Thursday, February 24, 2011

My Oscar Picks

I’ve been asked by a number of people to give my Oscar picks. Here I confess my still "amateur" striving for "semi-pro" status ;-)

However, for the “big” categories these are my picks of those who I think will win, those who IMHO _should_ win ;-) and those who least should have been nominated/considered:

BEST ACTORCOLIN FIRTH (The King’s Speech). Who I’d like to win is JEFF BRIDGES (True Grit). Who should have at least been nominated is GEORGE CLOONEY (The American).

BEST ACTRESSNATALIE PORTMAN (Black Swan). Who should have at least been nominated HILLARY SWANK (Conviction).

BEST SUPPORTING ACTORCHRISTIAN BALE (The Fighter). Who I’d kinda like to win is unnominated MATT DAMON (True Grit).

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESSMELISSA LEO (The Fighter). But this was a surprisingly tough category this year. HELENA BONHAM CARTER (The King’s Speech) was excellent as was teenager HAILEE STEINFELD (True Grit), though the latter could be a flash in the pan. Who both surprised and I wish was at least nominated was LEIGHTON MEESTER (Country Strong).

BEST DIRECTORDARREN ARONOFSKY (Black Swan) or the COEN BROTHERS (True Grit). Who deserved to at least be nominated was SOFIA COPOLLA (Somewhere).

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY DAVID SEIDLER (The King’s Speech), though both CHRISTOPHER NOLAN (Inception) and SCOTT SILVER, et al (The Fighter) were excellent as well.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAYCOEN BROTHERS (True Grit). However, this was a great year for writing. The other four nominees – 127 Hours, The Social Network, Toy Story 3 and Winter’s Bone all deserved their nominations. Others that deserved consideration were Conviction and The American.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHYINCEPTION or BLACK SWAN though SOMEWHERE ought to have been at least nominated.

BEST FEATURE LENGTH DOCUMENTARY - INSIDE JOB

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILMTOY STORY 3, though I preferred HOW TO TAME YOUR DRAGON. The movie I thought deserved at least a nomination in this category was DESPICABLE ME.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM – I only saw this one of the nominees, but it was _excellent_ BIUTIFUL.

BEST PICTURE THE KING’S SPEECH though I much preferred TRUE GRIT.


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Friday, February 18, 2011

Unknown [2011]


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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1401152/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/u/unknown2011.shtml
Roger Ebert’s review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110216/REVIEWS/110219990

Things are not as they seem ...

Unknown, starring Liam Neeson, is a kind of Hollywood paranoid suspense thriller that’s been relatively common in recent years. Viewers will find clear thematic similarities to Matt Damon’s Bourne Identity as well as to Liam Neeson’s recent film Taken. Older viewers will also notice obvious homages to Harrison Ford’s thriller Frantic.

In each case an American finds himself lost in an exotic city in Europe and Europe proves to be a bewildering and hence dangerous place. While Unknown, Taken and The Bourne Identity are all clearly presented as fictional stories, bewilderment -- the struggle to figure out who exactly is who, and who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad” – forms a large part of the subtext of recent more historically based movies like Munich and The Good Shepherd (both largely set in Europe during the Cold War era) as well as countless movies set in the post 9/11-Middle-East (Syriana, Green Zone, The Kingdom, Body of Lies, etc). Add to these recent fictional movies about the cold methodical lives of fictional assassins (George Clooney’s The American, Jason Statham’s The Mechanic, Nicolas Cage’s Bangkok Dangerous) and it would seem that portions of Hollywood are making really good money producing films that portray the world as a bewildering place where danger lurks around every corner and pretty much everyone is a potential enemy, all this being especially true when one ventures outside the more familiar confines of the good ole U.S.A.

One could criticize Hollywood for exploiting and even feeding American post-9/11 fears, but I do tend to side with “apologists” here who respond by saying that these movies would not work if they did not touch a nerve. And even if most of these movies are set off American shores, _none of them_ present the “good” and the “bad” along clear ethnic or national lines. Indeed, that makes for a great part of the bewilderment expressed in these films. Almost everyone becomes suspect, both nominally friend and foe, and the protagonists as well as the audience are given the task to sort it all out.

