Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Whistleblower

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

IMDb listing -
Rober Ebert’s Review -

The Whistleblower (directed and co-written by Larysa Kondracki, co-written by Eilis Kirwan) is about the true-story of Kathryn Bolkovac (played by Rachel Weisz) an American policer officer who finding herself in a personal crossroads in her life (divorce, job going nowhere), decided to take lucrative job ($100,000/year tax free) working for DynCorp, a private military contractor, which had been contracted by the United Nations to do peacekeeping work in Bosnia in the years following the genocidal war there. 

She finds herself in a wild-west, almost post-apocalyptic atmosphere where in a testosterone driven haze crimes against women were simply not taken seriously.  Indeed, to her (and progressively to the audience’s horror) it becomes clear that many of the male peacekeepers had become both accomplices and even perpetrators in some of the worst of these crimes. 

Specifically, Bolkovac discovers that a sex-trafficking network had sprung-up in Bosnia, whose primary clientele proved to be the contracted UN peacekeepers themselves.  In a particularly powerful scene operator of a Sarajevo women’s shelter tells Bolkovac of absurdity of the situation: “This is a country where half its men were killed in the war, what possible reason would there be to smuggle women into Bosnia from abroad?”  The pictures on the walls of a seedy club in the hills outside Sarajevo raided by Bolkovac and her group provide an answer – the men frequenting these clubs were almost all wearing UN t-shirts and uniforms.

The rest of the film becomes a real-life de facto thriller: With some protection from the UN equivalent of “internal affairs,” Madeleine Rees (played by Vanessa Redgrave) and Peter Ward (played by David Strathaim), Bolkovac sets out to try to shut down the trafficking ring.  But again, the clients in these places are arguably Bolkovac’s own co-workers. 

This all makes for a nightmare.  However, here Bolkovac’s American “cop on the street” and British BBC  “the truth is the truth” values do come through.  Those U.N. peacekeepers all had “immunity” and could not be prosecuted for what they did while serving in Bosnia.  But at least Bolkovac could document the cases and shame everyone via the BBC (and arguably through this film ...)

The movie ends up being an indictment of the ineffectualness / impotence of the U.N.  Even more so, it's an indictment of the entire “military contractor” model for staffing “peace keeping” or other “policing” operations.  In the past, “military contractors” were called _mercenaries_, and mercenaries didn’t have a good reputation.  Why?  Because mercenaries _aren’t_ in a mission “for peace, honor, justice.”  They’re in it, bottom line,  _for the money_.

Bolkovac herself took the job of working as a UN peacekeeper in Bosnia through the contractor DynCorp in good part because of the money ($100,000 tax free/year).   The U.N. _is supposed to be_ an agency of “boy scouts.”  Instead, its services were being contracted out to modern-day mercenary groups which historically have had an ethic of “the dogs of war.”  Add to that the promise of _U.N. immunity_ ... and no wonder that these “contractors” in “U.N. blues” were soon dealing with essentially the Russian mob trafficking in young women from Russia, the Ukraine and much of Eastern Europe. 

This is a tough movie to watch, but hopefully it will help us to understand the need to make sure that _everyone_ is under _some_ jurisdiction and law.


For more about this particular case and other famous whistle-blowers' stories made into film try:

BBC - Correspondent - June 14, 2002 - 'Boys will be Boys'

           Women's Hour - Aug 6, 2002 - UN Whistleblower

PRI The World - June 16, 2011 - The Whistleblower: Military contractors, human rights and sex trafficking

New York Times - July 28, 2011 - Exposing Injustices, the Real-Life Kind

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The Future

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

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

The Future (written, directed and co-staring Miranda July) is an excellent, simple independent film about an utterly average young adult couple Sophie (played by Miranda July) and Jason (played by Hamish Linklater) living somewhere in an utterly non-descript apartment somewhere in or around Los Angeles. 

At the beginning of the movie, the two had found a stray cat with a wounded front paw.  They took it to an animal shelter where a cast is put on the paw, but the are told by the animal shelter that rather than adopting it immediately and taking it home, they must leave the cat at the shelter for 30 days so that the paw would heal and that the animal shelter could treat the cat for other possible/probable diseases that it could be carrying. 

So for the first time in apparently a long time, the two Jason and Sophie have a goal: preparing their home for the coming of a pet cat 30 days hence.  This sends them off on a truly _remarkable_ set of reflections on the meaning of time, the future and consequences of one’s actions (in time).

I do not want to ruin these reflections who wishes to see the film, but I do want to give an example:

In the course of the month that follows, the two find themselves at a point of possibly breaking up (after 4 years of being together).  It’s in the middle of the night, a little after three in the morning.  Sophie, who can’t sleep, wakes Jason up telling him that she has something she has to tell him.  He quickly discerns from her tone and bodylanguage, what she’s going to say, and desperately wants to "stop time" before she says it.  So he does ... stop time.  He touches her head with his outstretched arm and stops her and the entire world in its tracks.  There’s just him on his knees with his outstretched hand, her frozen motionless on her knees facing him and the moon shining through the window into their apartment. 

After some time, the moon starts talking to Jason: “Your arm’s going to get tired.  Eventually you’re going to have to put it down.”  The moon is right.  Jason’s arm is getting tired, so he quickly switches his arms. “Okay, you bought yourself a little more time, but eventually both your arms are going to get tired and you're going to have to put them down.   Now according to the clock, it’s 3:14 AM, why do you want to stop time at this moment forever?”
    “Because if I put my arm down, I know what will happen at 3:15 AM.”
    “But maybe it won’t happen.”
    “But it will.”
So Jason keeps time “frozen” at that moment, 3:14 AM, on that day for a _long, long time_, because he simply can’t bear what is coming at 3:15.  There are about 5-6 other situations/reflections like this one in the film.

