Friday, September 30, 2011

Restless (2011)

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

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

Restless (directed by Gus Van Sant, written by Jason Lew) is a teen/young adult oriented movie about death.  That may seem initially like a rather grim subject matter.  But when one thinks about it, a fair number of teens with the world in front of them and also having some experience of tragedy, do at times ask or even focus on "big questions:" what's the meaning of it all? why death? why even the unfairness of death/tragedy?

In the past, elders would sit the youngsters down and basically tell them "listen up, this is how it is" (and proceed to give them a lesson on the traditional, received truths of one's religion or culture).  Restless, in line with much modern culture, seems to take the opposite tack of having the young people involved simply assemble their own stories and understandings of these questions without much/any reference to traditional systems of belief.

I "get" that this is part of a continued reaction to past more authoritarian approaches to religion and the general forming of the young. I also "get" that tragedy often leaves any ready-pat explanation "wanting" (witness, indeed Job's complaint in the biblical Book of Job).  And also there's something fresh/innocent about young people batting around troughts / ideas as they struggle to make sense of their lives (and sense of tragedies that they encounter in their lives).

That be said, there's also something (and I believe that teens would understand this, as I mean it exactly in exactly the way they would say it) arrogant about simply ignoring the received wisdom of thousands of years of traditional culture (no matter what traditional culture it may be).  Because people are people and the same struggles and basic questions that confront us today, have confronted us since the beginning of time.  As the Church began its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) at the end of the Second Vatican Council (1965)"The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the [people] of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts." Why?  The Council writers continued: "For theirs is a community composed of [people]. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for [everyone]. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds. (GS #1)"  Perhaps summarizing this, though she would have never sat down to read The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, my own mother used to smile and remind me when I was being arrogant and rolling my eyes as a teen: "Son, there's nothing new under the sun." (Eccl 1:9).

So I do believe that there is lost when we choose to totally ignore the received wisdom of the past even as we try to defend the dignity of the present (both have their place).  And so I do feel that this movie (and other movies like it, that needlessly choose to pick a fight with religion) do fall shorter than necessary if only if they made a little better peace with the received wisdom of the past.

Very good then ... let's get to the movie ...

Enoch Brae (played by Henry Hopper) is a teen who's gone through a lot.  He lost his parents in an accident which had left him in a coma for three months.  Ever since then, he hasn't been the same.  Taken care of by his mother's sister, he's been thrown out of school for violently acting out.  Since then, he's taken to crashing other people's funerals -- he's always respectful but what the heck is he doing there? -- and hanging-with an invisible friend (a ghost?) named Hiroshi Takahashi (played by Ryo Kase) who he found at his bedside when he came out of his coma.  Hiroshi had died as a Japanese Kamikaze pilot at the end of World War II.  Together, they play the boardgame Battleship and Hiroshi always wins ;-).

At one of the funerals that Enoch crashes, he catches the eye of another teen, Anabel Cotton (played by Mia Wasikowska).  She finds it odd that he crashed her friend's funeral, but she saves him when a funeral director catches him and tries to expel him from the premises.  Anabel and Enoch then hit it off.

Anabel has her own issues.  She's dying of cancer.  So the two have death / near death in common.  Since Enoch had been clinically dead for several minutes and then in a coma for three months, Anabel asks Enoch what it was like.  He tells her about his invisible/ghost-like friend Hiroshi...

The banter through most of the movie is very much like that of typical teens, full of exaggerated certainty and innocence.  It's Halloween time (much of the movie's filmed in Portland Oregon).  So it's rainy, the leaves are falling, and there's a good amount of fog.  Enoch and Anabel decide to go trick-or-treating together.  He dresses (surprise) as a Japanese kamikaze pilot, Anabel to fit the theme as a geisha girl.  Hiroshi hands around as well.  At another time, the two, Anabel and Enoch play-out (and record) her "death scene" so that they "would be ready" for the drama when it comes.

Among the conversations that the two have, Anabel declares her love/fascination for Darwin.  "Why Darwin?" asks Enoch. Well she tells Enoch because "He was the smartest man in the world and saw the world for what it really is."  Enoch, unimpressed asks "What about Einstein?"  She let's the question go.  She simply likes Darwin.

This is the part of the movie that I found most irritating.  Why Darwin?  It's almost certainly a F-U a certain type of (Fundamentalist) Christianity that would insist on knowing all the answers and the movie's about two teenagers putting together from all but whole cloth their own answers.  (And here I'd note that the famous or infamous, depending on where a Catholic stands, the Second Vatican Council was exactly about trying to balance both the received faith of the past with experience of the present ...).  And so Anabel is dying, but somehow finds comfort in Darwin.  How?   None of us has a clue...

Near her death, Hiroshi starts acting as something of a guardian angel.  He was there to accompany Enoch in his trauma.  Now Anabel starts to see him as well, as death approaches her.  When she starts to see him, he's no longer in his Kamikaze uniform but dressed in a tuxedo and top hat (formal dress in Japan in the 1930s) ready to take her on her journey...

The imagery is lovely.  In the end, the story doesn't fall too far from the traditional religious apple cart.  I just found the reference to Darwin in an otherwise lovely (and sad) teenage story both needless and needlessly provocative. 

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

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -

Abduction (directed by John Singleton and written by Shawn Christensen) is a teen-oriented spy / conspiracy thriller about a teenager named Nathan (played by Taylor Lautner).  About to enter his senior year in high school, he has "some issues."  On the one hand, he's seeing a psychologist, Dr. Bennett (played by Sigourney Weaver) because of anger issues.  On the other hand, he's a star on the wrestling team and his father, Kevin (played by Jason Isaacs), seems obsessed with raising him to be a tough guy able to physically defend himself in almost any situation.  The result is that most of the other students in school are kinda scared of him, including cute cheer-leading neighbor Karen (played by Lily Collins) who liked him before, ages back in 8th grade, but just finds him a bit too weird/dangerous now.

What's going on in Nathan's head?  Well he keeps having a recurring nightmare about a dark haired woman, who looks completely unlike his blonde haired mother, Mara (played Maria Bello), but still kinda feels like a mother figure taking care of him.  In the dream, his peace is disturbed when a cloud of gas enters the room, and the dark-haired mother figure collapses even as she reaches out to him (or is she pointing?). Nathan saves himself  by hiding under a bed.  Recalling to Dr. Bennett this recurring dream, Dr. Bennett tells him "Well, sometimes it's best not to dig too deeply into these things." (!!) What kind of a psychologist is this woman?? ;-).  And there it is, something is deeply wrong here.

Both Nathan and the audience begin to get some answers when Nathan (and Karen) are given an assignment in their sociology class to write a report on missing-children hotlines.  To their surprise, one of the missing-children's sites showing a computer generated picture of what a child abducted years back could look like today looks just like Nathan.  Nathan recognizes even more.  In the "last seen" picture of the little boy, the boy in the picture is wearing a shirt that he recognizes (down to a stain on a shoulder) that his mother had kept (along with some other toddler/baby stuff of his) in a box in the garage.  What's going on?

After "sleeping on" this strange news, and talking about it the next day to one of his few buddies in school (who points out another oddity in Nathan's life: why does Nathan have only 1-2 pictures from when he was a baby/toddler when almost everyone else has hundreds?) he decides to ask his mother Mara about it.

