Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Paul


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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1092026/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/p/paul2011.shtml
Roger Ebert’s review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110316/REVIEWS/110319984

I went to see Paul (written by Nick Frost and Simon Pegg and directed by Greg Motolla) for a number of reasons. First, over the years, I’ve generally liked Seth Rogan. The (hopefully exaggerated) enormity of his character’s drug use notwithstanding, I liked generally him in Knocked Up and I even liked him in the Green Hornet. Even though his role in Superbad was actually pretty tame (rather "good" rather than "bad";-), I just didn’t like Superbad, period, finding very little positive or even particularly funny in that movie. Second, I went to see Paul because as far as I could discern from the trailer and reviews, I thought I’d like Paul’s plot. To be honest I was disappointed with both Paul and with Rogan.

Again, the plot seemed promising: Graeme Willy (played by Simon Pegg) and Clive Golings (played by Nick Frost) a couple of wide-eyed "geeks" from England come to California for a comic book convention. Growing up a "geek" myself and with plenty of other "geeks" as friends, "I could relate." Then after the convention, the two rent a big RV to begin a tour of the UFO hot spots of the American South West. Being the son of Czech immigrants, I also know something of that "wide-eyed" experience of relatives and friends of relatives first coming to this country (even to visit) and "hitting the road" in a big, often _very big_ car (or RV) for the very first time. So there was something both EPIC and REALLY, REALLY ENDEARING watching a movie about this experience of two Europeans in the U.S. for the first time, taking that RV on the road to explore "the America of their Dreams."

The key plot-twist advertised in the trailers was that while on this American odyssey the two run into an actual space alien named "Paul" (voice by Seth Rogan), who after some adventures they then help "go home" (hey, that even sounds like a tribute to the plot of E.T. ;-).

What I found disappointing (and frankly needless) was the other plot twist (not exactly advertised) where the movie became an extended, and not particularly funny slam of fundamentalist Christians. How this happens is that the two British tourists along with their new found alien friend stop at a RV campsite somewhere in Nevada operated by Ruth Buggs (played by Kristen Wiig) and her father Moses Buggs (played by John Carroll Lynch) who play stereotypical "three toothed" hick Christian fundamentalist ignoramuses (Ruth even has a "glass eye" when she first appears). Staring face to face at Paul, Ruth who believes God created the world in 7 days 4000 years ago, declares Paul to be a "demon." Over the rest of the movie, the aliens, Graeme and Clive from England and Paul from outer space, evangelize Ruth into accepting the "true gospel" (of evolution).  Note that neither I have, nor more importantly the Catholic Church has ever had, a great problem with evolution.

Now the two British stars Frost and Pegg wrote the screenplay and it is possible that the fundamentalism of the American countryside simply appalls them. Still, honestly, I did find their portrayal both unfunny and unfair.

For while there certainly are Christian fundamentalists like Ruth and Moses in the United States and are perhaps more prevalent in the American countryside, the American west is also the "American heartland of black helicopters, cattle mutilations and UFOs." And there has been an entire series on the History Channel in recent years promoting Ancient Alien Theory which suggests that God/"the gods" was/were perhaps alien biochemist(s)/astronaut(s). So good old Graeme and Clive could have just as easily (or IMHO much more easily) run into a milieu of good-ole-boys where God and aliens, the Flood and UFOs would have been seamlessly talked about as being basically one and the same thing, and a good part of those good-ole-boys would have had rather impressive comic book collections of their own stored under their "boxes of ammo" (if one needed to go there) as well ;-). So I do believe that the American "outback" is far more interesting a place than those two British writers (and Seth Rogan/"Paul") made it out to be.

Above all, I do believe that this movie could have been much more fun than it was. Instead, the makers of this film chose to make it into a needlessly gratuitous slam of people who are always much more interesting/complex than their stereotypes suggest.

So while IMHO the movie had a great deal of potential, I have to say that I left very, very disappointed, because it did not have to go that way. Would I recommend this movie? With difficulty and only if one was able to hold one’s nose while Christian fundamentalists were needlessly and gratuitously getting slammed over and over, for a very, very long time.

PS - A number of years ago, the Vatican declared that Catholics need not have difficulty in reconciling both their faith and a belief that life, even intelligent life could exist on other worlds. To deny even the possibility of there being life, even intelligent life on other worlds would limit the greatness of God (Osservatore Romano, May 14, 2008, Ital original, Eng translation)

ADDENDUM

An excellent book that covers much of the same territory as Paul does but with a much kinder smile is fellow Britisher Jon Ronson's book Them: Adventures with Extremists.  A number of years ago, I wrote a review of Them on Facebook that I reposted recently reposted on my personal blog.  Ronson's point, well taken, is that we have far more in common with "Them" (the "Other guys" that we don't like) than we may think.  I much prefered Ronson's gentle humor to the "hit people we don't like with a baseball bat" approach of the makers of Paul.


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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Outside the Law (orig. Hors la Loi)


MPAA (unrated) CNS/USCCB () Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr Dennis (3 ½ stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1229381/
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert’s review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110323/REVIEWS/110329992/1023

Outside of the Law (orig. Hors La Loi), written and directed by Rachid Bouchareb is a French and Arabic language film with English subtitles about the Algerian struggle for independence, that ought to be required viewing by _anyone_ who has a strong opinion (of _any_ kind) on the current American war on terror. It’s well acted and brutally honest. NO ONE in this film comes off looking particularly good.

The movie is about three Algerian-born brothers, whose family was thrown off their ancestral farm in 1925 by a Frenchman waving a deed. (The Algerian family didn’t even know what a deed was just that they had been working the same land for generations). In 1945 as World War II comes to a close, their father is shot by a stray bullet fired by French colonists/authorities trying to supress a pro-Algerian civil rights march in the town in which they lived.

The three brothers, now adults and with only their mother to take care of, take different paths.

Messaoud (played by Roschdy Zem) the oldest of the three brothers is arrested following the march in which his father was killed for being one of the march’s organizers. While in prison, he is radicalized and joins the Algerian independence movement (FLN).

The middle brother Abdelkader (played by Sami Bouijila) joins (or is forced to join) the French Foreign Legion and does a tour in French-Indochina (Vietnam) where he is captured by the victorious Vietnamese. During his captivity, he and the other non-French colonial troops are propagandized by the message: "Why are you here fighting us when you have your own countries to liberate?"

The youngest brother Said (played by Jamel Debbouze), generally despises politics and is left to take care of their mother. He eventually emigrates with her to Paris, where he can’t find work and eventually gets involved in organized crime.

When the oldest brother, Messaoud, is released from prison, he is given the task of organizing Paris’ Algerian ghetto on behalf of the FLN. At about the same time as he is released, Abdelkader returns from Indochina and decides to throw his lot in with Messaoud to fight for Algeria’s independence.

The fight and the tactics are brutal. Messaoud is told by the FLN that _every_ Algerian must pay a "tax" to the FLN to support the struggle. Messaoud and Abdelkader are forced to enforce this "discipline" in the Algerian ghetto. As a result, their tactics make Said’s mere operation of a prostitution/boxing racket look tame. Among other things, Messaoud and Abdelkader have to punish a poor Algerian who has a wife and three children because he used his money to buy his family a refrigerator rather than pay the FLN’s tax.  They knock on his door, drag the wife out of the house, summarily condemn him to death on behalf of the FLN and then carry out the sentence by strangling him to death.