Appropriately rated, it's actually a "weak R" (fleeting back-side female nudity at one point).  Still the young couple is living together presumably without being married and cheating/possible adultery is contemplated/pursued.  More to the point, pre-teens wouldn't get this movie and a high schooler would probably get a bad example from the young adult couple's largely boring if unmarried living arrangement.  

But I would definitely recommend it TO YOUNG ADULTS and really to _any adult_ who’s ever loved a good story or parable, or who’s ever spent some time over the years _awake_ wondering, honestly, “what’s it all about?”

To close, I’d like to offer two other suggestions for reflection that I believe carry a similar sentiment as that expressed in the film.  The first is a song from my young adult years, Supertramp’s Logical Song.     The second is a famous Biblical story about Jacob, who fearing what will come at daybreak finds himself wrestling all night with an unknown stranger in the desert. At the end of the night, Jacob receives a new and (what turns out to be) very important name (Genesis 32).

And as an addendum, come Oscar season this winter, I'd like to see The Future along with another indie-film Another Earth, get consideration for "best original screenplay" nominations and perhaps (one or the other, but more so _this one_ than the other) consideration for "best picture."  Yes, I do believe that both films are that good.

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Our Idiot Brother

MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB (O) Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr. Dennis (2 ½  stars)

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

Our Idiot Bother (directed by Jesse Peretz, written by David Schisgall and Yvgenia Peretz) is an adult family slacker comedy that presents something of a challenge to a blog like this.  About four adult children -- three sisters and their (“idiot”) brother – the four were clearly raised in the “church of self-actualization,” none of them has grown up to be particularly successful and none of them, except possibly their (“idiot”) brother, finds themselves particularly happy.  From a Catholic Church teaching perspective, all four have led more or less obviously dissolute lives, hence the CNS/USCCB’s more or less inevitable “O” (morally offensive) rating, signaling (in this case perhaps pleading) to viewers “_please_ don’t not end-up like this.” 

In thinking about this movie, and wondering how the heck to write a review about it to fit my blog, it occurred to me that many RCIA directors (catechists working with those who’d like to join the Catholic Church) or even those who’d like to join the Church, may appreciate this movie because it has been my experience that many of those who come wanting to join the Church come from backgrounds like the four siblings in this movie. 

What do I mean?  We live in a time of great freedom, but that freedom can be experienced as chaos and disappointment.   And I’ve certainly had the experience of people sincerely coming to RCIA with the request: “Please just give me 'the Rules.'  I grew-up in a home where there were _no rules_.  There was no dad (or my mom _made sure_ I’d never really know him or anyone from his family), and she herself was a mess.  There was a ‘new uncle’ in our house every couple of months while I still lived at home and ever since then I’ve been drifting ALL OVER THE PLACE.  So for the Love of God, PLEASE help me.”  And as slow as the RCIA process may seem at times, we try, and hopefully give people a Rock on which they can build (or re-build) their lives.

Indeed, a surprising/deceptive pitfall of “self actualization” is that we may actually _fail_ at _precisely_ what we wish to achieve in life.  So in modern speak (and in language actually used by one of the characters in the film) if we base our self esteem on succeeding in a particular aspect of life (or in traditional Biblical-speak where we may "make an idol” of that particular aspect of our lives) and then _fail_ in that aspect of life what then? 

And all four of the siblings in this movie find themselves staring at _failure_ in the aspects of their lives that they’ve chosen to make most important to them.  Miranda (played by Elizabeth Banks) placed her self-esteem in success at work (as a journalist for ‘Vanity Fair’), Liz (played by Emily Mortimer) in marriage and family, and Natalie (played by Zooey Deschandel) in being an “artsy lesbian.”  And all three of them failed.  Miranda finds herself being eaten alive in the dog-eat-dog competitiveness of life at the magazine.  Liz’ “independent film producer” husband (played by Steve Coogan) proves to be a real a-hole, and even ditsy/artsy Natalie screws-up at being a lesbian (yes, that proves possible) breaking the heart of her lover Cindy (played by Rashida Jones) who tearfully/angrily tells Natalie at one point "I can give you absolutely everything, EXCEPT ..."

Staring at failure in precisely the aspects of their lives that each chose to make most important, all three sisters come to “take comfort” in “at least” _looking down_ on their nice but simple mother Ilene (played by Shirley Knight) and their “idiot” brother Ned (played by Paul Rudd) a stoner “organic foods” producer who was just getting out of jail at the beginning of the movie after being busted at a Farmer’s Market by a _uniformed cop_ to whom he was flagrantly entrapped into selling a small amount of marijuana (yes, Ned was that trusting/stupid...). 

Much painful humor ensues (at the various characters’ expense...) as the audience is treated to possibly the most dysfunctional family presented in American film since the release of the film Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Is there value to such a movie?  I suppose yes.  But hopefully part of that value could be to come to appreciate that our value really _doesn’t come_ from the precariousness of “success” in this world (in whatever aspect we choose try to succeed in) or in “at least being better” (“smarter”, “more together”, etc) than “others” whose lives seem even more messed-up than ours, but we come to see our value comes from our being (_all_ of us) loved by God _despite_ our many, many painful screw-ups and disappointments.

In the rite that the Catholic Church uses for the blessing of homes and of families, the Gospel Reading used is the one in which Jesus talks of “building one’s house on rock” (Mt 7:24-27)  After the Reading, I always say that I can give the “shortest homily in the world” here by simply reiterating Jesus' plea to “build one’s life on Rock.”  I say that sure, it’s possible to live one’s life _without Jesus_.  The experience of the friends and families that surround us, tells us that this is true.  HOWEVER, it's _just so much easier_ to go through life with Jesus/God at our side.

