Sunday, November 27, 2011


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

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

Hugo (directed by Martin Scorsese, screenplay by John Logan, based on the award winning children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick) seems on first impression likes an odd choice of a project for the legendary director.  But there are two characteristics present in Scorsese's extensive CV that make the 3D children's film Hugo less of a surprise: (1) Martin Scorsese has lived for challenges.  How else to explain taking on (and nailing) films like Taxi Driver [1976], Raging Bull [1980], Last Temptation of Christ [1988], Cape Fear [1991], Gangs of New York [2002] and Shutter Island [2010]? and (2) Scorcese loves biography/history.  How else to explain documentary projects on The Blues [2003], Michael Jackson [2003], Bob Dylan [2005] and George Harrison [2011], bio pics like The Aviator [2004] and Sinatra [announced for 2013] and historical/history inspired pictures like Casino [1995, Gangs of New York [2002] and the like?

Like or not, Hollywood or perhaps its technology masters like Sony have decided to force the film industry and eventually all American (and probably the world's) TVs to go "3D."  So present in Hugo is certainly a master like Martin Scorsese playing with the cinematic possibilities of this technology.  To this date the recent 3D technology has been most often used in films directed to children.  So why not try making a really good even ground breaking children's film especially if the children's film has strong element of history and even cinematic history behind it?   I'm positive, if nothing else, that Hugo will be up for Academy Awards this year for cinematography, direction and art direction.  So from a technical and even artistic point of view Hugo will certainly be regarded as a masterpiece.  But what about the story?

Well the story isn't bad either.  It's based on an award winning children's book that seems a good part Dickens (David Copperfield, Oliver Twist) with a dash of Victor Hugo (Les Miserables).  The main character is a 10-12 year old orphan named Hugo Cabret (played by Asa Butterfield) who lives hidden among the clock-works of Paris' central railroad station in the early 1930s.  Hugo's orphan status and the location of the film even evokes thoughts of the renowned Brazilian film and tearjerker Central Station [1998].  Orphan-Hugo is persecuted by a Javert-like Station-inspector (played by Sasha Baron Cohen) and a crotchety old owner of the "toy booth" at said station.  The toy booth owner, Georges Melies (played by Ben Kingsley) is upset that Hugo keeps stealing his toys.  But Hugo isn't stealing the toys maliciously or even to play with them.  He's stealing them for parts.  Why?  Well that's a good part of the story.

When store owner Melies finally catches Hugo, he seems needlessly harsh to him.  But his harshness toward Hugo catches the eye his grand-daughter Isabelle (played by Chloe Grace Moretz).  She's the same age as Hugo but (as is often the case at that age) somewhat taller and perhaps more mature than him.  She befriends Hugo who up unto that point had lost just about everybody in his life.  The two, largely on the impulse of book reading Isabelle, set-off on an "adventure" that only two twelve-year-olds could go on.  In the midst of this adventure, they slowly realize that Isabelle's grandfather was not always the broken and bitter old man running that tiny toy shop in the train station.  Instead when he was younger, he was a magician and later a film-maker a maker of wonderful/fantastic films.  What happened?  Why did he retire to such a small hovel in a train station making his living selling mechanical toys?  Well go to the movie ...

Therefore even though it is largely presented through kids' eyes, the movie is not really a kids' movie.  At minimum it is a serious kids' movie of a Charles Dickens vein.  So parents take note: I don't think anyone under10-12 years of age will really understand this film.  And some kids it may find it very depressing because it is about various kinds of brokenness and a need to gently/compassionately fix people who were broken.

Now the idea that "broken people" should be "fixed" may surprise a fair amount of adults in the United States today because our prevailing orthodoxy seems to be that people "shouldn't be in the business of fixing others."  But when one experiences the truly heart-wrenching stories of the various characters in this story (including that of the Jarvert-like Inspector) compassionate/gentle "fixing" is in order.  Otherwise, we consign the broken people of this world to irrelevance, not only terribly hurting them by our actively chosen passivity but diminishing the whole world which would never benefit from their (lost) gifts.

So this technically exemplary but commercial 3D monstrosity ends up telling a very good and even poignant story.  But the questions to Industry then ought to be: Was the 3D technology really necessary to tell this story?  How much was the telling of the story "improved" by the 3D technology?  And if not by much, why is the world (from its artists/directors to its consumers) being forced to buy-into expensive technology that doesn't really improve film's story-telling capacity?

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Saturday, November 26, 2011

My Week With Marilyn

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

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

My Week With Marilyn (Weinstein Co, directed by Simon Curtis, screenplay by Adrian Hodges based on the books by Colin Clark) was probably intended to be better than it turned out to be and will probably still get Michelle Williams a Best Actress in a Leading Role nomination and _possible win_ at the Oscars this year and perhaps earn a few other nominations (for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay).  It's worth seeing, even in the movie theaters.  The movie is more than "just another Marilyn movie."  It's just, eh ..., I do believe that it could have been better.  On the other hand, even the surprisingly mediocre vibe that the movie evokes, may have been _intended_.  Because it's fundamental theme appeared to be about "limtations."

The movie was built around Colin Clark's (played by Eddie Redmayne) experience in the late 1950s of working as a relatively minor production assistant to legendary stage actor (Sir) Lawrence Olivier (played by Kenneth Branah) who was not only seeking to make his permanent his mark as a screen actor but also trying to make an inroad into directing.  In order to make a splash as a director, Lawrence Olivier had hired the already by then world-renowned American screen goddess, Marilyn Monroe (played in the current movie by Michelle Williams) to co-star with him in a movie called The Prince and the Showgirl [1957].  Of course things wouldn't turn out as Sir Lawrence Olivier had hoped.  And this then makes the stuff of the movie.

What didn't turn out?  Well Sir Lawrence Olivier was a _great_ stage actor who turned out to be a really good/great screen actor.  But a director?  Then Marilyn Monroe was above all a _really good looking_ actress who also did have some innate ability of presenting herself really, really well to an audience.  But was she a _great_ actress?  Then there were others around the two.  Lawrence Olivier's wife Vivian Leigh (played by Julie Ormand) the legendary star of Gone With The Wind [1938] and Streetcar Named Desire [1951] becomes something of a jealous basket-case around the younger and if nothing else uber-sexy Marilyn who Vivian's husband Olivier had cast for _his_ movie.  And Marilyn's husband (#3), the legendary playwright Arthur Miller (played by Dougray Scott) was learning what it's like to be married a very sexy but also tremendously insecure Marilyn Monroe.

