Friday, January 28, 2011

The Rite


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

IMDB listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1161864/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/r/rite2011.shtml
Roger Ebert’s review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110126/REVIEWS/110129982
Interview with Matt Baglio author of “The Rite” -
http://catholicspotlight.com/592/transcript-of-cs125-matt-baglio-the-rite/

A couple of weeks ago, I pretty much knew that I’m going to have to go see The Rite when it came out in the theaters. I probably would have seen it anyway, since it does deal with the Catholic Church and one would have to be a far stronger man than I to resist a movie dealing with a subject like Exorcism. However, I was out with the youth group on a Sunday, said couple of weeks ago, and talk of the upcoming movie was all the rage.

I set myself up for that I suppose because over the years I’ve talked quite freely that I’ve had my own experience with exorcism while I was in the seminary in Italy. And there’s no more interested a group to talk to about such subjects than to a bunch of teenagers. They have tons of questions and when I was a teenager I ate this stuff up as well.

On my own brush with Darkness (our “old friend”) ...

Anyway, my brush with exorcism wasn’t particularly formal though _certainly memorable_ . NO it wasn’t “part of the curriculum” or anything like that. Instead, it happened during the summer after my first year in the seminary in Italy, when like most of my classmates I was encouraged to travel about Italy and visit various parishes and communities of my religious (Servite) Order in that country. At one of the places that I visited along with another seminarian from my Order, we were told fairly early during our stay that “By the way, one of the priests in our community here is designated by the local bishop to be the Exorcist for the area.” We both responded, “va bene,” taking it with some bemusement. The subject came up again the first evening of our stay when after dinner we visited our Order’s sisters living in the Convent across the street and the subject came up again. At this point, I felt obligated to ask “Is this really necessary in this town?” To which a couple of the sisters piously shaking their heads up and down responded with great sincerity “Si.”

Nothing of note happened for the next several days until one afternoon near the end of "siesta time," I went down to the rectory’s kitchen to pick-up a bottle of mineral water. The priest who was the one designated by the local bishop to perform exorcisms saw me and asked me if I could fetch the other seminarian so that we could help him move some furniture. Great, I got the other seminarian and together at the priest’s behest we lifted up and carried into his office a “lazy boy chair.” As we opened the door and brought chair into the room at the far wall stood a somewhat short and rather thin man in his 40s or 50s, dressed in an average man’s clothes (nothing fancy), who’s hands, feet and head/neck seemed very contorted and, yes, he was foaming a little at the mouth. Looking at him and thinking epilepsy, it nonetheless immediately struck me, “Oh my, a 100-150 years ago, there would have been no one on the planet who would not think that this man was possessed.”

We set the chair down near the rather contorted man and led him toward the chair. I remember that he was too stiff to sit down in the chair, so I and the other seminarian just gently knocked him over into it. In the room were, I, the other seminarian, our order’s priest who was the designated exorcist for the diocese, the man who was tormented/possessed and the man’s sobbing wife holding the two’s wedding picture. The priest asked that the other seminarian and I just hold the man by the shoulders so that he wouldn’t leave or fall out of the chair. We began to pray the Rosary.

What I most remember here, and why I continue to repeat the story 15 years after it happened, was that during the Rosary, whenever we got to the point in the Hail Mary when we’d say of Mary “blessed are you among women...,” the man would start flailing about with great force in the chair (that’s when we most needed to hold him down then) screaming “No cursed are you among women!” and then continue screaming for the rest of that Hail Mary about what kind of a _slut_ Mary was. until we got to the end of the Hail Mary and the whole cycle would repeat itself. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women...” “NO CURSED ARE YOU AMONG WOMEN ...” And this continued for the duration of the Rosary (about 10-15 minutes). Then at the end of the Rosary, the priest pulled out his crucifix and the holy water. He also held in his hand with the crucifix the nice wedding picture that the man’s wife had brought with her. The priest then started to reproach the tormented man. “Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this to your wife? Can’t you see that she’s crying?” He shot holy water on the man a few times. Each time he did that, the man again flailed in his chair. Again, we had to hold him down. Then suddenly there was a clear break. Suddenly the stiffness the man’s body melted completely away and the man crumpled back into the chair and he began to speak meekly saying that he was aware of everything that was around him before but that he could not do anything about it.

So there it was. Did I experience basically an epileptic seizure, something like it or something more? Again, 100-150 years ago there would be no doubt. Today there would be. In my week remaining at that community, I asked a whole lot of questions, took down lots of notes and (as a “good seminarian”) journaled away about all of this to try to make sense of it. One of the strangest, most memorable phone calls that I ever made was to my dad later that afternoon. “Guess what I was part of today dad ...?” To this day, I smile thinking about what it must have been for my dad to receive such a phone call that day from his son staying a continent away...

The priest who was designated as the exorcist did not work alone. He had an assistant, a young lay woman who was getting an advanced degree in psychology. He also told me that he took absolutely _no one_ who was not referred to him by the local psychiatric authorities. The man in question, had apparently been tormented in this way for about 10 years. He had episodes like this only a few times a year and otherwise was happy and active parishioner at the parish where we were. Again, did I see an attack of epilepsy or something similar? I don’t know though I suspect that to be at least partially the case. What I _do_ know is that everything in the praying over this man that I saw was designed to gradually calm the person down. (This was very different from the movies I’ve seen on the subject). The man’s wife was there with their wedding picture. The Priest was there symboling to an Italian mind “Order in the midst of apparent Chaos” seeking to assure the man that no matter how it may seem at the time “the world had not gone to Hell.” We prayed the Rosary, which the man would have known from childhood. Yes, the priest did admonish him at the end, and did cast holy water on him. But the words he used were far less dramatic than seen in either The Exorist or in this new movie The Rite. (Though the Rite did, for instance, note that exorcism is _not_ a one time thing, that the person tormented apparently has repeated episodes over a period of time extending into years. This was just like in the case of the man who I saw in Italy on that day).