She starts to cry saying that she knew this day was going to come and to asks him "just understand that the story's complicated."  She doesn't even start to give an explanation when a Slavic-sounding hit team breaks into to the house and ma, suddenly nearly as good a martial arts expert as dad, defends herself for at least a while, before succumbing.  Dad just coming home from work is killed as well.  Nathan, with all the starnge martial training that he received from his dad is able to take down the head of the hit team, even as Karen comes to the home ringing the door bell (to work on "missing children" project).  Nathan grabs her and they run through the house to the back, even as they hear a bomb ticking.  They jump into the pool in the backyard as the entire house blows up (with even the dead/wounded hitman inside).  What the heck just happened?

Soon Nathan and Karen running away from the still burning ruins of Nathan's house, soaking wet from jumping in the pool, when a car pulls up next to them.  The door opens.  Inside is Dr. Bennett.  She tells them to trust her and jump in.  They do.  Soon the three are being chased as well.  Again, what's going on?   She tells them a bit of situation, obviously that Kevin and Mara weren't Nathan's parents, that the dark haired woman in Nathan's dream was Nathan's actual mother and that Nathan's father was a CIA agent as was Dr. Bennett.  Beyond this, she tells them that the situation was very complicated, to not trust anyone (including even herself).  Finally, she gives Nathan an address where he would get more answers.  Then she slows down the car and orders the two to jump-out (into a sloping wooded ravine) before speeding away.  The rest of the movie follows ...

As in most movies of this kind, the audience is invited to "go for the ride" and to render its judgement about whether or not the movie ultimately makes sense, whether all the loose ends in the story tie together.  And I'd like to let the readers here who go to see the to decide this for themselves.

This movie also plays on a fairly popular premise in American movies over the last 20 or so years, the premise being "an ordinary person" turns out to not be not that "ordinary" after all.  Rather he/she turns out to be quite extraordinary.  Consider in the classic movie of this type, Under Siege (1992), actor Steven Seagal is first introduced as a lowly cook serving on an American battleship.  When the battleship is (quite prepostrously) taken over by a group of foreign sounding "terrorists," the "lowly cook" reveals his true identity.  He's actually a former Navy Seal (who for whatever reason decided walk away from the Navy Seals even if not from military life altogether).  Once he drops the "lowly cook" vaneer the "terrorists" don't stand a chance.   The same formula was used more recently in a fun Disney animated film The Incredibles (2004) where an ordinary, even boring, family turned out to be extra-ordinary (I loved The Incredibles ;-).  Finally, most recently the same formula was invoked in the recent Liam Neeson movie Taken (2008), where "dad" or even a "overly protective dad" turned out to be much more than just a hopelessly boring, "out of it" father, but rather a former CIA assassin who ends up killing half of France to save his daughter after she gets abducted by some really bad sex-trafficking mafia toughs.  So here too, in Abduction, Nathan turns out to be far more than "just a teen with anger issues."  He finds himself (and soon to be his girlfriend) caught-up in one heck of a conspiracy, one heck of a "first date" as he tells Karen near the end of the film.

Yes, it's kinda narcissistic.  And I do believe that a good part of Christianity and especially Catholicism is about declaring that "ordinary" is good (Bl. John Paul II wrote a beautiful reflection on St. Joseph, noting that next to nothing was known about him other than that he was "a carpenter" and "a just man" noting that to God, who entrusted his only Son, Jesus, to his care, that _was enough_).  And in my life as a Catholic priest, I have buried hundreds of good, _ordinary_ people.

Still as a teen oriented movie, I see a value to it.  Teens, as people who "have their whole life in front of them" have a right to dream.  Also, I do believe that budding relationships are (and ought to be) built around some kind of a story / adventure.  When people ask "How did you meet?" it's nice if there's a story there.  So even if the movie's certainly a bit exaggerated, I do think it makes for a nice teen-oriented film.

Note to parents: there are some (and repeated) references to some early, probably somewhat sexual exploration between the two characters Nathan and Karen.  What it actually was, is left unclear.  So parents ought to probably note this ("Ahem ...") but then probably leave it alone, or use it as an invitation to talk about such matters.  Certainly it should be made clear to all young people that at 8th grade (and really through all of high school) children are still not ready (at all...) to have kids themselves.  So "exploring" too much is really not a great idea.  Instead it'd be better to seek a "great adventure" like perhaps in this film than "doing something stupid in the boat house" that one would quickly regret even the next day.

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Sunday, September 25, 2011


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

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

Moneyball, directed by Bennet Miller, screenplay by Steven Zaillen and Aaron Sorkin, story by Stan Chervin, based on the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis, tells the story of the remarkable 2002 season of the Oakland A's.  That year, with the lowest payroll in Major League Baseball, they set an all-time Major League record of winning 20 straight games and advancing the same distance in the playoffs as they did the previous year (despite having lost their three best players from that previous team to higher paying franchises). 

How can a relatively poor team in a relatively small TV market compete big-pocketed teams like the New York Yankees?  Well there have been relatively small market teams like the Oakland A's, the Minnesota Twins, and especially the Saint Louis Cardinals (in decades past, I would have included the Pittsburg Pirates on that list) who have managed to consistently assemble competitive, even top teams on a relatively shoe-string budget.

It seems however, that there were two things that made the 2002 A's special: (1) They really were gutted by free-agency after the 2001 season and (2) the general manager Bille Beane (played by Brad Pitt) decided to take a radically different approach to rebuilding the team.  Beane decided to take a full-bore leap into  computer analysis of the game and a search for the kind of players he needed to win (and could afford).  In the movie, he announces this decision to his shocked team of talent scouts, telling them "we're going into card counting," while presenting to them a decidedly unathletic Yale economics graduate Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill) whose computer wizardry was going to assemble a winning team for them on the budget that they were stuck with.  No more hunches, no more intuition, just a full-bore leap into computer statistics.

Now for those who don't necessarily know much about baseball, it is a sport that lends itself to such statistical analysis.   There are 162 regular games in a Major League season.  In each game, each starter is going to be at bat 3-5 times, facing dozens of pitches per game.  Starting pitchers will probably throw 100 pitches a game.  Each one of those pitches is analyzable -- type (fastball, slider, curve ball, left handed, right handed, etc), speed, ball, strike, location within/outside the strike zone.  Everyone of the batter's at-bats is similarly analyzable (what pitches he hits, what pitches he tends to miss, if he hits the ball where does it go).  Baseball is statistician's dream.  Yet despite this and perhaps because of the huge number of compilable statistics, the game has generally remained a game of hunches that have kept talent scouts employed for over 100 years.

In 2002, Beane and Brand attempted to say "no more."  The only statistics that the two chose to consider were the percentage of times a player at bat got on base (one needs to get on base to score...) and how much the player was being paid.  If the player was being underpaid, they sought to buy his contract.   As Brand put it in the movie, they were trying to assemble a team out of an "island of misfit toys."

