Saturday, April 30, 2011

Hoodwinked Too - Hood vs Evil

MPAA (G) CNS/USCCB (A-II) Michael Phillips (1 star) Fr. Dennis (1/2 star)

IMDb Listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0844993/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/h/hoodwinkedtoo2011.shtml
Michael Phillips review -
http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/movies/sc-mov-0426-hoodwinked-2-20110428,0,6521350.column

I found Hoodwinked Too - Hood vs Evil (directed by Mike Disa and co-written by Cory Edwards and Todd Edwards and two others) to be a very creative, often honestly very funny, but on reflection also a very disturbing animated film, one of several (including Hop) in which I found the accenting of the animated characters to be really problematic.

The film features various re-imagined staples from Grimm’s Fairy Tales working for the HEA (Happy Ending Administration) dedicated to keeping things running happily and ending well in their make-believe world.  Honestly, a “kinder, gentler CIA?”

Little Red Riding Hood (voice by Hayden Panettiere) begins the movie getting “green beret” training at a Himalayan martial arts center reminding one of Kung Fu PandaThe Big Bad Wolf (voice by Patrick Warburton) who’s now her partner is (when one thinks about it, unsurprisingly) a “master of disguises.”  Grandma (voice by Glenn Close) is the keeper of a secret truffle recipe on which the well-being of the world depends. 

Then there are the villains.  There’s the "mostly talk," but when it comes down to it "incompetent" green African American sounding Troll (voice by David Alan Grier) who serves as Red Riding Hood's sparing partner during her training.  There’s the Slavic sounding witch, named Verushka (voice by Joan Cusack), jealous of Grandma for "always coming to second to her" early in life.  There are the rather vindictive Hispanic sounding Three Little Pigs (voiced among others by Cheech Marin).  There’s the Italian mafia like “big guy”/”gumba” (Giant) from Jack and the Beanstalk who runs a seedy club in San Francisco. 

And then there is are the German accented twins Hansel and Gretel (voices by Bill Hader and Amy Poehler) around whom the whole story comes to revolve.

I found the story creative, and yes at times very funny.  Still, I can’t help but be concerned about the use of accents in these animated stories.  I have a sister who’s name is Vera, known to us in our Czech immigrant family as Veruška (pronounced Verushka).  And ironically, she’s spent most of her life trying really, really hard to be an American.  And here’s a Verushka cast as a Slavic sounding witch ...

Then there’s Cheech Marin saying “arriba los puecos!” (Long live the pigs!) as he leads three heavily armed “little pigs” as they try to get their vengeance against the English stately sounding  “Big bad wolf” who previously tried "to blow their house down." 

The Silverster Stalone looking “gumba” Giant isn’t exactly a bright light for Italian Americans trying to get past their stereotypes. 

And even Hansel and Gretel turn out to be rather “complex.”

Honestly, how’s is one supposed to wrap one’s head around all this if one is not a WASP?

It’s funny, no doubt. But honestly, what a collection of non-Anglo-Saxon stereotypical villains ...


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Prom


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

IMDB listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1604171/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/p/prom2011.shtml

Michael Phillips' review -
http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-prom-20110428,0,3805785.column

I was somewhat guilted/talked into going to see Prom (directed by Joe Nussbaum and written by Katie Wech) by one of my parish’s teenagers.  To be honest, I figured that the Prom Night horror movies and Carrie had about as much to say about Prom that I’d be willing to give the subject.  However, movies like the High School Musical franchise and the television series Glee have revisited high school in recent years and spun it in probably the most positive light since Happy Days of my teenage viewing days.  So I figured I’d give it a shot.

And I have to say that it did have its moments.  In particularly I could not but feel for student council president Nova Prescott (played by Aimee Teegarden) trying her heart out to make her hitgh school’s prom the “best prom ever.”   I’ve known people like this and for the sake of a good soul trying to make something work, most of us probably could be convinced to take a grenade or something.  The rest of the cast is the typical collection of characters assembled for high school movies.  There was at least one more or less obvious homage to The Breakfast Club.  But all this was more or less obviously stitched together by Disney in the service of repackaging and remarketing Prom.

And therein to me lies the problem: No matter how Disney, Inc spins it, Prom remains largely a crass commercial enterprise with questionable and even objectionable social value.  Prom has always been something of a social report card.  In generations past it was even a final exam of sorts. But on what criteria?  One’s looks, one’s date’s looks, one’s money, one’s date’s money, at times even the two’s sexual performance.   No wonder therefore that Prom became the subject of teenage horror movies...

At least in generations past, a fair percentage of prom couples did eventually get married and _not just_ because a fair number of the women got knocked-up as a result of the whole thing, but because the couple had been dating throughout a good part of high school, and after high school the guy got a decent job at the shop, factory or farm and the couple could set-up house.  Today, _that’s generally impossible_ and most prom couples end up splitting up, heading in different directions to different schools after high school graduation. 

All this has thankfully contributed to Prom becoming Prom-Lite over the last 20 years.  Parents have stepped it to make it less of a free for all.  It’s now socially acceptable (again?) to go to Prom in groups rather than rigorously paired up, saving both parents and kids money and frankly diminishing the previous annual “off to college”run on abortions at Planned Parenthood in August-September that the “May Prom Season” used to spawn. 

But then, if Prom is thankfully becoming Prom-lite is that “good for business?”  Well, that may best answer Disney’s interest in producing this film, Prom – to repackage and resell Prom's “mystique” to the High School Musical generation.   Folks, an end of high school dance is certainly nice.  But folks, please, please don’t let Disney or anyone else make this single high point in your life be your last.


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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family


MPAA (PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1787759/

Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family (written, directed and starring Tyler Perry as Madea) continues the very successful Madea franchise, featuring Mabel (Madea) Simmons, a scrappy 70 year old African American grandmother who’s done all her life what she needed to in order to survive. As often the case in the Madea movies, she’s not necessarily the central character at the beginning of the film though she becomes more important as the movie progresses.

Also endearing in these movies is that even if often presented with exaggeration, the movies deal with real pain and real issues. In the opening scene in this movie, Madea’s niece Shirley (played by Loretta Divine) is told by her doctor, Dr Evans (played by Philip-Anthony Rodriguez) that her cancer has returned and this this time it was much more aggressive than before. Shirley wants to get her three children and their families together to tell them the sad news. This simple desire proves heartrendingly difficult to realize as Shirley’s adult and soon to be adult children are absorbed in their own lives, resentments and with their own demons:

Daughter Tammy (played by Natalie Desselle) is disappointed with her honest but modest auto-mechanic husband Harold (played by Rodney Perry). Their constant fighting makes it difficult for either of them to control their two soon to be teenage sons.

Second daughter Kimberly (played by Shannon Kane) has moved "uptown" and resents her simpler, "more ghetto" relatives. She even harps on her husband Calvin (played by Isaiah Mustafa) even though he appears to be the "perfect" for her – good looking, financially successful, a _nice guy_ and seemingly utterly devoted to her. Still, she can’t be happy.  (The reason why becomes revealed later in the movie and makes one cry).