So if the recent film J. Edgar (about the life of U.S. FBI founding director J. Edgar Hoover) appeared ultimately to be a character study about power and the kind of pressures/circumstances/upbringing that could drive a person to crave it, My Week With Marilyn appears to be a character study about insecurity and dealing with/accepting limitations.

Lawrence Olivier in particular was shocked to find that Marilyn Monroe really did travel with an entourage, including personal acting coach Paula Stasberg (played by Zoe Wanamaker) and personal agent/handler Milton Greene (played by Dominic Cooper).  Olivier great naturally gifted stage actor that he was (and insecure about his attempt to be a director), simply didn't understand why Monroe would need a personal acting coach.  Why can't Marilyn just read (and _make her own_) the lines off the page?  Well, Marilyn _could not_.  And besides, Marilyn was finding success (and perhaps the _only_ way she could find success as an actress) using the then _new_ Method Acting approach becoming popular in the United States.

And so it goes.  Marilyn, popular sex bomb and reasonably good actress that she was, was a basket case.  Sir Lawrence Olivier was finding his own limitations.  All the younger to middle-aged women around the set didn't know what to make of Marilyn and felt threatened by her.  These included, above mentioned Vivian Leigh, but also young seamstress Lucy (played by Emma Watson) from the wardrobe department, who in other circumstances would have made a natural friend/girl friend to Colin Clarke telling the story.   And the older/wiser men in Marilyn's life, notably husband Arthur Miller and boss Olivier, didn't really know how to manage things either.  On set, the only ones who seem to do well with her are some of the older women including her above mentioned acting coach and older actress Sybil Thorndike (played admirably by Judy Dench) And yet, off-set, the people just loved her.  Fascinating.

I found the movie fascinating because in my surprisingly not altogether different line of work (being a public figure, and most notably preaching) some of the pressures that Marilyn and the other "famous" people in the film faced felt surprisingly familiar.  All of us preachers/priests too have our "fans."  All of us definitely have our limitations.  How does one navigate them _even in the small arena_ of a parish (or perhaps a blog)? ;-).  I felt a lot of pity for Marilyn (or my generation's equivalent who also met a tragic end, Michael Jackson).  The pressures, shown actually quite well in this film, _must have been awful_.

Parents, the movie is appropriately rated R.  It is, after all, about Marilyn Monroe.  There is some fleeting back-side nudity and there are occasional references to off-screen sexual activity (both adulterous and non).  But above all, I don't think that a child or teenager would really understand the movie anyway.  So parents keep the kids at home and see the movie on a "date night."  It really is quite good, even though I do feel that it could have been better.

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Friday, November 25, 2011

The Muppets

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

The Muppets (Disney, directed by James Bobin, characters by Jim Henson, screenplay by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller) is probably one of the least "ideological" of a depressingly large number of ideological "kids" movies made this year.

On the Right there was Diary of a Wimpy Kid II: Rodrick's Rules, the gawd-awful Hop, and Hoodwinked Too (all of which cast/accented the "good" people as Anglos/Americans and the bad/problematic people as foreigners) and possibly Mars Needs Moms (which became almost an Orwellian "Animal Farm" style parable against radical feminism).

On the Left would be the recent Happy Feet II that IMHO continued to be needlessly heavy-handed about global warming. 

Still arguably left of center but at least gentler were Rio and Rango, which both had environmental themes.  But in the case of Rio made by Brazilian-born Carlos Saldanha there was a reminder that the people of Brazil (like the little street kid Fernando) are important too and not just its birds and trees.  And Rango ultimately seemed like a clever cartoon remake of the "hardboiled L.A./conspiracy" classic Chinatown [1974].  Then there was Cars II whose consumerist message "cars are people too" I honestly just don't like.  (NO "cars" are _not_ people.  They are definitely _things_.  I have a similar criticism though less adamant of Pixar's Toy Story series).

The Muppets would certainly fall on the left of center scale by making the story's chief villain an "oil baron" named Tex Richman (voice by Chris Cooper) who wanted to buy the Muppets' Theater in Hollywood to tear it down and _drill for oil_ under it.  But at least The Muppets were goofy enough (a la the Disney classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit [1988]) to make it obvious that they weren't all that serious.  Here I'd add that those reading my blog would certainly suspect/expect that I'd not be a huge fan of "oil barons." On the other hand, I would definitely understand and defend to the end that THEY, "oil barons," are "people too."  So I just wish that The Muppets' makers would have chosen to go the route of Mike Myers/Austin Powers' "Dr. Evil" or Steven Carrell's "Gru" of Despicable Me [2010] where the villains didn't carry any heavy-handed ideological baggage and there were attempts actually to explain _why_ the villains became the way they were. 

So while I fully expected to be writing glowing recommendations for truly great animated children's films like The Incredibles [2004], Up [2009], How to Train Your Dragon [2009], Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs [2009], and, yes, Despicable Me [2010], this year has been a real disappointment to me when it comes to children's movies.

Still I do believe that The Muppets in their goofiness and inspired play of the human boy friend/girl friend couple Gary (played by the film's co-writer Jason Segal) and Mary (played by Amy Adams of Disney's Enchanted/Giselle fame) were better than most of the children's movies of this year.

To the plot ... Gary, grows-up with best friend Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) in Small Town somewhere in the American Midwest.  When they were kids, they were peas in a pod.  But as they grow-up their differences begin to show.  Gary after-all is human and Walter, well, is a Muppet.  Still Walter could not have a better friend than Gary, who sticks by him through thick and thin, and even makes a decision to take Walter along with him on his and Mary's trip to Los Angeles.  Gary is going on the trip with Mary because he wants to propose to her, while Walter thinks that they're going on the trip so that they could (finally) see the Muppet Theater, Museum and so forth.  So problems inevitably ensue between Walter (Gary's BFF) and Mary (Gary's girlfriend and soon, as both Gary and Mary hope ... if all goes well, wife ...).

Things get even more complicated when to Walter's terrible disappointment, the three arrive at Hollywood's Muppet Museum/Theater and find it dilapidated and about to be sold to above mentioned villain "oil man" Tex Richman.  This sets off an adventure as the three first seek to find Kermit the Frog (voiced by Steve Whitmore) and then the rest of the Muppet gang to try to save the Muppet Theater/Museum.