So why all this about my own experience here? Because I want to make it clear that I do take the subject seriously. A very good interview with Matt Baglio, who wrote the book The Rite on which the movie is based can be found online on Catholic Spotlight. Whatever else one may say about the subject, I find that interview credible. I would encourage people to check during the coming weeks for articles written on the subject and on the movie in Catholic press: National Catholic Reporter, Our Sunday Visitor, EWTN.

Back to the Movie ...

As a movie, The Rite is “Hollywoodized,” though perhaps less so (or in a different way) than in the case of The Exorcist. Another movie that various critics have recommended (which I have not seen) that is considered “more true to life” than either is The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

I think that the performances in The Rite are excellent, certainly by Anthony Hopkins (playing Fr. Lucas Travent a Welsh exorcist living in Italy) as well as the lead by Colin O’Donoghue (playing a sceptical seminarian by the name of Michael Kovak sent to Rome by his rector after Michael reveals that he's thinking of leaving the seminary just before his ordination), as is that of Alice Barga (playing a journalist in the movie named Angeline who's seeking to write a story about the subject).

The movie is rated PG-13 ostensibly to allow teenagers to go see it. Again, teens tend to be fascinated about subjects such as this. I do think that the PG-13 designation is appropriate in that I WOULD NOT see much value in young kids seeing this movie as it may needlessly terrify them. I would also discourage anyone, young or old, from going to see this movie, who is squeamish about this kind of subject.

I say this because I do believe that the most important lesson to learn from a story such as this is simply one of humility. It’s a reminder that, yes, we don’t know everything, and that a having healthy respect for that which we do not know is not a bad thing. But if one already lives with such humility and respect for what one does not know, then there wouldn’t be a screaming need to see this movie.

For I do believe that it’s when we start to pretend that we know everything, that we’re “little gods” that we tend to get ourselves into trouble, whether the matter is a “big thing” or a bunch of “little ones.”

On the other hand, if you like this sort of stuff, go see the movie. It’s a great ride. And again, it is based on truth. Read Matt Baglio’s interview.


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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

No Strings Attached [2011]


MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB (O) Roger Ebert (2 stars) Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1411238/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/n/nostrings2011.shtml
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110119/REVIEWS/110119982


"Wouldn’t it be nice ..." – Beach Boys

No Strings Attached is a fantasy, a daydream, a “thought experiment” asking the age old question “Is it possible to get away with having sex without consequences (that is, ‘with no strings attached’)?”

And I don’t think I’m exactly “ruining the ending” here in revealing that after having a good deal of fun with this transgressive day dream, the movie brings its characters (and the audience) safely to back to the conclusion that, “No, it’s not possible.” What a surprise (and what a relief ;-)

Now don’t get me wrong. There’s _a whole lot of transgression_ in this picture.

The Catholic Church teaches that there is always a procreative dimension and a unitive (relational) dimension to sex (see CCC #2366).

The whole premise of NSA’s version of this age-old “daydream” depends on contraception. Here the Church, acting _exactly_ as a “Good Mother” should, reminds her children (in as much as they willing/able to hear) that contraception (to say nothing of disease prevention) is _never_ fool-proof. Why isn’t it fool-proof? For the same reason that humanity destroyed two space shuttles, poisoned ½ of Byelorussia with Chernobyl and watched with horror the wreck of BP’s Deep Oil Horizon spew untold millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico last year. People make mistakes. Now add hormones marinated with alcohol, and “you just try landing a space shuttle, while ...” So the Church _exactly_ as a Good Mother tells its kids, “Don’t get involved with anyone ‘in that way’ unless you could see yourself having a kid with that person and then if you can see that why not just get married then” (See CCC #2360-61 and CMT below). So there ;-).

The daydream played out in this picture assumes that no babies will be created and no diseases spread. But then _it’s a daydream_, not a legal disclaimer on a medicine bottle, after all ;-).

Then as something of a fairly important and arguably propagandistic sidebar, the movie also presents a milieu in which there is no longer any difference between homosexual and heterosexual sex, that it’s all the same as long as the parties are willing.

Now this is a youth oriented movie and I’ve been told by many people of all ages that the younger people are the more accepting of homosexuality and that issues with homosexuality are by-and-large “hangups of older people.”

Referring above to the basic teaching of the Church on sex that it has a procreative and unitive (relational) dimension, it’s probably safe to say that the Church will probably never look at homosexual and heterosexual sex as “being the same" (see CCC #2357). However, the Church, again as a Good Mother, _has believed her children_ when they say that they have clear homosexual inclinations, and she has declared that she wants homosexuals to be happy (see CCC #2358). To be honest, she has not figured out yet how exactly to do that. The status of Catholic teaching on this matter is reflected in CCC #2359.

To be sure, she’d _probably_ counsel her children “who aren’t sure about their inclinations” to “not do anything they may regret” because as with _anything_ in the sexual arena, actions do have consequences, often unforeseen. Among them, honestly, 30 years from now, it might not be nearly as "cool" or transgressive to play in this area and unless one was more or less sure about one's orientation beforehand, one may find it difficult to explain to loved ones many years later why one dabbled in this area before. This may not be a problem 30 years from now. Then again, it may be. So Good Mother Church counsels above all, please, please be careful, because ultimately she does want you to be happy (see CCC #2358-59).

Very good, so these are _two areas_ (contraception, homosexuality) that the Catholic Church would have real problems with this movie (see the CNS/USCCB review)

Surprisingly though (or perhaps not so surprisingly) in the last area, that exploring the “relational dimension” of sexuality, Hollywood (the maker of this movie) and Good Mother Church are in happy agreement. Here _both_ agree that it’s ultimately _impossible_ to engage in sex without it provoking feeling toward the other person, that there is _no such a thing_, even on a relational level, as “sex without consequences.”