This produced some very interesting challenges:  For instance, the two sought to purchase the contract of a washed-up catcher (because he had a phenomenal ability of getting on base).  But A's already had a good catcher.  So they tried to teach him to play a position, first base, that he had never played.  To attempt to do that in major league professional sports was, to say the least, stunning.  So the manager, Art Howe (played magnificently by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who was never really on-board, tried really hard to make his own sense of the players that Beane and Brand were sending him, to their enormous frustration.  It was only after Beane, as general manager began to trade the players that Howe was playing instead of the players that Beane and Brand were sending him that Howe began to manage the team along the concept that Beane and Brand had envisioned, and it was then (at least according to the movie) that the Oakland A's began to turn their season around, and then go on that spectacular Major League record breaking 20 game winning streak.

Kudos to the director and screen-writers for making a movie largely about baseball statistics exciting.  Then again, Aaron Sorkin, wrote the Oscar winning screenplay for The Social Network that made computer code exciting as well.  So he has some experience in the matter.

Annother aspect of this film that I found fascinating and worth reflecting on was the brutal "perform or you're gone" aspect of professional sports.  As general manager (the one who hires and fires players), Beane didn't even go to the games because he didn't want to even get to know the players.  It's harder to fire or trade people that you know.  In the movie, he started teaching Brand how to fire players, telling him to just tell players being traded: "[Sir], you've been traded.  This is the number of the transition person who'll help you make the needed arrangements.  He's a good guy. Thank you for your service to the team. Good luck in the next phase of your career."  Beane explained that saying anything more would just prolong the agony, asking, Brand, "Would you prefer to just be shot in the head and have it over with, or shot five times in the chest and still have to bleed to death?"

The firing scenes of this movie are something that tens of millions of Americans can relate to these days as a result of their being "let go" from their own jobs.  In Moneyball, those players being fired were actually being traded (though inevitably to other parts of the country, causing a good deal of dislocation in their lives and the lives of their families).  Still, these were highly paid individuals who at least in the short term were not going to feel financial pain.  In real life, layoffs/firings cause real pain.  Still there always is a "performance" aspect to work.

So for those interested, the firing scenes in Moneyball become an interesting invitation to perhaps read (or reread) Pope John Paul II's (now Blessed John Paul II's) famous encyclical letter On the Dignity of Human Work (Laborem Excercens).

All in all, the movie is enjoyable for anyone who's ever been a fan of professional baseball.  There is nothing in the movie that would be problematic for kids (except that it might prove to be a little boring for them).  And the movie does offer viewers the opportunity then to reflect on the nature of work and the justice of the economic system in which we work.  

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Friday, September 23, 2011

Killer Elite

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

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

Killer Elite (directed and screenplay cowritten by Gary McKendry along with Matt Sherring based on the based in truth novel The Feather Men by Sir Ranulph Fiennes) is the story of a hit team hired by an Omani sheik seeking to avenge the deaths of three of his sons at the hands of British SAS agents in a clandestine "dirty" war fought at the end of the colonial era in the 1960s over control of Oman's potential oil reserves.  Oman today remains (on paper) one of the poorest and least open countries in the oil rich Persian Gulf region.

In the story taking place in the early 1990s, a shadowy former mercenary assassin named Danny (played by Jason Statham) after what he had hoped would be his retirement, is sucked into "one last job." He receives a letter at his ranch way out in the outback of Australia with a photo of his former partner Hunter (played by Robert DeNiro) being held hostage with the request Danny fly out to Oman to work-out his release.  When Danny arrives in Oman, he is taken to the dying elderly sheik who gives him the assignment of assembling a hit team to assassinate the three SAS agents who assassinated his three sons during the dirty war fought in Oman in the 1960s.  Specifically, he wanted Danny and his team to (1) find the three men responsible for his sons' deaths, (2) record the three men's confessions, (3) record their deaths, and (4) make each of the killings look like an accident.  After receiving the record confirmations of the three agents' confessions and killings, the sheik would let Hunter go free and pay the two $6 million for their troubles.

What a seemingly impossible assignment!  Yet after initially trying (and failing) to simply overcome Hunter's guards and spring him free, Danny leaves Oman to set about assembling his team.  By casing the right pubs and talking to the right spooks, Danny and his team are soon able to identify the three former SAS agents responsible for assassinating the Omani sheik's three dead sons.  And they come up with ingenious ways of both extracting confessions and then killing 2 of the 3, each time making their deaths look like an accident. (By the time they get around to dealing with the third former agent, they realize that they probably won't be able capture that agent in order to extract a confession.  However, they remain that they could certainly kill him in a way that still looks like an accident.  And they figured that as long as the former agent was dead, the Omani sheik would accept the results as completed by the team). 

However, the team soon finds out however that these three former SAS agents weren't exactly living "naked," that is, without protection.  Danny's team soon catches the radar of a shadowy ODESSA-like organization of former SAS officers, who called themselves the The Feathermen for their desire/ability to keep a light profile even as they continued to profit on various dirty enterprises that they entered into while still serving in the SAS.  The principal man responsible for the security of the other "Feathermen" was a man nicknamed Spike (played by Clive Owen).  At first Spike, didn't understand who hitting them and why.  However, after receiving a report of the untoward death of the second agent, he has a pretty good idea who'll be the third (hence why Danny's team also "simplifies" their plan for assassinating the third agent.  However, by now Spike and his team is going after Danny's team as well).

All this makes for a fascinating spy story, invoking images of the Bourne Identity and Mission Impossible novels and movies as well as the real-life story of the Israeli hit-squad sent-out to assassinate the Palestinians responsible for organizing the Black September terrorist attack on the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Munich Games, immortalized in the movie Munich (2005).

What makes this movie, Killer Elite, all the more fascinating is Ranuel Fiennes' claim that the story is based on truth.  Discussing this story in community here, we were joking that this movie would probably prove rather popular among Catholics in Northern Ireland who don't particularly have a great love for the SAS given that it was notorious for all kinds of similar shenanigans during "the Troubles" of the 1960s-80s there.

Certainly between Munich (2005), The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) another movie based on a book claiming to be based in fact, Unknown (2011) a more fictionalized thriller but invoking former assassination squads existing on both sides of the Cold war and even The Debt (2011) a movie reminding one of various Mossad operations in the past, one gets the sense that a lot more has been going on in the world (in regards to intelligence operations) than many of us may have previously thought. 

Interestingly enough, one of the themes of this particular movie, Killer Elite, was the desire of Danny to "find a way out" of that way of life.  In the movie, we never really find out how Danny and his partner Hunter first got involved in such undercover, assassination work.  However, we could perhaps sympathize with Danny's desire to get out.

This is the second recent Hollywood film to touch on this topic of wishing to extract oneself from a life of crime, that is, sin, the other recent film being Drive.  These may serve as a good reminder to all of us, that whenever we flirt with Evil (sin), we may find ourselves in a situation from which it becomes very hard to extract ourselves.  The Sacrament of Reconciliation _does help_ by righting ourselves at least with God.  There still may be people that we may have hurt and other damage for which we will need to pay.  But righting ourselves with God becomes an enormous (and truly helpful) first step in being able to face the further challenges ahead.

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Dolphin Tale

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

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

Dolphin Tale, directed by Charles Martin Smith, screenplay by Karen Janszen and Naomi Dromi, is a nice family feel good movie based on the true story of a dolphin named "Winter" at the Clearwater Marine Acquarium.