In this movie, the _one thing_ that proves most important to Ned in the chaos of his life is his dog “Willy Nelson.”  And his surprisingly meanspirited/vindictive, organic farming ex-girlfriend Janet (played by Kathryn Hahn) tries to keep the dog away from him.

But as St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that “no one can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39).  No one.  So the rest, objects, people, pets, success or failure _in anything else_ doesn’t really for matter much after all.

And that's perhaps something to remember as one watches this film and watches each of the characters struggle with "screwing up" in exactly the areas of life that they hoped so much to succeed in.

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Friday, August 26, 2011


MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L) Fr Dennis (2 stars)

IMDb listing -

CNS/USCCB review -

To begin my review of Colombiana (directed by Oliver Megaton, written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen), I would like to note that millions of good, church-going Hispanic families will probably object to this film.  And I believe that this objection _coming from them_ is _salutary_ and something that it behooves Hollywood to take notice of, since counting even the Protestant Hispanic families today a full half of Catholic families in the United States are Hispanic and Catholics make up 25-30% of the population.  This is certainly not a negligible market share in the United States.

And I make this initial point because I remember _well_ that at my assignment at a predominantly Caribbean Hispanic parish in Kissimmee, FL between 2000-2003, I got an earful from a fair number of families when I asked why is it seemed that as modern so many of the families were (flat screen TVs along with digital cable and all the Latino channels in the living room, a nice computer in a public area for the kids for school), almost _none_ of the families seemed to _ever_ go to the movies. 

The response that I got was said kindly but without the blinking of an eye: “Why should we go?  Almost none of the characters in the films ever look like us. And even when they do, they are almost always portrayed as bad people, drug dealers and prostitutes.  We go to Mass _precisely_ so that our kids don’t grow-up that way.  Their abuelas and tias are praying for them everyday so that they choose well in life.  So why should we expose them to such garbage?” 

Ever since that exchange (and also having spent a good amount of my time while stationed in Florida working with the young adults of my parish), I’ve been certainly paid attention to how both blacks and Hispanics are portrayed in films.  And those reading my blog will note that I’ve regularly brought-up questions of how people of different ethnicies/races are portrayed in my reviews and also noted the disconnect that Hollywood often has in their portrayal of various ethnicities and how members of those ethnicities actually live.  I’ve noted before, but feel that it is perhaps valuable to note here again that African Americans are the most Church-going group in the United States, and I do believe that one will simply _never_ understand Hispanics (and the _varieties_ of Hispanics) in the United States without understanding that _millions of them_ are at Mass/Church every Sunday and even during the week the primary social life for millions of Hispanics (men and women, young and old) is to be found in involvement in all kinds of prayer, rosary and charismatic groups meeting in countless homes and churches across the country.  Add other ethnicities like the Filipinos and Vietnamese and the same will be true there as well.  Faith/Church is _not_ a sideshow to any of these communities.

So what then to make of a movie named Colombiana featuring a young dark-skinned Latina named Cataleya (played by Zoe Saldana) portrayed once again as a perpetually scantily dressed, if resourceful, and certainly athletic heroine who exacts her revenge for the deaths of her parents (played by Jesse Borrego and Cynthia Addai-Robinson) by methodically killing, one by one, the drug-dealing Colombian (Latino) bad guys who killed them?  Is that not exactly the kind of movie that would repulse the Church going Hispanics that I referred to above?  Probably, and honestly laudably.  There is no reason for a young Hispanic child to see this movie.  Honestly, take them to Spy-Kids IV instead.

But there are other features of this movie that make it interesting or challenging to those outside the Hispanic community (including movie critics).

It should be noted that both the director and the two writers of this film were _also_ associated with the Liam Neeson revenge fantasy Taken as well as the violent Euro-criminal Transporter film series.  So this film simply sets a formula that the three have found successful in both East and West European settings to the world and intrigues of the Colombian drug wars.  [It is presented, as an aside, for instance, that the drug lord, Don Luis (played by Beto Benites) at the top of the cartel that Cataleya is trying to bring down, one assasination at a time, was being protected by the CIA presumably for his assistance in helping combat leftist guerrillas (FARC) in Colombia...]

One _can_ further say that Zoe Saldana’s Cataleya is basically a Latina version of Liam Neeson’s Brian Mills of Taken.  There are also similarities in Zoe Saldana’s character to the Nikita character in the La Femme Nikita movie and series and even to Catherine Zeta Jones’ character in the thriller Entrapment (in which Jones co-starred with Sean Connery).  There are even a few references to Xena the Warrior Princess, who Cataleya as a child (played by Amandla Stemberg) is portrayed as having looked-up to.  So Saldana comes to play a very sexy, slippery and capable assassin striking by the end of the film absolute dread into the heart of Marco (played by Jordi Mollá) the man most immediately responsible for the deaths of Cataleya’s parents  And if Catherine Zeta Jones can bend and wind her way through a maze of motion detecting laser beams in order to steal an object of great value, why shouldn’t Zoe Saldana be allowed to perform similar feats of acrobatics as she slithers her way through the ventilation ducts of a Los Angeles police station to assassinate one of her parents’ killers being held here?

So then why did so many critics choose not to review _this_ movie?  Why boycott this movie but not Neeson’s Taken which was equally violent?  In Taken, Neeson played a white, Anglo, male assassin wreaking vengeance on the abductors of his daughter in Paris.  In Colombiana, Saldana plays a dark-skinned Latina who grows-up to wreak vengeance on the Colombian drug-dealing killers of her parents.

