote about this battle of the old vs new (and the apparent triumph/restoration of the old) in my review of this year’s Academy Awards show where I found this phenomenon repeatedly playing out from the triumph of The King’s Speech at the awards – a film about a stuttering dead English king from the middle of the last century to the blasting by (mostly older critics) of this year’s show’s new and very young hosts.

So I do believe that what had happened to Conan is not really an isolated incident but indeed a manifestation of an age-old battle between generations (old vs new) that even Sigmund Freud wrote about as the point of origin of war, civilization and even "Father/Patriarchical religion:"  A jealous father drives his sons away to keep his power / women to himself.  The exiled sons organizing themselves a band of brothers eventually overwhelm the father killing him.  But feeling guilty about this, they eventually deify the now dead/murdered father (S. Freud, Moses and Monotheism [1939], pg 130-131, Totem and Taboo [1950], pg 140-41, Civilization and its Discontents [1961], pg 47-48).  Interestingly enough, with the advent of diminished numbers of births due to the wide use of birth-control, this inter-generational conflict could actually have tilted in favor of the older generation (The older generation doesn't have to find excuses for wars anymore to cull the numbers of the younger generation.  The younger generation's numbers are now controlled at conception).  So expect more Conan O"Brien-like sagas in the future and more tear-jerking movies / miniseries about long dead white English kings (or even about long-dead corrupt Popes) and other symbols of Order and Stability.

So then, what could one say about this particular documentary?  First and above all, it is a movie about someone going through a fairly large disappointment in life.  Whether or not Conan “really was right” for the Tonight Show, whether he felt he entitled to it (after many years hosting NBC’s Late Night Show after it), whether or not he was promised it by NBC and then had that promise ripped away from him, it was clear that Conan was wounded by the experience.  So the documentary was largely about Conan making his way through that experience of disappointed and woundedness to something new.

In the process, a number of other things became rather clear.  First, Conan really is an _authentically funny guy_ and one capable of laughing at himself.  Promo “Where has Conan been these days?” shots for his comedy tour included him donning a _huge_ fake beer-gut, and lying passed out among empty pizza boxes and beer bottles.  As a __quite good guitarist_ in his own right, the blues song that Conan played for his audiences while on the tour – “I was born upper middle class” (“My ma, worked every day of her life – as a tax lawyer.  And my no good, no good dad was microbiologist, studying infectious diseases I believe ...”) – was hilarious.  Noting that NBC “probably still owned” the rights to the “Masturbating Bear” character on his old show, he unveiled a ever so slightly different “Self Pleasuring Panda” character to his cheering audiences.

All this is goofy, silly stuff, that made him such a hit among young people at the time-slot following the Tonight Shot.  Still, as he went through these very, very funny routines, it also reminded me of why this couldn’t have possibly worked on the Tonight Show whose viewers generally have been rather heavily stocked with seniors including seniors from my own parish.  Funny, yes, but would you imagine your grandma watching this stuff?

Finally, I was left wondering if all that many college aged young adults really care about the Tonight show either, especially since they can view and share clips from any of a large number of “late night comedians” (George Lopez, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and yes Conan O’Brien) any time they wish anyway.  So I was left wondering if Conan’s “tragedy” had been that tried and failed to become the “Captain of the U.S.S. Missouri” (or perhaps even the U.S.S. Arizona) in an age of Twitter, flash mobs, WikiLeaks, remote control Predator drones and cyber-warfare

So Conan, yes, you sort of got screwed.  But get over it.  The Tonight Show is going the way of network news and the Radio City Rockettes.  Just remember your friends, your fans, and yes you probably staged the best damn end to any talk-show on American TV with Will Farrell joining him playing Free Bird ;-).

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Love Affair of Sorts

MPAA (NR) CNS/USCCB () Roger Ebert (1 ½ stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing -
Rober Ebert’s Review -
AV Club Review -,57974/

A Love Affair of Sorts (directed by David Guy Levi and story by him and Lili Bordán both of whom also starred in the movie) is an experimental film that recently played at Facets Multimedia here in Chicago.   I became intrigued by the film when I read its listing on Facets' website promising that the movie was the first to be filmed in its entirety using cheap commercially available “flip" cameras.  Last year, I saw such cameras on sale at a Walmart.

A number of the reviewers have since panned the movie -- The youth oriented AV Club (the “serious side” of The Onion newspaper) gave the movie a D+ – but that did not dissuade me from taking a stab at seeing the film, and it proved to be a generally good decision to have taken the chance.

I have been a long-time booster of youth oriented/inspired, low-budget ingenuity – As a teen I loved Han Solo’s “Millenium Falcon” from Star Wars and I have generally squeezed every ounce of creative capacity out of any computer or item of consumer electronics that I have ever bought since.  As a young adult in the 1980s, I loved the Macgyver series.  In the 1990s, not long after I bought a Sony Handycam, I was more than impressed with what the makers of Blair Witch Project did with cameras basically of the same quality.  I enjoyed the premise of the recent movie Super-8, which was a nostalgic look back amateur film-making using Super 8 film cameras, that I knew well when I was a kid.  Finally, I was very impressed by the low budget creativity shown by the makers of Paranormal Activity I (and II, which I reviewed early in this blog).  I’ve also done my own “filming” in recent years of “waves,”  “fog” or “snow on Lake Michigan” or “autumn leaves in a forest preserve” using nothing more than the “movie option” on a low-end pocket digital camera.  So I was more than intrigued this movie’s technical challenge.  

I also think that I “got” (understood) the film’s premise as well:  Two “regular people” “meet” and decide to do a film project together, documenting their lives during the (Christmas/Hanukkah/New Year’s) Holiday season in 2009.  A _key twist_ in the story presented itself in the middle of the film, when it is revealed that _one_ of the two “regular people,” a “Hungarian au pair” named Enci (the other being the film’s director David), is actually being played by an actress (Lili Bordán).   So this “documentary” about "two regular people during the Holidays" turns out to _not_ be a documentary after all.