And it shouldn’t really be too surprising that Hollywood would come to this conclusion. Even if Hollywood’s industry is based on “dreaming,” its dreaming ultimately comes from the human heart, and its movies are made by and then presented to human beings. (This is actually exactly where the Church wishes to be as well. See GS #1). So there is ultimately a “sappiness” to Hollywood's productions that Good Mother Church would both understand and appreciate.

No Strings Attached is a fun movie. It winks far more than it shows (as one would expect of a movie with actors of such caliber as Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher). It’s made in a story-telling tradition that dates back to Shakespeare (“A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream”, “Loves Labor’s Lost,” and “All’s well that Ends Well”) and even back to the Bible’s Song of Songs (which is a series of bronze-age bubble-gum love poems which don’t exactly focus on the “procreative dimension of sexuality” either but glory in the feeling of being in love).

Yes, kids, certainly, _don’t_ do any of what's shown in this movie at home. It's _just a story_, a fantasy, a daydream. (And I don’t see _any_ reason why a kid or a young teen should see this movie).

But to those college-aged adults and above who will go see the movie (and laugh along with the story), it should become clear as day as you watch that “the day dream” doesn’t work, that there’s no such a thing as “sex without consequences," and that it’s ultimately impossible to have sex with someone you don’t come to love. Either that, or one or the other is going to get hurt. And since this _is_ a Hollywood production “it all ends well.”


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Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Dilemma


MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (L) Mike Phillips (2 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1578275/
CNS/USCCB review - http://www.usccb.org/movies/d/dilemma2011.shtml
Mike Phillips Review -
http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-01-13/entertainment/sc-mov-0111-dilemma-20110113_1_dilemma-vaughn-and-co-star-character

Kudos to writer Alan Loeb, director Ron Howard, and the principal actors in The Dilemma for presenting couples with the complexities of a true marital dilemma to be discussed for some time among friends.

Note to parents: There is no obvious reason to rate this movie “R.” So in that sense, “PG-13" is appropriate. However, the subject matter (infidelity, probable divorce) may not be all that useful to a child/young teen, especially since I don’t believe that the movie’s resolution is particularly good (see the end).

The setup to the story:

Vince Vaughn and Kevin James play Ronny and Nick, two late 30-something to 40-something buddies who met in College and are now partners in a tiny electro-mechanical engineering startup in Chicago. But they have big plans. They pitch to Chrysler a way to make to make an electrical car feel and sound like late-1960s GTO. Chrysler is interested. Now they just have to prove to Chrysler that they can do it.

But Ronny’s and Nick’s lives (and friendship) extend beyond their work. Nick’s married to Geneva (played by Winona Ryder) who knew the two in college and Ronny has been dating/living together for some time with Geneva’s friend Beth (played by Jennifer Connelly). At the beginning of the movie, Geneva tells Ronny that he’s going have to propose to Beth soon because (1) otherwise Beth is going eventually leave him and (2) she (Geneva) has no more friends to offer him, that Ronny’s exhausted her/Nick’s rolodex of friends/potential dates.

So Ronny takes the advice and begins working on preparing a perfect proposal to Beth. That's perhaps fitting as he was the “salesman” in Ronny-Nick's business partnership while Nick was the brains. Great. However, a huge problem soon presents itself. While Ronny is putting together this “perfect proposal,” he discovers to his horror that Geneva is cheating on Nick. The rest of the movie is about answering the question: What to do now?

I honestly do applaud the film-makers’ effort at presenting the complexities of the situation. Ronny and Nick are business partners, they’ve made a bid, they have a contract, they simply have to follow through. Then _everybody_ in the picture has their own demons, their own pasts, their own insecurities, and yes, their own truths. Everyone. Honestly, welcome to the world that we priests see in the Confessional.

On the story’s conclusion (definite SPOILER ALERT)

So how to sort it out? Here, I do sincerely believe that the movie fails. After beautifully exposing the situation in its complexity, the “resolution” feels remarkably a like blind fall-back to a _safe_ but arbitrary “consensus driven orthodoxy” with the inevitable "witch burning" at the end.

But then this is a story told by Hollywood, where first there is no sin, and then when it can no longer be denied, there is no forgiveness. And this is where the Church used to be great. Because in the Confessional (and the invitation given to the penitent to extend it outside), there always was/(is?) both – both sin but above all forgiveness.

How will those three continue with life knowing that they (metaphorically) burned their decades-long friend Geneva at the stake? Probably quite well. But it is _unjust_, it sucks and our Gospel is, in fact, far kinder than that.


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The King's Speech


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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1504320/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/k/kingsspeech2010.shtml
Roger Ebert’s review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20101215/REVIEWS/101219985

The King’s Speech is a movie that will appeal to Anglophiles and fans of 1920s-40s period-pieces. True to the “period piece” genre, both the sets and the costuming are excellent and the story evokes themes of struggling with personal limitations and even sibling rivalry that make the story compelling beyond the regular audiences of such films.

The performances of the principal actors are also outstanding. Colin Firth, playing the lead role as King George VI has already won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Drama. He’s a shoe-in to be nominated for Best Actor for the Oscars (as well as the British Academy Awars) and in a year with not too many noteworthy will probably win both. Helena Bonham Carter who plays King George’s wife Elizabeth is also a shoe-in for a nomination for Best Supporting Actress and Geoffrey Rush also stands to at least be nominated for Best Supporting Actor in his role as Lionel Logue, King George’s Australian born speech therapist.