I guess in the end, while I do understand the concerns of the Hispanic families about how Hispanics are portrayed in film, I don’t understand the inconsistency of the white reviewers who don’t seem to mind seeing films involving assassins who are white, played recently not just by Liam Neeson (Taken, Unknown), but also by George Clooney (The American), Jason Statham (The Mechanic, The Transporter movies) and Nicholas Cage (Bangkok Dangerous), and even movies involving assassins who are white and female (The Femme Nikita movies, series, the movie actually written by Luc Besson, the same writer as this movie) but set-aside this movie when the revenging assassin is "of a darker shade."

Bottom line, this movie is definitely _not for kids_.  On the other hand, I don’t see it as necessarily bad to have an occasional movie in which people of color are shown as kicking butt. Or else we should be consistent and reject all such movies and with _equal_ ferocity.

And even then, one ought to be careful, because even the Bible is often very violent.  I remember _to this day_ a challenge that I was given when I was in grad school when I was defending a non-violent St Francis approach to Christianity when a classmate of mine responded “Oh come on, the Book of Revelation is as ‘non-violent’ as a napalm strike.”  Symbolic as the Book of Revelation ought to be understood, that former classmate of mine had a point. 

And there may be times in our lives when we may have really been hurt, when, while understanding _certainly_ that “vengeance” belongs to Lord (it’s _not_ our job, but God’s), we may nevertheless appreciate the Psalmist’s cry: “Their venom is like the venom of a snake, like that of a serpent stopping its ears ... O God, smash their teeth in their mouths, break the fangs of these lions, O Lord” (Psalm 58:5, 7).  So the temptation to violence, while something to be always (and _consistently_) opposed in Christianity, does not come to us without a context.  And if we oppose violence we ought to first appreciate the contexts in which the impulse arises and then oppose the impulse consistently.  Finally, when we find ourselves not doing so consistently, we ought to ask ourselves: why?

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Interrupters

MPAA (Unrated) Roger Ebert (4 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert’s review -

The Interrupters (directed by Steve James) is a documentary which follows a Chicago-based gang intervention group called Ceasefire and its interrupters, which began as a project of Epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, M.D. of the University of Illinois, Chicago.  Though he had spent much of his career combating infectious disease in East Africa, he came to see inner-city violence in terms of an infectious disease / public health model.  From this model came his approach of assembling a group “interrupters” composed of _former gang members_ who had all served serious time in prison for serious crimes, who would be specifically trained to intervene in situations of incipient gang or street violence to deescalate the situations and talk the people down from acting out their rage.  They would maintain a presence in neighborhoods at risk and establish rapport and friendships with youth at risk, etc.

The model is as yet not a silver bullet, but it does help.  It does have its element of controversy as it does use former convicts.  Nevertheless, these former convicted gang members do have _immediate street credibility_ with current gang members at risk of getting in trouble themselves and it offers these former convicted gang members an opportunity at redemption.

Indeed, the movie presents many examples of such redemption and reconciliation.  One particularly striking example was of a young man who had served several years in prison for the armed hold-up of beauty solon, came along with several members of “the Interrupters” back to the beauty salon that he had held-up at gun point to apologize to the owner.  He got an earful from her as she described to him in detail what it was like to be at the other end of his gun and not knowing whether she, her children, co-workers and patrons were going to live through the morning that he held-up her shop.  Still by the end of the encounter, she forgave him and thanked him for having the courage to come back.  And there several other such encounters in the film. 

Another example was of a man, now serving as an Interrupter who had served 14 years in jail for having killed another person in a gang shooting.  (Apparently he was a minor at the time in which he killed the other person).  He now spends his days helping to keep others from killing on the street.  In one segment of the documentary, the camera crew followed him on the anniversary of the day that he killed the other person as he performed various deeds of kindness for various random people that he met on that day.  He explained that he tries to do this each year on that day to partly expiate for his past sin. 

Yes, one could be left with the nagging question “Is that enough?”  And one _may_, in fact, (as I did) leave the film with the question of whether _the whole project_ of using former serious felons for such peaceable roles is completely right.  After all, these were former criminals, who yes, were now doing something definitely positive with their pasts.  Still, they did _hurt_ people (or even killed people) in the past.  STILL ALL RELIGION and ESPECIALLY Christianity and then ESPECIALLY Catholicism is PRECISELY ABOUT FORGIVENESS/REDEMPTION.

So if one feels _a little uneasy_ watching the film, and wondering if this is completely on the level, I _do_ believe that this would be somewhat natural.  On the other hand, bottom line, as CHRISTIANS and again as ESPECIALLY CATHOLICS we do believe _in the forgiveness of sins_ (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed). And in the Catechism of the Catholic Church we are reminded (#983): There is no offense, however serious, that the Church cannot forgive.  “There is no one, however wicked or guilty, who may not confidently hope for forgiveness, provide his prepentance is honest” (Roman Catechism I,11,5). Christ who died for all men desires that in his Church the gates of forgivenss should always be open to anyone who turns away from sin (cf Mt. 18:21-22).  So watching this film and believing in both the possibility of redemption and even believing that the contributions of those who had previously “messed up” may, in fact, _be necessary_ to redeem or rebuild the world (or at least a neighborhood) to what it should be _becomes an act of faith_.