As the fight becomes more desperate, the French increasingly resort to terrorist tactics themselves. Colonel Faivre (played by Bernard Blancan) a former hero of the French resistance, who now heads an anti-terrorist command in Paris, receives permission to organize a unit which becomes called "the Red hand" which would nominally operate as "a criminal organization" and yet have immunity from the French Ministry of Justice to do whatever they saw fit to terrorize the Algerian community in Paris back into submission. Hence they assassinate suspected leaders of the FLN, blow-up shops and homes of FLN sympathizers, etc. As a result, the FLN’s command in Paris largely flees to Germany (Frankfurt) and Switzerland (Geneva).

By the end of the movie, the three brothers are all reconciled as a result of the madness. Said gets a tip that the French authorities were going to intercept an arms shipment into France organized by Messaoud from Frankfurt and Abdelkader still working from inside France and tries to save the two brothers. Messaoud, in turn is able to save Said’s life from an assassination attempt by the FLN because Said wanted to put-up an Algerian-born boxer to fight for the French national boxing championship while the FLN insisted total boycott anything French.  Said, ever apolitical simply didn't understand the boycott -- "Wouldn't it be _great_ if an Algerian won the French boxing title?" (apparently _not_ in the view of the FLN...)

In the end, only one of the three brothers is left standing, but Algeria does win its independence...

Outside of the Law is a brutal movie, I’d definitely recommend it to anyone with ANY strong opinion IN ANY DIRECTION regarding our current war on terror. The FLN were not nice people. And in fighting them, the French "took off their gloves" in ways that _even today_ would seem unimaginable in the United States and it _still_ wasn’t enough.

The movie does ask the question: How far OUTSIDE THE LAW is either side willing to go to "win?" And it was clear in the Algerian conflict, that BOTH sides were willing to go very, very far.


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Monday, March 28, 2011

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules


MPAA (G) CNS/USCCB (A-1) Mike Phillips (2 stars) Fr Dennis (2 stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1650043/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/d/diaryofawimpykid2011.shtml
Mike Phillips’ review -
http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/movies/sc-mov-0323-diary-wimpy-kid-rodrick-r20110324,0,7565114.column

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (directed by David Bowers) caught my eye because it was a kid/family oriented movie, received good reviews and scored #1 in the box office in the United States in its first weekend in the theaters. It is the second movie made following the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series of cartoon novels written by Jeff Kenney.

Centered on the life of Gregory Heffley (played by Zachary Gordon) entering the 7th grade in this movie and his family. Gregory is the middle of three brothers. He’s tormented by his older brother Rodrick (played by Devon Bostick) who’s in High School, already drives, and is the drummer in a garage band (calling itself Löded Dyper) made up mostly of his high school buddies. And Rodrick generally thinks of himself as being far cooler/worldly than Gregory. Gregory then has a younger brother, who seems to get away with everything because he’s only fffrreee (3). So Gregory has kind of the worst of both worlds in the sibbling pecking order. His best friend is Rowley Jefferson (played by Robert Capron) who’s similarly geeky but perhaps more at piece with it. Mom and Dad are Rachell Harris and Steve Zahn. Mom writes an advice column on parenting in the local, suburban paper and both Mom and Dad suffer from trying to be both "in control" of their household and "cool," which anyone who would be looking from the outside (ie the audience) would immediately realize is pretty much impossible. Thus the stage is set for many painfully funny situations.

I am not the only one writing about this film who’s noticed this, but one thing that’s somewhat strange about the portrayal of this family and the town that its from is that it is almost utterly white. Down to the school kids, teachers, neighbors, roller rink patrons, the _only_ person of color in the entire movie is an Indian classmate of Gregory’s named Chirag Gupta (played by Karan Brar). And he flies back to India for a number of weeks during the film, so it’s signaled that he’s "rich" (that is, probably an upper Brahman cast, that is a member of the "original Aryans"). Between that, the "umlaut" on the "Löded Dyper" band name and even Mom’s glasses and hair-style that progressively make her look more and more like Sarah Palin, one wonders if the movie was _purposefully_ cast to appeal to a _white-conscious_ pro-Palin demographic or was purposefully subverted by those doing the casting _to lampoon_ that demographic.

Honestly, I think it could go either way. But the utter lack of non-Aryan "people of color" felt weird, especially since the movie would have worked in most demographics.

Then as a Catholic priest, I did find the Church scene amusing because it was clearly Protestant "with some Catholic trappings thrown in." It was Protestant because, first there was no altar and second it’s been my experience that pretty much the _only_ Catholics who dress up in their "Sunday best" in the United States today are actually African American or Haitian (face it, most American Catholics going to Mass today go as slobs and that goes for even funerals and holidays). But the service had "Catholic trappings" because the Congregants in the movie went up to receive Communion, dispensed "to the hand" from Protestant looking collection plates. The attempt appeared to "try" to be "respectful" of both Protestants and Catholics but in a way that again could be interpreted as either pandering to or lampooning a white "Palin nation" demographic now utterly scrubbed clean in that Church of any non-whites.

So would I recommend this movie? Sure, the gags are fun. But if I were Asian (Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese), Black or Hispanic, I’d just find the movie stunningly devoid of people like me.


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Friday, March 25, 2011

Sucker Punch [2011]


MPAA (PG-13), CNS/USCCB (A-III)  Mike Phillips (0 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Mike Phillips review

Sucker Punch, directed by Zack Snyder of 300 fame, is another recently released movie that’s probably inappropriately rated PG-13. The fetishized dress of the central (female) characters (though without any nudity), spectacular (though again stylized) violence, and "life is like an insane asylum/brothel" theme would make an R-rating seem much more appropriate. Still, the movie runs like a 2 hour music video and actually pulses with hard, head banging music throughout. So the dress and "life can suck," teenage "angst" thematics would not seem altogether strange to anyone who’s grown up over the last 40 years or spent at least some of that time as a fan of  the music television channels MTV or VH-1. Still, I wonder how much simpler/better the movie could have been if the film-makers had decided to just accept an R-rating and then used the same technology, fireworks and thematics to just tell a good story without seeking to "get away" with anything.

What’s Sucker Punch about? Well the plot could be summarized in this way: After the death of her mother, a young (teenage) girl is sent by her (step)father to said insane asylum/brothel. The movie is about her attempt, indeed campaign, to escape.

Now one could assume that this young girl was really sent by her (step)father to an insane asylum/brothel, but then one would not understand this movie at all (or understand the music of the last 40 or so years, from heavy metal to rap). The "asylum/brothel" and even "the crisis" that landed her there are _all_ best understood as symbolic.

Yes, life _can_ at times seem senseless (like an insane asylum) or a like a game (like a brothel). And anyone who’s ever listened to, been a fan of Pink Floyd / Supertramp, etc or, been simultaneously attracted to / scandalized by the sexualized lyrics of either AC/DC (heavy metal) or 50 cent (rap) would understand that teens/young people have been absorbing and utilizing this imagery since at least the 1960s. And lest one get upset about that, let us appreciate that both Desert (fallenness, senselessness) and Prostitution imagery have been present throughout the Bible from the journey of the Exodus to the Prophets (Hosea, et al) to the Book of Revelation (always disturbing and yet always one of the Christian Bible’s most popular books).