The more blue-collar / proletarian among us may find a movie such as this irritating. However, it reminds us that even someone of such high stature has personal challenges to overcome and family squabbles. It has long been noted that marriages of recovering alcoholics fail often _after_ the alcoholic stops drinking with the long suffering spouse of the alcoholic finding him/herself disoriented by the change in family dynamic. Something similar is portrayed here with George’s older brother Edward feeling threatened by George’s decision to try to deal with his debilitating stammer that had previously made him utterly unsuitable to become King. Yet part of George's motivation to try to "get better" was the realization that Edward had his own obvious issues (a relationship American two time divorcee Wallis Simpson) that threatened his ability to remain as King. And this was at a time when it was becoming clear that a Second World War was approaching and Britain would be in need of a King fully capable of fulfilling his duties.

I liked the picture as I’m sure most who see it. I also left wondering whether the cast of the film was able to have an audience and even chat with the current Queen Elizabeth II about the progress of the film as the film was about her parents when she and her sister Margaret were but small children. If I were Colin Firth or Helena Bonham Carter, I would have hoped for such an opportunity to talk with the Queen about how it was growing up with her parents at the time.

All in all, though not a huge fan of these kind of movies, I would recommend The King's Speech and especially for those who face handicaps or other such personal challenges in their lives. The example of King George’s struggle with stuttering can certainly be inspiring to all.

Finally, a note to parents: I'm somewhat puzzled at the movie's "R" rating (apparently for some profanity). While I don't think that hearing the future King of England say "bugger" a few times or even the "f" word should disqualify children or young teens from seeing the movie, I don't think that the movie would be particularly appealing to children or most young teens. It'd think it'd be "kinda boring" for them (though for adults it's just fine ;-)


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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Green Hornet


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

IMDb Listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0990407
CNS/USCCB Review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/g/green-hornet2011.shtml
Roger Ebert’s Review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110112/REVIEWS/110119995

The Green Hornet, Seth Rogan’s latest vehicle (he both stars in the movie as Britt Reid/the Green Hornet and co-wrote it) is generally fun movie intended for young boys. Those who remember the radio series on which it was based or television version, where Reid’s/the Green Hornet’s side-kick Kato was played by Bruce Lee will certainly find fault in it. However, I certainly found the movie entertaining as did the audience of youngsters along with their parents that filled the movie theater when I saw it.

Rogan plays Britt Reid the disappointment of a son of big-time newspaper editor and civic leader James Reid (played by Tom Wilkinson). Was Britt just plain lazy of was this simply a reaction to unrealistic demands of his overacheiving and conscientious father? Does it matter? The effect was basically the same – until Britt’s father dies, Britt lives a dissolute life both to spite his dad and because he hasn’t found meaning in his existence. Most of us will never be as wealthy and privileged as the Reids were, but most of us could relate to one or, hopefully/eventually to both sides of this “father-son” conflict.

When James Reid dies of a sudden heart attack, Britt, filled with lingering resentment is determined to not participate in any way in continuing his father’s legacy. Only after inadvertently firing the only thing that he liked about his father’s management of his estate (the guy, Kato, who made Britt's morning cup of coffee), does he begin a long journey to appreciate the good (big and small) that his father had done during his life.

Kato, played here by Jay Chou, turns out to be much more than “the guy who made the awesome coffee at the Reid estate each morning." He was James’ private mechanic and a genius in that regard. Britt, who never even met Kato until the aftermath of the “firing incident” and his realization that he’s either going to have to drink “lousy coffee” from now on, or find who this Kato was, immediately takes a liking to Kato when they meet. True, Britt treats Kato demeaningly (though is oblivious to his doing so) throughout the movie, something that reviewers such as Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times and Mike Phillips of the Chicago Tribune found problematic/offensive. Still Kato becomes Britt’s talented and faithful sidekick. Kato knows his abilities and doesn’t need Britt’s validation of them, even though I agree with Ebert/Phillips, I would have liked it better too if Kato was more respected by Britt in the film. However that was Rogan’s take on Britt Reid, that yes, he was a bit of jerk even if he didn’t necessarily understand that he was being one. And this jerkiness (rather than straight-out arrogance) extends past Kato, his mechanic, but also to his highly competent and cheery secretary Lenore Case (underused in this movie but played superbly by Cameron Diaz. If there was a Green Hornet II in a few years, I do hope that she gets a bigger role then).

As in the original radio and television series, Britt Reid gets it in his head that with Kato’s mechanical wizardly the two could become local “super heroes,” combating crime by impersonating criminals (taking on the persona of “the Green Hornet”), destroying the criminals’ operations and then setting the criminals up for being nicely captured by the police.

In this movie, Seth Rogan’s Britt Reid along with his side-kick Kato take down fictional Russian emigre turned Los Angeles crime boss Chudnofsky (played again with comic exaggeration and delight by Christoph Waltz, who last year walked away with the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for playing SS Officer Hanz Landau in Quentin Tarantino’s film “Inglourious Basterds” in much the same fashion) as well as corrupt District Attorney Scanlon (played without nearly as much fun by David Harbour).

Not particularly liked by other reviewers, I do think that the Green Hornet is a good fit for its primary target audience – young boys. In line with other PG-13 movies of its genre (Iron Man and especially Iron Man II), there are a lot of explosions and glass shatters everywhere but there’s no blood nor bodies. And Britt’s “dissolute lifestyle” is portrayed age-appropriately with lots of kissing/making out but little more than that and lots of spraying from champaign bottles but no actual drinking. The point being made, the movie finds little interest into going into details.

Then there are some useful, edifying lessons in the movie: Your dad may end up being cooler and just plain a better guy than you thought he was once you grow-up and better appreciate the "back side" of his story little better. And it’s _not bad_ being a side kick. Sure Britt treats Kato quite demeaningly throughout the movie. However, both the other characters, notably Lenore, and the entire audience appreciates the genius that Kato is and how lost Britt would have been without him. So Kato comes out "smelling like a rose" in the picture while most people do walk away feeling that Britt is something of a jerk, well-meaning perhaps, oblivious for sure, but still kind of jerk who you’d be friends with, sort of, with a little bit of distance between you and him. And _my_ sense is that’s _exactly_ how Seth Rogan wanted to play him.