Finally, there’s the 18 year old son Byron (played by Bow Bow) who’s already spent time in jail and fathered a child with a similarly young ex-girlfriend, Sabrina (played by Teyana Taylor). Sabrina turns out to be a gum-chewing, fast food restaurant working "baby mama from hell." But even though the two _don’t_ live together "he did make his bed," (Byron’s created a child) and so he’s got to live with the financial obligations and consequences. Byron’s new "high maintenance" girlfriend Renee (played by Lauren London) presents her own problems.

After several heartrending attempts by soft-spoken Shirley to get this family together for dinner to that she could them the news, "super ghetto" Madea increasingly takes over to knock some sense into Shirley’s kids so that she could do finally so, AND EVEN MADEA IS ONLY _PARTLY_ SUCCESSFUL.

Critics have complained that Tyler Perry exaggerates his characters too much. I can tell readers _without reservation_ that family dysfunction and resentment approaching the level presented here both _definitely exists_ and _definitely transcends ethnicity_. Consider simply that the recent South Korean movie "Shi" ("Poetry") about a grandmother raising an utterly clueless and ungrateful grandson for her daughter touches on almost exactly the same themes and arguably with even more brutal honesty. But obviously both parish life and even human life is filled with similar examples of people too absorbed in their own issues to see what’s going on even with loved ones around them. (Both the just and just ask Jesus at the Last Judgement "when did we see you [in need]?" Matthew 25:31-46).

Madea's Big Happy Family is probably not for little kids (because they probably wouldn’t get it) and but for teens and above I do believe the movie is excellent (the movie is IMHO appropriately rated PG-13, with multiple exaggerated references to drug use and some bleeped profanity), reminding us that we do have a duty to wake-up and care for those around us. God bless you Tyler Perry for giving us a tough message in the same way that Robin Williams often has – with a smile.


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Win Win


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

IMDb Listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1606392/
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert’s Review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110324/REVIEWS/110329991

Win Win (screenplay written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, story by him and Joe Tiboni) is a family drama set in a nondescript town in New Jersey. Mike Flaherty (played by Paul Giamatti) a 40-something lawyer sharing a practice with Stephen Vigman (played by Jeffrey Tambor) is worried about his bills. With the economic downturn, cases have dried up and he is struggling. The addition of new baby daughter added further pressure. What to do?

Well Mike had an older court appointed client, Leo Poplar (played by Burt Young). who did have some money but no apparent family and was exhibiting worsening signs of dementia. The State wanted to make Leo a Ward of the State and place him in a senior home. Mike beats back this attempt by volunteering himself to be Leo caretaker (for a nice $1500/mo stipend). Surprised that Mike would want to do that, the State nevertheless agrees. Mike then puts Leo in the Senior center _anyway_ promising to be somehow more personable than the State would have been (He’d visit him and take him out of the home on a more regular basis, etc, etc) and pockets the $1500. A "Win/Win," Right? Sort of?

Things start to go wrong almost immediately. Kyle (played by Alex Schaffer), Leo’s grandson shows up at Leo’s door step. Kyle is the son of Leo’s troubled and estranged daughter Cindy (played by Melanie Lynskey). Having been forced to stay with another one of Cindy’s boyfriends while she was in rehab again, Kyle had decided to split and look for his grandfather Leo who he had never met. But Leo is now in a Senior home and Mike is nominally cutting the lawn taking care of his house. Kyle, who was 16-17 year old junior in high school, can’t stay in Leo’s home alone. What to do? Mike decides to try to take Kyle in to his home over the initial objections of his wife Jackie (played by Amy Ryan).

Kyle proves to be a remarkably young talented wrester and Mike and his lawyer partner Stephen serve as wrestling coaches at the local high school. Again, what a break! After a little bit of a dust-up, it seems like it's going to be another "win/win."

Well Cindy, Kyle's mom, gets out of rehab, and comes out to New Jersey looking for both her son and her father’s money. She hires another lawyer, Eleanor (played by Margo Martindale) and offers to take care of her dad (after more than 10 years of not even speaking to him). Mike knows that she’s only out for Leo’s money, but _he’s_ actually doing the exact same thing, using Leo for his money and he’s supposed to have been his lawyer. What now?

The rest of the movie is about figuring out an answer to that question. It’s sticky, it’s complicated and definitely _not_ a simple "win/win." But then that’s life ... What a great movie!

Another character who I haven't mentioned up until this time, but is present throughout the whole story is Bobby Cannavale (played by Terry Delfino) who's  Mike’s best friend. Bobby doesn’t really do all that much thoughout the story, except that he’s _always there_ in both the good times and in the not so good. By the end, however, one has to say, what a good friend!

Win Win came out a number of weeks ago and will probably disappear soon to cable and video. But it’s actually a very good family oriented movie (the R-rating is _simply_ for _mild occasional profanity_) about figuring out what really ought to matter.


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Monday, April 25, 2011

Water for Elephants


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

IMDb Listing - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1067583/
CNS/USCCB Review - http://www.usccb.org/movies/w/waterforelephants2011.shtml
Roger Ebert's Review - http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110421/REVIEWS/110429994

Water for Elephants (directed by Francis Lawrence, screenplay by Richard LaGravenese based on the book by Sara Gruen) is a thoughtful and provocative melodrama set during the Great Depression. Jacob (played by Robert Pattinson of the Twilight series fame), about to get his degree in veterinary science at Cornell University has his world turned upside down when he is pulled out of his final exam to the news that his Polish immigrant parents (who had just reminded him that morning of how proud they were of him) were killed in a car accident. As he seeks then to their accounts in order, he finds out that the bank was going to take their farm. Why? His father had mortgaged the farm to pay for Jacob's tuition payments. After getting a lecture from the banker "don’t make the same mistakes that your father did," Jacob packs a suitcase (the farm is going to go anyway) and starts heading "to the city" (Albany) in hopes of finding a job. It’s 1931. The freight train that he seeks to jump onto to hitch a ride turns out to be circus train, and thus begins the adventure of his life.

The circus is owned by August (played by Christoph Waltz of Inglorious Basterds fame). He is nuts, running his circus like a pirate ship. When employees cause him trouble or he can’t afford to keep everyone, he literally has the "troublemakers" or "expendables" thrown off the train.

Why would anyone work under such conditions? And perhaps why would someone like August, who has his charming qualities as well, become such a monster? Jacob, who until recently had not felt poverty/desperation, asked such questions both of himself and of August’s lovely but (psychically) scarred wife Marlena (played by Reese Witherspoon) who was actually of Jacob's age rather than that of August who seemed almost a generation older than both of them.

In good part, the reason why people put up with such conditions was because it was the Depression. People were desperate. Circuses were also the "end of the line" for many particularly vulnerable people. So if one already had a predisposition for sadism or megalomania, leading such an operation was a perfect fit. Thus August became the "king" of something of a traveling infirmery/madhouse in a world (Depression Era rural New York) that seemed at the time to have met its Apocalypse. (It would not be entirely a stretch to compare the rural New York of Water for Elephants to the post-apocalyptic worlds of the Mad Max movies or more recently the Book of Eli. Those other movies were, of course, far more starkly drawn, but when people get thrown off the train in the dead of night because the Boss doesn’t have money to feed them, one’s talking about very dark times).