I thought the premise was awesome and actually quite important for people to realize – Just because something appears to “regular” / “common” etc, does not mean that it is not _staged_.  In this regard, A Love Affair of Sorts becomes a low-budget “regular people’s” rendition of the movie Wag the Dog, a very important (and arguably prophetic) movie of from the Clinton era, which also noted that in the media age everything, _even wars_, can be “staged.”

Finally, the film dealt with quite well (in that it was able to avoid) what one would expect to be a definite pitfall in this kind of amateur film-making (and a pitfall that would make PARENTS of teens understandably very nervous): Given “two people and couple of flip cameras” trying to “tell the story of a Holiday season together,” an “amateur film” of this sort, could have _easily_ fallen into the realm of porn.  To their credit, both the protagonists in the film (who were _also_ the film’s makers) were professional enough to not let the film collapse in that direction.  However, as one watches this film, one _could imagine_ how easily the film could have gone that way.  (It is also clear that the two protagonists/film-makers were aware of the boundary because _they did flirt with it_ -- the movie's called A Love Affair of Sorts, after all --  but they clearly recognized that they had a far better/more compelling movie if they didn't cross the line).

As such, while I would recommend this movie to _college aged young adults and above_, I would _not_ recommend this movie to teens or else _only_ with caution. I write this because it is _so easy_ to imagine a group of initially well-meaning teens to screw-up an “amateur film project” of this sort that they conceived themselves and end-up on all kinds of trouble.

Seriously, teens if you pick-up a camera, be very, very careful, because _if you screw-up_ and film something inappropriate _you_ could literally end up in jail (and on a sex offender list) with _your_ life ruined.

But if you’re a _young adult_ (already over 18) and make it a point to _work only with adults_ (and avoid the _cheesiness_ of porn) you could actually end up producing some really good stuff.  Indeed, a whole bunch of professional film-makers, from Martin Scorcese on down have _long said_ that the future of film is more what one sees on YouTube than what one sees at the theatre.

So with those words of caution, I have to say that I enjoyed the creativity of this film and I hope continue to _generally_ be a booster of such creativity in the future.

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Friends with Benefits [2011]

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

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

Friends with Benefits (directed by Will Gluck and co-written by Keith Merrymen, David A. Newman and others and starring Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake in the leading roles) is the second romantic comedy to be released in recent months exploring the meaning of current American jargon in the dating arena, the other movie being No Strings Attached starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher in the leading roles.  Perhaps, it should also be noted here that Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman co-starred together in last year’s movie Black Swan, which earned Portman an academy award for best actress in a leading role and many felt that Kunis deserved at least a nomination for best supporting actress as well.  So whatever else one may think of these movies (as well as the performances of the leading men, Kutcher and Timberlake) these two actresses can’t easily be dismissed anymore as “lightweights.”

Having said this, what then could (or should) one say on this blog regarding Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached?   As I wrote in my review of No Strings Attached, NSA could be considered simply as a “day dream,” in the tradition of the tradition of romantic comedies dating back to Shakespeare's era like Midsummer Night’s Dream and more recently the famous Beach Boys’ song “Wouldn’t it be nice...?”  And after all is said and done, Hollywood comes to _the same conclusion_ that Holy Mother Church (acting _exactly_ as a _good_ and worried mother) would advise all along: that it’s impossible even on a relational/emotional (in Church/Magisterial speak “unitive”) level to become involved with someone sexually with “no strings attached.”  It can’t be done because one or the other in the couple is going to “fall in love” or come to understand the sexual relationship to be _more_ than “just” a sexual relationship.  And the Church, again _as a good mother, concerned for all her children_ would take the side of the person who was hurt.

I do believe that the expression “Friends with Benefits” is even more problematic than “No Strings Attached.”  NSA is at least honest in that it seeks to “play tag” with flat-out fantasy: that one could (or should be able to) have sex with someone without any consequences.  That’s simply a fantasy even in the emotional/relational/unitive realm.  “Friends with Benefits” assumes that two comprising the couple in question are already _friends_, hence that they already like/respect each other as friends.  Then, since they are entering into a sexual relationship, they are also physically attracted to each other.  At this point, one could imagine one’s family (and this plays out in this movie) _and hence _Holy Mother Church_ throwing its hands up in the air in exasperation, asking quite sincerely: WHAT ELSE DO YOU WANT?  And I do believe that this is a fair relational question that anyone seeing this movie, or any couple contemplating a “friends with benefits” relationship ought to ask: What am I / are we wanting to do here?  We’re already friends, we’re already attracted to each other?  What’s preventing me/us from calling the relationship what it is, _serious_, and why _should_ MARRIAGE (even EVENTUAL MARRIAGE) be considered “out of the question?”

It should also be noted here as I already mentioned in the review of the other movie, No Strings Attached, that THE ENTIRE PREMISE of a NSA (or in this case FWB) relationship _depends_ on contraception, certainly in the heterosexual realm (which still is, and by simple statistics will simply always be the normative relationship model.  The number of gay relationships will always be relatively small in relation to the number of heterosexual relationships).  Here again, the voice of Holy Mother Church, articulated best perhaps by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (the Gospel of Life) deserves _at least a hearing_.  He notes that even when contraception “works,” it has consequences: In the context of a “contraceptive mentality” the accidental conception of a child becomes a disaster or failure (EV #13.2).  Paraphrasing now and using _my own_ rather evocative phrasing ;-), a child conceived “accidentally” ought never to be thought of as having been conceived "as a result of a breach” that is, as a “spawn of Chernobyl” or something like that.