Hence, sure I’d take the kids to this movie. It’s fun and even teaches a nice lesson or two. One last thing, once again I _don't_ see any particular reason why this movie would be need to be made or seen in 3D. So, honestly, save your money there.


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Season of the Witch


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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0479997/
CNS/USCCB Review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/s/seasonofthewitch.shtml
Roger Ebert's Review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110105/REVIEWS/110109993

Season of the Witch is a period piece written by Brahi F. Schut and directed by Dominic Sena set during the latter part of the Crusader era and at the beginning of the spread of the bubonic plague. The story is set around the friendship of two crusader knights played by Nicholas Cage and Ron Perlman who at the beginning of the movie love their jobs of killing the enemy at least as much as the Spartans did in the movie 300. However, after 10 years of killing Saracens (Muslims), and often enough, the Saracens’ (Muslims’) women and children, the two had enough. So they desert and head for home. It is then that they run into European cities devastated by the plague.

It is often hard for us to imagine the horror and desperation that the great plague caused the people of Europe. The people were horror stricken and had no idea what caused it or how it spread. Even today, “ancient alien theorists” muse over reports of the time of “demons” appearing at the outskirts of towns and villages and spreading the plague through “mists.” Today we understand that the plague was spread by bacteria carried in the intestines of fleas carried about by rats. It took years for the people of Europe and the rest of the world to figure that out. In the meantime, all kinds of scapegoats were blamed, murdered and/or destroyed in reprisal. Jews were murdered for simply not “fitting in” (and therefore somehow causing the plague). Similarly, “uppity” women (or women who, again, somehow did not fit in or tragically annoyed the wrong/vindictive person/people) were denounced and burnt as witches. The Church even largely destroyed its own churches. The iconoclast controversy which had raged and been settled by Church Council some centuries earlier resurfaced and panicky Church officials literally whitewashed and destroyed a whole era of religious art across Europe out of fear that the images of Jesus, the Holy Family, Angels and Saints were being taken as “idolatry” by a vengeful God punishing the world for its multitude of sins. The panic was near total.

Hence how would one approach making a movie set in this era and why make it at all when it could offend so many people – Muslims, Jews, Feminists, even the Catholic Church itself which has apologized and sought to make amends countless times for these and other sins certainly made often with fervor but also out of ignorance?

Well, the makers of the movie appeared to try to simply put the movie’s characters into the world of that time have them live as closely as possible according to the assumptions that they would have made at the time and invite the audience to join with them. Hence, I do think that the movie does quite successfully allow the audience to see the world of that time from through the eyes of two crusading knights.

If I were Jewish still reeling from the Holocaust that hopefully was the last chapter of an _awful_ two millenia long history of Christian persecution of the Jews, or a Feminist simply _appalled_ by the Medieval trial and burning of _apparently_ "problematic" women as witches, would I want to do this? Probably not. But the exercise is not without some value. And one is invited to enter into a pre-scientific world where much of the technology that exists today was simply unimaginable.

Hence through The Season of the Witch, one gets to appreciate some of the terrors that all people felt back then. When the two returning knights are given the task of providing escort for a priest and assistant taking woman accused of witchcraft (the woman played quite well by Claire Foy) to a distant monastery for trial, they pass through a dark wood, where the party gets attacked by wolves. Today, such a fight would be a mismatch. However back then, a pack of 12-15 wolves fighting two men with swords and a squire armed with a pike had a good chance of winning the fight.

And then anybody annoyed by the supernaturalism of the movie ought to be consistent and definitely avoid movies about demons and possession set in the world today. Afterall, it was in times such as that in which the Crusader knights lived that such things were deemed not only possible but quite common.

So what would be my verdict on this movie? I grew up enjoying Dungeons and Dragons. I have been a lifelong history buff. I can appreciate that all kinds of people could have serious difficulties watching this movie. At the same time, I do appreciate the invitation to walk for 2 hours in the world of the time of the Crusades and Black Plague. I would not want to stay and would certainly not want to return with a lust for killing or hurting anybody. But I do appreciate the possibility of sojourning for those 2 hours with those Crusading knights in a world that otherwise I’d have difficulty imagining. As such I’d recommend the movie to the similarly adventurous but also make the reccomendation with the reservations I give above.


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Friday, January 14, 2011

Country Strong


MPAA Rating (PG-13) CNS/USCCB Rating (A-III) Roger Ebert's Review (2 1/2 stars) Fr. Dennis' Review (3 stars)

IMDb Listing - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1555064/
CNS/USCCB Review - http://www.usccb.org/movies/c/countrystrong2011.shtml
Roger Eberts' Review - http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110105/REVIEWS/110109994

The movie Country Strong is not complicated. It's built around a 40-something country-western Diva coming to the end of her career. The storyline, the characters and even the camerawork are all very simple, at times even cartoonish. But just because the storyline is largely predictable and many of the stadium concert scenes were self-evidently filmed in front of a blue screen and pasted over stock country western concert footage doesn’t disqualify Country Strong from being an entertaining and surprisingly deep movie: I’ve been a lifelong sucker for country music precisely because while, yes, it's often schmaltzy it is also about life.

So in the midst of the simple storyline some big themes and tragedies play out.

The fictional Diva who’s career is nearing its end is named Kelly Canter (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) a 40 something country superstar who’s been in rehab for a number of months after a disastrous performance in Dallas where, stone drunk with a 0.19 alcohol level, she tripped over an electrical cable and fell 10 feet off the stage killing her 5 month old unborn baby in the process. Yes, Kelly was a mess.