Much of course ensues, often very, very funny ;-).  But in the midst of this an exasperated Mary also decides to put her foot down: "Gary, are you a man or a muppet?"  And Gary has to decide.

This becomes a very nice movie about both respecting friends _and_ understanding that in the end, one's spouse (if one wants to ever find a spouse) has to come-out ahead of them.

So it turns out to be a great and zany story.  I just wish they didn't have to _needlessly_ bring "Big Oil" into the tale at all ...

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Descendants

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L)  Roger Ebert (4 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 3/4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review

Roger Ebert's review

The Descendants (Fox Searchlight, directed and screenplay co-written by Alexander Payne along with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmins), is a film that will probably irritate some who may not be able to get past it being a (fictional) story about a Hawaiian lawyer and leading member of a very old Hawaiian family, Matt King (played by George Clooney) who finds himself (as well as his two daughters) in a sudden and unexpected crisis -- the critical injury of his wife Elizabeth (played by Patricia Hastie) in a jet-ski/speed boating accident -- at the beginning of the film.

Yes, Matt King and his family were rather wealthy.  Yes, they lived in Hawaii, paradise.  But perhaps most viewers will give him and his family the benefit of the doubt, when in the beginning voice-over setting-up the story, George Clooney/Matt King declares that given the circumstances that he and his family now found themselves in: "F-Paradise."  Yes, the family's money did give them a few more options that would not be available to most others.  But move around the chess pieces a little, tweak the situation a bit and these could be circumstances that many/most families in the United States or even across the globe could find themselves in..

As such, this family drama is certainly one of the best American films of the year and will almost certainly find itself nominated for a host of nominations for the annual Oscar Academy Awards.  These would include (in a field of 10) an almost certain nomination for Best Picture, an almost certain nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role (George Clooney), an almost certain nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay (Alexander Payne, et al) and possible nominations for Best Director (Alexander Payne) and even Best Supporting Actress (Shailene Woodley) for her role as Matt/Elizabeth King's teenage daughter Alex.

Other performances to note were that of Amara Miller who played Matt and Elizabeth's other (7 year old) daughter as well as that of Nick Krause who played Alex's both "out there, but ..." teenage boyfriend Sid.   Miller is probably too young to get serious consideration for a nomination and Krause, while outstanding, had a role probably too peripheral to get a nod for a Best Supporting Actor nomination.  Robert Forster and Barbara L. Southern playing Elizabeth's parents Scott and Alice "Tutu" Thorson were excellent as well, if again, their characters play more at the edges of the story. And still others at the story's edges step-up and nail their roles as well.  Yes, this film had a great, well directed ensemble cast.

I'd like to say more about the film, but I think I'd truly "spoil" it if I said much more.  There is a key wrinkle that the trailer to the movie already adds: It's Matt/Elizabeth's daughter Alex who tells Matt (her father) that Elizabeth (his wife/her mother) that Elizabeth was cheating on him before the accident.  With this revelation, the crisis that the family faces has been fully set up.  I will say that the characters, all of them, were well portrayed and all of the main participants in the story, including possibly _the audience_ do grow.

Parents should note that the language often used by all three of the minors is often quite bad (hence the MPAA's R-rating).  A lot of "f-bombs" are dropped.  But given the circumstances and the way the story plays out, the bad language feels both real and appropriate.  I just found it to be a very well written, well directed and well acted story fully deserving some recognition at Oscar time.

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Happy Feet Two [2011]

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

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

Happy Feet Two (Warner Brothers, directed by George Miller, cowritten by George Miller, Warren Coleman, Gary Eck and Paul Livingstone) will once again be denounced by the mouthpieces of the carbon burning industries.  BP, Chevron, Shell, Exxon Mobil, the coal industry and most recently the natural gas frackers all make or stand to make obscene amounts of money pulling carbon out of the ground in the form of fossil fuels and selling it to be burned and dumped into the atmosphere.

So it's absolutely naive to expect the carbon industries to ever be "on board" when it comes to combating global warming (or pollution for that matter).  A historian on a History Channel program on the roots of the American Civil War once put it this way: "Southern slave owners owned some $10 billion (in today's dollars) worth of slaves before the Civil War.  There is no way that stake holders invested in a holding to that extent could be expected to relinquish it without a fight."  Yes, a whole lot of poor white soldiers in the South died so that rich white plantation owners could own black people.  Lots of "honor" in that... 

... But if the Civil War was fought to protect the right of a relatively small amount of rich white people to own black people, why should we be surprised therefore that there is a powerful, well-funded pro-carbon, pro-pollution lobby in this country when the carbon barons of today have far more money invested in the status quo than the white plantation owners had in their slaves?  Indeed, given the nation's experience with "Southern nostalgia" even 150 years after the Civil War was fought and lost by the South, it could well be that there will be a powerful, well-funded pro-carbon, pro-pollution lobby in this country even after Wall Street and most of Manhattan will be submerged under dozens of feet of water due to sea level rise after the polar icecaps melt.  Who would deny that God's judgement could come with a little sense of humor in this case? ;-)

But be all this as it may... as well as my obvious agreement with George Miller's pro-ecological sympathies, I still wonder whether George Miller appreciates how traumatic some of the scenes in both this and the previous Happy Feet movies could be for little kids.  In the current film there are several scenes in which a parent or close friend faces imminent death in front of loved ones (in two cases, the parent's children).  At minimum, I do believe that the MPAA's "PG" rating _should be taken seriously_ by parents _in this case_, and I would have preferred that the movie be given a "PG-13" rating to underscore the point.

Miller does acknowledge in interviews [1][2] that he designed his Happy Feet films with both parents (adults) and children in mind, and certainly there is much to for adults to contemplate in this picture:  If the first Happy Feet was about recognizing the value of the individual to the collective (Even if the individual may not seem to "fit in" initially, it may be precisely the individual's somewhat unique gifts that can come to benefit or even save the whole), Happy Feet Two is an exploration of the value of the collective to the individual (There are times when individual or small group action is simply not enough, and the collective can in fact be or become the "community" / "home" to return to even in the case of the most wayward/ambitious of individuals, as the krills "Bill and Will" (voiced by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon) learn during the course of this story).