Finally, many viewers will be surprised (and perhaps, again, challenged) to see one of the main Interrupters followed in this movie to be a _young muslim woman_ named Amina.  Her father had been a notorious black gangster in Chicago.  She herself led a rather dissolute life when she was young as a party girl, ending up serving time for drug dealing.  But she changed.  She converted to Islam, married an Imam and is now spending her days talking young people down from violence (How's that an inversion of the image of Islam from that of Al Queda / Osama bin Laden?).  And as we watch her do it, most of us will understand why she is so successful: She sounds “just like one of us” (an American living in the inner city) and yet she also speaks out of experience of having made bad/violent choices in the past.  I commented after seeing the movie that as a result of this movie, Amina may become the most famous young muslim woman in America.  And given her peaceable example, I don’t think that this would be a bad thing.

Again, this movie challenges one _in all kinds of ways_ (often surprising) and us to be open to reconciliation and with everyone.

Finally, it appears that Steve James and the other makers of The Interrupters are not particularly interested widely available for theater release (though the critical acclaim that it has received, we'll be hearing about it come Oscars time).  Instead, the makers of the film are hoping to make the movie available for classroom and other small group discussion settings.

In that regard, parents should note that there isn't much graphic violence shown, though sometimes the language is definitely bad (of the street) and some of the stories told by the interrupters themselves of their former lives are at times somewhat lurid.  So the movie isn't for little kids (As often is the case with such films, they probably wouldn't understand it anyway).  However older preteens and certainly teenagers would certainly benefit from viewing the film and certainly in a classroom/discussion setting.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Fright Night

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

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

Fright Night (directed by Craig Gillespie, screenplay by Marti Noxon, original story/1985 film by Tom Holland) does not aim to be a profound movie.  Instead it aims to be a “b-movie” for an American teenage audience.  And with that audience in mind it hits its mark reasonably well.  Interestingly, it did get an R-rating, even though there was no nudity in the film though plenty of sexual banter and some gore (enough to understand why the CNS/USCCB gave it a “O” (morally offensive) rating).

Still, a movie is generally more than any particular aspect of it, and this is often especially true of b-movies and even b-horror movies.  For instance, according to Steven King, an undisputed master of this genre, part of what makes a good horror movie is its _context_.  And in the case of this movie, the setup is _outstanding_:

The movie is set in a _completely artificial_, tiny (only a few blocks _square_) suburban subdivision on the outskirts of Las Vegas.  In fact as seen from a screen shot filmed from the air, once one gets out of the few square blocks of “suburbia” one’s _in complete desert_ for about a mile or so before reaching next _completely artificial_, (only a few blocks square) subdivision.  And so it goes...

Now Las Vegas has _long_ been famous _architecturally_ for epitomizing some of the crassest trends in American architecture over the last 50-60 years as attested to by the seminal book on postmodern architecture and design entitled Learning from Las Vegas.  This is because in Las Vegas “anything is possible” because truly _nothing_ was there before except for a bunch of dirt, tumble weeds and cactuses.  So if one wants to build a “vision of Paris,” “New York,” or even “Venice” (_gondolas_ and all, _in a desert_ ... ) it’s possible.  And if after a while, a hotel concept “no longer works,” one can famously demolish it and build something else in its stead. 

However, the people who work in a casino, say the Luxor (shaped liked the Great Pyramid at Giza) still have to live somewhere.  And people want to live “nice.”  So while desert it may be, mixed perhaps with nuclear fallout from the nearby Nevada Test Site, tumble weeds, rattle snakes, and secret bases (Area-51) and now others remote-control flying drones over Afghanistan, why not?  Let’s build a subdivision in the middle of this buzzing “middle of nowhere” that looks like suburban Ohio.  And so it is.

Now in recent years, with the housing crash, Nevada along with Florida and Arizona have been the hardest hit with foreclosures and “underwater mortgages.”  So this tiny, square subdivision in the desert outside of Las Vegas seems even “ghostlier” even more of a mirage than before.

Then of course, there’s Las Vegas’ “Sin City” reputation (certainly not lost on Stephen King in his American apocalypse, The Stand) along with its “city that never sleeps” reputation, and honestly, what a fit!  Can one think of _a better place_ to set a contemporary vampire movie in the U.S.A. than in Vegas?  Indeed, arguably it’s been the casinos and the banks that have been the “grim reapers” and “blood sucking vampires” of our time.  So this is then where Fright Night is set...

To the story: High school student Charlie Brewster (played by Anton Yelchin) somewhat embarrassed about his “nerdy” past, lives in said suburban subdivision at the edge of the desert outside Las Vegas with his mother, Jane Brewster (played by Toni Collette).  Jane is a real estate broker and in the opening scene she’s piling “For Sale” signs, each held-up with a rather large stake, into her car.  Jane expresses concern about their new neighbor, who’s been living in the house next door but never seems to be around.  All that one sees of him is a big dumpster on his drive way, which doesn’t look attractive and in Jane’s view only lowers real estate values on the street even further.

It’s the beginning of the school year.  Over the summer, Charlie apparently bought himself a used motorcycle but hasn’t figured out how to start it. His hot new girlfriend,  Amy (played by Imogen Poots) drives by with her Volkswagen convertible and a couple of her girlfriends and asks if he’d want a ride.  First, he tries to get his bike started.  Unable to do so, he feels embarrassed, Amy tells him “just get in ...” This also allows Charlie to not have to “skateboard’ his way to school with his former best friend and still nerd, Ed (played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse).  There are other guys, Mark (played by Dave Franco) and Ben (played by Reid Ewing) who Charlie’s trying to suck-up to in trying to leave behind his “uncool” past.