Kelly’s producer-husband is James Canter (played by real-life country music superstar and actor Tim McGraw. In real-life, McGraw is married to real-life 40-something year-old country western diva Faith Hill). James Canter has become a slick, hardened country music producer who probably put his job (along with its perks) ahead of his marriage long before Kelly’s incident in Dallas. Nevertheless for a number of possible/probable reasons James appears to have had a tough time forgiving Kelly for that disaster. After all, Kelly’s fall would have certainly hit the couple’s bottom line. Further, producer though he was, his wife Kelly would have certainly been his main client. Now what? And then Kelly’s fall killed what would have been the couple’s only child. A former insurance salesman, James was a man of the world with his feet on the ground. In contrast, Kelly was a "broken angel" who just loved to sing (and loved to be loved) probably never understanding the financial end of what she was doing.

In rehab, Kelly probably messes-up her life further by getting involved with a “young buck” named Beau Hutton (played by Garrett Hedlund) who lives for playing good-ole boy country music in small town bars and honky-tonks by night while working simply as a laborer at the Rehab center by day. This the two have in common – they both love the music. And Kelly becomes something of a mentor figure to Beau even though it's obvious that they were having a sexual relationship while he should have been working and she should have been working on getting better. James comes in one day (at the beginning of the movie) to take Kelly out of Rehab, prematurely as it is, because he’s lined-up a relatively short string of stadium shows that would still salvage her/their careers. He finds Beau in Kelly’s room (Kelly dressed only in a bathrobe). Beau is presented to James as one of her “sponsors.” James lets it go.

It soon becomes clear that James also has put together other plans while Kelly’s been in Rehab. Sure Kelly Canter is going to be the head-liner of this tour, but he’s also found another, much younger, singer named Chiles Stanton who's “a small town prom queen” played superbly by actress Leighton Meister of Gossip Girl fame. Just how the two met, God only knows and why big-time Nashville producer James Canter would pull someone like Chiles to out of thin air to be the warm-up act for his mega-star wife, Kelly Canter, is a further mystery. Obviously, sex was involved but it’s reflective of a sadness and desperation felt by both James Canter and Chiles. Anyway, if Kelly is a “broken angel”, Chiles is a “broken prom queen.” And the scriptwriters leave it to Beau to try to save them both.

To give some respectability to Chiles Stanton’s stature, she given a gig in a small club on Broadway street in Nashville, where it turns out that Beau was supposed to be the head-liner that night. He gets his set but the board outside puts Chiles as the head-liner. Though pissed-off, he goes along. Then Chiles goes-up on stage and freezes. Not wanting to see her “die” like that on stage, Beau comes up on stage with his guitar singing Garth Brooks' "(I've Got) Friends in Low Places" and nods to Chiles to chime in. She does, regains her confidence and proves that she can sing, finishing then the rest of her set.

James, who only met Beau that morning while pulling his wife out of rehab is impressed and after the show asks Beau to join the tour. Initially, Beau says no saying that “big stadiums are not [his] thing.” But he’s guilted into it as James notes that he actually could help both Chiles and Kelly. And besides wasn’t he one of Kelly’s “sponsors” after all. So Beau says yes.

A few days later, the tour leaves Nashville for Houston, Austin and, finally, Dallas. As described above, the tour has been put together by spit and polish and is hanging together by a thread.

Much of course happens. Many younger musicians and “purists” of all ages and genres would appreciate the movie’s obvious criticism of Big Music. Sure there are the lights and there is the fame, but at what cost? The portrayal of the monstrous pseudo-Fascism of the stadium shows would be something that Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters would certainly appreciate as his album / movie The Wall of nearly 30 years ago made the same point.

One of the joys of country music for its musicians is that one could happily grow old working a day job and just playing/frequenting a few small bars and honky-tonks singing lyrics like “I ain’t no poet, I'm just a drunk with a pen” without ever having to sell one’s own soul.

I _liked_ this movie and I liked its characters (as broken and as cardboard cutouts as they often seemed). But then I’ve always been a sucker for heartfelt but hopelessly schmaltzy lyrics like those above or the “small town prom queen” Chiles’ "Summer Girl" – “I'm just a summer girl, I wear my flip flops. When I let my hair down, that's when the party starts. And who needs a boyfriend, I’ve got my girl friends, and when we get together, the summer never ends.”


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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Blue Valentine


MPAA Rating (R) CNS/USCCB Rating (O) Robert Ebert (3 1/2 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1120985/
USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert's Review - http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110105/REVIEWS/110109996
Onion/AV Club Review - http://www.avclub.com/articles/blue-valentine,49502/

Blue Valentine first caught my attention when the college oriented Onion/AV Club gave the movie a very rare “A” rating. It is an independent / art-house movie, that will nevertheless be certainly nominated in a number of categories (both main actors, screenplay, possibly direction). There is no particular cinematographic reason to _have to see_ this movie on a big screen. So in that sense one _could_ wait until the movie comes out on DVD/BlueRay. On the other hand, the movie does certainly invite discussion. As such, I would recommend young adults or married couples to go out and see this movie _in a group_ to talk about it afterwards.

Like a surprising number of R-rated movies that I’ve seen this year, it definitely deserves its “R,” though NOT only for the obvious, often stupid reasons. Yes, there is sex portrayed in the movie. Indeed, the realism of several of these scenes initially earned the movie a NC-17 rating, which if an NC-17 rating was not a virtual death sentence for a movie, the movie probably would have deserved it. However, the movie's sex scenes are beside the point and if that’s what is going to drive one to see this movie, then one’s going to be rather embarrassed and unhappy through most of it. This is because Blue Valentine is a well-written, well-acted, well-directed movie about a 20 something couple, married five years with a child (which was _a_ but _not the only_ proximate reason for their getting married before a judge to begin with) now at the point break-up. So the sex, even when it was good near the beginning of the couple’s relationship, looked back upon in the context of the unfolding tragedy / train wreck of the present comes across as sad.