The story begins with Kyle Connellan (played by Austin Stowell) a former high school swimming star, who's since enlisted in the Army, saying goodbye to his quiet 11 year old cousin Sawyer Nelson (played by Nathan Gamble).  Kyle's being shipped off to Iraq.  Sawyer's been withdrawn since his father left him and his mother Lorraine (played by Ashley Judd) five years back.  Kyle asks Sawyer to promise him that he'll do more than tinker around with his electronic toys in the garage.  Sawyer half-heartedly promises to do so.  Sawyer's mother is also concerned for Sawyer because he doesn't talk much to anyone and his grades are suffering in school.

One day riding his bike along the beach in Clearwater, Florida on his way to summer-school, Sawyer spots an old man trying to help a dolphin who had washed-up on shore.  The dolphin had gotten hopelessly tangled in the lines that had suspended a crab trap.  With help of Sawyer's cell phone the old man manages to call a marine animal rescue unit, headed by Dr. Clay Haskett (played by Harry Connick, Jr) and his assistant Phoebe (played by Austin Highsmith).  Together with Dr. Clay's more talkative 11 year old daughter, Hazel ("like the eyes") Hasket (played by Cozi Huehlsdorff), they take the dolphin to the Clearwater Marine Animal Sanctuary.  There Hazel names the injured dolphin "Winter" because every dolphin she's named after a time-of-year "turned out okay."

But Winter's not okay.  Her tail had been cut by the crab-trap lines and had become infected.  Eventually, the tail has to be amputated.  In the meantime, quiet Sawyer begins to ditch summer school in favor of visiting the dolphin, who takes a liking to him because apparently he was the first to begin freeing her from the crab trap's lines.  Sawyer's ditching of summer school at first irritates both his mom and his teacher, Mr Doyle (played by Ray McKinnon).  However, his mom comes to appreciate that this is the first time that Sawyer's become interested in anything outside of his electronic gadgets since his father (and her husband) had left them.  So against Mr. Doyle's advice, she lets Sawyer go to the sanctuary rather than to summer school.

The story gets more complex as two things happen:  First, Kyle comes home injured from a blast in the war.  He didn't lose a limb, but one of his leg is damaged enough that he will need a brace to walk on it again.  When he returns home, it is he who doesn't want to talk to anybody, preferring to retreat back to the local VA hospital rather than visit with his family and friends at a "welcome home party" that they organized for him.  Second, while Winter has relearned to swim (sort of) without her tail, it becomes clear that the side-to-side (rather than normal up-and-down) motions of her tail are causing damage to her vertebrae and if she continues to do so, she will slowly driver herself into paralysis and death.  It is Sawyer, who visiting his injured cousin at the VA hospital who puts two and two together asking Dr. Cameron McCarthy (played by Morgan Freeman) who fits various injured vets with their prosthetics and braces, "a stupid question": Could he design a prosthetic tail for the dolphin?  Seeing the child's sincerity, Dr. McCarthy decides to take-up the challenge.

The rest of the movie follows ... An aspect of this movie that I found very touching was that as both Sawyer and Dr. McCarthy encounter apathy or even opposition to their project (What's the use?  It probably won't work.  And she's only a dolphin...) repeatedly everyone is reminded that to all kinds of people with disabilities or in need of prosthetics themselves, Winter has become a hero.

In one case, a mother shows-up one evening after closing time with her daughter to the sanctuary and asks if her daughter could see Winter.  The sanctuary's already closed, and other things (including financial matters) are on the staff's minds.  So they're not thrilled.  But the mother insists, saying that ever since her daughter found out about the dolphin on the internet, it's all she's been talking about.  So they had driven 10 hours from Atlanta (to the Tampa-St. Petersburg area where Clearwater is) to see the dolphin.  The staff relents.  The mother then opens the door of her van and we see that her cute as can be 10-year-old daughter too needed a wheel chair and had lost a leg as well.

Obviously the whole story ends well and yes the movie is rather formulaic in parts.  Still, I do believe it is a really nice "feel good" movie and a reminder to us all that we all contribute to each other's lives.  Kyle encouraged Sawyer to "get out of his shell" at the beginning of the movie, even as he was heading off to Iraq.  In part because Sawyer followed Kyle's advice, he was ready to help Kyle in a surprising way (having befriended a disabled dolphin) when Kyle came back injured from the war.

Hovering over the whole story are also two "grandparent figures," Morgan Freeman's character, Dr. McCarthy already mentioned above and also Hazel's grandfather Reed (played by Kris Kristofferson) who use their life experience to encourage the youngsters in their dreams and at times gently chastising (in Catholic speak, "guilting"... ;-) the parents into believing more in the value of the "stupid ideas" that their children keep coming-up with.

It's just a lovely family movie all around.  There's very little that any Catholic parent would find problematic in this film.  Some of the more spiritual musings in the movie, may feel to some to be "new agey."  You may well be right, but just let it go.  Dolphins are God's creatures and throughout history people (even the most hardened of sailors) have always marveled  how they love to play. 

Note to those interested: Winter's official website at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, FL is

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Straw Dogs (2011)

MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB (O) Roger Ebert (3 Stars) Fr. Dennis (1/2 Star)

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

Straw Dogs, directed and current screenplay by Rod Lurie, based on the earlier screenplay by David Zelag Goodman and Sam Peckinpath based on the novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm by Gordon Williams, is a relatively high browed reworking of a well-worn story-line, most recently featured only 3 weeks ago with the release of the certainly far lower-browed Shark Night.

What do I mean?  City-dwellers, Amy Sumner (played by Kate Bosworth) and her screenwriting husband David Sumner (played by James Mardsen) come to Amy's hometown in the Missisippi delta to take-up residence father's home left to her after his death.  They mean to keep it as something of a "vacation retreat."  When we see first them speeding along a 2 lane highway cut through a bayou, cypress trees to their left and to their right, they're in David's silver Jag convertible.  David's enthusiastically tapping on the steering wheeling listening to his favorite avant guard jazz, Amy's blonde flowing hair blowing to the back as they race through the Spanish moss covered woods with the top down. They'll fit in just fine ...

The main watering hole in town turns out to be a bar and grill, adorned with the requisite high school football trophies and photographs.  A big confederate flag covers the wall behind the bar. They come-in to meet-up with Charlie (played by Alexander Skarsgård) a local who the two had hired to along with his crew to repair the roof on the barn adjacent to Amy's father's home.  The barn had been damaged by a recent hurricane.  Looking-up at all those football pictures gracing the joint, David spots a picture of Amy in her old cheerleading outfit and Charlie next to her in his high school uniform.  This will be just great ... David asks Amy about this.  She says not to worry.  Besides Charlie while clearly wanting to reduce David with his jaguar hood ornament on his car to ashes with his eyes, manages to keep his composure, smile and be nice.  Before leaving the place, Amy's asked by at least one waitress (a former classmate?) whether the town remains "good enough for her" now that she's a "big Hollywood star."  She responds with a smile and some humility that she was in only a few episodes in some TV show.

The next day, the two are woken-up at dawn by Charlie and their crew, as they come-up to start work on the roof while it's still not unbearably hot blasting heavy-metal music as they do.  David, in his slippers climbs up the ladder to the roof and asks them if they need to come so early and if they must be so loud.  Charlie reminds David that it gets quite hot in southern Mississippi during the day and that this is how things are done "down here."  But he does ask the crew to turn down the music.  A first confrontation has been averted.