Unknown is exactly this kind of movie. The audience is presented Liam Neeson playing the role of a botanist Dr. Martin Harris traveling with his wife Elizabeth (played by January Jones) to a biotech summit in Berlin. While entering a taxi on leaving the Berlin airport, Neeson’s character's briefcase gets left behind. Arriving at the check-in counter at their hotel, Neeson’s character realizes that his briefcase is missing. Without even telling his wife, he quickly hails a cab to take him back to the airport to retrieve the lost bag. Trying to call his wife on his cell phone to tell her where he’s heading, he can’t get a signal. Before he knows literally what hit him, a refrigerator falls from a truck in front of his cab while the cab is crossing a bridge. The cab driver a Bosnian immigrant named Gina (played by Diane Krueger) swerving to avoid plunges the cab off the bridge and into the river.

Four days later, Neeson’s character wakes-up from a coma in a Berlin hospital and is first surprised and then worried that his wife wasn’t able to find him. He checks himself out of the hospital against the attending doctor’s advice, and finds his way back to the hotel where he and his wife were to be staying. To his astonishment when he encounters his wife, she denies knowing him. Further, he finds she’s being escorted by a man who looks reasonably like him and who also claims to be Dr. Martin Harris. What the heck just happened?

The rest of the movie gradually fills in the story. The viewer is invited to follow along, to sort out the good folks from the bad. More crucially to a story like this, the viewer is also invited to render judgement on whether the story ultimately makes sense at all.

As a thriller (and as a puzzle), I found Unknown to be reasonably engaging. It did keep one's attention. Still the more interesting question for me remains, why movies like this are “working” (successful) in the U.S. and at this particular time in our history?


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Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Eagle


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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1034389/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/e/eagle2011.shtml
Roger Ebert's Review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110209/REVIEWS/110209982

The Eagle is a movie that probably everyone who’s ever been a Scout or played the game “capture the flag” would appreciate. Yet as simple in concept as it may be, the story offers the audience to reflect on a whole host of fairly profound questions about honor, valor, patriotism, civilization and freedom.

Set in Roman-era Britain, it plays out on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall, which came to divide the Roman dominated South which later came to be England from the unconquered North which eventually came to be Scotland. The story is built around a pre-wall attempt by Rome to conquer the whole of Britain outright. The 9th Roman legion marched into the unconquered northern territory only to be never heard from again. Presumably it was decimated and symbolically the 9th Legion’s Eagle standard never returned from the northern wilds.

At the beginning of the movie, we are introduced to a young Roman officer Marcus Flavius Aquila (played by Channing Tatum) from Gaul who volunteers to take an assignment along the fortifications of Hadrian’s wall. His father had led the 9th Roman Legion and its loss had brought dishonor to the whole family.

After proving his worth as a commander in battle at the cost of an injury that ended his military career, Marcus Aquila finds out that the 9th Legion’s Eagle standard may still exist, being kept as a war trophy and used in ceremonies by one of the northern tribes. No longer in command of a garrison, he sets out with Eska (played by Jamie Bell), a British slave of his, to take back the Eagle standard.

At this point the movie begins to resemble other stories built around a “frontier mission” theme – Black Robe, Apocalypse Now, and even Alien / Avatar and Dances with Wolves -- come to mind. Out in the northern wilds of Scotland, the purpose of Rome’s past attempt to conquer this territory comes into question even if Rome would have brought far greater Order to such wild territory. The natives, as vicious as they appeared, did have a point. They were just defending their land and their freedom if doing so in very brutal ways. The two find “survivors” of the 9th Legion out there in the wilds (Roman-era “MIAs”) who after having lost (and perhaps cowered) in battle seem to have preferred to “go Native” to returning back to civilization. Eska is also given repeatedly the opportunity to reassert his freedom among his still unconquered and free cousins.

The movie, appropriately rated PG-13 (no sex, no _gratuitous_ violence and no gore), filmed beautifully in both the Scottish Highlands as well as in Hungary, gives the audience much to think about. What would you do if you found yourself born or stationed at the edge of the world that you knew? Would you have the courage to “boldly go where no one (that you knew) had gone before?” Are you able to accept anything at all (even good things) from The Other, if that Other came to you in a dominating/condescending way? Are you able to appreciate/respect the native desire for freedom even if it's demanded by a people/group that's poorer economically and even culturally than you?


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Friday, February 11, 2011

Gnomeo and Juliet [2011]


MPAA (G) CNS/USCCB (A-I) Nell Minow (3 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
ChicagoSunTimes (N. Minow) review

“A gnome by any other name ...”