Then many of the characters/cast from the first Happy Feet are back, even as new one's (like the above mentioned krills) were added.  Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood), the dancing penguin from a society of Emperor penguins that previously only sang, is back.  Now, however, he's a parent himself together with his wife Gloria (voiced now by Pink, to replace Brittany Murphy who died since the making of the first Happy Feet).  They have a son, Erik (voiced by Ava Acres), who is shy and neither sings nor dances.  Ramon as well as preacher Lovelace (both voiced by Robin Williams) are also back.  A new character, The Mighty Sven (voiced by Hank Azaria) is introduced.  Sven is a puffin survivor of the melting northern icecaps, who resembles a penguin but isn't really one.  However, he has the special ability of being able to fly, which surprises/confound the penguins.  And Carmen (voiced by Sofia Vergara) is introduced as the love interest for the passionate Ramon.

Happy Feet Two also continues using accents very well.  All the penguins and animals native to the southern hemisphere are given accents characteristic of the southern hemisphere.  The Emperor penguins are given in African or African American sounding accents.  The smaller Adele penguins are given Latin-American accents.  And the various sea mammals are given Australian / Afrikaner accents.  Sven, being a puffin from the North is given a Swedish accent.  Bill and Will the Krill, perhaps because krill exist in both Northern and the Southern waters, speak with American if somewhat higher pitched voices.  Additionally Russians (people) are portrayed several times operating fishing trawlers and the like.  And at one point, they do come to help the penguins.

All in all, Happy Feet Two is an okay animated film.  But I would think twice about before bringing someone under 7-8 to see it.  There are some rather traumatic scenes present (and to be honest, I don't think that they were necessary to the telling of the story).  As such, parents, should take this into consideration.

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Friday, November 18, 2011

The Twilight Saga - Breaking Dawn Part 1

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

NOTE: My review of the subsequent The Twilight Saga - Breaking Dawn Part 2 can be found here.

I came to see The Twilight Saga - Breaking Dawn Part 1 (directed by Bill Condon, screenplay by Melissa Rosenberg, based on the 4th novel in The Twilight Saga (Breaking Dawn) by Stephanie Meyer) with a fair amount of trepidation.

Readers here will know that I had never been a fan of the Harry Potter series and to be honest, I thought the concept of The Twilight Saga ("re-imagining vampires") to be even worse.

However, I've long known that legions of young girls (and their mothers/aunts) have absolutely loved these books, so I've long been saying to myself that they have to be better than I thought.  So in anticipation of the coming of this movie, just as I did in preparation to the last installments of the Harry Potter series, I rented one of the earlier Twilight movies (Eclipse) to try to get a better understanding of why the series was so popular.  And in contrast to the Harry Potter series, I was honestly surprised and impressed with Stephanie Meyer's creation.

Why?  Because Stephanie Meyer created entire cultures behind her vampires and werewolves.  Edward Cullen (played by Robert Pattinson) who the saga's teenage heroine Bella Swan (played by Kristen Stewart) falls in love with was not merely a "misunderstood bad boy" (a tired character/archetype that has been on the scene in American pop-culture since the 1950s with James Dean).  Edward belonged to a family that loved him, composed notably by (adoptive) father Dr. Carlisle Cullen (played by Peter Facinelli) and Dr. Carlisle's wife Esme (played by Elizabeth Reaser) as well as other adoptive brothers and sisters.  And behind this family was an entire culture of "vampires" with a history and an ordered (if, in the saga, generally unknown to humans) way of life.  That culture extended across the planet.  Cullen is an Irish name.  But Edward had relatives in Italy, Mexico, Brazil and Alaska (Russians?/Slavs?).

One gets the sense therefore Stephanie Meyer has not applied symbol of "vampire" not as "bad boy" but as "Radical Other," something that one of my parish's young adult evening receptionists was trying to explain to me in the lead-up to the release of this film.  Indeed, the even other "love interest" in the story, Jacob Black (played by Taylor Lautner) belongs to yet another ethnic community (a Native American tribe of shape-shifting werewolves).

To see the point being made, consider then Bella's background.  She is as white as can be.  Her divorced parents, a sort of hippyish mother, Renee' Dwyer (played by Sarah Clarke) who moved out to sunny Florida after her divorce, and father Charlie Swan (played by Billy Burke) who's a cop in the damp and rainy town and its environs where this story plays out, are also lily white (though mom likes to tan) and by their last names, Swan and Dwyer, are super WASPish as well.   

Why would this be important?  Well to a traditional White/WASPish American family named Swan, an Irishman named Cullen to say nothing of an East European or Hispanic could _perhaps_ seem as "Other" as a vampire.  Yes, it's (hopefully...) an obvious exaggeration.  However making Edward Cullen a vampire rather than a Catholic frankly could actually make the series a "safer" read.  A similar exaggeration is made with regards to the shape-shifting Native American "Black" family.  While Cop Charlie Swan has a long-standing relationship with the "Black" family living out in the woods, he has _no idea_ that they're a family of shape-shifting werewolves (again complete with a code and way of life).  He just sees them as upstanding citizens living _at the edge_ of the town that he's protecting who don't cause him much trouble.  And since they don't seem to cause much trouble, he basically likes them, even though he knows next to nothing about them (and doesn't seem to care to know much more about them either...).

Who does learn far more about both the Cullens and the Blacks is the daughter Bella who gets to know both families through her interactions with Edward and Jacob "in school." 

And the experience of the Swan family actually mirrors quite well white-American families (and its younger as well as older members) today, where America's young people live in a far more demographically diverse environment than their parents and grandparents.  A CNN report on the 2010 Census in the USA and demographics and age notes that over 80% of America's seniors (65 and above) are white, while this figure drops to 70% for the middle aged (aged 35-64), to only 60% for young adults (aged 18-34) and into the low 50%s for Americans aged 17 and below).  So America's young people are living in a far more diverse environment than their parents and especially grandparents had ever lived.  Initially, that could be scary.  But if even "vampires" and "werewolves" are portrayed as good people coming out of well-structured societies with rules and morals, perhaps it can become less so.