It’s ever-nerd, Ed, who voices alarm that Charlie’s new, rarely seen (except when it’s dark...), neighbor may be a vampire.  Charlie, _really_ doesn’t want to “go there” but when Ed disappears, Charlie gets worried.  It turns out that Ed was right. And in a rather sad scene, neighbor Jerry (vampire, played by Colin Farrell), catches Ed spying on him and cornering him, tells him: “I know you’ve been spying on me.  Well, I’ve been spying on you as well.  You’ve been an outcast all your life.  So why don’t you join the other side, and live forever...” Despondant and uable to resist, Ed gets bitten, and there it is.  Now there appear to be at least two vampires, Jerry the neighbor, and now Ed, in the neighborhood unbeknownst to anyone ... yet.

Charlie starts to see things as Ed used to, and, like Ed, _nobody_ in the neighborhood believes him.  Charlie remembers, however, that Ed used to watch a late night television show on Vampires being broadcast out of Las Vegas by “Peter Vincent, Vampire Slayer” (played by David Tennant).  So Charlie goes to seek his help.

Much happens.  It turns out that neighbor Jerry the Vampire had spent his nights excavating a lair under his house and he proceeds to bite / “turn” a good number of Charlie’s friends and neighbors.  It’s up to Charlie to save both his mom and his girl.  Is he able to do it, save them all?  Well, see the film ;-).  And mom’s real estate signs with those stakes on the end do prove rather helpful in the end ... ;-)

Again, Fright Night is not a profound movie.  It does have its cheesiness, some of which the CNS/USCCB rightfully objects to.  But overall it's not a terrible film, and I do believe that the film makers did do a great job in setting the movie in a nameless "ghostly" suburban subdivision at the edge of Las Vegas.  After all, suburbanites are notoriously "transient" and we often no longer know who exactly our neighbors are or what secrets lurk in their basements. ;-)

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Friday, August 19, 2011

One Day

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

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

One Day (directed by Lone Scherfig, book and screenplay written by David Nicholls) is an intelligent young adult love story that’s part Brigit Jones' Diary, part Unbearable Lightness of Being and part St. Elmo’s Fire that I do hope is remembered come Oscar time this winter as I do believe it deserves at least consideration for a whole bunch of Academy Awards from Best Film/Director/Adapted Screenplay to Best Actor/Actress in Leading Roles and even Best Actor/Actress in Supporting Roles (the male leading character's parents).

The story begins on college graduation day, July 15, 1988 at the University of Edinburgh.  Emma (played by Anne Hatheway) and Dexter (played by Jim Sturgess) are part of a group celebrating.  As the group begins to break up, since neither seems to find themselves attached to anyone, Emma invites Dexter to come with her to her dorm room/flat.  When they arrive, Emma, not at all self-assured, quietly panics and excuses herself to the bathroom “to brush her teeth.”  In reality, she’s practically gasping for air.  She apparently stays in the bathroom long enough to both regain her own courage and too break the mood.  When she returns, she finds Dexter putting his clothes back on to leave.  She convinces him to stay, but they decide simply to cuddle.  In the course of the gentle but very cautious pillow-talk, Dex tells Emma that the day is St. Swithin's Day, a sort of random Saint’s Day that follows them, year after year, for the rest of film.  Indeed the rest of the movie is about what these two characters are up to on this particular day, July 15th, during the 20 years that follow.

The device is wonderful because it becomes clear fairly quickly that in 1988, college graduates though they may be, _neither_ is really ready for the other.  Emma is still growing into who she becomes, and Dex begins as something of a cad.  The phenomenon chronicled in this film, which has been the bane of both Catholic vocation directors and parents alike, is what has come to be called Emerging Adulthood.  Indeed both of Dex’s parents, Allison (played by Patricia Clarkson) and Steven (played by Ken Scott) were excellent in expressing, in different (if often pointed/poignant) ways their frustrations with Dex’s apparent laziness in growing-up. 

To the movie’s _credit_, the pitfalls of “not growing-up” or “taking one’s time to grow-up” are amply shown in the film:  Both life and tragedy go on for Dex’s parents as he meanders his way through his 20s.  At one point, Dex marries a girlfriend simply because he knocked her up.  A child, Jasmine (played by numerous child actresses during the course of the film) is born, but the marriage ends in divorce.  In the meantime, Emma gets involved with a man from her work who she does not really love ... but is available and around.  When Dex and Emma are finally ready for each other, the biological clock has ticked-away a good part of its course.  

The movie is _honest_ and _often very, very sad_ as we, the audience, see missed opportunity after missed opportunity.  But do we look at our own lives as critically and as closely? 

Parents: There is _some_ passing nudity, but obviously many references to premarital sexual activity.  For that reason alone, many parents would not find it suitable for kids or young teens.  But beyond that, I simply don’t think that someone below college age would find the movie very interesting at all.  However, for the college aged and above, I do believe that the movie would make for an excellent discussion piece among friends and (in a _good and heartfelt way_) _with one’s own parents_.

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Conan the Barbarian (2011)

MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB (O) Roger Ebert (1 ½ stars) Fr Dennis (1/2 star, if only that the movie can serve as a reminder of what kind of world we'd live in if the Aryan extolling Nazis had won WW II)

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

Conan the Barbarian (directed by Marcus Nispel and screenplay written by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood) is the screen incarnation of the character Conan the Barbarian invented by Texas (Southern) pulp-fiction writer Robert E. Howard in 1932.   The previous screen 1982 incarnation featured Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role.

To be honest, I am surprised that Conan’s character keeps surfacing because while it would be difficult to absolutely prove that Robert E. Howard and German Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg influenced each other, it is more or less obvious that Howard’s Conan the Barbarian and Rosenberg’s infamous Myth of the 20th Century (the second most influential book of the Nazi era only surpassed by Hitler’s Mein Kampf) were inspired by the same brew of race-based “violence in defense of honor” extolling milieu that existed at the time. 