Gnomeo and Juliet is a fun and surprisingly evocative animated movie released for Valentine’s Day weekend and yes, I’d recommend it to all kinds of people and families looking to see something in the context of this holiday. Following loosely and even amusingly commenting on the story of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, it could make for a very cute date movie or one for the family to take small kids.

The story plays out somewhere in English suburbia on the adjacent lawns of a duplex townhouse, the duplex’s addresses “2B” and “Not 2B” on “Verona Street.” One of the duplex’ lawns has a “red” motiff with a beautiful tulip garden. The other garden has a “blue” motiff with a beautiful hydrangea bush as its crowning glory. Amidst the gardens are scattered collections of red and blue gnomes, who like the owners of the two flats, hate each other. How would they know of each others’ existence? Well, while people aren’t looking, the gnomes move around quite a bit and actually take care of their respective gardens. It’s just when people look at them, that’s when they freeze often with very goofy expressions on their faces and in stupid-looking positions.

Much ensues. Gnomeo (voice by James McAvoy) and Juliet (voice by Emily Blunt) actually meet when both of them were outside of their two gardens on separate adventures. On their first date, again away from either of the two’s “familiar gardens,” they meet a sad pink flamingo named Featherstone (voice by Jim Cummings) whose true love was taken away from him when the couple, which owned the garden where he and his true love were displayed, divorced and one of the divorcing spouses took the other flamingo away as part of the divorce settlement. The flamingo teaches the two gnomes a little about love and “tending a garden together.”

A particularly funny scene takes place when Gnomeo finds himself exiled (actually taken away by a slobbering bull dog) and on his way back encounters a statue of William Shakespeare (voice by Patrick Stewart). He tells the statue his story and (the statue of) Shakespeare responds saying “I know the story, let me tell you how it ends.” To which Gnomeo responds “Yuck, what’s with all the death...” Shakespeare answers “You’ll see...”

The rest of the movie is about whether this story has to end like Shakespeare ended it. To be sure, there’s a lot of fighting. One side even purchases a “Terrafirminator” lawn-mower (voice over by Hulk Hogan) to settle the issue once and for all. (The Statue of Shakespeare shakes his head, telling the audience, “See, I’m telling you ...”).

Set to a soundtrack heavy on Elton John songs, this movie isn’t for everyone. But if you like “cute” and if you liked English Lit. when you were in high school, then I do think that you’ll like this movie.


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Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Roommate


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

IMDb Listing - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1265990/
CNS/USCCB Review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/r/roommate2011.shtml
Roger Ebert’s Review -

“Says here that if he takes all his meds, he’s fine.”
“What if he doesn’t take his meds?”
“Well, I guess he wouldn’t be fine.”
– from the movie “Wag the Dog”


The Roommate is a movie that really isn’t intended for anyone over 25. It’s just that I grew-up (was a teenager/college student) in the heyday of the mad-slasher flicks of the late-70s early-80s and I’m gonna give myself a pass ;-).

And then movies like this are always fun to analyze. What makes a horror movie work? Well, Stephen King, a true master of this genre, writes in his book The Danse Macabre that the movie has to touch a nerve. That is, the movie has to tap into a fear/anxiety that exists in the society, and the greater the fear/anxiety being tapped, the more successful the movie.

We live in a time when tens of millions of people, often young people, are on psychiatric mediation for all kinds of ailments from the very serious (schizophrenia) to the less serious but often debilitating (depression) and the question/anxiety does arise: Who among these people really needs these medications (and wouldn’t be able to function safely without them)? And then what kind of dangers arise when they don’t take these meds properly? We also live in a time when there’s ever increasing pressure to get a college degree. As such, people who a generation ago could have been happy, productive citizens in the trades, doing line work at a factory and/or just being married are now being forced to go to college, where they may be honestly out of their depth. Finally, we live in a time when every year there seems to be a mass shooting at a university (Virginia Tech, N.I.U.) or one perpetrated by a troubled college student (like the recent mass shooting in Tuscon), where a common denominator has been that the perpetrator in question was average or below average at school and if there were other options might not have been going to college at all.

So the increasing commonality of psychiatric medications and the pressures to go to college form the subtexts to The Roommate.