Then additionally, it should be noted that the whole contraceptive mentality runs in opposition to much of contemporary thinking.  I personally find it fundamentally contradictory for someone to be a vegitarian, eat only “organically grown foods,” oppose nuclear power and pretty much any hydroelectric project as being _inherently unsafe_ and “playing God,” etc and then _uncritically_ accept the birth control pill and condoms as _inherently safe and effective_.  Condoms fail (and generally _due to human error_) far more frequently than nuclear containment buildings and birth control pills re-engineer chemically hundreds of millions of women’s reproductive systems for the duration of their use of the pill.  Human experience has taught us to be skeptical of the safety claims of scientists in virtually every other realm from franken-foods, to the space shuttle, to nuclear power plants.  Why should one uncritically believe that birth control pills are _by definition_, “amen, alleluia”_inherently safe_?   I mention this simply to note the contradiction in thinking in popular society today and to note that the Catholic Church _has a point_ in its skepticism of the validity and ultimate morality of artificial birth control.

Wow.  All this to think about / reflect on as a result of a “simple rom com”???  Well welcome to life ;-) And yes, I’ve long believed that if one is going to evangelize, make comprehensible the Gospel and the teachings of the Church in the world today, one has to engage (and not simply condemn) popular culture. 

Would I recommend this movie?  Yes as a discussion piece to college aged young adults and above.  Also some of the supporting performances in the movie, notably Woody Harrelson playing an over-the-top studly gay coworker of Justine Timberlake, Richard Jenkins playing Timberlake’s beginnings of Alzheimer’s afflicted father, Patricia Clarkson playing Mila Kunis’ “still stuck in the ‘60s” mother are worthy of mention and and some discussion (notably Harrelson's whose enthusiastically gay lifestyle suggests that in the homosexual arena, NSA/FWB relationships are entirely possible).  But the central question asked in this movie is whether the concept “Friends with Benefits” is a worthy and ultimately workable one in the heterosexual arena.  And it should not surprise anyone here that as in NSA, Hollywood comes down on this matter actually quite close to Mother Church’s view (at least with regards to the relational dimension), that it just doesn't work. 

FINALLY NOTE TO PARENTS: The movie's R-RATING is _entirely appropriate_.  While the nudity in this movie is rather minimal, much more takes place in the movie’s bedroom scenes (yes, "covered by a sheet," but ...) than most parents would probably be comfortable with if they were viewing this movie with their pre-teens or teens.  People are people, parents are parents, but at least you have been warned.  Still, for the college-aged and above, I do think it is a great movie "to talk about."

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Captain America: The First Avenger

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

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

Captain America: The First Avenger (directed by Joe Johnson, screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) is one of a slew of comic book superhero movies to be released in recent months.  First published in the months leading up to the U.S. entry into World War II, the Captain America comic book series published by Marvel Comics were conceived as being intentionally patriotic.  The arguably propagandistic past of the Captain America character proved both an opportunity and a challenge to the makers of the current film.  And in my opinion, Johnson, et al _succeeded_ in their task.

The opportunity that director Johnson and the writers were able to identify and then advantage of was to set the movie in the America of the Captain America comic books of the 1940s.   So the comic’s protagonist Steve Rogers (played by Chris Evans) is introduced as a short, scrawny 90 pound teenager from Brooklyn who spent most of his life standing up to (and getting beaten-up) by assorted bullies.  With the U.S. entry into the war, Rogers tries to enlist in the army.  Indeed, he tries to enlist four separate times, but gets rejected - 4F - each time for simply being unfit for service.  The head of the local enlistment board tells him, “Son, I’m just saving your life.”  

Meeting a long time friend James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (played by Sabastian Stan), who as per the movie saved him from all kinds of bullies over the years and who’s about to “ship out” to Europe to go to war, Rogers goes with him to a “Future Exposition” in New York.  There, at yet another recruiting booth, Rogers tries yet again to enlist.  There he catches the eye of a German accented scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine (played by Stanley Tucci) who’s moved by Roger’s desire to serve.   So he comes over to Rogers and asks him, “So you want to kill Nazis?”  Rogers answers yes.  Dr. Erskine goes through his recruiting record and tells him that he could help him.  He’s responsible for a military experiment that would make him much, much stronger.  Roger’s agrees and Dr. Erskine changes his recruitment classification from 4F to A1 and Rogers is inducted.

Colonel Chester Philips (played by Tommy Lee Jones) responsible for Roger’s basic training is utterly unimpressed with Rogers who is a foot shorter than all the other recruits and simply can’t keep up with the others in their physical fitness drills.  Still the good German (and _probably_ Jewish) immigrant doctor insists that Rogers _be the first_ of the soldiers to be given the experimental treatment that he has devised to make him stronger.  When Rogers asks about the treatment, whether it’s ever been tried before, Dr. Erskine answers that yes, one fanatical Nazi soldier had demanded the treatment because it promised to make him invincible.  Dr.Erskine tells Rogers that the treatment went awry with that soldier and that the consequences of that experiment convinced him that the treatment should be applied only to the weak because they would appreciate the gift of becoming strong. 

The treatment involved injecting the muscles of the subject with a serum.  To do so, Rogers is placed in a metal casket fitted with syringes to inject the muscles of his body all at the same time. Then a good deal of electrical current is run through him and after a scene involving sparks and electrical arcs befitting Frankenstein the casket is opened and Rogers is now a foot taller and much, much stronger.  Almost immediately after Rogers steps out of his casket, Dr. Erskine is assassinated right in front of him by someone who turns out to be a German agent who’s been watching the experiment and steals the remainder of Dr. Erskine’s serum.  Rogers, now with super human speed and strength runs down the agent, who swallows a cyanide pill to avoid interrogation but not before ominously telling Rogers, “I’m a member of Hydra.  You kill one of us, and two others will spring in our place.”