The movie is written in a manner which invites the audience to have sympathy for both the characters, Dean (played by Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (played by Michelle Williams).

Dean was a _nice_ guy with some flaws. Notable are two: his lack of education (which may not have been his fault but simply the result of the broken, largely absent family he was dealt when he was young) and his apparent utter lack of ambition (which appeared to be a personal though tragic choice, perhaps driven ironically by the fact that Dean was able to get without all that much effort a wife that he loved along with a daughter then that he adored).

Cindy was a mess when the two first met. She was also from a dysfunctional home with an abusive father, but going to college (studying nursing at a city college with dreams of perhaps making it to med school), hanging by a thread. Her dumb-ass jock, on the wrestling team, boyfriend got her pregnant and then had neither the means nor a clue of how to take responsibility.

Dean in this context actually comes across as pretty good. A high school drop-out, he first met Cindy while working as a hauler for a moving company. The two met while Cindy was visiting grandmother at an assisted living facility. Dean was there helping to move an elderly veteran from the veteran’s decrepit home to a room near that of Cindy’s grandmother. It was a chance encounter, but Dean fell in love. Talking her up when Dean ran into her by her grandmother’s room, he left Cindy an unsolicited card with his number at the moving company where he worked. Cindy, with many balls in the air -- an angry/abusive father at home, beloved grandmother in an assisted-living facility, and now worried that her dumb-assed boyfriend (did I call him dumb-assed again?) might have gotten her pregnant -- “didn’t call back.” So after some weeks, Dean decided to go back to the assisted living facility, ostensibly to “check-up” on the vet that he helped move. (There was a sincerity there however, because Dean did, in fact, try really hard to make the vet’s new room as “homey” as possible when the movers moved him there. Dean _did_ seem to have a “big heart” in this way). Anyway, Dean talked up Cindy’s grandmother and asked her if she could put-in a good word for him. She did and Dean/Cindy also ran into each other at the assisted living facility again.

Dean was funny and kind at a time when Cindy was _really, really vulnerable_. In the course of the weeks that followed, she confirmed that she was pregnant. She confessed this to Dean, telling him that Dean almost certainly was not the father (in those mixed up weeks in between, she let herself be “swept away” by him as well...). DEAN DID NOT CARE. He loved her anyway. Deans kindness/dumb love allowed her to keep the baby, leave her home with some dignity and get married. She was able then to finish her degree.

But in the movie it's five years later now. She’s now a nurse, a good one, seeing a future. He loves simply painting walls for his job and coming home to his wife and kid. She sees and wants so much more. He’s happy exactly where he is and simply can’t understand why/how things could have changed.

I can’t help it, but I love / feel sorry for them both ... Did he take advantage of her? Yes. Did she take advantage of him? Yes. Did either do so maliciously? I don’t think so. Are there things that can be learned, discussed and reflected upon as a result of this movie? OMG, yes.

Three separate BIBLICAL passages come to my mind here:

“O Lord, if you should mark our guilt, who could survive?” – Psalm 130:3

Cindy came to resent Dean for his lack of ambition, but honestly, if we just focused on each other’s shortcomings and flaws, we’d all destroy each other. And Dean frankly saved her when she was in need.

“My heart is not proud, O LORD, nor haughty my eyes; I do not concern myself with great matters or things beyond my grasp.” – Ps 131:1

It seems to me that Dean’s perhaps biggest transgression was simply that he “aimed too high.” Yes, he was lucky. He found a damsel in distress, who if she wasn’t in distress would have probably never paid him mind. He saved her. But now she was no longer in distress, and no longer needed him.

“[Replying to the Saducees’ cynical / trick question about a woman who had been married to each of seven brothers who each died leaving her with a child] Jesus replied: ‘You are misled because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection [people] neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven.’” (Matt 23:29-30)

This passage really did strike me as I watched this movie. Yes, I get it, he wanted her to remain _his_ wife, and she _didn’t_ want to remain his wife. But honestly, why couldn’t they just remain friends? He did a lot for her. But also, if he truly loved her, why wouldn’t he just let her go? They lived through a lot together. Yes, there was (obviously) their past sexual relationship, yes at least initially, she would probably leave him in the dust economically and probably "replace him" sexually (should she choose to pursue that) rather easily. But they did share a lot together and he _did help her_. After the "haha-ing" of "I made it without you" and the initial resentment of "being left/dumped," is it really impossible that they could reconcile (come to good terms) with each other as "angels" to each other or in our speak as "friends" at least not hating / resenting / looking down on each other anymore? Afterall, there is all that history (beyond the possessiveness of the sex).

Maybe the divorce crisis that we've seen over these last several decades across the Christian world is the result of us coming actually closer the image described by Jesus in the passage above where everybody would come to be, above all, equal and respected and where everyone's primary relationship would come to be with the God who created and loved them all as a loving parent (perhaps like Cindy's grandmother or that old vet who Dean helped move) and simply wished them well.


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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Gulliver's Travels


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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1320261/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/g/gullivers-travels.shtml
Roger Ebert's Review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20101222/REVIEWS/101229992
Onion/AV Club Review -
http://www.avclub.com/articles/gullivers-travels,49429/

Jack Black’s new release Gulliver’s Travels is a movie intended for an audience of 10 year old boys. If one understands this then one will probably enjoy the movie for what it is. If one expects more of the movie then one will be disappointed and certainly plenty of critics have felt disappointed. Why?

I would explain the matter in this way. Most American adults will remember Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels from their English Lit classes that they took in high school. Most who read the book in this context will probably remember it fondly because, good God, it’s so much better and so much easier to read than Thomas Hardy’s Tess of D’Urbervilles.