As a slasher movie, The Roommate then follows conventions that anyone who was a teenager in the late-70s / early 80s would recognize. A "good girl," Sara (a nice biblical name) played by Minka Kelly from a "small town" in the Midwest (where "good people" live) comes to Los Angeles (the big city) to go to college. In the 1970s-80s the "good girl" would be so obvious in these movies that we, teenagers, would immediately identify her as “the Virgin” (not necessarily thinking of the Virgin Mary, though as we’ll see below, _not_ necessarily far off in her role in fending off/defeating Evil). Then there’s “the slut,” named Tracy in this movie, played by Alyson Michalka (of the TV series Hellcats), who’s promiscuous and in the 1970s-80s would end up with a harpoon put through her head or chest. There’s “the monster,” Rebecca (another biblical name actually), played by Leighton Meester (from the TV series Gossip Girl) who plays Sara’s troubled roommate. There’s the "angelic boyfriend" of the "good girl," named Steven, played by Cam Gigandet who protects the "good-girl/Virgin" for a while, but ultimately it’s up to the "good girl" to defeat "the monster." There are even an assorted number of bigger and lesser “jerks” who get punished for their sins by “the monster.”

Innovations on the conventions of the 1970s-80s “mad slasher” flick include the following:

First, The Roommate is rated PG-13 (as opposed to the “R” ratings of most of the 1970s/80s era flicks) so the “body count” in the movie is actually quite low and “the gore” is at a minimum. This is probably smart because movies like this have TEEN written all over them and it makes no sense making the movies “R-rated” and thus needlessly encouraging “rule breaking” by teens and causing moral dilemmas to parents.

Second, the “good girl” Sara is _no longer_ a virgin. In the movie, she does sleep with her "angelic boyfriend" and doesn’t particularly mind the antics of the “slutty” Tracy. Interestingly enough, another recent horror movie Drag Me to Hell actually plays on this exact point very well – should we really identify with / feel sorry for the “good girl” when she’s no longer particularly “good.” Yes, one can be “sweet” but is that really being “good?” I LOVED Drag me to Hell and consider it the best horror movie in a generation and of the caliber of Psycho and the The Exorcist, but that’s another story ... ;-). However, in The Roommate, Sara retains archtypical “good” qualities. She may put-up with/forgive Tracy’s promiscuity but she herself isn’t. She’s more or less monogamous. Her high school boyfriend dumped her, but then she’s loyal to her new "angelic" college boyfriend. She resists the come-ons of others who would hit on her. Perhaps most controversially, Sara doesn’t engage in lesbianism, portrayed briefly in the movie (PARENTS take note ...) in _decidedly deviant tones_. Actually, the mad slasher flicks of the 1970s/80s had a decidedly “conservative tone” when it came to sexual morality as well – the “slutty”/promiscuous always met bad ends.

Finally, the “monster,” Rebecca, was female. That’s actually surprising given both that the "monsters" in the 1970s/80s mad slasher flicks were generally male (Jason, Freddy Krueger, etc) and the perpetrators of the recent shootings at universities were _always male_. The monster being female, however, serves to soften the movie. Often in the past, it was understood that the “monster” had “a story” as well. I think it’s easier to identify with “the story” of a troubled female than a male. Further making “the monster” female helped provide sufficient distance between _the movie_ and the horrific _reality_ of the recent school shootings. Finally, the choice of making the monster female helped the producers of the film to keep the movie’s “body count” at a manageable level for both the PG-13 rating and audience acceptance.

The trajectory of the plot of The Roommate is straight out of the conventions of the 1970s/80s movies of its kind. After introduction to the cast of characters and giving the audience time to make moral assessments of them, the “monster” goes to work destroying the guilty. A final confrontation comes between the “the Good Girl” (in the 1970s/80s “The Virgin”) and “the Monster.” The "angelic boyfriend" is a help but ultimately it is up to the “Good Girl”/”Virgin” to defeat the "monster" herself.

THAT “THE VIRGIN” WOULD VANQUISH “THE MONSTER” IS STRAIGHT OUT OF VERY TRADITIONAL CATHOLIC MARIOLOGY, where it is the Woman (Mary) who destroys the Serpent “crushing his head with her heal” (Gen 3,15). Pretty much every single “slasher” movie of the 1970s/80s used the same formula. The formula was most clearly seen in the first Terminator movie, where the Monster (the Terminator) being a modern day incarnation of “the Dragon” of Revelation 12 sent “to destroy the future savior of the world” is vanquished in the final scene when the heroine, _carrier_ of the future savior of the world, Sarah (again with a Biblical name) crushes the head of the Terminator (who’s lost his legs (becoming like a Serpent) but still grabbing at her feet), doing so by _kicking on a mechanical press_, which does the crushing job for her.  Note, I evern wrote an article about The Marian imagery in the Terminator movie soon after finishing the Seminary.