Jacob proves useful to August because he is vet. Well, he wasn't really a vet because he never actually got his degree (because of the tragic deaths of his parents).  But he was "almost a vet" and to a "pirate circus" running on a shoe string, that was good enough.

When the circus’ star horse, which Marlena was riding in the show, dies (Actually it’s put-down between shows by Jacob despite August’s objections, who’d have the horse just be run into the ground) August bets the whole circus on the acquisition of a show elephant named Rosie from another circus that had met its end. Nobody really had a clue about how to manage an elephant but August nominally puts Jacob in charge of making the elephant into an act. And when Jacob doesn’t immediately know what to do, August offers his own approach. Fortunately, Jacob discovers something remarkable about Rosie (which folks who know something about animal training would appreciate) and this at least temporarily saves the day.

The rest of the movie is quite predictable and tragic, kinda like watching the "proverbial train wreck," even though (1) that isn’t exactly what happens and (2) anyone likes these kinds of movies will certainly get one’s money’s worth – there are plenty of places where this movie will make one cry.

I wouldn’t recommend the movie for small children because of some of the treatment of the animals (as well as of people) which is quite traumatic.  But also thematically I can’t imagine that an "8 year old" would enjoy watching a 2 hour movie about desperately poor people seeking to find a way to survive.

For adults, however, the movie certainly has something to say about "old-time patriarchy" (represented by August) where the man, however insane, was "the Boss," and the contrast between that approach and the more gentle one (represented by Jacob) that most of us are now more familiar with where everyone is made to feel that "yes, times are tough but we’re in this together."

In our current tough economic times, a movie set during the last Great Depression with this conflict playing out "on the train" offers one much to think about indeed.

Finally, the United States is a nation of immigrants, something that often gets highlighted in the movies.  Those of Polish descent may appreciate this movie in a special way for its positive portrayal of Polish-Americans as honest, hardworking, family-oriented folk with their heads-screwed-on right and their values in order throughout the film.  There have been many movies made over the years about Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Jewish Americans, Hispanic Americans, etc.  This is the first movie that I can think of where old -time Polish Americans are presented in such a nice, prominent and positive way.  And there is a nice surprise / plot twist in the movie that further highlights the Polishness of this story as well.


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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Scream 4


MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB (0) Roger Ebert (2 stars) Fr Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1262416/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/s/scream42011.shtml
Roger Ebert’s review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110414/REVIEWS/110419991

Scream 4 is the latest in the Scream franchise (all written by Kevin Williamson and directed by horror legend Wes Craven) of slasher horror flicks and all starring Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and David Arquette. The gimmick in the Scream series is that the characters these movies have all seen other slasher horror films and so try to avoid mistakes made by characters in the previous films even as they walk into "new" mistakes or end up making other "old" mistakes.

Hence there’s there’s a scene midway through the movie, after the slasher "ghostface" (who wears a black hooded cape and a stupid drugstore quality Halloween ghost mask) has racked up a half a dozen new high school/teenage victims, when two young cops (one white, one African American) are sitting in their squad car protecting the home of Sidney Prescott (played by Neve Campbell) the series’ perpetual but always surviving victim. And the two cops realize, "Hey wait a minute, it’s not good to be rookie in these stories." Then one looks at his watch and says, "Well I guess it’s time to take a look around again." The other, stepping out of the car says, "Sure, I’ll be right back. Oh shoot, that’s a terrible line to say in these kind of movies!" He’s right, but it doesn’t matter. They both soon die... ;-)

I put a smiley at the that episode, because the movie, as blood-soaked as it is, is actually very funny. Now how could that be? Well here is where Wes Craven has been a genius when it comes to these kind of films and certainly Kevin Williamson has learned a lot from this master over the years. It seems to me that a commercially successful horror film has to both spook the audience and yet spook not it too much. That is, the audience has to always remember that it’s "just watching a movie." So how’s that signaled? It’s best signaled by sticking to stock, more or less predictable characters and formulas, or tweaking the characters/formulas but only "just so much" as nothing completely falls off the audience’s comfort zone. Yes, one _could_ certainly create a truly blood-curdling, Hell-like, utterly terrifying/incomprehensible movie, but very few people would see it, much less go to a sequel.

So if a film-maker is smart (and Craven/Williamson are certainly that, arguably geniuses, in this regard) the film-maker would make a "horror" movie that (1) scares, (2) may even address an aspect of contemporary/pop culture – Scream 4 is certainly about the i-phone/app, Facebook, webcam "all is online" teen/young adult mentality of today – but (3) not scare too much, because one wants one’s customers to come back. So one seeks then to make _really good_ "two hour Disneyland rides."

Now there could be a lot of fun doing this, and the horror movie genre is one which lends itself to "dialoging" between movies and/on building upon previous ones. As I wrote in my review of The Roommate, a generation ago, the heroine of these movies was generally the easily identifiable "good girl." Back when I was a teenager, we used to almost immediately identify her as "the Virgin." (which becomes a _very interesting_ label theologically speaking, see below). In recent years, there seems to be "dialog" going-on in the horror genre in regards to the question "What if the ‘good girl’ isn’t particularly good anymore?" The recent movies Drag Me to Hell, The Roommate and this one, Scream 4, all deal with new ‘good girls’ who aren’t all that ‘good.’ And each of these movies takes the new scenario with the "not altogether good girl" and plays with it.

Now many critics generally hold their noses when reviewing these kinds of movies, noting the bloodbath and mayhem that’s often present, but (1) as I explained above, the bloodbath/mayhem can’t be too excessive or else one will lose patrons, and (2) Wes Craven was an English major and hence certainly knew his Shakespeare. Shakespearean tragedies were _always_ bloodbaths, where all "the guilty" and a even few of the innocent died and only a very few (and often _not even_ the tragic heroes of the story) were left standing at the end.

The contemporary mad slasher flick is actually quite similar. The guilty (usually of some form of arrogance) _all_ meet bad ends (often in particularly gruesome ways), some innocent bystanders (like the cops above) often die (hey, even in the original Star Trek series, the poor schmucks wearing the red uniforms at the beginning of each episode were almost always dead by the second or third scene) and only a very few are left standing at the end of the film, _usually_ one of them being the ‘good girl,’ who usually fended off the monster (in a story line as old as the Bible, Gen 3:15, Rev 12).  Note, I even wrote an article about this matter, as it was presented in the movie The Terminator a few years after finishing the seminary.

Scream 4 tweaks and plays with the formula but ends basically with the same result. And part of the enjoyment for the audience watching is trying to figure out who’s going make it and who’s going to die. And I submit, that the experience is really not that much different from reading Hamlet for the first time, though often enough, funnier.

Note to parents, the movie's R rating is appropriate due to the violence and greater than PG-level gore. So it certainly would not be appropriate for little kids. But it is standard fodder for the high school and college aged (and perhaps for those of us who remember these movies from our younger years as well).


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Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Conspirator


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

IMDb Listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0968264/
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert’s Review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110414/REVIEWS/110419988

The Conspirator (directed by Robert Redford, screenplay by James Solomon, story by James Solomon and Gregory Bernstein) is about the trial of Mary Surratt for her connection in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on the night of April 14, 1865. Mary Surratt (played in the movie by Robin Wright) had operated a Washington D.C. boarding house frequented by a number of the conspirators in the months prior to the assassination.