But things don't get better in subsequent days.  Amy, an actress after all, wishes to keep fit.  So while her husband works on his screenplay (on all things, the Battle of Stalingrad) inside, each morning, with the crew already sweating on that roof, she goes out jogging in her rather short running shorts and tank top, coming back quite sweaty after her jog through the late-morning southern Mississippi heat and humidity.  One of the guys reminds Charlie that she once was his girlfriend ...

And so it goes.  The guys of Charlie's crew just come to hate David.  They invite him one day to go hunting with them.  They dress him up in an orange reflector hunting jacket and give him a rifle.  With a shot that good ole Francis Macomber of Hemingway's tales would be proud of, David actually finds and shoots a deer, only to find that he was ditched by Charlie and his crew.  They prove to have other plans on their minds.  So while David's out flailing around with the gun he hardly knew how to shoot, walking in an orange flack jacket along a country road hoping that someone would give him ride home, Charlie and one of the other guys from his crew go back to Amy and David's house _to rape Amy_.  (Yes, this is not a pretty tale).

So after a number of other things that pass (yes, it does actually still go down-hill from there...), David and Amy find themselves surrounded in that house at night with Charlie and his crew outside wanting basically finish them off.  There's actually another reason that they are all there at the house with David and Amy inside, but the explanation would actually distract at this point.  But this is where the Stalingrad motif kicks really into play.  Sometime earlier Charlie and his crew did ask David why he wanted to write (of all things) about a battle won "by a bunch of Godless communists."  He told them that it was a story of the triumph of the human spirit (with or without God), that those people found themselves utterly cornered and even though at one point they had lost 90% of their city, they found within themselves something that they themselves didn't think that they had in them in order to win and by doing so they changed history...

And there's then the purpose of this higher browed version of the low-brow and arguably bigoted "red neck menace" tale where we're told, "Ya just can't trust dem hicks, with deir shotguns and Confederate flags on deir trucks."  It is (or will be) Stalingrad all over again "when we finally decide to deal wit dem ..."

We're a polarized country now, and becoming more polarized each year and with each election.   But I don't see how movie after movie about how bad "hicks" are helps anything.  Instead, how about listening to a Carrie Underwood or Brad Paisley album instead?  It would seem like a much more positive way to go, because "hicks" are human beings after all.  And I just don't see what can possibly be gained my making fun of them or _anybody_ else.

And to make the point, let me suggest a number songs ...

Carrie Underwood, "All American Girl"

Brad Paisley, "Welcome to the Future"

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and remind the older American folk like me of songs that we all grew-up with like

Lynard Skynard's, "Sweet Home Alabama"


MPAA (R) Roger Ebert (2 1/2 Stars) Fr Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert's Review -

Circumstance (screenplay written and directed by Iranian-American director Maryam Keshavarz [1] [2]) is a Farsi (Persian) language film with English subtitles filmed in Beirut, Lebanon produced by Marakesh Films and partly funded by Robert Redford's Sundance Institute about two 16 year-old girls Atefah (played by Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (played by Sarah Kazemy) living in contemporary Iran flirting with entering into a lesbian relationship.

A Movie in line with a long tradition of Dissident Literature / Film Making

This is movie calls to mind a whole series of other books and films from various countries around the world, seeking to show that the same issues being discussed and fought over in the West _also_ exist in their home countries and are, or more to the point, would be discussed there if not for (as this movie is named) "circumstance."  To give some examples:

Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) directed by Philip Kaufmann and starring Daniel Day Lewis, Lena Olin and Juliette Binoche based on the novel by Czech dissident writer Milan Kundera, which recalled both the intellectual and yes sexual-revolutionary ferment of Prague's Spring of 1968 and the reality that Eastern Europe's "Berkeley in the Sixties" wasn't crushed simply by policemen's billy-clubs but rather by Soviet tanks.  The crushing of the Prague Spring brought to the United States one of the most famous film directors of the Czech New Wave of the time, Milos Forman, who since became enormously successful in Hollywood making film after film with the theme of anti-authoritarianism.  (Note here that this film Unbearable Lightness of Being received an "O" or morally offensive rating by the CNS/USCCB for its sexuality, that yes, would make even most adults blush).

Monsoon Wedding (2001), a Bollywood production directed by famed Indian director Mira Nair) whose release coincided with both 9/11 and India's entry onto the world's economic scene as a true rising power.  The contrast between the bearded, burka-demanding Taliban of Afghanistan and the (admittedly largely upper-class) Indian society presented in Monsoon Wedding could not be more striking.  Here was a film directed by a successful woman director from India reminding the world that not every country in South Asia is the same, noting in particular that in India, proud of both its independence and _how_ it achieved its independence, _truly everything_ could be openly discussed from [1] (traditionally) arranged marriage to [2] religion/caste (the enormously complex Hindu wedding around which this story was built was contrasted quite favorably/sympathetically with the very _simple Christian_ wedding between two of one of the family's servants), to [3] its historically strained relations with Pakistan (the family of the bride had been Hindu refugees from Pakistan's part of Punjab) to [4] even emerging questions about homosexuality (the bride's younger teenage brother was presented as someone who was beginning to explore the possibility that he may be gay and the family was presented as one that would be supportive of him if he turned out that way).  In contrast to Unbearable Lightness of Being, Monsoon Wedding is a nice PG movie, but the message was actually very similar -- India too, like Czechoslovakia (and its East European neighbors during the Cold War) would really like to be considered a modern, open country.,

Scheherazade Tell Me a Story aka Women of Cairo (2009) directed by Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah, which predated the current Arab Spring by two years.  Yet, anybody seeing this movie would leave understanding that Egypt was ripe for exactly the kind of the youth-led protest movement that brought down the regime of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak in February, 2011.  The central characters in the movie were a "yuppie couple" in which the husband, Karim, was a junior editor at an Egyptian newspaper and the wife, Hemma, was a television talk show personality.  To "stay out of trouble" and thereby help her husband's career, Hemma decides to "turn away from stories about corruption" to pursue something safer "talking about lives and problems of women in contemporary Egypt."  What could possibly go wrong?  Well, every interview that she set out to do just exposed the embedded misogyny and injustices against women in Egyptian society to the point that Karim actually hits her near the end of the story trying to dissuade her from pursuing this topic any further.  Women, of course, were among the most vocal in the 2011 protests on Tahir Square in Egypt which brought down the Mubarak Regime.

Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) a book by Iranian writer/literature professor Azar Nafisi about her experience attempting to teach western literature in contemporary Iran under the Islamic Regime.

The Green Wave (2010 directed and co-written by Ali Samadi Ahadi as well as Oliver Stoltz), a English language documentary about the youth dominated 2009-10 green protests in Iran following the presidential election there. 

Even Viva Riva! (2010) a slick crime thriller written and directed by Congolese director Djo Munga for which he won best director at the 2011 African Academy Awards is a reminder that pretty much everywhere the same topics and even styles are being discussed by people and especially young people today.  One of the characters in this movie was presented as having a lesbian sexual orientation.

All this is to help us remember that Circumstance is a smart, intelligent, youth oriented film of a dissident vein about contemporary Iran that many would recognize as coming out of a long tradition of similar works produced by modern (and often in their time dissident) artists the world over.