I’ll leave it to readers here to compare Robert’s Cimmeria from which Conan was supposed to have come and Rosenberg’s pre-history of the Aryan peoples in his Myth, noting only that Rosenberg was tried at Nuremberg Trials after World War II, found guilty of fomenting the crimes of the murderous Nazi regime and hung as a war criminal.

So why watch a movie that’s arguably a Texas-baked American version of Nazi-era myth?  Good question.  In good part, I went to see it because I remember seeing Schwarzennergger’s Conan in the 1980s when I was in my 20s (I despised the 1980s version then and despise the new version now) and wanted to see if the new version was just as bad as the old.

I also believe, frankly, that there’s some value in seeing what the world would have been like _without_ the arrival of Christianity and _especially_ “frilly” Catholicism (Protestantism was fundamentally a step back to a black draped, pale Taliban-like austerity):  Yes, we _could have_ ended-up living in a blood and mud covered Hell of eternal decapitations on barbaric “fields of honor.”  Indeed, compared to the blood drenched world of Conan, the frilly angels of Botticelli’s Florence of the Renaissance and the sweet strains of the baroque music of the harpsichord are an absolute breath of fresh air.  There is a lot to be said for looking for God in Beauty rather than in the swing of an iron-age blade aimed at the throat of a nameless “other tribe/raced” opponent.

Anyway, I find little positive in this new blood-drenched 3D version of Conan the Barbarian (the title role played now by Jason Mamoa) except to possibly see what we _could have been_ if Christianity had not arrived ... or what we could have become once again if the Nazis had won the Second World War.


An interesting discussion on the influences entering into Robert E. Thomas' creation of Conan's world can be found on the IMDb's Discussion Board for Conan the Barbarian (2011).

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sarah's Key

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB () Roger Ebert (2 ½ Stars) Fr Dennis (3 ½ Stars)

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert’s review -

Sarah’s Key (directed and cowritten by Gilles Paquet-Brenner along with Serge Joncour based on the novel by Tatiana De Rosnay) is a French-English language film (appropriately subtitled) about an American-born journalist Julia Darmond (Kristen Scott Thomas) living in Paris with her French husband Bertrand Tezac (Frédéric Pierrot) and their daughter, about 12-13 years old.  In the midst of writing about the 60th anniversary of the infamous Vel' d'Hiv Roundup of Paris’ Jews during the Nazi occupation, she discovers that the apartment that she and her husband inherited from her husband’s parents and were in the process of remodeling had belonged to a young Jewish family, the Starzynskis, prior to the round-up.  Investigating further, she discovers that while parents, Mme and M. Starzynski (played by Natasha Mashkevich and Arben Bajraktaj) had subsequently died in the Holocaust, their two children 12-year old Sarah (played by Mélusine Mayance) and 4 year old Michel (played by Paul Mercier) never appeared on any deportation list and therefore could have survived.

What to do?  With Julia’s mother-in-law very ill in an assisted living facility, she tactfully broaches the matter with her father-in-law Édouard (played by Michel Duchaussoy) who tells her a part of the story.  He had been a young boy when his family had moved into the apartment sometime soon after the Starzynskis had been deported and, yes, 12-year old Sarah, along with and older French peasant couple had come back to the apartment some time after that, with Sarah hysterically screaming for her brother – Just prior to their deportation, Sarah had hidden and locked her little brother in a false compartment behind a wall BUT COULD NOT COME BACK TO GET HIM OUT WHEN THE REST OF THEM WERE TAKEN AWAY BY THE AUTHORITIES. 

The movie’s about the repercussions of this 60+ year old secret playing out in the lives of several families to the present day. 

I’m from a central European (mostly Czech) background.  So I too grew-up with the ghosts of Hitler and Stalin being persistent if unwelcome guests at pretty much every family gathering when I was young.  So I know something of historical tragedy fatigue.

Still, this is a French take on a truly awful chapter in our shared history.  Each culture has a need for a national catharsis, and each culture has something to offer to others through its stories and its willingness (or unwillingness) to face the past.  The particular horror in this story was first that it was the French police who carried out the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup of Paris’ Jews (at the German occupiers’ behest) and second that there were French families who benefited from the confiscations.  Still these stories/tragedies with local variations played-out across Europe to this day.

[A recent Czech take (lighter but its way similarly challenging) on the Nazi Occupation / Holocaust years was a movie called Musíme si Pomáhat, which played with English subtitles under the title Divided We Fall but the title translates better to the plea, "We have to help each other," about three acquaintances, one ethnic-Czech, one ethnic (Sudeten) German and one Jewish living on the same apartment block in Prague during the years surrounding the war.  Did the three help each other?  Could they have done more?  How well did the country as a whole do?  And is there some shame that the _only_ one of the three who'd be left on that block today would probably be the ethnic-Czech?  Again, each country/ethnicity has its stories to tell and its own shame to exorcise.]

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Guard

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

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert’s review -

The Guard (written and directed by John Michael McDonagh) runs like a rural Irish inversion of the famed Eddie Murphy movie Beverly Hills Cop.  Thoroughly competent/professional African-American FBI man Wendell Everett (played by Don Cheadle) comes to rural Galway in the western reaches of Ireland to work with Irish local and national authorities to intercept an anticipated half-billion dollar drug shipment.  When he arrives, to his horror, he’s forced to team-up with an amiable but thoroughly “unprofessional” seeming rural cop (member of the Irish Garda) named Sargent Gerry Boyle (played by Brendan Gleeson).  After a disastrous initial meeting at a briefing on the matter, Everett is shocked to find that on the first day on the case together, Boyle notes that it’s his day off and proceeds to take it.  To Everett there’s "not a minute to spare," to Boyle there’s nothing that could possibly happen that could not wait until the next day.  And so it goes...