The case is of relevance today because it was conducted under the auspices of a military tribunal rather than civilian court in a charged atmosphere where the public was truly shocked by the horror of the crime. The crime involved not merely the assassination of President Lincoln but a conspiracy to also assassinate then Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. That is, it was an attempt by a band of Confederate sympathizers, led by Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth, to effectively decapitate the U.S. government just 5 days after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia signaling the final defeat of the South in the American Civil War after the fall of the Confederate capital of Richmond Virginia on April 1. As such, there was also a perceived need on the part of the U.S. government to demonstrate to any would-be Confederate sympathizers that the war was truly coming to an end and _any_ further resistance even in the form of sabotage or in today’s language, terrorism, was futile.

Yet, to make the point, Mary Surratt, arguably innocent, was put to death after a questionable trial by a military tribunal and a last minute serving of a writ of habeas corpus to force her retrial in a civil court was cancelled by President Andrew Johnson by the authority that had been granted the President during the Lincoln Presidency by the Habeas Corpus Act of 1863.

The movie is well written, well directed, staged and acted and is generally faithful to the historical record.
Initially, Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) was retained for Mary Surratt's defense.  However due to various political machinations, he ended up having to recuse himself from the case and instead asked a younger lawyer and Union combat veteran Fredrick Aiken (played by James McAvoy) to take her case. Their primary opponent was U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (played by Kevin Kline) who most fervently argued that those arrested and held for the assassination of Lincoln and the attempted assassinations of Johnson and Seward be dealt with quickly and decisively "for the sake of the nation" and "the cause of [future] peace."

Many of the same issues and concerns are, of course, being raised today, with regards to the many Moslem extremists being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (and at "undisclosed locations" elsewhere throughout the world) in connection with the 9/11 terrorist attack and other possible/probable conspiracies.

Added to the mix of issues in the movie was Mary Sarrott’s Catholicism (an unpopular and mistrusted religion in the United States at the time) as well as strong suggestion that several Catholic priests were successfully hiding the whereabouts of Mary Sarrott’s son John Sarrott, Jr, who was arguably far more involved in the conspiracy to kill President Lincoln and the others than his mother was. Asked in the movie by Aiken why the priests would be protecting Mary Sarrott’s son, Mary’s Confessor replied "and expose him to this [farce of a proceeding] as well?"

Movies like this stand or fall on basis of their faithfulness to the historical record of the Mary Surratt case. As noted above, it seems to me that in this regard, Redford’s movie does very well, and leaves viewers with much to think about.


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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Miral


MPAA (R) Michael Phillips (2 Stars) Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Michael Phillips review

I did not expect to like Miral (directed by Julian Schnabel, novel and scenario by Rula Jebreal) as much as I did. However,did I ever _come to love_ this movie and for a whole host of reasons. So let me list them now:

First, one lesson that I’ve learned in my life has been that one of the greatest tragedies of the "great historical dramas" that play out around us is that they simply impose another layer of awfulness over the smaller/more intimate tragedies in life. I wrote about this as well in my review of the Spanish movie Biutiful (about a couple of second generation descendants of Moroccan immigrants trying to make out an existence in Barcelona of today). The movie Miral, however, takes this point and presents it in spades.

For while "the grand drama" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays-out, the characters in Miral, continue to suffer their multitude of such smaller/more intimate tragedies. The main character Miral’s mother, Nadia (played by Yasmine Al Massri), was sexually abused as a teenager. Miral’s saintly father, Jamal (played by Alexander Siddig) an imam at the Al Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, who fell in love and married Miral’s mother _precisely_ because she was such a mess, eventually comes down with cancer. Hind Hussaini (played by Haim Abbass), the directress of the boarding school to which Miral is assigned after Miral’s troubled mother commits suicide, eventually succumbs to old age. Miral (played by Frieda Pinto) herself grows up something of an orphan, though she goes home to be with her father every weekend. Everyone of these stories could have made for a movie in itself.

And yes, I have the order of the story "right." As Miral herself begins to narrate her story, she begins by saying "I was born in 1973 but my story really began in 1947 (with the partition plan to divide Palestine between Israel and the Palestinians)." As one who also could not explain easily why I was born in the United States without explaining how my parents got here (my parents were Czech immigrants who came to the United States by means two sets of terrible stories), I understood _completely_ why "Miral’s story" began 27 years before she was born – Both Hitler and Stalin were unwanted but ever present "guests" at my home at every family gathering that I remember growing-up. And plenty of Jewish Americans and Israelis growing up with stories of their parents and grandparents living during the Holocaust could certainly appreciate the back-dated beginnings of their stories as well.

So hanging over the "more normal"/ "little" tragedies that still afflict most of us in one way or another, in the story of Miral was _added_ the _awful pall_ of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resulting in a perpetual state of anxiety on the part of Israelis and in a seemingly unending torrent of tragedies on the part of the Palestinians, bringing _no one peace_. Israelis can’t even enter a bus or a movie theater without feeling anxious about exposing themselves to possible terrorist attack, Palestinians have their homes torn down by Israeli battering rams and earth movers in retribution for crimes that a relative may (or may not) have been involved in; close friends get killed by stray Israeli bullets dispersing rioters/demonstrators (whether they were involved or not); and they are beaten / tortured when they get picked-up by Israeli authorities on suspicion of being involved in _possible_ terrorist/subversive activity. How unbelievably awful.

Second, I liked this movie because it was presented largely from _the perspective of the young_. I am convinced that by the time one is in one’s 40s, one’s large life decisions have been played out. Hence the imams, the school directors, yes, the Israeli military officers or the PLO officials operating (then) out of Tunisia have largely played out their hands (as best as they could), but I do believe that it is the young, those in their late teens through their twenties, who have a chance to make something better. And to its credit, the movie shows THAT THERE IS HOPE. And I myself can testify to that hope.  When _I_ was in grad school, still studying engineering back then before changing directions and becoming a priest, I knew a good number of Arab students in my department and it struck me that _always_ among the most moderate were the Palestinians. One of them put it very, very well to me one time: "We have to find a way to life in peace. We simply have to. To others (and other Arabs) this is a theoretical conflict. To us, we see it day to day. The land is too small, we live too close together, we have to find a way to live in peace."

And _this sentiment_ that I heard 20 years ago, plays out in this movie. Miral, a young woman in her late teens falls in love with a Palestinian fighter, Hani (played by Omar Metwally)  He is a determined patriot but _not_ a crazed fanatic. In fact, he ends up being killed by more radical Palestinian fighters because _he_ was willing to go along with Arafat's PLO and accept 22% of Palestine for a Palestinian state in return for peace.

Then when Jerusalem proves too hot for Miral’s safety, her saintly imam father sends her to her aunt living in Haifa. There Miral finds that her cousin has fallen in love with an Israeli girl named Lisa (played by Stella Schnabel). Initially, she disapproves, but Lisa proves to be nice (even though Lisa’s father is an Israeli military officer and disapproves with her having Palestinian friends).