A challenge not only to the regime in Iran but to Authoritarianism in all its forms

Challenging for someone like me, a Catholic priest, would be that while the Catholic Church generally supports human rights, when it comes to the questions regarding sexual freedom  -- homosexuality, contraception, at the far end abortion (Abortion is, in the final analysis, the killing of someone utterly innocent because of previous engagement in sex, so it's difficult to imagine how the Catholic Church could ever change its position there) -- the Catholic Church has generally placed itself as an opponent of such (sexual) "freedoms." This would make the Catholic Church here more of an ally of Iran's Islamic regime than it perhaps would like to admit.

So this is not necessarily a bad movie for a Catholic or even a Catholic functionary, like me (a priest) or even bishop to watch, not necessarily to our change minds but to be aware of the sensitivities involved.

After all, Iran, like a lot of Middle Eastern countries is a land where the sexes live largely segregated lives.  In the absence of much contact members of the opposite sex (except perhaps in _illicit clubs_ like those presented in the movie as well), it should not be surprising that this would become fertile ground for the budding of potentially homosexual relationships.

Such level of same-sex segregation simply does not exist (or no longer exists) in the West.  However, one could imagine other circumstances (like suitors of the opposite sex not exactly pounding down the doors asking to go out) where one could understand why a young person could want to flirt with the idea of being gay.  Note while there doesn't seem to be too many men who flirt with this concept (generally one seems to realize fairly quickly if one is gay or not gay), it _does_ seem that lingering over lesbian relationships is an anxiety that one's partner may not turn out to be a lesbian at all but simply one who "hasn't found the right guy yet."  This concern/scenario plays out in the recent film Our Idiot Brother as well as, in part, here in Circumstance.

In any case, resolving such sexual issues as one approaches adulthood is difficult enough.  To be doing so in a place like the Islamic Republic of Iran where "morality police" are not merely concepts to put in quotation marks but real, badge carrying, baton wielding officers patrolling the streets at night and knocking down doors of "illicit clubs" with battering rams (like used to be done in the United States during the Prohibition Era) must be simply awful.

Yes the "morality police" of Iran populate the far extreme of authoritarianism with regards to personal freedom, but any authoritarian religious/political system leaning toward an arguably totalitarian vision would be well served by doing something of an examination of conscience following viewing a film like this.

Because while Iran has its "morality police," invasions of privacy and tendencies toward authoritarianism have existed all over the world:

(1) Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann's husband has run a clinic which attempts to "cure" homosexuals of their tendency.  This brings to mind _similar_ attempts (also _no doubt sincere_) by authorities in past Communist lands  to use psychiatric institutes to attempt to "cure" people of their "aversion to" (or "difficulty with coping with life in") the "socialist paradises" that these regimes were constructing in the former Soviet Bloc;

(2) After describing how a court case in Israel about whether or not "the mixing of steam" rising from adjacent bins of blintzes (make of eggs and dairy products) and kosher sausages at a Tel Aviv Hilton's brunch spread violated Jewish dietary laws (to not mix dairy and meat products) went up all the way to the Israeli Supreme court (where the High Court of the Land had to solemnly declare steam to be water and hence not either a dairy or meat product), the exasperated pulitzer prize winning journalist, Richard Ben Cramer asked in his book How Israel Lost (2004), how the absurdity underlying this case differed in any significant way from similar absurdities occurring in the Islamic Republic of Iran;

(3) Perhaps the most heartfelt and utterly sincere defense of "young woman's honor" ever portrayed in film probably came for above mentioned Milos Forman's movie Loves of a Blonde (1965) where tear-driven "comrade house mother" tried to tell her young, late-teens to early 20-year-old charges (to the rolling of their eyes) that "a woman's honor is all a young woman has."  However, the young women in her charge weren't all that interested in "women's honor" because due to "poor socialist planning" they hadn't been able see a boy their age for months (The boys their age, were all drafted into the army and serving on the Czech/West German border while these girls were living in a dorm and working at a factory in central Moravia hundreds of miles away).   The poor house mother was largely right (that a woman's dignity is important, indeed a treasure) but the system in which those people were living in (dialogue from the move: "We need those young men at the border in case of war." "But what if the war doesn't come?" "What do you mean the war won't come? It's a 'historical inevitability'...") kept young people from meeting (and establishing stable, long-term relationships, that is, getting married, even if at times "modern couples" may not want to call it that...) _naturally_;

(4) Spanish Dictator Franco kept peace with the Catholic Church during his reign  by always standing (here cynically) for "traditional moral values."  It did not matter that his police tortured people to keep any opposition down as long as divorce remained illegal.  This was not the "brightest hour" for the Catholic Church, even though many very good Catholic movements did come out of Spain at the time, including Cursillo and Marriage Encounter.  Indeed, I would not be surprised if today's young and middle aged Iranians could point to similar, authentically good religious movements that have come out of Iran since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, even if what Iran is mostly known for today (like Franco's Spain in his time) is for its "jackbooted thugs;"

(5) This leads to a final arguably _counter-point_ which actually completes the whole:  Even in Shiite Islam (to which most of Iran's population adheres to), the political model of Iran's "Islamic Republic" is _not_ universally accepted.  The Grand Ayatollah Sistani (arguably the Shiite Muslims' "pope") residing now in Karbala, Iraq (arguably the Shiite Muslims' "vatican") has largely _rejected_ the Iranian "Islamic model" of governance in favor of a far more democratic approach and more respectful of other faiths (as long as the Shiite majority is respected as well).   The problem to be found with Iran's current "Islamic" political system is not that it is Islamic or Shiite, but rather it interprets both Islam and its role in society in a very authoritarian tending toward totalitarian way.  The West has had similar problems of negotiating the roles of Church and States (or in the case of the Communists, Ideology and State) as well.

So the story of these two teenage girls living in Iran becomes a parable for the whole world really to consider.  How to we help these girls to be happy and to realize their destiny in this life/world?

Finally to the movie itself ...

The movie portrays these two young girls, Atefeh and Shireen as growing-up in a young Iranian culture that we in the west have gotten to know through news reports and testimonies of people like Azar Nafisi or Reza Aslan which is far more complex and frankly free (if one knows how to walk the system) than one would have expected.  True outside, women have to wear their head scarfs and chadors, but inside one's home it's generally a different world, where the chadors come off and people dress in more (western) clothes.  Similarly inside a private club in Tehran the world could be very different as well, with both dancing and drinking.  The problem is that maintaining this public vs private schizophrenia isn't easy.

The movie makes a lot of use of the surveillance cams, reminding us that the same technologies that can help to make us freer than before can be subverted and used by various authorities to trap, imprison people.  This is something that everyone in the West knows as well.  The same technologies that have allowed me to help the girlfriend of a Czech nephew of mine in Prague with her Italian homework over Facebook (something that I never, ever thought would be possible when I was growing up in Chicago in the 1970s-80s) can be used by others to spy on me (and others) if they wanted.  Big brother has been "democratized" into a mass of ant-like little brothers.  This is bad enough in the United States and just becomes worse when a fair number of those ants coalesce together to form a still fairly robust, prying and (confident of itself) righteous middle brother.