An instant hero for killing the German agent and now looking like a _perfect physical specimen_ of a soldier, Rogers is given the name “Captain America” put in a red-white-and-blue uniform, cape and mask along with a shield and is then used by the Army to recruit _other soldiers_ and sell war bonds.  Damn.  What Rogers _really wanted to do_ was to actually serve/fight.

Of course he gets his chance.  And the mysterious group, Hydra, is headed by non-other the Nazi soldier, Johann Schmidt (played by Hugo Weaving) who had undergone Dr. Erskine’s treatment.  Schmidt also has a secret ... 

Helping Rogers / Captain America is Peggy Carter (played by Hayley Atwell) a British agent who had served as an assistant to Dr. Erskine’s work as well as the Howard Hughes-like American industrialist Howard Stark (played by Dominic Cooper) who becomes important as the father of Tony Stark of Marvel Comic’s Iron Man series (Tony Stark being played recently in film versions of that series by Robert Downey, Jr).

Captain America comes to do many great things during the War, coming to fight, above all, this Johann Schmidt.  Near the end of the war though, Captain America is able to save the United States from a devastating air-attack planned by Schmidt.  In the course of bringing down the giant Nazi flying wing that would have wreaked havoc on the whole of the American seaboard, Captain America is brought down somewhere over the Arctic wastelands.  He’s lost forever?  Or is he? 

I have to say that I enjoyed the film.  Yes, the story is of a comic book quality, the characters being larger-than-life and having only the basic outlines of personality.  But the story was based on a World War II era comic book.  And then the story presented the origins of “Captain America’s” persona in a sympathetic manner.  He was a scrawny “kid from Brooklyn” who was made strong with the aid of an immigrant scientist and who used that strength to do basically good, even though many times those around him didn’t know how best to use him. 

I’m not sure how this movie will fly overseas.  In some some countries, the movie was renamed “The First Avenger” rather than “Captain America.”  But I do have to say that all things considered, the movie was done very well.  It portrayed World War II era America very well and yes America to this day would relate to that “kid from Brooklyn” made quasi-miraculously strong but seeking to use that strength then (generally) for the good of all.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Project Nim [2011]

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

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert’s review

Project Nim (directed by James Marsh) is a documentary about the life of Nim (Nov 13, 1973 - Mar 10, 2000), a chimpanzee, who two weeks after being born at a Oklahoma primate research facility was taken from his chimpanzee mother to be raised by a  human family  living in an upscale home in Manhattan for the first year of his life.  Afterwards, Nim studied for four years as part of a Columbia University study directed by Dr. Herbert S. Terrace to determine if a chimpanzee living among human beings could acquire true human language skills.  Since chimpanzees can not make human sounds, Nim was taught signs from American Sign Language (ASL) instead.  The key purpose of the study was to test famed linguist Noam Chomsky’s thesis that only humans are wired for true language, consisting not just of words but also of grammar.  Since humans and chimps hold 98.7% of their DNA in common, it seemed reasonable to believe that a chimp raised among humans could learn to communicate in a human way.

During the 5 year study, Nim did learn some 120 signs, though Terrace remained unconvinced that Nim learned to use those signs to communicate in a truly human way.  Nim could make himself understood.  On the other hand, his sign constructions proved very short and repetitive and he would sign them until he got what he wanted.  Examples of some of Nim’s sign constructions reported in Terrace’s group’s research are given in the wikipedia article on Nim.

The documentary continued to follow Nim’s quite harrowing life after Terrace’s study was completed.  Nim was first quite abruptly returned to the Oklahoma research facility where he was born.  Then along with _all the other chimps_ at the facility Nim was sold to an upstate New York medical research lab for medical experiments.  Some of Nim’s human friends from both Oklahoma and Columbia University intervened and got Nim a lawyer.  Soon enough Nim was bought by a Texan animal shelter whose owners, while well meaning, were not the best equipped to deal with the needs of a, by then, rather traumatized, adult chimpanzee. (The animal shelter specialized in recovering horses and other four legged hoofed animals).  In the end after an ownership change at the Texas animal shelter and with advice of one of Nim’s human friends from the Oklahoma research facility, other chimps were brought to the Texan animal shelter to give Nim (and each other) company.  Nim died perhaps somewhat at peace of an apparent heart attack at the animal shelter at the age of 26. 

I found the documentary to be compelling in a number of ways:

First, my entire family has always loved both plants and animals.  My mother had a great green thumb and would talk to the plants as she watered them.  And the rest of us always just loved animals.  I’ve always wondered what animals are thinking.  (I was convinced that a neighorhood dog living near to where I was studying when I was going to USC, had a sense of humor and did things to piss-off the dogs of another neighboring house).  As such studies like the language acquisition study with Nim simply _fascinate_ me.  However, what would have fascinated me the most would have been to see if a chimp like Nim could articulate either/both self awareness (“I’m happy, I’m sad...”) and/or empathy (be able to ask “Are you happy, sad...?)  From bits that I was able to extract from the movie as well as from a recent interview by NPR’s Terri Gross for her show Fresh Air of several of the people who were part of Nim’s life and were featured in the documentary, Nim was able to sign “I’m angry” and “I’m sorry.”  I just wonder if he was able to articulate (via signing) other emotional states.

Second, to the documentary makers’ credit, they never lost sight of the fact that Nim was chimp, that is, _an animal_.  Yes, the study for which Nim _was being used for_ was to see if a chimpanzee like Nim could learn to communicate in a human way (using a human sign language).  However, the documentary makers freely included recollections of Nim’s human handlers and video clips of Nim behaving like an animal – knocking things down, biting people when he was upset, and progressively becoming far stronger than his human handlers and thus becoming increasingly dangerous to work with.  Nim's increasing strength and the increasing danger associated with working with him in close quarters was the main reason why Terrace ended the language acquisition study with him as Nim approached five years of age.  Indeed, one of Terrace's assistants had been quite seriously hurt by Nim.