The young girl, nick-named Baby Doll (played by Emily Browning), is given two guides, one in this world (female, Dr. Vera Gorski, played by Carla Gugino), one in her dreams (male, nicknamed "Wise Man", played by Scott Glenn) to help her escape.

Her female guide in this world tells her ‘to dance,’ and _while she dances_ to see this as an opportunity to seek her freedom. This advice too, can be taken in two ways. Taken in a crass/literal way (which also assumes that the protagonist is literally in an insane asylym/brothel would understand the advice to be that given to a young prostitute to encourage her to "split" emotionally from her "work." Taken symbolically, however, the advice is far more useful. Telling the protagonist to "dance with the music," is to tell the her go on with her work, schooling, day-to-day business. But telling her to also "seek her freedom while dancing" here is to tell her to also use one's time to "work on a plan" to find a way out of the situation that she is in.

Her spiritual guide, who first appears to her in the guise of an Eastern martial arts guru sets her on a "quest" in search of (1) a map, (2) some fire, (3) a knife, (4) a key and (5) a fifth element which is "a mystery" but involves "sacrifice." Each of these elements has obvious symbolic meanings, and represent elements needed in assembling a "plan of escape."

The protagonist convinces a few of her in/brothel mates (whether or not they actually are in an insane asylum or brothel) to join her on her quest to escape the senselessness/oppression of the "insane asylum/brothel" that they find themselves in.

Each time, while the protagonist "dances" (_never_ actually shown) a fantastic battle involving all concerned takes place.

There are a couple of plot twists that take place that can’t be revealed without ruining the story but it can be said that while not all in her party are able make it free, a number do.

The whole story is played out in vivid, stylized ‘dreamlike’ sequences that make last year's wunder-film Inception look like a stick figure cartoon.  Each of these 'dream sequences' is actually a period piece incorporating both actual and popular cultural elements from the period in the sequence. They are then mixed / "mashed" in a IMHO fascinating way.  Thus one sequence has the girls appearing in a WW II British bomber in the midst of a Tolkein style battle involving dragons and orcs.  In another, the girls are sent in a Vietnam era helicoptor to disarm a cold-war style nuclear weapon heading on a train toward a target that looks very much like Lower Manhattan while fighting Terminator-like cyborgs.  Again, the imagery in this movie is often simply awesome. 

Harder questions for young adults to ponder would be: What is the nature of  the "freedom" that is sought in this movie?  And are we really strong enough to _alone_ bestow meaning to our lives?

I do find the movie far more intelligent than most critics give it credit (Mike Philips of the Chicago Tribune, a respected critic with no axe to grind, gave Sucker Punch _zero stars_).

I’ve also found times during my life that have seemed dry and senseless (like that of passing through a Desert or perhaps approaching living in an Insane Asylum). For myself, I do not know how I would have been able to pass through such difficult times without a sense that God was at my side.  The imagery of the famous recent Catholic hymn Be Not Afraid comes to mind.

This movie is vivid and disturbing. I don’t think it’s appropriate _at all_ for young children. Parents of teens would have legitimate concerns about the sexualized dress and general plot trajectory of the story. But high schoolers especially in the upper grades and certainly college aged young adults and above will probably "get" the story and probably understand it better than the parents (or most movie critics).

Finally returning to the highly dramatic, stylized but often violent imagery of the movie. As always with such violent imagery, which also generally exists in Apocalyptic literature, a legitimate concern can be raised if the audience experiencing it will understand that the conflict and violence depicted, _indeed the whole story_, is to be _understood symbolically_. (Consider simply that most Muslim scholars will both passionately and sincerely say that Jihad is supposed to be understood as an "internal struggle," but tell that to Osama bin Laden and Al Queda ...).

But in the end, my gosh, would this movie make for a _great_ (and _fun_) discussion piece among college students at a coffee house, over a pizza (or at a Newman Center) after watching the film!


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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer


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

IMDb Listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1189340/
CNS/USCCB Review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/l/lincolnlawyer2011.shtml
Roger Ebert’s Review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110316/REVIEWS/110319985

"Man, I’m a big fan of your work,
playing one side off against the other,
in bed with everybody..."
       – from The Big Lebowski

The Lincoln Lawyer (directed by Brad Furman, screenplay by John Romano based on the novel by Michael Connelly) continues in a long line of hard-boiled Hollywood crime dramas extending back to the days of the character Sam Spade, black and white film noirs and author Mickey Spillane. More recently, John Grisham updated this genre of tales by making a lawyer (rather than a private investigator) the central character of the story.

Still the elements of this kind of story remain the same: A hardened protagonist (usually male), usually a private eye or more recently a lawyer with a practice in a large "fallen city," is presented with a case that initially sounds like so many others that (usually) he has worked-on before. As the case proceeds, however, it gets even more depraved than (usually) he ever imagined. The "fallen city" is even more "fallen" than previously thought. The depravity of the case both reinforces the protagonist’s hard-boiled world view and redeems the protagonist by forcing (usually) him to rectify the situation and bring justice.

Interestingly, the audience follows along usually identifying with the protagonist thoughout the whole trajectory of the story. Thus the world-view presented is, in fact, largely that of the audience itself. It sees the world as fundamentally corrupt/fallen ("fallenness" being as Biblical a theme (1) (2) (3) as one can get). Yet, the audience is shocked to see just how corrupt/fallen it has become and it cheers the protagonist as (usually) he seeks to rectify this new Evil.

Certainly other countries have produced their share of crime dramas. However, this basic script has been standard Hollywood fare since the days of Humphrey Bogart (1930s-40s). So it could be said that this storyline has a definite place in the American psyche to the extent that so long as one begins with a decent script and the acting, direction and camera-work is at least average, one’s guaranteed a "b movie" that will make money here.

I mention all this because Americans are often thought of by foreigners as being somehow naive about "how the world works." These movies testify to the opposite, that Americans are NOT naive, that there is a long home-grown American tradition of reflecting on Evil and that by that tradition Americans have come to understand that Evil does not exist just "outside" but also "within" – that mayors, D.A.s, police officers, even the "little old lady across the street" could "have an an angle." It is a tradition in which "Party Lines" are dismissed out of hand as probably being lies (Would Sam Spade believe _any_ "party line?") Yet despite his cynicism, the protagonist in these films is shaken out of his complacency by an Evil that does go beyond the pale, but _not_ before following that Evil all the way to its source, often a good distance from where it first presented itself, often implicating people who initially posed as the "good guys."  It’s really a subversive story-line, but it’s one that worked in Hollywood for decades.

So then, how does The Lincoln Lawyer "stack up" this tradition hard-boiled crime dramas? Mick Haller (played by Matthew McConaughey) plays a slick Los Angeles defense attorney who makes a living defending scumbags.  He drives around, chauffered, in a big black Lincoln Continental (an impressive "bad-a car" if there ever was one), keeping tabs on his clients, picking up new ones and collecting his fees.  Indeed, like archetypical scumbag defense lawyer Bill Flynn from the musical Chicago (Flynn played perfectly in _that_ movie by Richard Gere), Mick’s only criterion in taking up a case is whether or not the client can pay. Indeed, we’re told early in this story that Mick’s only fear is of one day getting a client who really is innocent...