Indeed Bella's experience of entering into a "new" culture (one previously unknown to her parents) is certainly mirrored by countless other young people who meet and mix across cultural lines.  As a priest who's worked in several multi-ethnic parishes it's been my joy to be accepted across all kinds of ethnic boundaries and then to inevitably learn from the various people and families that I've met.  By taking a chance, Bella enters into the worlds of both Edward and Jacob in ways that her parents and even many of her friends certainly did not.  And she found that both of their families / cultures were good, well structured and built on solid moral principals.  Indeed, she found that both Edward and Jacob's families were more structured (and certainly more traditional) hers.  This is again the experience of most white Americans who've crossed the cultural divide.

So while, I, as one of Slavic (and definitely of non-WASPish heritage) don't necessarily like the suggestion of being considered a "vampire," (and would expect that Hispanics, Brazilians or even Irishmen, wouldn't particularly like that characterization as well), I certainly appreciate Meyer's attempt to portray multiculturalism symbolically in a way that's compelling and affirmative to young people's experience.   Because the "scary Others" ("vampires"/"werewolves") turn out to come from loving families and strong cultural heritages, worthy of pride, as well.

To the movie ... Yes, the obvious subtext to the whole Twilight series appears to me to be the challenge of multiculturalism.  However, Meyer does also play with the peculiarities of "vampires" and "werewolves."

In this installment of the series, Edward (a vampire) and Bella (a human) after long-last get married.  But how would it work?  Would she necessarily have to turn into a vampire?   Both try really hard that this would not happen.  Edward's a good guy.  He loves Bella the way she is (human).  So consummating their marriage did not mean that Edward just would just bite her and they'd live happily ever after "undead" forever.  Instead they consummate it the old fashioned (human) way.

NOTE TO PARENTS: The portrayal of Bella and Edward's wedding night is done very well (and even in a fan/comical way).  However, it may not be appropriate to children and younger teens.  Again to author Stephanie Meyer's credit, the two did wait till their wedding, something that this series has been exemplary portraying from the beginning.  Edward didn't "bite" Bella or otherwise turn her into a vampire.  But as a vampire (and vampiers are supposed to be passionate if nothing else ... :-) the poor guy just utterly destroyed their bed in the course of their wedding night love-making.  The lovemaking itself is not shown, but the "morning after" showing the bed and all around it destroyed is ;-).  This may cause parents to both chuckle as they see this and blush as they watch their children see it as well.  So again, parents be warned.  (The CNS/USCCB review notes this concern as well)

That love making results in Bella becoming pregnant to the surprise and great worry of all.  How would a pregnancy of a child conceived of a human and (blood-sucking) vampire work out?  Well that's what the rest of the movie is about ...

And once again, the movie/series surprises.  Respectful throughout the whole of the series of "The Radical Other" it continues to be so becoming unambiguously Pro-Life.

Who would have guessed that I would have come to like a series about "re-imagined vampires?"  But then one ought to be capable of learning something new every day ;-)

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Melancholia [2011]

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

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

Melancholia [2011] (written and directed by Lars Von Trier) is easily one of the year’s best films and if not for Von Trier’s stupidly controversial comments this summer would deserve a host of Oscar nominations for (1) Best Picture, (2) Best Director, (3) Best Cinematography, (4) Best Original Screenplay, and certainly (5) Best Actress in a leading role (Kirsten Dunst).  Additionally, Melancholia contains interesting stylistic and thematic similarities to two other recent films, Tree of Life [2011] (written and directed by Terrence Malick), and the award winning independent film Another Earth [2011] (directed and co-written by Mike Cahill along with Brit Marhling).  On a purely stylistic/technical level, I do believe Von Trier's Melancholia is probably the best, though the other two movies are certainly more optimistic.

So what did Von Trier say that made him so controversial this summer?  Well, late in a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival about his film (at 34:30 of  the conference's 38:51) with the film's stars Kirsten Dunst and Charlette Gainsburg seated increasingly aghast around him, Kate Muir of the Times of London referring to previous comments by Von Trier (Danish) to the Danish press about his appreciation of "the Nazi aesthetic" asked him about this in relation to this film.

Muir's was a serious question near the end of an otherwise jovial and even "soft ball" press conference.  It was clear that Von Trier tried to respond in the same "light" tone that characterized the previous 34:30 of the press conference.  However, his "joking" fell horribly flat. He first called himself someone who "first thought [he] was a Jew" (?) who turned out to be "a Nazi" (of German heritage) and continued to say that as a consequence he felt that he "understood Hitler" (??).  It was obvious that Von Trier himself knew that this was not what he wanted to say and at one point stopped and asked "How do I get out of this sentence?"  "With another question..." the moderator interjected trying to help him out.  It didn't help because Trier continued... saying among other things that "while [he] liked most Jews, Israel is a pain in the ass."  At the end of the conference, an exasperated Kirsten Dunst is heard saying out loud, "Well that was intense..."

Did Von Trier mean what he said? And what exactly did he mean to say anyway?  We'll probably never know, though he's both tried to apologize and explain himself since except that (1) by his tone, he was clearly meaning to be funny and (2) he did/does seem to conflate/equate his German heritage with Naziism.

Regarding the latter and lest others make this mistake, I would like to note here that the famously dark, introspective/broodish, and arguably nihilistic Germanic artistic / literary tradition that Von Trier's movie Melancholia so obviously leans on grew out of a milieu dominated and developed by celebrated anti-Nazis including the likes of  Franz Kafka (the Jewish, German-language author who lived all his life in Prague who was so obviously anti-authoritarian that Hitler apparently hated him by name); Thomas Mann, the Nobel Prize for Literature winning giant who wrote against the Nazis in Germany even before they took power, stayed in Switzerland after they did, continued on then to the United States as war was about to begin, and even served as a broadcaster of German language anti-Nazi programming for the Allies during the war); and Herman Hesse, another German Nobel Prize for Literature winning writer who also spent the Nazi era suspect / opposing the regime.  Swedish director Ingmar Bergman who was a teenager in the 1930s, did visit Nazi Germany during that time and confessed in his memoirs that as a young man he did have an admiration for Hitler, nevertheless came into his own long after the Nazi era was dead and buried.  And when he did come into his own, he was more or less obviously influenced on the brooding (anti-Nazi) German literary giants that I list above.