Third, _also_ to the documentary makers’ credit, they allowed Nim’s human handlers to be themselves as well.  Let’s face it, in the 1970s the kind of people who would have been interested in working on studies such as this would have been skewed toward a “hippie like” lifestyle complete with the drugs (Yes, Nim came to request and smoke pot with his handlers at times) and sexual concerns that make the average Catholic blush.  Nim’s surrogate human mother during the first year of Nim’s life, for instance, had been a psychology student.  (Remember, again, that this study was conducted in the mid-1970s).  So _she_ was interested in such things Nim’s masturbatory behavior and so forth.  Honestly, it wouldn’t even occur to me to be interested in Nim's masturbatory behavior ;-).  But Nim was, indeed, _an animal_ studied in close quarters living among human beings in a human family.  So I suppose, someone trained _Freudian psychology_ could find this aspect of Nim’s life interesting.

All this is to say, that the documentary is very honest and treats both Nim and the people who worked with Nim in a very frank and similarly honest way.  This same frankness, however, would probably _not_ make this movie a particularly good candidate for a "good family film."

Finally, the second half of the documentary, which follows Nim’s life _after_ Terrace’s language acquisition study was completed, does present the _full horror_ (to the animals involved) of animal research.

Yet, even as the documenary presents the horror of primate medical experimentation to the documentary’s viewers (again, Nim along with the other chimpanzees of the Oklahoma facility were sold at one point to a New York medical research lab, where they were caged in really small cages and used to test emerging medications), the presentation does beg the question: Would it be better to conduct medical research on orphans in Ireland or Australia or on inmates in the United States or Guatemala?  (All these classes of _vulnerable people_ were used in the past for medical research).  So the documentary does ask us to take a hard look at medical research, period.  And it does ask us to insist that medical research be done _ethically_ and _humanely_ in _any case_. 

So who would I recommend this movie to?  I would recommend it to a college aged young adult and adult audience, though _not_ to kids or even teens (I would have rated the movie R rather than PG-13).  Some of the references and even video portrayals of Nim's violence I did find disturbing (and would think that most kids and many teens would find very problematic).  Still, I found the movie to be _very interesting_ precisely because it _doesn't_ present either Nim or his life in warm and fuzzy way.  The viewer was reminded repeated that Nim was _not a human being_ but a chimp, closely related to human beings perhaps, but certainly an animal nonetheless.  As such, the movie's presentation of the Nim's similarities and differences to us makes for truly a great _adult_ discussion piece.

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Winnie the Pooh

MPAA (G) CNS/USCCB (A-I) Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr. Dennis (4 stars)

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

Winnie the Pooh (directed by Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall and written by Stephen J. Anderson, Clio Chiang and others) is a truly lovely, little kid friendly, and interestingly enough _book friendly_ screen adaptation (by Disney) of the classic children’s story by the same name. 

I added, “book friendly” to the list of descriptors for this adaptation because throughout the movie viewers are reminded that Winnie the Pooh began as a children’s book.   There are scenes in the movie in which the animated characters walk around on screen acting out the story even as the narrator (voiced by John Cleese) reads the story appearing in big black story-book-like letters above them.  Indeed, at one point the various characters climb out of a pit that they find themselves in using “a ladder made of letters” from the previous page, a lovely device that we remember from our story-book reading days.

The Winnie the Pooh stories have been around since the 1920s.  So a legitimate question could be asked, does this movie adaptation still “work” for the 3-5 year olds of today?   About 80% of the people at the matinee at which I saw this movie were little kids (3-5 year olds).  It seemed to me that the vast majority of the kids enjoyed the film, laughing along with the story and even at times that I didn’t necessarily immediately understand why (the animation was very cute ;-).

So I do believe that this adaptation of the story remains a safe bet for the 3-5 year old crowd.  The cartoon characters are very well drawn and the voices -- Winnie the Pooh / Tigger (voiced by Jim Cummings), Eeyore (voiced by Bud Luckey), Christopher Robin (voiced by Jack Boulter), Owl (voiced by Craig Ferguson), Piglet (voiced Travis Oates), Kanga (voiced by Kristen Anderson-Lopez), Roo (voiced Wyatt Dean Hall), Rabbit (voiced by Tom Kenny), Backson (voiced but never seen by Huell Howser) – are excellent. 

Also refreshing for an older fogey like me, is the slow, lazy pacing of the story.  At a time when movies tend toward ever faster action, and more explosive special effects, Winnie the Pooh’s set in the summer time, at Christopher Robin’s farm somewhere in the countryside near a wood, somewhere.  So there’s no rush.  And Winnie the Pooh's "Very Important Thing to Do" is simply to get a hold of some honey to fill his ever more grumbling tummy.  And the story unfolds just, just fine from there ;-).

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman (television series on the Science Channel)

Through the Wormhole (narrated by Morgan Freeman, who is also one of the series’ executive producers) is a television series currently playing in its second season on the Science Channel that I believe deserves mention on this blog. As I noted before, I do see the purview of my blog to be primarily movies.  Movies lend themselves much more easily for review than television series because movies tend to be over in 2-3 hours while television series go on through multiple episodes or even for many years.  As such, one can’t give a definitive verdict on a television series until it’s over.  Still, as noted in my review of the television series on the Borgias which played recently on the Showtime cable channel network, I do see value in reviewing the occasional television series on account of its theme, quality and/or notoriety.

Perhaps taking some inspiration from a number of fairly successful, religiously themed series that have played on the History Channel (series of varying quality, I would add), Through the Wormhole is a remarkably brave series which seeks to discuss questions that touch on both science and religion and does so in a remarkably intelligent way.  

Since it’s first season last year, I have recommended this show to teenagers and their parents and to my joy I’ve found college students from my parish who are fans.