Many in the police hate him, of course, for defending scumbags who deserve to be in jail. But Mick does not care. He tells one officer that he sees his job as making sure that the police _do their jobs_ and don’t over-reach.

Early in the movie, we are also introduced to Mick’s ex-wife, Maggie MacPhearson (played by Marisa Tomei) who works for Los Angeles District Attorney’s office and who had divorced Mick because was just too strange for her to be working to put scumbags in jail while her husband was working to keep them out. The two have a young daughter that they both love and seek to protect from the dangers/consequences of their work. Theirs is an interesting modern situation and calls to mind that many people today work in professions that if they were honest about it are not particularly conducive to marriage and family...

A new case comes up involving a Louis Roulet (played by Ryan Phillipe) a rich 20-something who helps his mother in the upscale real estate business of Beverley Hills and Malibu. Louis is accused of viciously beating-up a young woman he met in an trendy Los Angeles club. He claims to have been set-up by a gold-digger seeking to sue him later for his money. He’s not exactly Mick’s typical client, but Louis personally asked for him and the family is more than willing to pay. Mick has his private investigator, Frank Levin (played by William H. Macy), check into the story...

Much happens. As in the case of other reviews I’ve written and posted on my blog, I’ll leave it the readers to check out the movie and make their own judgement as to whether the movie was satisfactory (or even if it made sense).

I will say that I found the movie _well crafted_ and _well acted_.  And yes, inanimate, devoid of any "special powers" as it was, _the car_ was a _worthy_ "supporting character."   And as far as I could discern, the movie’s various twists and turns "added up" nicely by the end. So I found this story to be a very good "crime drama" of the vein I described above.

Was The Lincoln Lawyer a great film? Probably not, but movies like this don’t aspire to greatness. Did it hold its own? Certainly.  Does it tell a great, well crafted, story?  Ditto.

Any concerns about viewership? I probably wouldn’t see much value in very, very young kids seeing the movie. But regarding others, I do believe that this movie is "as American as (a crusty :-) apple pie."


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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Jane Eyre

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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1229822/
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert’s review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110316/REVIEWS/110319990

I confess that I’ve always loved the story of Jane Eyre first published as a victorian novel by Charlotte Brontë in 1847. I’ve seen three of the film versions of the story – the 1944 version written by John Houseman and Aldrous Huxley with Orson Welles playing Mr. Rochester, the 1996 version by directed by Franco Zeffirelli and featuring William Hurt in the role of Mr Rochester and now the current 2011 version, screen play by Moira Buffini, directed by Cary Fukunaga and featuring Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre. Each version had its different take on the story while following its basic outlines.

That there would be 15 screen adaptations of Jane Eyre made around the world testifies to its enduring power. Indeed, it would be interesting to compare Jane Eyre with Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables (first published in 1862 or 15 years after Jane Eyre) because thematically the two tread similar ground and both stories have spawned a cottage industry of film and theatrical productions by every generation since the stories’ first publication (There have also been over 50 screen adaptations of Les Miserables made around the world since the novel’s publication).

What makes Jane Eyre work? It’s obviously the story. Jane Eyre, an orphan, first cared for by an unloving aunt, is sent a girls’ "boarding school from hell", where the school master publically orders her to be "shunned" for disobedience and her only friend dies in her arms of typhus. After completing such schooling, she takes a job as a governess at the home of Mr Rochester.  Despite treating her initially with distance (which could be interpreted as disdain) because of both her gender and her lower rank, Rochester gradually warms up to her and falls in love with her. It does not work-out however. (Those who’ve read the book or seen other screen versions of the story will know why.  Those who don't, read the book or see the movie). She leaves the Rochester mansion and is helped by the family of a clergyman who sets her up as a teacher in a local charity school. The clergyman himself falls in love with her but she doesn’t fall in love with him. He does not understand why. She then seeks to return back to the Rochester household...

Remarkable about Jane is that despite her age, rank (social class) and gender, Jane always holds her own. Throughout her life, everybody initially underestimates her but she makes it through life and even achieves happiness without ever resorting to vengeance. As such, she’s a character that is appealing to anyone who hasn’t had it exactly easy in life (not unlike the character of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables) and offers hope that the beatitudes "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (Mt 5:5) and "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy" (Mt 5:7) are indeed true.

Every new version has its own take on the story. The current film version by written by Moira Buffini and directed by Cary Fukunaga tends to underline the more the feminist / gender relations aspects of the story than previous versions. Notable here is simply that the principal star of this version is Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre rather than the actor (in this case Michael Fassbender) as Rochester.

Indeed this is the second movie in a year in which Mia Wasikowska has played the lead role in a beloved woman centered story from the 19th century. Last year, she played the lead in a updated / re-imagined version of Alice in Wonderland. In both cases, she was excellent and brings to fore the insights and concerns of our time, while remaining true to the character of the past. It will be interesting to see what Wasikowska will able to achieve in the future as her career proceeds.

I’d recommend this movie to everyone teenage and above, especially to families with teenage daughters. It’s a lovely story of both hardship and hard-won redemption but with "malice toward none."  In short, it offers a great example to young people about how to face "the tough times" with kindness and grace.


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Limitless


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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1219289/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/l/limitless2011.shtml
Roger Ebert’s review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110316/REVIEWS/110319983

Let me begin by saying that Limitless (screenplay by Leslie Dixon, directed by Neil Burger and based on the book by Alan Glynn) deserves an R-rating rather than a PG-13. It’s not because of various fairly graphic depictions of violence as well as various sexual situations that while not involving nudity certainly suggested much. It is simply the subject matter that arguably makes this a very dangerous movie.

So why would I label this a "dangerous" movie and yet proceed to post a review of it here anyway?

I think that the movie is "dangerous" because I find it so easy to imagine all kinds of people, who for all kinds of reasons, will try to come up with and/or score a mind performance enhancing drug like the fictional one of this movie. At the same time, the movie does _thankfully_ take the audience through all kinds of really frightening scenarios that would probably dissuade the vast majority of people from the endeavor. 

Then the topic of "limits" -- overcoming them through hard work (as in Rocky, et al) or through technological achievement (Wright Brothers, et al) or, yes, transgressing them as in Genesis 3 or Frankenstein, Jurrasic Park, etc -- is fundamentally interesting. So while I simply can not understand why _this movie_ got a PG-13 rating, I do think that a movie named Limitless invites adult reflection.  And then, this stuff _is coming_ folks and we have to be ready for it.

Ok, let's digress and see how the story is set up: A stuck-in-the-mud, struggling writer named Eddie Morra (played by Bradley Cooper) living in New York, hasn’t been put a single sentence on paper for months despite having received an advance on his book. As a result, his girlfriend Lindy (played by Abbie Cornish) leaves him. She was just made an editor at the publishing house where she’s working and he’s obviously going nowhere. Eddie knows the drill, he’s been divorced once already.