In the case of The Roommate, the new Sara doesn’t destroy the monster by crushing her head, but vanquishes her in a manner that’s so obviously stylized/symbolic that it pays homage to the formula again, if carried out in a slightly different way. You can’t do the exact same thing over and over again ... some variation is fair, even if the same basic formula is used.

Anyway, The Roommate is a great ride. Like every successful horror movie, it helps express fears/anxieties that certainly do exist in our society today. And the movie plays out using a classic formula at least as old as the New Testament. I wouldn’t recommend the movie to young kids. Some parents will have issues with some of the sexual portrayals in the movie, though no nudity is shown. Overall, as I said at the beginning, the movie has TEEN and COLLEGE STUDENT written all over it.


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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Biutiful


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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1164999/
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110126/REVIEWS/110129983

It needs to be said at the outset that Biutiful (directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu who also directed Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros) is _not_ a cheerful movie. Most viewers will find it thought-provoking but very, very dark. I would not recommend it to any American viewer who has a great aversion to subtitled foreign language films or does not want to pay money for a movie that will probably/certainly depress. That being said, it is an excellent, well-crafted, well-acted, thought-provoking movie about life at the margins of a major European city, Barcelona.

The principal protagonist Uxbal (played by Javier Bardem who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the villain in No Country for Old Men), in his 40s and with a family, appears to have been the son of a Moroccan immigrant father and possibly a Spanish mother, both long deceased. Uxbal’s wife, Marambra (played by Maricel Álvarez) has an Arabic (Moroccan?) sounding name. Though left unsaid in the movie, assuming that Uxbal and Marambra are both largely assimilated adult children of Moroccan immigrants (but still carrying the legacies and wounds of the immigration/assimilation experience) greatly helps to explain the movie’s context.

Along with their two young children, Uxbal and Marambra live in a seedy part of Barcelona filled with other newer, more or less obviously illegal, immigrants. These include black West Africans who the Barcelona police relentlessly harrass and Chinese who the police leave alone but live in squalor. Uxbal and Marambra speak Spanish well (it probably should be Catalan, but in the movie they speak Spanish). However, neither of them has honest work. Uxbal serves as something of a middle-man between the North African/Chinese laborers/foremen and the Barcelona contractors who seek to hire them for work. Marambra hooks (works as a prostitute) on the side, though this is not to help support the family but rather to support her drug habit. Uxbal’s brother, Tito (played by Eduard Fernández), who doesn’t play a large role in the film but appears repeatedly throughout it, appears to have become a more “successful” (but still underworld) figure than Uxbal, running among other things a trashy Barcelona strip club.

Was “success in the underworld” the best that the three could hope for? One does not know, but the movie comes to speak forcefully about the “options” that are (or will be) available to undocumented aliens and their children in the United States, depending on how the debate in the United States turns, something _definitely_ to reflect upon.

However, there is much more in this movie than simply its immigrant context. Fairly early in the movie, Uxbal is diagnosed with having terminal (heavily metastasized) prostate cancer. He is dying. He also has a gift of being able to talk to the recently deceased. This gift seems to give him hope in the future even if his future appears to be the grave. But he has other worries as well. The prospect of leaving his two young kids with his hooking, drug addicted, possibly bipolar wife is not a cheerful one...

But then this is something that I’ve learned long ago: Even as “large” crises play out (wars, terrorist attacks, etc), smaller ones play out as well. When I was studying in Los Angeles as a grad-student in the 1980s, the L.A. Catholic Worker community there was providing housing to a 10 year old kid and his mother from El Salvador. The 10 year old had lost his arm, but not to anything dramatic like a land mine or a granade attack. He “simply” lost it to bone cancer. One of the tragedies of the “big tragedies” that play out is that they simply add to the awfulness of the smaller ones. Imagine if you needed a paramedic in New York or watched your mother die at her bedside “simply of cancer” on 9/11 ...

Biutiful is a multi-leveled exploration into such awfulness. Uxbal’s fate seemed to have been sealed by events that took place even before he was born. Yet in the midst of a really awful life, and even an awful closing stretch to an awful life, he is still given the task of managing his way to his Calvary. And the audience is invited, perhaps, to reflect on how they would have done given the same parameters that he had to work with.

Again, this is _not_ a cheerful movie, but certainly a thought-provoking one.


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