Each episode of the show deals with a rather fundamental topic.  The first seasons’s series topics were: “Is there a Creator?” “The riddle of Black Holes” “Is Time Travel Possible?” “What happened before the Beginning?” “How did we get here? ” “Are we Alone?” “What are we really made of?”  The second season’s topics were: “Is there Life after Death?”, “Is there an Edge to the Universe?”, “Does Time Really Exist?”, “Are There More Than Three Dimensions?”, “Is There a Sixth Sense?”, “How Does the Universe Work?”, “Faster than Light”, “Can We Live Forever?”

Each topic is introduced by Morgan Freeman by means of a short episode/parable from his childhood, reminding us that these are often questions that we ask even as kids. Then the show presents various remarkable contemporary/cutting edge approaches to these questions which encourage viewers (and hopefully, the young) to expand their horizons to not be content with accepting past pat answers.

The series is audacious but it's also _not stupid_.  Quantum mechanics is a field that has long promised to turn upside down our previous understandings of reality.  Already in 1947, C.S. Lewis argued that the indeterminism of quantum mechanics (see the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle) could offer a fundamental basis for the existence of Free Will.  Such was the state of the argument that as I remembered it when I was in college, grad school and the seminary in the 1980s-90s.  It's a generation later and it's a joy to see a popular television series so joyfully swimming the seas of quantum theory and applying it in ways that a generation ago, very few would dare. The same quantum mechanical phenomenon called entanglement that could make time travel possible could also allow a record of our memories (our "soul"?) to exist outside of our bodies basically anywhere in the larger cosmos (wow! ;-).

As such, I honestly love this series.  I do believe that it’s good for everybody to be challenged, and I think it is incredibly important for especially the young to dream and to wonder and _to see value in doing that_.   

Indeed, we live in a time when science itself through black holes and quantum mechanics is telling us that the universe is more wonderful than we ever imagined.  And every generation ought to have the right to bask in that wonder and then see if it could touch the face of God.  

“Look up at the sky, and see who made the stars” - Isaiah 40:26

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Friday, July 15, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 [2011]

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-II) Roger Ebert (3 ½ stars) Fr. Dennis (4 stars on technical merit, 2 stars on substance)

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

As I wrote in my review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (this movie, Part 2, obviously being a continuation), I confess that I never particularly got into the Harry Potter craze.  While not fanatical about my disinterest in the series, I always thought that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and the movies that they inspired simply capitalized on popular trends of late 1980s-1990s notably on New Age spirituality and even more tendaciously on Wicca a new-fangled religion (the “poor” Scientologists could only wish that they had such a fanatical public relations crew ...)  nominally seeking to “recover” a “lost” pagan-feminist golden age, which after all is said and done still seems to find its clearest expression when it is presented with a British accent – WASP-ish just without the P. 

Now don’t get me wrong.  My ancestry is Slavic (mostly Czech).  The small "ginger bread" looking house in which my grandmother was born in a cute little village (with its cute Romanesque 1000 year old Catholic Church still standing on the hill) in the rolling picturesque Bohemian countryside still belongs to an aunt.  And just like my dad and the relatives of his generation, I and the relatives of my generation still spent a fair number of summer vacations there when I was growing up.  So I can mushroom pick with the best of them, and I can berry pick fairly well as well.  I can readily identify plants of that region that can serve as a remedies for arthritis and know a good deal of the stories -- Christian and pre-Christian – associated with the region where my family came from .  As such, I do believe that I have an appreciation of the land and of nature closer to that of a Native American _who still knows his/her traditions well_ or even that of a Haitian voodoo practitioner _who knows his or her traditions well_ (and I used to work in a parish with a sizable Haitian population), than what a modern-day tattoo covered Chicago Wiccan “witch” residing in modern-day Lincoln Park would know about these things.

So my sympathies are far more with Verushka the Witch of the recent animated movie Hoodwinked Too, where poor Verushka was portrayed as evil, NOT because she was a witch but because she was Russian accented, than anybody really from Hogwarts and the rest of Harry Potter’s world. 

This is not to say that the Harry Potter books and movies, even _this_ climactic movie are without value.  As I wrote before, Harry Potter (played by Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends Hermoine Granger (played by Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (played by Rupert Grint) are nice.  And friendship is good.  They “fight evil” (whatever evil in this series actually means) in Lord Voldemort (played by Ralph Fiennes).  And this movie is certainly befitting of its climactic place in the saga.  Obviously, much much happens and much gets resolved in this final installment in the story. 

But I guess, honestly, I’ve just never ever been swept-up by the Harry Potter craze.  All kinds of people have, all kinds of _good people_ have.  I even have a Czech niece “back in the old country” who as a twelve year old was reading the Harry Potter books in translation.  And even some otherwise rather conservative Catholics from my parish are Harry Potter fans.  I’ve just never been one of them.

Bottom line, if you’ve liked Harry Potter, you’ll certainly like this finale.  If not, eh ... you’ll be like me.  But in any case, whether you like Harry Potter or not, God bless you all ;-).


If you'd actually like to read as comprehensive an article as one could find on witchcraft from the Catholic Church's traditional position on the subject, may I suggest this article from the old Catholic Encyclopedia.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Better Life

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

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

A Better Life (directed by Chris Weitz, screenplay by Eric Eason and story by Roger L. Simon) is IMHO a remarkably good adaptation of the basic storyline of the classic post-war Italian film by Vittorio De Sica, Bicycle Thieves.

In this contemporary version, a humble Mexican (undocumented) gardener named Carlos Galindo (played by Damián Bichir) living and working in Los Angeles trying to create a better life for himself and his 14-year old son Luis (played by José Julián) is offered by his partner/boss, Blasco Martinez (played by Joaquín Cosio) Blosco’s truck along with his gardening tools.  Blasco has made his nest egg and is going back to Mexico to buy his “ranchito” (little farm).  Carlos understands the benefits of having his own truck and tools, but doesn’t really have the money. 