By coincidence, on the way home from the restaurant (check paid by his former girlfriend) where he had been dumped, he runs into his former brother-in-law, Vernon (played by Johnny Whitworth), someone described to us by Eddie as a former lowlife drug dealer who he hadn’t seen in 9 years, since the breakup of his first marriage. Said Vernon, lowlife former brother-in-law but in a suit now rather than the jeans and lumberjack shirt that Eddie’s in, asks Eddie’s about writing career.  And after getting past the excuses, Vernon gets Eddie to admit that he continues to be the same fogged-out struggling writer that Vernon remembered his sister had married (and dumped).

Well, Vernon offers Eddie a "solution."  It's a new drug that’s "going through clinical trials and soon will be legal." Eddie’s skeptical, Vernon claims that he’s legit even gives him a business card. They part ways with Eddie holding a one pill sample in his hand as well as Vernon's business card.

Not wanting to mess-up his life even further, Eddie’s more or less convinces himself that he’s not going take the pill even though he doesn’t let it go. As he enters his apartment building, however, he’s confronted by his landlord’s wife (apparently, he’s been late on his rent, big surprise...). In the course of the argument, he pops the pill. Some 10-20-30 seconds later suddenly everything around him starts coming into a surprising focus, and more importantly _his mind_ becomes super, super clear, even as it makes connections that he never would have thought of before.

Twenty minutes later, Eddie’s thoroughly turned the conversation around, helped his landlord’s wife on a _legal thesis_ that she had been struggling with using seemingly random strands from his memory, and even had pounding/triumphant sex with her in return (obscured by her laptop on her kitchen table). He goes home, discovers that this apartment is a dismal mess, quickly cleans it up and proceeds to type 90 brilliant pages for his book which he presents to his dumbfounded publisher the next morning.

Does a drug like this exist?  Speed comes to mind, but it makes people far more "edgy" than focused and has obvious and well known side-effects.  There are also prosac-class A.D.D. drugs out there that help people to focus better. But it is possible, even probable (given the potential) that more far potent drugs will exist in the future.
 
The rest of the movie, however, is actually (and _thankfully_) a _cautionary tale_ about the various unexpected consequences of starting to use such a drug: Since the drug (called NZT in the movie) was uncertified, it was by definition "underground." Its various inevitable side effects and addictive properties were unknown to Eddie. And Eddie was clearly not the only one who Vernon (and others) had offered the drug. So there were all kinds of unsavory underworld types, big and small, obvious and not so obvious, looking to get a hold of this drug and control its production and sale.

So Eddie gets his book and does manage to navigate the many hazards that present themselves, but there are _so many_ open-ended hazards presented in the movie that hopefully most people will set aside dreams of getting a hold of such a Faustian pill of forbidden knowledge.

Robert De Niro, playing a Wall Street mogul named Carl Van Loon, figures heavily in the second half of this movie. I mention De Niro here simply because in my opinion, Limitless is the second movie of arguably prophetic dimensions ("this is how the world works, or may work soon...") that I’ve seen him in, the first being his movie Wag the Dog.

Exaggerated as Wag the Dog was, it made the point that modern political campaigns involve far more than fund-raising, organizing armies of campaign workers to "get the vote out" or even running pointed/sleazy campaign ads.  Rather it involves manipulating the entire political terrain itself (to the point of creating an artificial crisis) for one’s candidate’s advantage. I put Limitless with its investigation of the future potential (and dangers) of various psychiatric drugs into such a prophetic category.

So, in summation Limitless is _definitely_ NOT "for the kiddies." Again, the violence as well as graphic if implied sex is bad enough, but it's mostly the subject matter. Why _this movie_ got a PG-13 rating, I can’t figure out. But it is for the parents. And if your kid, who’s never been able to put 2+2 together suddenly starts getting A+s, beware ...

ADDENDUM:

A book touching a related subject to "limits", that of the nature of "self," is that of Walter Truett Anderson, The Future of the Self (1997). In the book, Anderson explores the increasing fuzziness of the concept of "self" when people increasingly carry implanted, transplanted or completely bionic body parts, feel "more themselves" while on prosac than off of it, radically change career direction at least once or twice in their life, divorce and remarry and maintain multiple identities on the internet.

On the last point, that of maintaining multiple identities on the internet, Benedict XVI cautioned in his 2011 Message for World Communications Day that this can, in fact, become a new type of sin.


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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Of Gods and Men (orig. Des Hommes et des Dieux) [2010]


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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert’s review

Of Gods and Men (directed by Xavier Beauvois and cowritten by Xavier Beauvois along with Etienne Comar) is a French movie (with English subtitles) about the true story of the Cistercian monks of the Abbey of Notre Dame d’Atlas in Algeria who were abducted and killed by Muslim extremists during Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s.

This is a fairly complex story and the film-makers do a magnificent job in presenting it.

What were these monks led by Fr. Christian (played by Lambert Wilson) doing in Algeria to begin with? Well their Cistercian brothers came to Algeria during 1800s during the French colonial era to setup a monastery. Like Benedictines of old, they simply prayed, worked the land, provided basic services to the people of the area and a village eventually grew-up below the monastery. This is exactly the same missionary approach that the Benedictines used throughout Europe over a millenium ago and the same basic approach that the French Jesuits (the Black Robes) used to evangelize in Canada. (I’ve often thought that the best missionaries were, in fact, the French).

What was the life of the Cistercian monks at their Abbey in the countryside of now independent Algeria with a still secular government but an overwhelmingly muslim population? Again, the movie beautifully presents the rhythm of life of the monks in their community.

Note to Hollywood: This movie ought to be required viewing for anyone wishing to write a credible screenplay about a Catholic rectory, religious community, or convent. The many scenes of the rhythm of the monks’ religious life are outstanding. And I myself have lived that rhythm at various communities as a religious priest. The various community meetings (meetings of the monks) were gentle and sober. Again, they were outstandingly portrayed. I’ve participated in such serious, sober deliberations with friars from my Order from across the world.

A further note to both "conservative" and "liberal" Catholics: Every last syllable chanted by the monks in this movie was in modern French rather than in Latin. There are certainly many reasons why the Second Vatican Council has played out in the way that it has in the United States and throughout much of the English speaking world – and for that matter, why a Catholic (Servite) priest like myself would have taken on a project like this of reviewing / dialoguing with Hollywood’s films -- but once one gets out of the United States (and much of the English speaking world) one finds that the Second Vatican Council has been applied in all kinds of ways and yes, we can learn from others as to how to better apply the Faith at home. Chanting may not be for everyone, but obviously neither are guitar Masses (and I actually like the Guitar Masses more than Chant but can live with both for the sake of the whole). We’re Catholic (that is, belonging to a Church which is big enough to be universal, that is, for all), why not "mix things up" occasionally for the benefit of all?

Is the movie a propaganda piece? If it is, I’d be hard pressed to see on behalf of whom. The French don’t look good and are universally blamed for starting the whole mess in Algeria as a result of their handling of the colonial era. The current secular Algerian regime is portrayed as being fundamentally and perhaps irredeemably corrupt. The Muslim extremists are portrayed as violent but also as having been victimized. Only the monks and the villagers below are portrayed in a reasonably positive way but only after a thorough examination by the movie of why the heck they were there in the first place. After all, Algeria was a Moslem country before the French arrived.