In the Bible, it took a generation of wandering out in the Desert before the Israelites made it to the Promised Land (and I know that we can choose to take this image _literally_ or perhaps today, more appropriately _symbolically_). Perhaps it will take _several generations_ before peace is finally achieved between the Israelis and Palestinians, BUT I AM POSITIVE THAT IT WILL COME AS A RESULT OF THE CONTACTS AND THE _INNOCENCE_ / _CLEAN SLATE_ OF THE YOUNG. With each generation there is new hope.

AND THIS HOPE EXTENDS BEYOND THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT. I currently live and work in a part of Chicago where for at least 2-3 generations a collection of Slavs, Irish and Italians (calling themselves "Anglos" but have as much in common with "the English" as Cortes ever did) have looked down on Hispanics (mostly Mexicans with a few Puerto Ricans) living in the same neighborhoods, with the Hispanics resenting them for their arrogance. How long can this go on? The hope is that with every generation, it does get better, and I do believe that it does. The former Pope John Paul II, who’s being beatified on May 1st, must be rolling in his grave, knowing that Poles and Mexicans (whom he _loved_ and  there is AN ENORMOUS STATUE OF JOHN PAUL II by the side of the BASILICA OF OUR LADY OF GUADALUPE IN MEXICO CITY) don’t get along in places like Chicago. How is it possible when BOTH peoples suffered so much and BOTH peoples _love_ the Blessed Mother so much? And yet we look for reasons to dislike/hate each other. Yet with EACH GENERATION springs NEW HOPE and with each generation it _does_ get better.

Finally, I liked this movie because it is filled with great role models on all sides. There’s the Directress of the School, Miral’s imam father, Lisa the Israeli girlfriend of Miral’s cousin. There’s even the convicted Palestinian terrorist (a former nurse) who helps Miral’s mother when Miral’s mother finds herself in jail after causing a simple commotion on a bus ("get away from me, you creep," remember that she had been sexually abused...) rather than being in the process blowing up the bus as the other (Israeli) passengers feared. Almost no one is completely evil, and many, many people, if at times weak, are basically good.

So what a great and brave film! As the movie notes at the end, it is "dedicated to those who believe that peace is possible." So ... Shalom / Salaam / Paz / Pokój z wámi.  And may we one day have Peace.


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Friday, April 15, 2011

Rio [2011]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Michael Phillips review

Rio (story and directed by Brazilian-born Carlos Saldanha screenplay by Don Rhymer) is fun animated movie giving "birds eye" view of Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval time.  With Brazil becoming increastingly important on the world stage (along with India and China) it probably makes sense for Hollywood to start making more Brazil friendly/Brazil themed movies such as this.  (Indeed, Rio apparently was released in Latin America several weeks before its release in the United States on April 15th).  And the bird metaphor actually worked very, very well in presenting the color and craziness of carneval time in Rio. 

Okay, so what is the story?  Baby Blue Macaw later named Blu (voice by Jesse Eisenberg) wakes up one morning in a tropical forest outside of Rio and falls out of his nest only to be captured by bird smugglers who eventually send him to the United States.  Sometime later, he finds himself falling out of a crate in a place decidely "Not Rio" (as the movie notes) -- Moosehead, Minnesota in the winter, where a girl named Linda finds him and raises him).  And Blu is as happy as can be as Linda's companion, who even names the eventual book store that she opens after him.

Their tranquility is broken however when Tulio, an ornitologist from Brazil arrives and tells Linda that Blu is the only known male left of his entire species and that Linda must let him mate with Jewel (voice by Anne Hathaway) the only known female of Blu's species who he now has at his laboratory in Rio de Janeiro.  After initial resistance by both Linda and Blu, they decide to travel with Tulio to see if Blu and Jewel could mate.

Initially Jewel is not impressed with the nerdy Blu because he can't even fly.  However, when the two care captured once more by a small gang of bird smugglers Marcel, Tipa and Armando (voiced by Carlos Ponce, Jeffrey Garcia, Davi Vieira) and taken to their hide-out in a favela in the hills of Rio de Janeiro for sale and transport once again out of the country, they realize that they have to work together.  Their attempts at escape are aided by a family man Tucan named Rafael (voice by George Lopez) as well as two other birds Nico and Pedro (voices by Jamie Foxx and Will i Am) who try to help Blu better impress Jewel in matters of love.

The smugglers are aided by a british sounding Cockletoo named Nigel (voice by Jemaine Clement) who also recruits the city's monkeys to recapture the two Blue Macaws when they do break free.

Much happens, and a climactic part of it happens during Rio's Carneval Parade.  In the midst of their adventures Linda, who's never been outside of Minnesota (in good part, ironically, in order to take care of her bird Blu), finds that she _likes_ Rio, driving a motorbike down the windy streets of a favela "just like a snowmobile."  And "all ends well" with both sets of "love birds," avian (Blu and Jewel) and human (Linda and Tulio) living happily ever after. 

Now that is the story, yet as often is the case, there's more to Rio than simply a cute animated story about tropical birds.

First, there were several homages to recent Brazilian films that enjoyed international and critical success.  For instance, when Blu and Jewel first escape their bird smuggling captors, the scene that follows appeared to be an animated send-up to the "flight of the chicken" scene at the beginning of Cidade de Deus (City of God).  Then, more poignantly, Linda and Tulio adopt street kid Fernando, who helped them find Blu and Jewel, reminding one of the beautiful Brazilian movie (and a real tear-jerker) Central do Brazil (Central Station) about a street kid whose mom got hit by a bus in front of the central train station in Rio de Janeiro and he had absolutely no one to turn to except for a middle-aged woman who arguably had ripped him and his mother off less than 10 mintues before. 

Then Linda opens a new bookstore in Rio named "Livreria Blu" still with a picture with her beloved Blu on the storefront window but _pointedly_ (and I've known a few Brazilians who've made the point) now takes care of Fernando (a kid in need) rather than Blu (a pet), letting Blu and Jewel "live happily ever after" on their own.  Brazilians that I've known over the years have often made the point that Americans seem more concerned about animals and trees than (poor) people in need.  So, point taken and _understood_.

Finally, after several disappointing recent animated and kid oriented pictures, this is one that I've really enjoyed.  And I liked it precisely because it seemed to include everybody.  The cast was huge and diverse.  Contrast that with the recent almost bleached white Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick's Rules or Hop where British sounding Easter bunnies ruled over Hispanic sounding Easter chicks and the chief and _only_ villain was "Carlos" the foreman chick who wished to overthrow the bunnies.  What kind of a message is that to _both_ white and hispanic children? 

In this regard, it needs to be noted (and again, my only criticism of this movie would be) that there was a needlessly British sounding "villain bird" in Rio.  However, Rio did have human villains who were Brazilian (and Brazilians like Tulio and Fernando who were heroes as well).  And Brazilians that I've known have often liked to remind me that Brazil's problems are often not of its own doing but imposed from outside -- often from Britain and the U.S.A.  So in "bird brained" Nigel, there could have been a jab against Britain and the U.S.A. in this movie as well.