 In the movie the week link is Atefah's brother Mehran (played by Reza Sixo Safai) who in dealing with his own issues/failings notably drug addiction "finds Allah" in much the same way that alcoholics in the U.S. often find God as they enter into a 12-step program. But "finding Allah" in a place like Iran isn't necessarily a good thing.  Sincerely attending a mosque in Tehran, praying for a job, he gets recruited by an Iranian domestic intelligence officer (a bigger player in the "morality police") and soon poor Mehran finds all kinds of sin in his own family.  And so the surveillance that used to occur only on the streets of Tehran, suddenly comes home.

It's just such a tragic story and certainly Mehran is utterly sincere.  And given that this all takes place in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the damage he causes is far greater than similarly sincere people the world over who've similarly "found Jesus," "the Church" or any kind of "absolute (historical) Truth" and then misapply it by pointing outward toward others rather than inward toward oneself.  Please don't get me wrong: JESUS DOES SAVE (I myself can testify to this, both in my life and in others), and the Catholic Church when it remains _the middle way_ is a blessing to the world (the chaos that would be present in the world without the historical presence of the Church would be unbearable.  And I've known good sincere Muslims who say the same thing about Islam, which means _peace_ after all).  But in the word of Dr. Zhivago in Boris Pasternak's famous novel, the surgeries performed by "social surgeons" have to be done very carefully, or else the patient may die.

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Monday, September 19, 2011

I Don't Know How She Does It

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Michael Philips (2 Stars) Fr Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Michael Philip's review -,0,5672469.column

I Don't Know How She Does It (directed by Douglas McGrath, screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna, based on the novel by Allison Pearson) is a nice feel good comedy about a modern woman, Kate Reddy (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) who's trying really hard to do it all.  She and her husband Richard (played by Greg Kinnear) live somewhere in an upper middle class neighborhood in Boston.  They have two kids, a kindergartener named Emily (played by Emma Rayne Lyle) who's already getting something of an attitude and 2 year old Ben (played by Julius and Theadore Goldberg) who still loves his parents unconditionally but has the verbal skills of a, well, a two year old (boy).  Mother-in-law, Marla Reddy (played by Jane Curtin of 1st cast SNL fame) blames Kate for Ben's apparent poor verbal skills.

The generally happy but often frazzled couple, Kate and Richard, are both professionals.  Richard is/was an architect.  Kate works for the Boston branch of a New York headquartered Financial Services Company.  Both have had their careers effected by current financial crisis.  At the beginning of the movie, the two are celebrating (somewhat) a break that Richard has finally received ("no more remodeling basements").  But it's really Kate's career (at the bank, er FSC) that is clearly gearing-up to go somewhere, even if (1) Kate's keenly aware what most of the rest of the country thinks of bankers these days, and (2) she knows that the family is suffering even as she's asked to fly around the country as part of her work.  Kindergartener Emily, Mother-in-law Marla and eventually Richard make sure that she knows how much she's being missed.

At her job, Kate works for Clark Cooper (played by Kelsey Grammar) who isn't always the most sensitive of bosses.  He tries, but ... he is a man.  And it just doesn't fall anywhere in his experience that after returning from a cross-country business trip, Kate has to bake a pie for Emily's kindergarten bakesale the next day.  Kate also has to deal with a rival/suck-up to the boss Chris Bunce (played by Seth Meyers also of SNL, if more recent fame) whose experience of being a married man with a family also seems utterly different from Kate's (Chris' wife does everything at home so he has nothing to do other than plot ways to suck-up to Clark).

Kate also has a super-driven assistant named Momo Hahn (played by Olivia Munn) who looks at _her boss_, Kate, and just doesn't get her life at all (and doesn't want to), declaring early in the movie that she's long decided that she doesn't want to get married or have kids.  Career and an occasional "business-like" fling is all that Momo appears willing (or able) to undertake.  Kate and Richard's babysitter Paula (played by Jessica Szohr), who's on the beach holding a surf-board when not babysitting for them, also doesn't understand Kate.  Both Momo and Paula keep saying "I don't know how you do it" to Kate and neither means this as much of a compliment.  At least initially, both Momo and Paula think that Kate just doesn't know how to make choices.

More sympathetic is Kate's best friend, Allison Henderson (played by Christina Hendricks).  She's a single working mom of Kate's age and part of what Kate confesses that she likes about her is that Allison is the one person that she can always count-on for baking even worse than she does.  So when Kate, for lack of time and the grocery store being closed, comes to Emily's school with a store-bought pie that she mashed into a larger pie pan and sprinkled with powdered sugar for the Kindergarten bake sale, Allison comes with a malformed ball (or was it supposed to be a block) of orange jello.  To Allison, Kate with her powdered-sugar covered storebought pie is a hero.  Again, she says "I don't know how you do it ..."  But both Kate and Allison are hopeless home-economics losers to their stay-at-home wife/mommy rivals Wendy Best (played by Busy Philipps) and Janine LoPietro (played by Sarah Stahi) who when not baking for such bakesales seeming to spend the rest of their days at the health club or taking pallotti classes.

Such then is the ensemble cast which then act out the story: Even as husband Richard finally gets his break at his work, Kate is offered a far greater, though more time consuming opportunity as well.  She is given a chance by her boss Clark to pitch an idea to one of the big-wigs from New York, Jack Abelhammer (played by Pierce Brosnan), who likes both the idea, and ... frankly Kate as well ...

What to do?  Well having set the story up, this is what the movie's about.  IN THE BEST TRADITION of Comedy, it "all ends well."  Nobody ends up getting hurt.  And even the potential sexual harassment issue is handled quite nicely.

Earlier in my life when I was first reading about movies, I read from a number of authors that film as a mass medium when used well does have a mediating function: societal problems are first presented to a viewing audience and then  solutions proposed.  The audience _participates_ in this process by either accepting or rejecting (or partially both) both the articulation of the problem(s) presented in the film and then the film's proposed solution(s).

I found this film as fitting exactly this mold.  First, this movie is a comedy.  That doesn't mean that it doesn't deal with anything serious or with social problems.  It does, but it does so lightly (and in this case _quite gently_) in a way that the whole family can watch/participate.  It then proposes a number of optimistic/positive solutions to the problems presented.

What are the problems?  Well, let's tick them off: (1) Today, most parents either by choice or necessity work.  (2) The current financial crisis has damaged or destroyed entire industries.  So even college educated professionals who in past could count on getting work can't necessarily count on this any more. (3) These days, a lot women are finding themselves getting better jobs (or offered better job opportunities) than their husbands, yet (4) they remain simply indispensable at home as well.  Finally, (5) with both men and women in the work force even James Bond could find himself (or herself) falling for a co-worker.  How to manage all this?

Well, the movie made much of the metaphor that Kate had to be "a juggler."  Perhaps today, _we're all_ jugglers, and _all of us_ could be asked: "How do you do it (all)?"

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Friday, September 16, 2011


MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB (O) Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars) Fr. Dennis (3 Stars though the violence is excessive and actually detracts from the story)

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

Drive (directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, screenplay by Hossein Amini based on the book by James Sallis) is IMHO a needlessly violent contemporary noir flick set in Los Angeles.  Ryan Gosling plays an anonymous driver of very few words, so few in fact, that we never learn his name.  He works in a garage owned by Shannon (played by Bryan Cranston) who finds him occasional gigs stunt driving for Hollywood (and driving get-away cars for various local thieves).  He's _good_.  He knows not only how to drive fast, he knows how to drive smart.  In an early sequence in the movie, he manages to lose a pursuing LAPD helicopter by ditching under an underpass, totally changing his tempo and then leaving calmly in a completely different direction.