So for the sake of others who might fall into the same trap of somehow conflating "all things German" (or all things recently German) with "Nazi," I wish to correct Von Trier here.  For while Von Trier he would be certainly correct in aligning himself with a long (and legitimately thought provoking) line of “Northern European”/Germanic thinking/art-creation, it is an amateurish’s mistake to mistake this brooding/nihilistic tradition for Naziism and for several obvious reasons:  First, this celebrated literary/artistic tradition was famously populated by opponents to Naziism (above).  Second, the Nazis themselves criticized much of this literary/artistic tradition as “degenerate” (nihilistic). Finally, the Nazis, after-all, were ultimately “positivists” promoting a pro-German/pro-Aryan world view that these brooding “degenerate nihilists” would have logically dismissed (and in the case of Thomas Mann, did dismiss) as self-evidently illusory.

And I wish to conclude my point evoking the script of Von Trier's own film here.  At one point in Melancholia, the increasingly depressed Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst) tells her sister Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsburg) her more traditionalist (and more optimistic) sister: "We will all die, and no one will miss us."  How exactly would one set out to build a Thousand Year Reich on such emblematically nihilistic sentiments?   

To the film... It can be broken-up into three parts.  The first is an overture or preamble in which highlights of what is to come in the film, notably the eventual swallowing (annihilation) of Earth by the arrival of a previously unknown and far larger planet (apparently arriving on the scene due to a very elliptical orbit).  And apparently due to its lifeless yet bluish-green color the planet comes to be known as Melancholia.

So after the first 10 minutes of this movie, we all know that the world is going to be annihilated.  The rest of the movie is divided into two halves.  The first part is called Justine and the second is called Claire.

The first part chronicles the wedding reception of Justine.  It's beautiful, it's elaborate and it becomes clear that Justine is just going through the motions.  She does try to be happy, but on cue.  And it becomes clear that Justine just doesn't believe in the wedding.  And neither do her divorced parents, her father Dexter (played by John Hurt) who's taken to hedonism calling every women "Betty," and her angrier, more intellectual/feminist mother Gaby (played by Charlotte Rampling).  It seems that the one who most cares about the wedding is Justine's more traditionalist sister Claire who hosts it at her and her significant other's (husband's?) palatial estate that Claire's husband/significant other named John (played by Keifer Sutherland) keeps pointing out "has an 18 hole golf course."  Even Justine's nice-guy husband Michael (played by Alexander Skarsgard) is not all that much into it, though he does wish that Justine be happy.  But she's not.  Why?  An artist, who apparently "worked for an ad agency" before her wedding, she seems unable to find ultimate meaning in her (or anything's) existence.  So as beautiful, indeed as "perfect" as the wedding is, she just doesn't understand really why she is there.  She feels melancholy ...

The second part takes place 18 months later.  The new planet, that Justine just happened to spot in the sky on her wedding night, has come far closer and become far bigger to the point of becoming a possible threat to Earth.  It is then that Claire, who still instinctively "believed" in the first part of the movie, starts having her existential crisis.  What if? 

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, Melancholia treads similar stylistic and thematic ground as the recent movies, The Tree of Life and Another Earth, though Melancholia is certainly far more pessimistic.

The Tree of Life seeks to be a current-day cinematic expression of the Book of Job's response to the cry "Where are you God?" in the face of personal suffering and, like the Book of Job, presents a God who is as awesome as all Creation / the Universe. In contrast, Melancholia asks Justine's question above: [What if we really are nothing] and no one will miss us when we're gone?  It's an honest question.  The Christian response to that question is a rejection of it (by faith if not by reason): We are important, we count (and here I'd insist, that we all count, or ultimately no one counts), simply and only because God wills it so.  (One is reminded here of the first chapter of the Baltimore Catechism: The Purpose of Our Existence).  But it is a position that, facing the Abyss (beautifully expressed in Melancholia), comes by the Grace (gift) of Faith.  Reason can lead one to a point, but ultimately one has to make the leap.  And Lars Von Trier illustrates in his film what many believers and non-believers have long observed: Those who are able to believe are generally happier than those who apparently are unable to believe.

Then a new previously unknown world is a device that appears in both Melancholia and Another Earth but the device is used quite differently in the two movies.

In Another Earth, the appearance of the "other Earth" expresses a relatively new metaphysical idea born out an application of Quantum Statistical Mechanics to all of Reality (the Universe):  Just like the exact position of electrons orbiting an atomic nucleus can never be determined precisely but a "probability curve" of where it could be found can be mapped and individual electrons (and other quantum particles) behave as if they are located in exactly the same proportion as those probability curves produce, perhaps, all of Reality behaves in the same way.  That is, at every decision point, where "history" could go one way or another Reality (the Universe) splits into the two parallel realities/universes each following one or the other trajectory and Reality becomes the "canonical sum" of all the possibilities that can exist.

Applied to the individual, the concept offers an interesting aspect of hope: When one makes the major decision in life by this theory an alternate reality/universe would exist where one "chose the other path."  So even if one chose poorly at some point in Life (in this Universe), perhaps there is/are alternate Universe(s) where one chose better.  That's ultimately what Another Earth is about.  (Note: In recent years, a great television series popularizing such new philosophical/metaphysical possibilities as "parallel universes" based on quantum mechanical insights has been the Science Channel's Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman).   

In contrast, in Melancholia, the "new planet" becomes a planet of doom and actually behaves in a way that readers of Zecharia Sitchin would recognize.  Zecharia Sitchin a self-professed student of Sumerian and ancient Semitic languages has proposed the theory that Life on Earth was seeded here by aliens from an unknown planet, which orbits the sun in a highly eliptical orbit (much like that of a comet, only it is of planetary size), and that this unknown planet may have been responsible for the destruction of a planet that existed between Mars and Jupiter (the remains of which we observe to this day as the Astroid belt) the destruction of which was expressed in the ancient Babylonian Creation myth where Marduk destroys the Goddess Taimat before creating the Earth.   In Melancholia, a previously unknown planet (previously unknown because it apparently followed a highly elliptical orbit) suddenly appears. However, keeping to the "All existence is senseless" this planet appears not to give hope.  Rather it appears as an enormous inanimate object that comes and destroys the Earth.

So if nothing else, Melancholia is a very artistic and thought provoking movie.  And we are provided with a choice.  Do we choose to believe that life, indeed all existence / all reality is meaningless?  Or do we make the choice to believe, that life, existance, all that is, has meaning?

And we are invited to realize that believing that life/existence has meaning is, indeed, a leap of faith.  That is, meaning comes from who believers call God.