Still a case can certainly be made for a group of people who buy some land, build a community, live in peace, take care of their needs and even some of the needs of their neighbors. Why not just leave them in peace? Be it in Algeria, France, the United States or Tibet or Saudi Arabia.

Of Gods and Men offers a great message, well presented and well acted, leaving one with much to think about.


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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Mars Needs Moms

MPAA (PG) CNS/USCCB (A-I) Michael Phillips (1 1/2 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb Listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1305591/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/m/marsneedsmoms2011.shtml
Michael Philips' review -
http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/movies/sc-mov-0309-mars-needs-moms-20110310,0,2272948.column

Continuing in the emerging tradition in the genre of feature-length modern animated films, Mars Needs Moms, is a surprising picture geared at least as much (or more) to adults as to young children. Indeed leaving the theater, I asked a mom with two small kids if her children even understood the movie. She answered that, yes, they appeared to enjoy the goofy antics of some of the characters. But she agreed that this movie was directed more to adults than to kids. Other recent animated pictures that I’d put this in this category include Up, Wall-E and Toy Story 3, not surprisingly all three of which were alluded to in the current movie.

All well and good, but what does Mars Needs Moms try to say? Here it gets interesting. It comes across as a surprising anti-feminist parable that would compare actually quite well to George Orwell’s  famous anti-Communist barnyard fable Animal Farm only arguably smoother / less stilted in its presentation than even Orwell was.

Mars Needs Moms is inspired by a picture book by the same name by Berkeley Breathed (creator of the famed Bloom County cartoon comic strip). The movie was produced by Robert Zemeckis and directed/co-written by Simon Wells (grandson of H.G. Wells), co-written also by Simon Wells’ wife Wendy Wells. Both Robert Zemeckis and Simon Wells have been involved in critical and box office hits as well as relative flops. Among their successes have been Back to the Future (directed by Zemeckis), Back to the Future II/III (directed by Zemeckis, contributed to by Simon Wells), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (directed by Zemeckis, animation supervised by Simon Wells), Forrest Gump (directed by Zemeckis for which he won an Oscar), Polar Express (directed by Zemeckis, digital visual work contributed to by Simon Wells), An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (directed by Simon Wells) and Kung Fu Panda (sequence supervision by Simon Wells). I list all these credits because it is difficult to discern from them an ideological bent at all for any of the three of these men (Breathed, Zemeckis or Simon Wells) much less a clearly right-wing one. So I do believe that their parable here was sincere, made without an axe to grind. And besides, Joan Cusack, a well-respected and dare one say, beloved, comic actress played the mom in this story and plays her role in a clearly sympathetic way.

Then there have been animated films such as Happy Feet that had some "heavy handed messaging" oriented "toward the left" regarding diversity and the environment that did not produce great public outcry. I find _nothing wrong_ with Happy Feet's messaging, especially since I agree with it.  But if anything, the messaging is smoother (and frankly funnier ;-) in Mars Needs Moms than in Happy Feet, et al. Yet, one gets the sense that Mars Needs Moms is getting somewhat black-balled. Why?

Well, let’s then get into the plot. Milo (Seth Green) a kid gets annoyed by his mom’s (Joan Cusack) nagging about taking out the garbage, eating his broccoli, not going to bed when he’s supposed to and finally tells her "My life would be better without you." She tears up and he goes to sleep. Milo wakes up a few hours later to see a spaceship in the back yard and his mother being abducted by aliens (Martians it turns out). Boy does he feel guilty! He tries to catch-up to his mom, but it is too late. He grabs onto the landing gear just as the rocket takes off. The landing-gear retracts bringing him inside (into the landing-gear bay).

The rocket flies through a worm hole and a few seconds later, there he is, on Mars. The Martians, dressed in stainless steel but looking a lot like Star Wars’ storm troopers take mom way to presumably to some lab and arrest Milo throwing him into jail. Milo manages to get himself out his cell. Suddenly there’s a voice of someone telling him to escape by jumping through a chute (a la Star Wars IV again) and he finds himself on top of a vast pile of garbage (like in Wall-E). He encounters strange hairy beings there but the voice again directs him elsewhere. He finally comes to a cabin where a "lost" late 20-30 something "boy" named Gribble (Dan Fogler) lives. He too had watched his mother abducted 20 some years back and managed to get himself on the ship only to see what the Martians did to his mother. And since then he’s been living in the garbage dump along with the strange hairy beings playing video games and ‘making do.’).

What happened to Gribble’s mom and threatens to happen to Milo's? Well Mars had been taken over by the female Martians who proved much more responsible and industrious than their male counterparts. So male and female martians would be separated at birth (they actually hatch). The boys would be thrown away into the garbage dump (who grew up to be those strange hairy but also strangely happy "tribal" creatures that Milo met in the garbage dump, while the girls would be raised by "nanny-bots." The adult female Martians were too busy being "responsible" (keeping everything spotless, clean and perfect) to bother with either child birth or child care. Indeed, the inside of the female Martian compound looked a lot like the inside of the Star Wars IV "Death Star" – vast, largely empty and seemingly made entirely of shiny stainless steel.  The task of raising the female children was left to the "nanny-bots."

Now how were the "nanny-bots" programmed? Well, the female Martians would periodically send spaceships to Earth to abduct Earth moms who the female Martians noted were particularly good at disciplining their kids. After bringing the Earth moms to mars, their disciplinary skills would then "downloaded" from the their minds to the nanny-bots so that the nanny-bots would keep the martian girls disciplined and in order. And most were.

But there was apparently a "tagger" who Milo and Gribble meet as they try to rescue Milo’s mom. The "tagger’s" name is Ki (Elizabeth Harnios) a relatively young female Martian who had worked in the Mars’ information control (censorship) bureau, who had gotten hold of a captured transmission of a 1960s "Laugh-in" like show from Earth and was fascinated by the color of the "flower children" there. So ever since, she had been spray painting "color" all over the walls of the female "deathstar" compound to the consternation of the older/stern "queen bees." Ki becomes a kindred spirit to Milo and Gribble and helps save Milo’s mother. In the process, Ki finds a _cave painting_ showing a grown Martian male and female holding a Martian child. She realizes that Martians too used to be raised in families and that Mars used to have much more color.

The story ends with Milo and Gribble saving Milo’s mother. Ki in the mean time brings the cave/garbage dump dwelling Martian males up to the surface and along with the younger female Martians stages a coup. The "supervisor" (Mindy Sterling) even looking like a "queen bee" in this animated picture gets upset saying to the ungrateful younger females "I did all this for you!" But to no avail. The males, as dumpy and impractical as they are add color to the females' lives and all "live happily ever after."

Wow. No wonder many people would be appalled and one gets a sense that this movie’s getting chloroformed, even though the stunningly expensive $150 million production price-tag (the movie was using the "performance capture" technique that Zemeckis had made famous with Polar Express and Beowulf) doesn’t help.  The performance capture technique is actually quite cool to watch and during the closing credits, the film-makers show how they made some of the key scenes in the picture.  It is quite amazing, though clearly expensive!
 