Among those who read Gulliver’s Travels, there will be those who appreciated the political humor in it. Most of us would have no idea who the “Whigs” and “Tories” were in England at the time of Jonathan Swift or what they stood for, but would still appreciate the humor in Swift’s portrayal of the Lilliput King’s wearing a high heeled shoe and a low heeled shoe to placate the “High Heel” and “Low Heel” parties of Lilliput and that the “Sovereign’s limp” was seen as a “sublime sign of compromise” by his subjects. Today, we would call that “a sign of bipartisanship.”

Yes, Jonathan Swift _can_ be read in that way. It can be fun for older teens and adults to read it in that way. (I loved Jonathan Swift when I read him in English Lit). It is, indeed, the way that Jonathan Swift probably would have intended to be read. If you don’t remember this kind of satire in Jonathan Swift’s book when you read it in school as a teenager please go to the public library or to Amazon, get the book and READ IT AGAIN. It really is a fun book.

But the _primary_ thing that most of us will remember of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver’s Travels is simply that Gulliver found himself first in Lilliput a land inhabited by tiny people no more than about 5-6 inches tall and later (if one read that far) traveling to another land (named Brobdingnag) where Gulliver became the tiny person in the midst of giants.

This largely “dumbed down” version is what Jack Black is providing. There ARE critics who expected more. The college oriented Onion/AV Club gave the movie a D-. Harsh ;-). I disagree, but I understand. But then just buy Jonathan Swift’s original and read it for yourself, and accept Black’s dumbed down version for what it is: a nice fun movie with actually a good message for the kids.

Now surprisingly the CNS/USCCB critic would dispute even that there is a good message in the movie for kids and gives the movie an “O” (morally offensive) rating. I simply don’t get the CNS/USCCB’s critic here at all, unless he simply doesn’t understand the mind of a 10 year old.

Yes, Gulliver (played by Jack Black) is introduced as a slacker (and, yes, actor Jack Black has traveled that path before). OK, but he changes during the course of the movie and changes in a way that a 10 year old could understand.

In this story, Black’s Gulliver has worked in the mail room of a magazine publisher in New York for 10 years without much desire to move-up to a better job. But he does seem to have a crush on the woman who’s the “travel editor” at the magazine. Egged-on by a new employee in the mail-room, rather than asking her on a date (which, come-on would not have been realistic at that point anyway) _he lies to her_ and says that he travels and writes. She says, “okay, show me what you can do.” Since he really didn’t travel or write, he copies (plagiarizes) two articles from the internet and tries to pass them off as his own. The editor is “impressed” and saying “Gee, and the articles are so remarkable, written in such different styles...” She gives him an assignment then to write about a trip to the Bermuda Triangle.

That assignment gets him lost in Lilliput. In the meantime she finds out that he plagiarized those two articles and leaves a message on his phone to that effect. That’s the last message that he gets on the “titanic orb” that the Lilliputians found by his wrecked craft.

Gulliver, a life-long slacker now finds himself a giant among these tiny Lilliputians. They also don’t quite understand how or why he arrived on their shores. The temptation is great. He lies about his background, making himself the President of Manhattan. He also presents himself as the hero of all kinds of stories (Star Wars, Leonardo di Caprio’s version of the Titanic, etc). Eventually, of course the contradictions of his lies come crashing in on him AND BOTH HE AND HIS LILLIPUTIAN FRIENDS PAY FOR HIS LIES.

In a scene that any 8-10 year old would understand, Jack Black’s Gulliver comes to realize that his lies have hurt people that he cared about AND THAT THESE PEOPLE WOULD HAVE A TOUGH TIME TRUSTING HIM BECAUSE OF HIS PREVIOUS LIES. Gulliver comes to save the Lilliputian king who finds himself imprisoned by enemies in part because previously he trusted Gulliver’s apparent invincibility too much. The king tells Gulliver “Everything you’ve ever told us since you’ve come here has been lies. Why should we trust you now?” Jack Black’s Gulliver begins by answering in typical slack fashion “Hey man, my word is my ... bond ... (then stops realizing the problem) ... uh ... (and continues) ... this time.”

This is a great scene and with a message that I believe that ANY 8-10 year old would understand: IF YOU LIE, PEOPLE YOU CARE ABOUT WILL STOP TRUSTING YOU.

I write this because the CNS/USCCB critic writes that Black’s Gulliver’s Travels sends the message to little kids that lying and plagiarizing is okay. NO IT DOESN’T.

Jack Black’s Gulliver PAYS for his lying and plagiarizing. In each case, it becomes clear to him that he’s lost the trust of people he cares about. He realizes that he wants those people’s trust. So he apologizes / makes amends. Yes, he wins the girl (the editor) at the end (AFTER MAKING AMENDS). So what? What’s the alternative, that he gets flogged for his past sins? Black’s Gulliver realizes that he’s hurt people by his lying/plagiarizing (by his sins). He makes amends and everyone lives happily ever after. Sounds kinda like what we try to teach our kids and preach on Sundays (or have we _stopped_ believing "in the forgiveness of sins?")

And yes, there’s a scene where the King’s palace is on fire. Gulliver’s a giant. The people beg Gulliver to do something. He needs a lot of water, there isn’t a lot of time. He comes up with an idea. He even warns them, “You’re not gonna like this.” The people beg him to do whatever he needs to do anyway. We see a gigantic pair of trousers drop on the buildings by the burning palace, and ... he puts out the fire ... ;-)

Again, was the CNS/USCCB critic ever a cub scout or 10 years old?

Unless you were offended by the description of the scene above (and some might be), I would recommend this movie to families with younger (8-12 year old) kids. I’d also recommend to adults who may not have read the book to read it for themselves. It’s a good story.

One last thing. This movie is out in 3D. However, there's no screaming reason to have to see _this movie_ in 3D as it works perfectly well in 2D. Save your money there.


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