Still, both the casting and the plot of the story was one which gave a positive message that truly everyone belonged.  And for a Catholic, who believes in a _universal church_ (that's what Catholic means), big enbough for everybody, what a nice message.  Parabens Senhor Saldanha!


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Chungui, horror sin lágrimas... una Historia Peruana (Chungui, a horror without tears ... a Peruvian story)

Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 stars)

IMDb listing - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1894431/

 Chungui, horror sin lágrimas... una Historia Peruana (directed by Felipe Degregori) is a Peruvian (Spanish / Quechua language with English subtitles) documentary that recently played at the 2011 Chicago Latino Film Festival about the return of anthropologist Edilberto Jiménez to his native land of Ayacucho in the mountains of central Peru to tell the story of sufferings of the inhabitants of the region of Chungui, a part of the Department of Ayacucho, devastated during the years of the Maoist-inspired Shining Path insurgency (1980-1995)

Interviewing the native people, Jiménez took a page from the famed 16th century native Peruvian chronicler Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala who had included several hundred handmade illustrations in his great work El Primer Nueva Crónica y Buen Gobierno (First New Chronicle and Good Governance) addressed to the Spanish King to document and protest the mistreatment of the natives of Peru by the Spanish conquistadores.  Thus Jiménez similarly drew dozens of poignant illustrations of the terrors suffered by the inhabitants of Chungui at the hands by the Shining Path as well as Peruvian government counter-insurgency forces

As is often the case in civil wars, the utterly innocent natives were first terrorized by the Shining Path guerrillas into submission and then by government forces for collaborating with them.  Still, the horrors inflicted on the people by the Shining Path were of a category all its own: torturing people by slowly dismembering them and, yes, believe it or not, worse.  How any movement, much less one purporting to be a _progressive_ (a "shining") one, would descend into such a pit of evil is difficult to comprehend.  Yet, the Khmer Rouge (also Maoist in inspiration) in Cambodia perpetrated similar horrors.  Apparently, the "power" that comes "from a barrel of a gun" is a horrific one and the leaders of the Shining Path had lost all discipline over their cadres.

Also featured in the documentary was a Catholic priest, who was slowly rebuilding the devastated churches in the region.  He explained to Jiménez that initially he was restoring the altar pieces in ways featuring traditional Catholic themes.  However, as he heard more and more of the horrors suffered by the people during the Shining Path insurgency, he started to incorporate scenes from their Calvaries in his art as well, the result becoming scenes that could have been out of the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation) or Dante's Inferno

This movie was not easy to watch and many in the audience when I saw it were in tears.  The contrast between a native people that dresses and decorates its otherwise humble abodes in such bright colors and the blood red horrors that they had to face at the hands of the uniformly black-uniformed Shining Path guerrillas was often difficult to bear.  Yet, Jiménez did not want the world to forget the sufferings of the people of his native land.


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Operación Diablo (Devil's Operation)

Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

Operación Diablo (directed by Stephanie Boyd) is a Peruvian (Spanish language, English subtitled) documentary that recently played at the 2011 Chicago Latino Film Festival regarding a discovery made by activists protesting operations at the Yanacocha gold mines in Peru operated by the Colorado based Newmont Mining Corporation.

Led by Father Marcos Arana, peasants had successfully blocked expansion of the mine in 2004 only to find that soon afterwards, leading activists, including Father Marcos were being tailed and videotaped by goons. Tired of this, Fr. Marcos chased down one of these spies with his car, called in authorities and discovered that a private intelligence firm named Forza had been hired (presumably by the Newmont Mining Co.) to follow and report on the activities of Fr. Marcos and the other activists. The sophistication of the operation, including minute to minute logs of the waking hour movements of the surveilled people along with pictures and charts stunned the authorities.  The matter was widely reported in the Peruvian press.

Forza had apparently been made up of former intelligence officers from the Fujimori era in Peru, left unemployed after Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori was forced to resign in 2000 and was later jailed for corruption and human rights abuses. Forza was implicated in the torture and killing of activists protesting at another gold mine in another part of Peru. The tactics used by Forza on sequestered protesters there were reminiscent of those made infamous at Abu Gharib in Iraq.

Forza therefore becomes a Peruvian example of a growing worldwide phenomenon of the emergence of private intelligence-security firms like the American firm Blackwater (now known as Xe Services) the full ramifications of their emergence not yet fully understood.

Operación Diablo takes its name for the "code name" of "Diablo" (Devil) given to Fr. Marcos by agents of Forza in their operation of him and his colleagues. I found the movie to be both interesting and disconcerting.


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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Arthur (2011)


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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1334512/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/a/arthur2011.shtml
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110406/REVIEWS/110409993

Arthur (starring Russell Brand, directed by Jason Winer, screenplay by Peter Baynham, story by Steve Gordon) is a remake of the 1981 original (starring Dudley Moore, written and directed by Steve Gordon). Neither version is particularly filled with edifying values. I suppose I prefer the remake over the original because I’ve generally liked Russell Brand while I’ve never appreciated or understood Dudley Moore.

Dudley Moore’s career was at its height when I was a teenager/young adult and I simply found nothing of value in his "middle-aged high society drunk" persona ("Ah, the sufferings of the rich..."). Now twenty years later, I’m middle aged ... but I still don’t particularly like or understand Dudley Moore’s characters. I do find Russell Brand’s often whiny "I’m a celebrity, you owe me" persona that he’s played in a number of movies (Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek) a little more accessible to Moore’s if only because he plays the roles as if he were a "rock star" and I’m more familiar with the expected antics of a "rock star" than those of someone who’s spent his/her life traveling between a Manhattan penthouse and the Hamptons. Still, if a remake of Arthur really needed to be made (I did not like the original), then Russell Brand was probably a really good choice for the remake’s title role.

Now about the characters and the plot: Arthur is about a "filthy rich 30-40 something boy-man" Arthur (played in the original by Dudley Moore and in the remake by Russell Brand) who insulated by his money has never grown up. In each case, he’s pressured by family to marry a woman of his social class who the parent/family believes would finally "make something of him." In the original, the parent doing the pressuring was Arthur’s father Stanford (played by Thomas Barbour); in the remake it was Arthur’s mother Vivienne (played by Geraldine James). In both cases, the woman that the pressuring parent wanted Arthur to marry was named Susan. In the original, Susan was played by Jill Eikenberry, in the remake by Jennifer Gardner. In both cases, Arthur simply does not love this woman. Instead, Arthur comes to prefer a different woman of a much different (lower/simpler) class. In the original, Arthur’s true love interest becomes Linda (played by Liza Minelli) in the remake she's named Naomi (played by Greta Garwig). In both cases, Arthur’s true parent or mentor figure was named Hobson. In the original, Hobson was Arthur’s butler (played by John Geilgud); in the remake, Hobson is Arthur’s nanny (played by Helen Mirren).

In both cases, despite having been pressured by family, Arthur finally makes his own way. The 2011 version probably has a _somewhat_ more edifying ending. In either case, it’s hard to find much of great moral value, except perhaps that everyone has a right (and a duty) to ultimately take responsibility for one’s own life.