But like a Court Jester in Medieval European courts of old (or at least in _storybook_ Medieval European courts of old) the movie raises an uncomfortable question concerning gender relations today: While it is acknowledged almost everywhere that women are probably more efficient and more responsible than men (in Bangladesh, women tend to get "microloans" while men do not, and _all of us_ see this in the Catholic Church where the girl altar servers are almost always so much more responsible than the boys), maybe that male "goofiness" as opposed to female "hyper-responsibility" is _not_ such a bad thing. It can add color and humor to a world that could otherwise end-up being cold, efficient and steel.

I know that a good number of women could throw-up their hands and respond: "The _reason_ why we tend to be ‘hyper-responsible’ is because we have be _perfect_ to be considered _reasonably good_ in a male dominated world."

I get that. But I also know that women often compare themselves to a relatively small set of "alpha-males" as opposed to a much larger set of "less-than alpha males" who are a lot like those "hairy males in the trash" who actually have made a life of it not needing to be "number one" but enjoying "drinking beer," "going fishing," and "playing video games." They may have more to offer, be more human, and be more fun than the "iron fisted men" who still dominate ALL OF US from their perches at "Goldman Sachs," etc. Did that point need to be made for $150 million? I don’t know, but I’m kinda glad that the point was raised.

Finally, I'd find it interesting to find out what John Grey, PhD (author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus) and famed Franciscan male spirituality guru Fr.Richard Rohr, OFM would think of this surprising, highly provocative film ;-).


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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Red Riding Hood [2011]

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

IMDb listing-
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1486185/
CNS/USCCB Review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/r/redridinghood2011.shtml
Roger Ebert’s Review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110310/REVIEWS/110319996

If you like your fairytales to be simple and straightforward then David Johnson’s (writer) and Catherine Hardwicke’s (director) Red Riding Hood re-imagining of this classic would _not_ be for you. Since this is Hollywood production after all, there is some fairly crass borrowing, mixing and matching from previously commercially successful films. About midway into the picture, I imagined it being pitched to studio executives as "the Twilight series meets The Name of the Rose with a werewolf substituting for Twilight’s vampires." And since Amanda Seyfried (young, blonde, sympathetic with trademark big blue eyes) was signed to play the role of Vanessa (Little Red Riding Hood in this movie), I’d probably be opening my checkbook as well if I were being tapped to invest in the film.

Still, as I often do, I do believe that there is more to this picture than simply an attempt to cash-in one more time on the bonanza that the Twilight series seemed to have wrought. And I do believe that it is the sheer convolutedness of the Johnson’s/Hardwicke’s retelling of this story that redeems the film.

Set deep in the cgi-forests of Medieval Europe (seriously, the sets and scenery in this movie are really good, something that any Neverwinter Nights gamer would certainly appreciate), a village named Daggerhorn finds itself terrorized by a wolf. For about a generation, the townspeople have paid the wolf off: Each full moon, they leave a young pig tethered to a sacrificial stone in the middle of the village for the wolf to devour. In return, the wolf leaves the villagers alone.

Well, one full moon and for reasons unclear, the wolf breaks the arrangement and kills one of the young maidens of the village, Vanessa’s older sister. This sends the villagers into a panic and into a rage. A more pious villager sends for help of a priest, Father Solomon (played by Gary Oldman. Note that in the world of the movie, priests marry and combat Evil with both prayers and swords). Other villagers just want to take matter into their own hands. Organizing a posse, they venture to the cave where the wolf is said to have its lair and finding a wolf there, kill it.

A few days later Father Solomon arrives. Some of the villagers suspicious of the motives and actual abilities of the priest, tell him proudly that they’ve killed the wolf themselves ("See the wolf’s head here on a pike") and that they don’t need him. Fr. Solomon assures them that all they have is an innocent wolf’s head on that pike, and that the village is up against a werewolf, which is much more insidious. He explains that a werewolf spends most of its time in human form, changing into the shape of a wolf only at the time of the full moon, and since the werewolf is not really a wolf but a cursed human being, the werewolf was probably a villager or someone living near the village. Initially, most of the villagers dismiss Fr. Solomon as inflating his importance. But when he proves to be correct (the werewolf strikes again, indeed, killing some of the most arrogant of the villagers), panic sets in.

Fr. Solomon then sets about organizing the village to combat this terrifying threat that could be both internal and external and above all supernatural and deceitful. Yes, his methods are draconian and often arbitrary. And yes, Fr. Solomon generally comes across as being creepy. But this movie has been made in post 9/11 America and after the sex scandals that rattled the Catholic Church here in the U.S. some years ago. So while Fr. Solomon is portrayed as being somewhat creepy, he is also portrayed as being actually quite sincere and still at least "in the ball park knowledgeable" about what the village is trying combat. The others really don’t have a clue at all. And when it comes to "creepy," even "grandma" (played by Julie Christie) is portrayed as rather creepy as well as Vanessa's love interest in the movie Peter (played by Shiloh Fernandez). Indeed, Peter looks like a Twilight character who didn’t get around to leaving the set after the rest of the cast and crew had packed up and went home after finishing that movie. Finally it turns out that _everybody_ in the village, including most importantly to Red Riding Hood all the adults in her life -- ma, pa and grandma -- had their secrets. So figuring out who actually is the werewolf terrorizing the village becomes a surprisingly good "who-done-it" guessing game for the audience.  About 2/3 into the picture, I was smiling (in recognition of the success of the writer/director in this regard) saying to myself, "It really could be anybody."

So what’s going on here? I think that the reworking of the story works because it is a remarkably good a "fairy tale" reflection of our time. Since 9/11, the United States has felt terrorized by a threat that could "come from anywhere." Fr. Solomon representing in the movie both church and state plays a deeply flawed "Dick Cheney figure in a cassock and a beard" in the story -- Yes, he's rather creepy, yes the audience will generally not like him. Yes, he’s even stabbing in the dark. But _no one else_ seems to have come-up with a better alternative. And so, yes, we are "running scared." Then, with each week, month, and year each with each "turning of the page in the newspaper" it is turning out that pretty much everybody in our society seems to "have a secret," and that anybody could actually be complicit, aiding and abetting (and in various ways) in the terrors facing us today. So the "big bad wolf" is seemingly everywhere.

As with other thrillers that I've reviewed here, I’ll leave it to the viewers to follow the movie’s hunt for the werewolf to allow them to see if they can figure out who it is before the mystery gets revealed and then to render their own judgement as to whether it all makes sense. Again, I found the "who-done-it" aspect of the film to be remarkably well done.

I would not recommend the movie to little kids, but to teens I would say okay. Yes, some Catholic/Christian parents may object to the way Fr. Solomon is portrayed in the movie. But actually, while portrayed as flawed, he is also portrayed in a multi-dimensional way. He is portrayed as being _not merely flawed_. And that parents sometimes have secrets is something that teens often discover about their parents anyway and is _part_ of the reason why a movie like this works today. For better or sadly worse in this case, the movie strikes a chord.


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Scheherazade Tell Me a Story (aka Women of Cairo) [2009]


MPAA (not rated) Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 stars)

IMDb Listing - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1473149/

I had actually planned to see another movie this evening but the time had not worked out. And while scanning through the movie listings, I came across the 2009 Egyptian movie Scheherazade Tell Me a Story (aka Women of Cairo), written by Wahid Hamid and directed by Yousry Nasrallah, playing at a more convenient time at Facet’s Multimedia on Fullerton St here in Chicago.