The consequences of not taking up his boss’ offer become clear to Carlos as well.  He’s been working with Blosco for years.  Without Blosco’s truck (and clients), he realizes that he’s going to be back on a street corner competing for work with countless other equally desperate undocumented workers.  So after a few days, Carlos asks his married sister Anita (played by Dolores Heredia), who also lives in Los Angeles, for some help with the money.  Anita comes through giving him the money but without telling her usually stingy husband, and Carlos buys the truck.

So smiling from ear-to-ear, proud as can be, Carlos heads-off with his truck and tools to the corner where he knows Mexican daylaborers wait looking for work, and even hires a man who helped him out a few days earlier when he was still undecided about buying the truck.  However, Carlos proves too trusting.  While he’s up on a palm tree trimming the branches, this man, Santiago (played by Carlos Linares) steals his truck.  And only then does Carlos realize that all he knew about him was his first name (if that even was his name ...).

Devastated, Carlos returns home without his truck.  It’s at this point that Luis, his son, who up until now had been a typically moody young teenager, who given his latchkey existence had even flirted with joining a gang, realizes the seriousness of what just happened and decides to help his father then look for the truck. 

And the two do have some leads.  Carlos may not have known Santiago all that well, but some of the men who wait at that street corner for work know a bit more.

The rest of the movie continues to follow the basic trajectory of the Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, with appropriate adaptations.  In this story, Carlos was Mexican and undocumented after all...  His son is also a somewhat older than son of the father in De Sica’s story.  Still the film works and tells a very, very poignant and _tearful_ story.

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Monday, July 11, 2011

Horrible Bosses [2011]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert’s review

Horrible Bosses (directed by Seth Gordon and cowritten by Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein) is a dark appropriately R-rated comedy which indulges the fantasy of “knocking off” an irritating or overbearing boss.

Three friends, Nick Hendricks (played by Jason Bateman), Dale Arbus (played by Charlie Day) and Kurt Buckman (played by Jason Sukeikis) each find themselves in unbearable work situations. 

Nick, a “suit” in some kind of an accounting firm works for Dave Harken (played by Kevin Spacey) a sadistic man who’s willing to fire the firm’s head of maintenance when he catches Nick in a lie.  The surveillance cam had time-stamped Nick’s entry into the office at 8:02:35 AM one morning and Dave asks Nick about this, he replies that he “couldn’t have been more than a minute late.” “So the clock on the surveillance cam must be wrong, and must have been wrong for a very long time." Dave reaches for the phone to call in the head maintenance man to fire him.  Nick unwilling to see an innocent man fired over this confesses that “he may have been two to two and a half minutes late.”  This is the kind of stuff you’d imagine under Stalin or Saddam Hussein...

Dale finds himself a dental assistant for a very horny Dr. Julia Harris, D.D.S. (played by Jennifer Aniston) who tells Dale that unless he sleeps with her, she’ll tell his fiancé that he’s sleeping with her.  This actually sounds a lot like the story of Joseph in Genesis where Joseph ends up in a dungeon after refusing to sleep with his Egyptian master’s wife.  Since he refused to do so, she denounced him for attempting to do so ... (Genesis 39:1-23).  Why would Dale put up with this extortion?  Well, found himself “registered for life” on a _sex offender list_ for “publicly exposing himself on a playground.”  Awful, huh?  Well, he was caught by a police officer urinating on a tree after midnight one night as he was coming home from a bar located next to the playground... "It's all a terrible 'zoning error'" he protests to his two friends, who find Dale's tragic story worthy of endless ribbing at Dale's expense.  Being a “registered sex offender” _no one_ but someone like Dr. Harris would hire Dale.

Kurt was happy working as an accountant for a small chemical company, until the founder, Jack Pelitt (played by Donald Sutherland) died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving the firm to his coke-head son, Bobby Pelitt (played by Colin Farrell) bent on driving the firm into the ground, killing a whole lot of innocent workers in all kinds of third world countries in the process. 

So the three would meet frequently in a bar, talking of their woes, and the idea enters their heads (a la Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment) that the world would be a whole lot better if these three parasitic/evil doer bosses were dead.

But how to do so?  Well they first try to hire a hit man.  They ask the assistant on Nick’s Onstar-like GPS service for his Toyota Prius to “find them a bar in the seediest part of town.”  Indian accented “George” (voice by Brian George) actually named Atmanand but nobody could pronounce his name, so that’s why he went by “George” tells them that their service doesn’t list bars by “crime density.”  Nevertheless, he finds them an appropriate dive, where after a few “missteps” they find a man with an “Unspeakable first name” (at least on this blog ;-) Jones (played by Jamie Foxx) who says that he’ll help them for five grand given to him in a briefcase.  Actually he asks initially for far more, but he’s a terrible negotiator ;-) The three agree.

The next day they meet “Unspeakable name” Jones with their five grand in a brief case, which Kurt notes is “far larger” than the stack of 20 dollar bills equaling five thousand dollars required ;-).  “Unspeakable name” Jones then tells them that he _won’t_ kill the three bosses (because he “did a dime of hard time” for a crime already) but he would serve as a “consultant” for them.  Nick questions whether the advice he gives them is really worth the five grand.  But they are too nice to ask for the money back.  Later the three find out that “Unspeakable name” Jones did 10 years for getting caught with a video camera “pirating” the film Snow Falling on Cedars a beautiful and very, very sad _art film_ that was the exact opposite of anything that a hard core criminal _should have done 10 years for_ ;-).

By this point, I think one would probably have a feeling of the sense of the humor present in this movie.  Yes, it is crude, but the protagonists in this movie are all basically decent schmucks.  Do they succeed in murdering their three evil bosses?  I think you can guess.  And remember that this is a Hollywood comedy, so it all ends both satisfactorily and well. 