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Monday, April 11, 2011

Elite


MPAA (unrated) Fr. Dennis (2 ½ stars)
IMDb Listing - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1731982/

Elite (directed by Andres Ramirez, screenplay by Jean-Paul Polo, Josean Rivera Vaquer and José A. Rivera Vaquer) is a low budget ($200,000) Spanish language-English subtitled Puerto Rican crime / action film that is an entry at the 2011 Chicago Latino Film Festival. It is also the very first movie I’ve ever seen at a film festival and I have to say that I’ve enjoyed the experience. I enjoyed it not just for the movie, which was okay (not great but okay, but look at the budget ;-), but also for the context provided by the director Ramirez after the screening of the film.

Ramirez explained that Elite is novel because most films made with government subsidy or support in Latin America end up being "art films" and he and the others in this movie felt that there was a need to expand the horizons of what’s possible in the Puerto Rican film community. Action films are very popular, why not try to make an action film? Indeed, he noted that Elite was released two weeks after the release of the Expendibles (with Bruce Willis) in Puerto Rico and that Elite didn’t do altogether that badly and that since the making of Elite in 2010, at least 5 other projects of different genres have been given support to proceed. And I honestly think that is great!

And since Elite was such a low budget affair, the makers of the movie were able to have some fun with it. Notably, Ramirez explained that one of the actors Rodolfo Rodríguez (who played Féliz Flores, a key villain in story) asked if he could play his character "gay," saying that he always wanted to play a "gay mobster." And so Ramirez and the writers let him do it! These things are possible if you’re putting together a low budget affair ;-)

Still the movie, light as it often is, touches on some rather tough issues, notably the drug trade and the corruption that it carries with it, everywhere really, but also then in Puerto Rico.

The story begins 20 years in the past with a fictionalized Puerto Rican drug kingpin José Saldaña (played by John Garcia) telling a messenger from Pablo Escobar that whoever else Escobar may be elsewhere that "Aqui [en Puerto Rico] manda Saldaña. (I run things here)." Very good. The messenger leaves to carry the message back to Escobar, but as Saldaña leaves the meeting as well, he is stopped by a police road block and discovers that his right hand man of the last 5 years, Diego Torres (played by José Yenque) was an undercover cop. Angry at being so betrayed, he shoots Torres before being arrested.

In the next scene, the prosecutor Carlos Garcia (played by Ernesto Concepción, Jr) is making his closing argument against Saldaña, noting with sarcasm how Saldaña has tried to portray himself as an upstanding citizen (even though he was arrested after flagrantly assassinating a police officer, Torres, in cold blood). "Look at his fine dress, and his fine family sitting so nicely behind him, his wife, his two little children. Solo falta el perrito (All that's missing is the little dog ;-)." Saldaña is convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

More forward to 20 years later. For some reason after rotting away in jail for those 20 years, Saldaña is suddenly ordered transferred from one prison to another. On the way between the two prisons, the van carrying him along with the police escort are stopped, the police are killed and Saldaña is freed.

"How could that have be?" asks now Governor Carlos Garcia immediately suspecting some sort of an inside job and obviously worried for his safety and that of his family. His advisor Superintendente Angel Gil (played by José Brocco) suggests that the Governor organize an elite squad of incorruptible police officers to recapture Saldaña or if that proves impossible to "take care of him" in the way that Pablo Escobar was finally "taken care of." The Governor agrees and the Superintendent as well as his assistant Amanda (played by Monica Steuer) put together the squad that includes among others Sandra Torres (played by Denise Quiñones) the now grown daughter of the undercover police officer who Saldaña had killed in cold blood.

After a silly send-up of the requisite "training sequence" that these kind of films always seem to have, the squad sets about its work to find Saldaña. Included in this group of elite crime fighters is also a requisite "geek" pulled up from the police’s computer department and who had previously gotten a degree at MIT before returning back to San Juan.

In the meantime, Saldaña finds that he has his own problems. While certainly grateful that he was freed, he doesn’t exactly understand why, especially since his now grown sons Junior and Jaime (played by Leonardo Castro and José/Josean Rivera Vaquer) tell him that his rescue was actually put together by a strangely gay mobster acquaintance Félix Flores (played by Rodolfo Rodríquez). The elder Saldaña simply can’t get around Félix’s sexual orientation. "Much has certainly changed in the 20 years that I’ve in prison. How could it be that a gay man could now be (effectively) running our operation?" And he asks his two sons where they found Félix to begin with. They answer that he came to them "from the Bronx."

Okay, much happens, often in quite amusing ways (again, part of the intent of the movie was to be a "send up" of far more serious and far higher budget action films). And justice is done.

However, when the dust clears a question remains: Was the Elite squad assembled to apprehend or otherwise bring back to justice a dangerous fugitive or was it actually put together to simply help one crime family move in on the turf (and eliminate) another? Welcome to the ambiguities of the Drug War.

I liked this film and found it to be quite creative on a shoe-string budget. And I wish Andres Ramirez and the others involved in this film all well in the future! Who knows what else they’ll come up with in years to come ;-)


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Saturday, April 9, 2011

Your Highness


MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB (O) Roger Ebert (1 star) Fr. Dennis (2 ½ stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1240982/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/y/yourhighness2011.shtml
Roger Ebert’s review
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110406/REVIEWS/110409994

Your Highness (directed by David Gordon Green, written by Danny McBride and Ben Best) is a type of movie that I knew is out there, that I generally enjoy and that I’d find somewhat embarrassing to add to my blog. Still after reviewing a number of far more serious movies, what a relief it was to see something goofy, yes adolescent, reminiscent of jokes and stories that one’d hear by a campfire as a kid and later as a teen. Your Highness is something of a send-up of sword and sorcery stories, though that assumes that most such stories are deathly serious and many, in fact, are not.

In the movie, Danny McBride plays the loser younger prince Thadeous to an older ever dashing, ever successful, ever smiling brother prince Fabious (played by James Franco) who actually loves his younger brother very much, and probably thinks more of him than Thadeous thinks of himself. But that’s what makes Fabious so simultaneously irritating and fun to watch: He loves _everybody_, he’s _always_ smiling and always successful, whereas Thadeous lives life in the shadows, usually obscured by a cloud of dope and with his only friend Courtney (played by Rasmus Hardiker), Thadeous’ squire.

Things begin to come to a head when Fabious comes back successfully from yet another quest with the head of a cyclops, and a damsel that he rescued named Belladonna (played by Zooey Deschanel) who he wishes to marry. The cyclops had been minion of the kingdom’s great nemesis, the evil warlock Leezar (played by Justin Theroux) and Belladonna had been Leezar’s prisoner. The King, Tallious (played by Charles Dance), so proud of his ever questing older son, decrees that so it shall be, and a wedding is set for the next day. Ever smiling, ever optimistic, Fabious asks his younger brother to be his best man. Thadeous accepts even though others in Fabious’ questing party make it clear that they feel he’s not worthy. Thadeous, thus gets stoned the next morning and blows off the wedding and Boremont (played by Damian Lewis), Fabious’ right-hand-man in this questing adventures, steps-in to take Thadeous’ place. In the meantime, it also becomes somewhat clear that Belladonna may have been a pretty “damsel in distress” but precisely because Leezar had kept her as a hostage for most of her life, she didn’t exactly have the refined manerisms of a princess.