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Immortals

MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB (O) Times of India (2.5/5 Stars) AV Club/Onion (B-) Fr. Dennis (1 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Times of India review -
The AV Club/Onion's review -,65019/

The Immortals (directed by Tarsem Singh, written by Charley Parlapanides and Vlas Parlapanides) is in many senses a movie of the future.  The film continues the Hollywood trend to increasingly make movies in 3D.  It also relies heavily on computer generated imagery (CGI).  The screenplay borrowing heavily from the mythology of ancient Greece was written by two young Greeks and the director, Singh, as well as one of the stars, Frieda Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire [2008], Miral [2011], Rise of the Planet of the Apes [2011]), are up and coming stars from India.  Hence the critical reaction is not surprising.  Chicago's primary movie critics Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun Times) and Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune) did not even review the film (both have longstanding aversions for CGI) and the CNS/USCCB gave the movie an "O" (morally offensive) rating (for both its violence and nudity/sexual situations).  Yet both the American youth oriented AV Club/Onion as well as the Times of India gave the movie "B-" or "above average" ratings. 

What's going on?  Well, more or less obviously we're seeing a generational split.  I do actually agree with the CNS/USCCB's criticism of the excessive violence in the film as well as with its criticism of the film's depiction of choices regarding sexuality.  Afterall, Oracles (usually consecrated virgins, who served as priestess-prophetesses in Ancient Greece, predicting the future and serving to give advice even to statesmen and kings) were very important in ancient (pagan) Greece.  The Oracle at Delphi was one of ancient Greece's most important (pagan) religious shrines/institutions for nearly 1000 years.  However, when the Oracle Phraeda (played by Frieda Pinto)  meets the muscular Theseus (Henry Cavill) in the film, it becomes more or less inevitable that her previous consecrated life (and societal function) was going to go by the wayside, thrown to the wind by Theseus' pecks and abs.  In Hollywood, sex does "conquer all" afterall... So I do think that the CNS/USCCB has a point in lamenting the easiness by which the Oracle gives up previous station and function in life to throw herself into the arms of the archtypical Greek hero with ripping muscles.

I also did not like the film's violence.  Parents should note that this film, The Immortals, is far more violent than this year's Marvel Comics inspired Thor (sanitized from ancient Nordic mythology) and surprisingly even more violent and bloody than the recent remake of Conan the Barbarian [2011] where such blood and gore would have been more expected.

Yet, I bring up the recent films Thor and Conan the Barbarian for another reason. It seems to me that Charley and Vlas Parlapanides approached the patrimony of Greek mythology in a similar way that Marvel Comics approached Norse Mythology in creating their character Thor and has continued to approach its other super-hero creations, and also in way similar to the approached used by Robert E. Howard to create the world for Conan.

So the world that Charley and Vlas Parlapanides created for their Theseus (as opposed to the Theseus of classical Greek Mythology) is something of a stew of various themes and images from the classical Greek Myth and their own adaptations: The Theseus of this movie is a hero-son of Zeus (played by Luke Evans) , instead of being the hero-son of Poseidon as per the classical myth though Poseidon (played by Kellan Lutz) does play a (smaller) role in the film.  As in the classical myth Theseus does defeat a Minotaur (a 1/2 man 1/2 bull monster of classical Greek mythology).

However,Theseus's greatest feat in this film is to be found in his defeating Hyperion (played by Mickey Rourke).  In classical Greek mythology, Hyperion was a Titan, that is one of a generation of older Gods overthrown by Zeus, Poseidon and the other Olympian Gods.  While Hyperion is portrayed as seeking to free the Titans from their imprisonment inside a mountain by Zeus, he is presented in the movie as the king of the Heracleans (a people believing itself to be descended from the Greek hero who we know as Hercules).  Now it is true that around the time in which this movie was to have been set, 1200 BC, a people known to us today as the Dorians really did understand themselves as descendants of the Hercules and did descend on Greece to destroy the then existing Mycenaean civilization.  Incidently, the Spartans came to be the most famous descendants of the Dorians while Theseus of the classical myth came to be the legendary founder of Sparta's great rival Athens (the goddess Athena too, played by Isabel Lucas, actually did play a somewhat peripheral role in this film as something of a protectress of Theseus).

All this is to say that the story playing out in this film is harkens to the time of the Dorian invasion of Greece as well as to mythological defeat of the Titans by Zeus and his generation of (Olympian Gods)Charley and Vlas Parlapanides, Greeks themselves who probably grew-up on these stories, as well as the Marvel Comics and so forth, shuffled around the characters a bit, added an Oracle (a woman prophetess/priestess) for good measure and produced a fairly compelling if confusing tale. (Students _don't_ use this film as a strict guide to Greek mythology, because you may get its myths and characters all confused) 

But my greatest criticism of this film would be its truly gratuitous blood and gore.  I don't mind the CGI, and I did like the movie 300 [2006], on which this current movie heavily leans and where CGI was used really, really well.  I just don't believe that all the violence and gore, which as I wrote above exceeded even that of the recent remake of Conan the Barbarian [2011], was necessary to tell the story.  Indeed, it became needlessly distracting.

So a note of advice to the younger film-makers out there -- Go for it with the CGI300 [2006], Avatar [2009], Inception [2010] all point to an almost limitless future in using this technology for telling a story.  But do put limits on the blood/gore.  There really is no need for this, especially if the story is already compelling without it.

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J Edgar

MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB (L) Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars) Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

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

J Edgar (Warner Bros. USA, directed by Clint Eastwood, screenplay by Dustin Lance Black) a bio pic about legendary (and/or infamous) U.S. FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover is destined to be remembered as one of 2011's best films, and earn a plethora of Oscar Nominations.  Let's count them: (1) in a field of 10 a certain nomination for Best Picture,  (2) a certain nomination and possible/probable award for Best Director (Clint Eastwood), (3) a possible nomination for Best Original Screen Play (Dustin Lance Black), (4) a certain nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Leonardo diCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover), a (5) certain nomination and probable award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Judy Dench, as J. Edgar Hoover's mother), (6) a possible second nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, J. Edgar Hoover's lifelong secretary), and (7) a possible a nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, J. Edgar Hoover's lifelong confidante and possibly more).