This January-February, Egypt captured the imagination of the world with its bringing down of the much despised regime of Hosni Mubarak. Further, the reference to Scheherazade in the movie’s title (Scheherazade was the woman character around whose storytelling abilities The 1001 Arabian Nights were built) even as the movie summary promised a modern reworking of the story immediately caught my attention. Finally, during this winter’s Egyptian Revolution both the role of women in Egypt's revolution as well as their particular struggle against endemic sexual harrassment was covered by the press. As such, I came to Facet’s Multimedia wondering what I would see. And the film did not disappoint. I found it to be a compelling and often surprising film.

Indeed, Scheherazade Tell me a Story immediately reminded me of the Czech movies (esp. Loves of Blonde and Fireman’s Ball) of the mid-1960s made in the period immediately preceeding the Prague Spring in a political climate not altogether different from that of the closing years of Egypt Mubarak regime. A corrupt and widely discredited regime was collapsing and people, especially artists, were dreaming.

Scheherazade Tell Me a Story also reminded me of the 2001 Indian film Monsoon Wedding which presented India to the world as a vibrant modern society, capable of not only addressing but contributing to the discussion of the major social issues facing the world of our time. Scheherazade Tell Me a Story also presents a thoroughly modern face of Egypt (without denying the other parts of Egypt as well) that _honestly surprised me_ and probably would surprise most Americans.

The conflict between modernity and traditionalism as well as the sclerosis of a regime that had outlived any usefulness formed the backdrop to the story.

The film’s principal characters, Hemma and Karim, played by Egyptian actors Mona Zaki and Hassan El Raddad respectively, are young successful Egyptian yuppie journalists living in a swanky apartment in Cairo. Karim finds out early in the movie that he could be made editor in chief of one of Cairo’s (government run) newspapers if only he could encourage his wife, Hemma, to steer her television talk show away from "political" topics like corruption or even poverty. Young, spritely, optimistic 30-something Hemma who’s in her second marriage (did you know that could be possible in Egypt? I did not) reminds Karim that when they got married they had promised each other not to interfere in each other’s careers. Nevertheless, to not cause her husband needless problems, she decides to take her show in a direction that appeared to both her and Karim to be safe: She decides to simply do a series of shows on women’s lives. Both she and her husband quickly discover that truly _everything_ is political.

The movie proceeds with three Egyptian women from widely varied sections of Egyptian society (veiled and unveiled, from among the rich, poor and middle class) telling their stories on Hemma’s television program, each story becoming more compelling and more dangerous than the previous. The stories are not pleasant, and burrow into male-female relational issues that make the incompetence and corruption of Mubarak’s regime beside the point. (Perhaps this is why the movie was even allowed to be made, because it appears to have been filmed in Egypt).

It is here that director Nasrallah’s invocation of Scheherazade becomes truly fascinating and pointed. In the 1001 Arabian Nights, Scheherazade was a woman who was able to survive solely by her wits through her ability to tell stories to her husband/king that would entertain and distract him enough to want to keep her alive. On one level, all the journalists in the film were similarly dancing and spinning tales that kept them both honest with themselves and out of trouble with the authorities. But in particular, it was the women who lived in situations where the society’s rules were just horribly stacked against them.

One hopes that with the fall of the Mubarak regime and brave film-making/story-telling such as this, today’s Sheherazades will not merely spin tales to stay alive but be able to continue to now tell things as they are so that the conditions of women in the Middle East will improve.

A final note, while Scheherazade Tell Us a Story presents difficult/painful themes and in a few instances the movie shows more blood than an American would be comfortable with, one of the remarkable features of this movie is actually _how gently funny_ it often is.  It touches some very big problems, but does so in a surprisingly light/gentle if still pointed way.

So while the movie does focus on the difficulties of women in Egypt's society, I would recommend this movie to anyone (especially a younger college aged/young adult audience) who'd be interested about learning more about Egypt today and its recent history/problems.


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Friday, March 11, 2011

Beastly


MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) The Onion/AV Club (D-) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1152398/
CNS/USCCB review - http://www.usccb.org/movies/b/beastly2011.shtml
The Onion/AV Club - http://www.avclub.com/articles/beastly,52675/

The movie Beastly (screenplay written and directed by Daniel Barnz and based on the novel by Alex Flynn) came to me recommended by one of our parish’s young adults who had seen it the previous weekend and liked it.

The movie is a modernistic “goth” retelling of the traditional fairytale of The Beauty and the Beast, calling to mind the Leonardo di Caprio, Claire Danes version of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The dialogue in Beastly, which does come across as “stiff” at times, has a formality to it which suggests that this “stiffness” is at least partly intentional to give the movie a theatrical, “other worldly,” “story-telling,” feel. Further the play itself appears simple enough that if I were a director of a high school drama department, I could see myself trying to see if there was a stage version of the Barnz’ screenplay available, which could be put-on by one’s high school drama troupe in the years to come.

The story in this retelling of the fairy-tale is set in New York City. Kyle (played by Alex Pettyfer) a rich and good looking son of an equally rich and good looking network anchorman begins the story begins the story convinced that only looks and money matter. As such he treats pretty much all the other students at his elite prep school with condescension and contempt. He is only barely aware of a classmate named Lindy (played by Vanessa Hudgens) who has a crush on him. More importantly to the set-up of the rest of the story, he goes out of his way to be nasty to a classmate named Kendra (played by Mary-Kate Olsen) who dresses like a “goth” and so appears to be his polar opposite. At one point, Kendra, who it turns out to be dabbling in magic, gets so tired of Kyle’s over-the-top bullying that she places a curse on him. The curse makes him hideously ugly. Yet unlike the curse of the old gypsy woman against a much better looking, and more fortunate progonist in Drag Me to Hell (a movie of a few years ago with some similar motiffs) Kendra’s curse can be revoked within a year, if Kyle can find someone who despite his now hideously ugly state says the words “I love you.” If he can not find someone who says those words within that year’s time, then the curse becomes permanent.

The story then plays out along the broad lines of the original fairy tale.

I found it particularly interesting / creative how the writers of the current version (Alex Flinn of the novel and Daniel Barnz of the screenplay) were able to find a plausible reason for Lindy, who becomes the “Beauty” in the story to be surrendered by her father and put into the care of the “Beastly” Kyle. But the modern version adds a number of other characters to help Kyle to learn to see beyond appearances. They include Zola (played by Lisa Gay Hamilton) his Caribbean housekeeper who has many problems in her life but to whom until his deformity he paid no mind and Will (played by Neil Patrick Harris) a blind tutor who both can’t be repulsed by Kyle’s ugliness and can help him comprehend what’s actually important in life without being distracted by sight.

Kyle grows and it, of course, ends well. The story is simple, at times stilted, but I do believe would be enjoyable to most teenagers. I honestly am _not_ a particular fan of movies that appear to glorify witchcraft and I do suspect that some parents may have an initial problem with Kendra’s character as well. However, on further reflection, I do believe that Kendra merely plays the role of a witch in the story (and, the original story _did_ have a witch, since otherwise there would have been no curse). So I would suggest to parents who otherwise may have a problem with Kendra’s character to perhaps let it go, and accept the movie for what it is, a creative, teen oriented, contemporary retelling of a compelling fairytale that asks us to get past appearances.


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