None of this comes to matter, however, because Leezar appears at the wedding along with his _three_ very creepy mothers, steals Belladonna from the ceremony, and carries her off to his tower. The stoned Thadeous, of course, who along with his squire, spent the day harrassing and dispersing sheep of a bunch of similarly stoned peasants, misses all of this, and comes back to a castle heavily damaged from the battle in which Leezar took Belladonna, and back to a distraught Fabious, who now decides to go out on quest once more to retrieve the bride that he loves. The King, still furious at the absence of his younger son to all these events, orders Thadeous to join Fabious on this quest or else to never come back.

And so they depart the next morning. Much ensues, much of it both funny and very, very crude. As an example, Fabious insists that at the beginning of the quest they visit the “Good Wizard of the Woods” and joyful that Thadeous is with him this time, is happy to introduce him to said wizard. He tells Thadeous that “since a child,” he’s _always_ gone to the wisard for good advice at the beginning of every quest. When they get to the wizard's abode, it’s clear that the “good wizard,” while indeed capable of giving good direction (in this case through a magical compass that he gives Fabious and Thadeous) is one smiling but very creepy guy. Everybody seems to see the creepiness of the wizard except for the also ever smiling Fabious...

During their many adventures, the two also meet Isabel (played by Natalie Portman) a fearsome and very, very hot warrior who is out to avenge the deaths of her father and brothers. And it turns out that their quests are somewhat linked because Leezar was probably responsible for their deaths.

The movie is often very crude.  There is some rather unnecessary nudity in the movie (though not by way of either Deschanel's Belladonna or Portman's Isabel) but rather as a result of the questing party encountering a group of Amazon-like female warriors, who are led a very, very creepy male chieftain. Then there’s a very, very crude scene near the end of their adventure involving a rather aroused Minotaur that the party encounters in a requisite labyrinth (where minotaurs always live...).

Once more, the movie is definitely “not for everyone,” and people have asked why actors of the caliber of James Franco and Natalie Portman or for that matter Zoey Deschanel would "waste their time" with a movie like this.  But I do think "I get" part of the appeal (for both the actors and the audience).  It's a movie can be very entertaining for those who’ve liked these kind of stories or for those just want kick back and relax after after a long week (or after taking themselves _way too seriously_ for some time).  It must have been a blast to make this movie! 

And lest we get too high on our horses, I do wish to remind folks here that the Bible’s book of Judges contains many stories that can best be understood ones told as jokes or stories around a campfire some 3500 years ago. Of particular note is the story of Ehud the Assassin who slew the King of Moab with a homemade dagger, the story noting that the King of Moab was so fat that his rolls of fat swallowed the dagger in its entirety so that Ehud could not pull the dagger back out (Judges 3:12-27). Not denying the story’s possible or even probable historicity, it still sounds like a story that would have been quite popular among young men sitting around an Israelite campfire “back in the day.”

Anyway, please don’t live your lives like this, but (for some of you) enjoy the film ... ;-)


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Trust [2010]


MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB () Roger Ebert (4 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 ½ stars)
IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1529572/
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert’s review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110331/REVIEWS/110339996


Trust (directed by David Schwimmer and cowritten by Andy Bellin and Robert Festinger) is a timely, well written, well crafted and well acted cautionary tale about a 14 year old girl who meets someone online who terribly misrepresents himself and takes advantage of her.

The girl, Annie (played by Liana Liberato) is a quiet, still insecure freshman, trying out for the volloeyball team at a high school in a upscale suburb. In the movie the high school is New Trier High School and the suburb is Wilmette, IL. She meets someone, Charlie (played by Henry CoffeeChris ) on a teen oriented chat site who first presents himself as a 16 year old and one who _also_ plays on his school’s volleyball team (strange because most American high schools _don’t_ offer competitive boys volleyball). He gives her a few tips and whether these tips actually help her or not, she makes the team. Thus they become online friends. During the course of their online conversations, which soon extend to texting, the person on the other end, confesses to her that he’s actually 20, then 24, then a 26 year old grad student. That bothers her but continues to be nice. Of course, her parents, Lynn (played by Catherine Keener) and Will (played by Clive Owen) have no idea.

Finally, the same day as Lynn’s older brother heads off to college, she receives a text from her friend asking if they could meet. She responds, texting "?!?!" but eventually agrees. They meet in a nice suburban shopping mall. Her online friend turns out to be a mid-to-late 30-something year old man nonetheless comes dressed far younger than his age. She starts to cry, and asks "Is this a joke?" He tells her "no." She asks, "Why do you keep lying?" Here he lays it on, telling her that he _was_ worried about how she’d take his real age, but since "they _clicked so well_" and "had something _so special_" that he hoped if they only saw each other that "their age difference would not matter." Alone, sitting there in a lounge area in a mall, her initial resistance soon fails. He snowed her.

Eventually they start walking, eventually he gets her in his car. There gives her "a present" (lingerie) and tells her how much he’s dreamed of seeing her in it. Again, without physically hurting her in anyway, he’s manipulated the situation in a way that she simply does not know how to say no, or how to get out of the situation even if she wanted to. He takes her to his motel room ... And there, with the movie hinting that he video-recorded it all, he takes her virginity. Without resorting to any threat or any violence, he raped her.

Confused, overpowered by the various and conflicting emotions of that afternoon, all her parents and younger sister noticed that evening was that she was somewhat quieter at dinner than she was before. But Annie’s best friend had seen her in the mall, knows somewhat of the story leading up to the "mall date" and the next day in schools asks Annie "was that [creepy old guy] the guy???" Annie tells her defensively to mind her own business. But Annie’s friend as a 14 year old, apparently remembering past presentations given by school authorities on subjects like this (online predators, etc), goes to the guidance department of the high school to report the incident. The guidance counselor comes to Annie’s class to "to talk to her." Initially, Annie doesn’t put 2 and 2 together, but soon does because the police are there to take her statement. Annie’s mother gets a phone call as she’s running errands. Annie’s father, who works for an ad company in Chicago (that actually specializes marketing to "tweens") gets pulled out of a meeting with a phone call as well. Hundreds of high schoolers who have no idea what’s going on, see the police take Annie away in a squad car taking her to a hospital to get her rape tested. Her parents eventually meet her there.

What an unbelievable nightmare and a great presentation of how a rape victim often gets raped several more times by well meaning authorities seeking to do justice.

In the weeks that follow, Annie is given regular counseling, the counselor being played by Viola Davis. The counseling is of some help but Annie does not believe that she was raped until the FBI comes over to her home a number of weeks later to ask her if she knew any of four other girls, ages 12-15, that the man who had posed to her as "Charlie" had also groomed and raped/sexually assaulted. It is only then that Annie realizes what happened to her.

Trust is an excellent movie. Liana Liberato playing Annie and Clive Owen and Catherine Keener playing her parents are all outstanding in their roles. There are still more twists in the story that I have not mentioned here but "Charlie" is never found.

Trust is not a cheerful movie. But it can serve as a great discussion piece by parents to their children about the dangers of meeting someone online. They can truly be anyone.


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