Why would J. Edgar Hoover be simultaneously legendary and controversial (or even infamous)?   Well he was a very, very interesting/compelling and arguably dangerous persona in American history.  Consider simply that he was the founding director of the FBI in 1935 under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and remained director of the FBI until his death in 1972 four years into the Richard M. Nixon Administration.  In Washington, D.C. almost no one lasts that long in a job (under 6 presidents -- FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon).  How did he do it?  In the kindest of language, he was the epitome indeed "poster child" of the entrenched bureaucrat that only blasting powder could remove.  In reality, as head of the U.S. federal government's premier police/domestic intelligence agency, it came down to him having files on absolutely everybody of consequence in the United States during his decades-long tenure.  No politician would dare to try to expel him without worrying that J. Edgar Hoover would take him down as well.  Indeed, the film noted the celebrated battles that J. Edgar Hoover had with Robert Kennedy, the President's brother and Attorney General during the JFK Administration, and during with the equally information craving/paranoid Richard Nixon Administration during the last years of Hoover's life.

So how could such a tenacious indeed ruthless bureaucrat come to be made?  Well Eastwood and Black suggest that a good part of the roots of his tenaciousness could be found in his upbringing.  His mother Annie Hoover (played in the movie by Judy Dench) had big plans for her son including "recapturing" their (lost in some way) WASPish family's "honor."  How the family had "lost" some of its previous honor was not clear, but J. Edgar Hoover (played by Leonardo diCaprio) seemed on a life-long mission to "recapture" it.  And most adults would know that such a "mission" would be a fool's errand.  How much "honor" had been "lost"? How much needed to be "recaptured?"  How much "honor" collected was enough?  No matter how many successes Hoover had -- and he had plenty of successes, he was instrumental in defeating (indeed destroying) the Red Scare in the United States after World War I, his new FBI was instrumental in defeating (again, indeed destroying) the unprecedented wave of criminality that existed in the early 1930s, his agency did largely keep the country safe from infiltration of Nazi spies during the 1930s/WWII and Communists afterwards -- it was never, ever enough.  So Hoover became a life-long publicity hound: He made cameo appearances in films.  He allowed himself to become a character in children's crime fighting comic books.  He even convinced himself that _he_ was the one who gunned-down the famed gangster Dillinger when he wasn't even in that part of the country when Dillinger was taken-down by the FBI in Chicago.

Another part of his story, only becoming more fodder for discussion in recent years (after his death) was that J. Edgar Hoover, who never married, was probably gay and for various reasons he surrounded himself with other probably gay/lesbian assistants, including his lifelong spinster personal secretary Helen Gandy (played by Naomi Watts) and FBI agent, life-long confidante and travel companion Clyde Tolson (played by Armie Hammer).  About the latter, the film notes at the end of the film that Hoover had made Clyde Tolson the principal heir to his estate, including his house.  Additionally, Tolson received the ceremonial American flag at the end of his (state) funeral.  Finally, Tolson is buried only a few feet from J. Edgar Hoover's grave at Washington D.C.'s Congressional Cemetery.  That J. Edgar Hoover would be gay (and would surround himself with other gay/lesbian assistants) would actually make some sense at that time because there was no way to be openly gay.  So one way to "hide" was to bury oneself in one's work.  And that's exactly what Hoover and the others around him did. 

Finally, if Hoover was, in fact, repressed sexually this would help explain both his ruthlessness (his tendency to not be content with simply besting opponents but seeking to utterly destroy them) and his tendency to focus on the moral (sexual) failings of his perceived opponents even to the detriment of his agency's doing its job (of protecting the nation).  I mentioned above that the FBI had managed to keep the USA largely safe from infiltration by Nazi saboteurs during the Nazi era/World War II.  But this was largely by luck/accident.   In a celebrated incident not mentioned in the film, a number of would-be saboteurs were caught right on the beaches in New York and Florida by local cops by accident (though Hoover would later portray this as part of an FBI sponsored dragnet to keep potential Nazi spies in check).  What Hoover seemed to find far more interesting was keeping tabs on the personal lives (and failings) of the Roosevelts, in particular on the possibly lesbianism of FDR's wife Eleanor.

Similarly in certainly the most controversial scene in this film, J. Edgar Hoover is portrayed as being engrossed in listening to an audio surveillance tape of Martin Luther King, Jr having adulterous sex with a woman at the very moment that he received word that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.  Was this true?  Was J. Edgar Hoover doing exactly this when he got word of the JFK assassination?  Probably/almost certainly not, and I've complained about similar dramatic oversteps in the recent cable television series The Borgias (about the escapades of Pope Alexander VI and his family) and the film Anonymous (promoting the thesis that William Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him).  In the case of this film, however, I would argue that the flagrant dramatic license taken is probably the most justified because it does point to a truth:  J. Edgar Hoover really was fixated on (once again) destroying a possible adversary of the United States (Martin Luther King, Jr and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Hoover convinced himself was being infiltrated by Communists) and as a result the FBI (at minimum) completely dropped the ball with regard to Lee Harvey Oswald, a former defector to the Soviet Union (who subsequently returned, apparently with few/no questions asked) as a potential threat to the President or the nation. 

There are also various themes arising from the film that are certainly topical today.  One gets the sense that if Hoover lived today, he would have been a fan of the post-9/11 Patriot Act, which greatly expanded police/surveillance power, because Hoover seemed to be always in favor expanding the law enforcement powers of his FBI.  On the other hand, the film did portray quite well J. Edgar Hoover's early experiences in fighting radicalism (the anarchists of the early 20th century) and the almost quaint lack of coordination and lack federal law enforcement powers that most law enforcement officials take for granted today.  Finally, I do believe that the movie shows quite well the drawbacks of allowing someone to stay in his/her position for too long: J. Edgar Hoover was portrayed as someone who (perhaps necessarily) saw everything through the lens of his early experiences fighting those anarchists of the early 20th century.  So he utterly misunderstood the nature of Martin Luther King Jr's Gandhi inspired peaceful civil rights movement.

All in all, I do consider J. Edgar to be one best films of the year, not simply because of Leonardo DiCaprio and Judy Dench's outstanding performances or Clint Eastwood's (once again) outstanding direction, but above all in its offering of so much fodder for reflection both in this movie's study of this famously driven (repressed/paranoid/megalomaniacal?) man and in its survey of the times in which he lived and worked.  Adapting an old Chinese proverb to my purposes here: I do believe that for good or ill, if nothing else, J. Edgar Hoover was a very interesting man who lived in very interesting times.

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