Why review a movie like this?  Well, as long as there have been bosses, there have been lousy ones.  In fact, since _work_ like _family_ has been part of human experience since the beginning, it should not be surprising that there are actually plenty of “evil boss” stories in the Bible as well:

I mentioned one above (the story of Joseph being blackmailed by his Egyptian master’s wife).  There was also Jacob’s step father Laban, who was a con-man from whom Jacob had to finally run away.  And then there was “the psycho” Saul, the first King of Israel, who was initially David’s “boss."  Saul was “moody,” that’s why David was hired by Saul’s court, to soothe him with his music (1 Sam 16:14-23).  And Saul, later became so jealous of David’s military successes that he wanted David dead.  In a famous passage, however, David and his compatriots once came upon Saul in his sleep and one of David's friends even asked David for permission to kill Saul in revenge, "God has delivered your enemy into your grasp this day. Let me nail him to the ground with one thrust of the spear; I will not need a second thrust!" (1 Sam 26:8).  David being a good guy, turns down the favor.

So stories of ‘bad bosses’ and dealing with ‘bad bosses’ has been part of our tradition since the very beginning. 

Then regarding the crudity of this story, just take a look at some of the stories in the Book of Judges, notably the story of Ehud the Assassin, who killed the _really fat_ King of Moab (Judges 3:12-22) or the Jael, the Israelite woman who lured the enemy general Sisera into her tent only to drive a stake into his head when he was asleep (Judges 4:17-22).

Finally, while I do have to say that the first Hangover movie (a movie that was actually far cruder than Horrible Bosses) did indeed make me blush (and I didn't see the second one), I do have to add that _a truly remarkable and diverse number of parishioners_ at my current parish in Chicago did with total sincerity express to me how much they liked that movie (The Hangover) and recommended it to me.  One could be distressed by this or even appalled.  But one could _also_ recognize that there must have been something about that movie (and I suspect this one) that really appeals to people.  And that appeal can not be simply negative.

Ultimately, Horrible Bosses is an “escapist fantasy,” born of the experience of knowing that there are some really bad bosses out there.  Additionally, the economy’s lousy now and people have to put up with perhaps more nonsense at work than when times were better.   So I think that this is part of the reason why this film was made and why it "works" now.

I found the movie reasonably funny.  The three schmucks plus their unspeakably named mentor (who turns out to be something of a schmuck as well) are all endearing.  Their bosses are all presented as "evil" and “deserve badness” to rain down upon them.  But the movie certainly isn't for everyone.  The R-rating is fully justified and I wouldn’t recommend the movie to people who really don’t like crudity or bad language.

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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Beginners [2011]

MPAA (R)  Roger Ebert (3 1/2 stars)  Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert’s review

Beginners (written and directed by Mike Mills) tells a story, semi-autobiographical, of a young man whose father “came out” as gay shortly after the death of the father’s wife (the young man’s mother).  While obviously the circumstances of this story are rather specific (certainly not everyone’s dad comes out as gay after the death of one’s mother), I do believe that pretty much everyone who’s lost a parent could relate, particularly those who lost a parent during their teen or young adult years.

My mother died when I was 24 and my dad was 55.  And both my 20 year old sister and I had to deal with some “surprises” (which looking back _now_, 25 years later, seem not all that surprising after all) with regard to our dad, who was clearly “not quite ready to die yet” and was searching for new life.  So at the time when my sister and I were supposed to be the ones doing the dating and building our lives, suddenly there was our dad doing the same thing.  Yes, it was awkward.  Yes, there were (and arguably still are) some resentments.  But what the heck to do?  In traditional Hindu society, supposedly the wife of the deceased husband was thrown onto the funeral pyre with him (but apparently never the other way around).  But that’s not contemporary tradition, not even in India.  And it seems rather cruel to try to beat down one’s own dad with a hammer with the cry, “No, this is supposed to be _my time_!” 

So one “processes,” “ponders all these things in one's heart,” comes to realize that God is often far more original and surprising with regards to all of our lives than any of us would imagine on our own and one hopefully comes to forgive one’s parent for doing probably what we would have done as well in similar circumstances.  [To finish this aside: Some years after my mother died, my dad remarried (also to a widow) and the two been happily married since.  And what "took some time to get used to," turned out to be, honestly, a very nice blessing].

But I certainly could relate with Mike’s character, named Oliver (and played by Ewan McGregor), a graphic artist in his 30s, single, not particularly successful in his dating life, who, already mourning the death of his mother was "surprised" his dad, Hal, (played by Christopher Plummer) when he told him a few months later that he is gay that he’s been gay all his life even if he always loved his mother and that in these closing years of his life he’d _really like_ to die not just “theoretically gay.” 

A few months later, dad Hal, finds a lover, Andy (played by Goran Visnjic) who’s Oliver’s age and it just doesn’t seem fair. Oliver shares this (and many other things) with his terrier dog, who because he’s a dog and can not talk, basically shrugs.  Fortunately, a woman, Anna (played by Melanie Laurant) does enter into Oliver’s life somewhere in there as well.  But it’s not easy.  None of it is.

Eventually, some years later, Hal comes down with cancer as well.  And Oliver chooses wisely.  Indeed, in all of the relational pain (and there is pain here) Oliver _chooses_ to be kind.  What a wonderful story!

Now a final warning to many readers here:  The one aspect of this movie that proved painful for me as a Catholic Christian to endure was a number of fairly painful, arguably ignorant slights / putdowns of Christianity made throughout the movie.  There’s a good part of me that “gets it” and doesn’t expect much better.  After all, the Catholic Church officially considers homosexuality a “disordered condition” and homosexual acts to be intrinsically sinful and there are Catholic and Protestant Christian groups that go even further in their denunciations of both homosexuality and homosexuals.  So if we make it clear (or our leaders/institutions make it clear) that we don’t particularly like or respect gays, why should we expect to be treated better?  Still one can hope that one day this mutual sniping will come to an end.

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