Shannon has big plans for him.  He brings in a couple of other guys, Bernie Rose (played by Albert Brooks) along with Bernie's business partner, a tough, named Nino (played by Ron Perlman) to help bankroll his dream -- of buying a stock car to be driven by none other than our fast/smart driving hero.

But alas it's not to be.  Our quiet man of few words falls for a neighbor Irene (played by Carey Mulligan) and her 8-10 year old son Benicio (played by Kaden Leos).  Her husband, Standard (played by Oscar Isaac), was serving time in jail.  When her husband is released, needless to say this produces some awkwardness between them.  However, when our hero finds Standard beat-up in the garage of their apartment complex one afternoon, our hero decides to help him.  Standard's being extorted by thugs who belong to the same gang that were extorting him while he was in prison.  They want to be paid off.  So our hero decides to help Standard do _one_ stickup job of a pawnshop that Standard is promised would pay-off his debt to this gang forever.

Instead the stickup job goes _horribly wrong_ and leads to a chain of events in which only the truly innocent in this story are left standing at its end.

In classic film noir fashion, it's not necessarily that the bad guys in this story are completely evil, but they are definitely fallen.  We encounter a gangster in this movie who tries at least to be an honest gangster.  He kills his victims, often brutally, but at least he does try to minimize their pain.  At the end of the movie, he tells the driver - "Just hand me over the money and your girl lives.  No one left knows about her except you and me.  She'll never even know what happened.  But I can't make the same promise for you.  Whatever dreams, hopes or plans you may have had, put them aside.  You'll spend the rest of your life looking over your back."

Again, I do believe that the violence depicted in the second half of this movie was unnecessary.  The same point could have been made leaving much more to the imagination.  I would even add that the violence depicted actually detracted from the story (something that I believe even Quentin Tarentino has learned over the years).

Still that line by the "honest" if fallen gangster is worth repeating and may have some deterrent value in perhaps saving some young person from doing something really stupid like the driver character in this movie.

Because if you do take a walk on the dark side, you'll _never know_ when your luck will run out, what lurking unspeakable evil you may disturb, what chain of events you may inadvertently set into motion or how many others may ultimately suffer for your transgression.  We may think we are smart, but this bit of wisdom has been with us since the Fall: Evil is generally smarter.

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Mozart's Sister (orig. Nannerl, la soeur de Mozart)

MPAA (unrated) Roger Ebert (3 1/2 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 stars)

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert's review -

Mozart's Sister (screenplay written and directed by René Féret) is a French language, English subtitled film about famed composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's older sister.  Maria Anna (Nannerl) Mozart has been the subject of numerous studies and novels in recent years because she herself was quite talented on the harpsichordist and pianist.  Like her younger brother, she began receiving instruction (on the harpichord) from her father at a very young age (at age 7).  During her teenage years, she would accompany her younger brother on the harpsichord and forte piano in his performances.  Finally especially during her brother's younger years, it was she who often received top-billing rather than her brother.  So what happened?  Why did Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart get so famous and his older sister Nannerl become a very small footnote in music history, only recently being given more attention?  Well that's what the movie's about ...

This is a story that will irritate (once more) a good deal of younger and middle aged women of today because it becomes fairly clear what happened to Nannerl (played in the movie by Marie Féret): As soon as her younger brother Wolfgang (played by David Moreau) began to show his talent, Nannerl became of secondary concern even though she was older and also quite talented.  To her father, Leopold (played by Marc Barbé) Nannerl became important to him only as much as she could continue to accompany her younger brother on harpsichord / piano.  And her mother (Anna Maria played by Delphine Chuillot) was primarily concerned that her daughter grow-up to be a nice, happy and well-adjusted young lady (thus able to find a nice husband and find happiness raising a nice family...)  Sound familiar?  And what did Nannerl think of all this?

In reality, we don't particularly know.  The movie takes place in and around Paris, France just after Nannerl had her first menstrual period.  This coincidence is important for a number of reasons.  First up until recent decades, women tended to get their first period only in the middle or latter part of their teenage years.  This coincided well with the age in which a young woman became otherwise ready to both have and care for young children (and be therefore ready for marriage).  So in the movie with Nannerl having had her first period, we see that her mother took this as a sign that her daughter had arrived at marriageable age.  This proves important for those seeking historical accuracy because it is known that from the point in which Nannerl reached marriageable age onward, she _no longer_ traveled accompanying her young brother and father throughout Europe but instead remained at home in Salzburg.  So the movie is set at exactly the point when Nannerl's life was about to change.  The movie explores the possibilities that would have been still open to her at that point in her life but possibilities that were rapidly closing for her as well.

If the movie is set in a true biographically/historically attestable turning point in Nannerl's life, the rest of the story becomes _less_ historically attestable.  Sure, it is true that the Mozart family traveled the courts of Europe to display the talents of their musically gifted children, and particularly their son Wolfgang.  There are also indications that Nannerl did write compositions of her own, as apparently her brother Wolfgang would refer to them in his letters to her as they both got older (as yet, none of Nannerl's compositions have ever been found).  Finally later in life, Nannerl did support herself as a piano instructor and may have done so earlier (again attested to by correspondence between her and her brother during his life).  But that Nannerl would have become a confidant of the young and future Louis XVI (as well as one of his sisters who became a nun) or that she would have _stayed on her own_ in Paris for sometime at this critical moment in her life to see if she would make it on her own as an independent young woman at that time, seems _to me_ to stretch credibility, though I suppose it _could_ make for some interesting historical research a young person today who is interested in history.  (Note to whoever would like to take-on such a little historical quest -- you'd almost certainly need to know some French and German to do so, or perhaps make some French or German-speaking friends ;-).

In any case, I found the movie interesting.  And let's remember that Milos Forman certainly took some liberties with his portrayal of Mozart (and Mozart's supposed rival Salieri) in Amadeus.  Indeed, one of the joys of watching _this film_, Mozart's Sister, is the difference in how it presents young Mozart from how Forman did in Amadeus.  In Amadeus, Mozart was portrayed as a wild, spoiled almost "rock star," who could get away with his nutty, self-indulgent behavior because he was simply _that good_ (that talented).  In Féret's Mozart's Sister, Mozart, much younger than in Amadeus, is portrayed as simply a short, smug, somewhat chubby little 10 or 12 year old, who's just totally focused on the one thing he does really, really well -- play music.  In other words, one just wants to slap him, and tell him "get that smug look off of your face." ;-).

Compared to the late-teen "almost a woman" angst-ridden portrayal of Nannerl trying to figure-out where exactly she belongs in life, this portrayal of her talented younger brother as a chubby little 10-12 year old who knows _exactly_ what he's doing was, IMHO, brilliant ;-).

Anyway, though unrated, there's nothing in this film (short of a red stain on Nannerl's nightshirt one morning) that I would think could possibly be of concern to a parent today.  I don't think that young kids would find this movie particularly interesting.  However folks who like history, or otherwise "period pieces" would probably enjoy this film. 

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