At one point an exasperated Everett says to Boyle: “I just don’t know if you’re just really, really stupid, or if you’re really, really smart.” [Those who see the movie, will note that my phraseology is sanitized for the readership here ;-)]

It turns out, of course, that Boyle knows quite well how things go in western Ireland, and in a climactic scene near the end when Boyle and Everett find themselves taking on the drug-smugglers themselves, Everett asks, “Should we call for back-up?”  Boyle answers quite sadly and  knowingly, “There will be no back-up.”

Such it _also_ is in rural western Ireland (and in much of the rest of the world): All the authorities knew, more or less, where the shipment was probably going to come.  And all the authorities _also knew_ (and quite well) to stay far, far away from it ... (Honestly, that was one of the best, most gut-wrenching dialogue exchanges in a police drama that I’ve seen since similar scenes in the Kevin Costner/Sean Connery film The Untouchables or, for that matter in the closing scene in the Harrison Ford/Brad Pitt, New York/IRA drama The Devil’s Own).

And Everett’s comment “I just don't know if you're really, really stupid, or really, really smart,” resonates to the very end.

Parents should be warned that there is a good deal of bad langauage and other crudity in the movie that isn't for little kids and that Boyle is certainly not a paragon of moral virtue.  But he does take his dying mother to Confession...  And again, _so it goes_ in this movie: The humor, even when it is crude, is _gentle_ and based on what I've learned over the years of Ireland / the Irish (I am 75% Czech and the remainder Russian/Ukrainian...) it's very, very Irish ;-).

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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Final Destination 5

MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB (O) Roger Ebert (2 stars) Fr Dennis (for those who like this kind of movie 3 stars, for those who don’t please don’t go).

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

Final Destination 5 (directed by Steven Quayle, written by Eric Heisserer and Jeffrey Reddick) is a movie that is DEFINITELY _not_ for everybody (understatement of the year (nervous ;-).  Parents: The movie _definitely_ deserves its R-rating and I can’t imagine why any parent would even want to take a pre-teen to such a “in one’s face” (and I’m not kidding, remember this is 3D) _again and again_ exquisitely filmed slash and gore fest.  I’d also add that anybody _with a heart condition_ ought to avoid the film, especially the 3D version.  And to anyone who is somewhat pressured to go see the film, honestly remember, _it’s okay_ to “close your eyes” at times (I learned this trick a number of years ago, when I was going with our parish youth group to the Six Flags / Great America amusement park.  I found that if one just closes one’s eyes, one could basically ride every roller-coaster no matter how frightening it would otherwise seem to be ;-).

That said, I’ve been around teens and young adults (and _I was_ a teen / young adult) long enough to know that movies like this are magnets to both age groups.  In fact, it was one of my parish's college-aged young adults who first told me that this movie was coming and that, yes, she was definitely going to go see it when it opened.

Now why would that be?  Why would movies like this be so attractive to young people?  Well Stephen King explained in his book, the Danse Macabre, that a good horror story is one that “touches a nerve.”  That is, it takes a value of the audience – in this case youth and vitality – and inverts it.  So one gets gore and splat.  The actors and actresses in this film are all attractive.  This adds to the shock appeal of, for example, actress Ellen Wroe playing a young gymnast going through her routine.  Everyone knows what’s coming, just doesn’t know when.  And then in an intricate, seemingly utterly random sequence of disasters she hurls off the apparatus in a seemingly utterly random fashion, lands _not_ on her feet (even on her head) but in a previously inconceivable, but truly _worst possible position_ ...  and splat (OMG how was that even possible?) the character in the story is dead, instantly.  Now repeat the same idea played out in a kitchen of a swanky high end restaurant, at a LASER EYE CARE center, at an acupuncture clinic ... and ... you get the picture.  Beautiful young people, seemingly “with their whole lives ahead of them” die _one after another_ in utterly unexpected but intricately plotted ways and ... that's the appeal.  They're so young, so beautiful, so full of life, yet instantly ... so dead.  Thus the movie plays on some of one’s greatest fears: that one could find oneself dead in an instant and in a seemingly utterly unexpected way.  And is one _really_ that surprised that young people who flock to roller-coasters and various ‘fright fests’ and ‘haunted houses’ around Halloween time would flock to a movie like this?

So what’s the story?  (Is there a story? ;-).  Well there's sort of a story: A group from an office of a nondescript “small company” set out on a chartered bus to go on a two day “company retreat.”  While on their way to the retreat center, they are to cross a long suspension bridge.  There’s road work occurring on the bridge.  The bus stops.  Then, one of the people from the group, Sam Lawton (played by Nicolas D’Agosto) has a horrific premonition of the bridge collapsing.  The bridge collapse sequence is, of course, horrific and graphic.  As he is about to fall off the bridge, he wakes up, _realizing that it was a dream_.  But as he wakes up, he realizes that things are happening _exactly_ like in the dream/vision that he just experienced.  So he freaks out and drags his girlfriend, Molly Harper (played by Emma Bell), off the stopped bus.  Six other confused passengers follow – junior exec Peter Freidkin (played by Miles Fisher), intern/college gymnast Candice Hooper (played by Ellen Wroe), hot secretary Olivia Castle (played by Jacqueline MacInnes Wood), creepy I.T. guy Isaac (played by P.J. Byrne), new-factory floor manager Nathan (played by Arlen Escarpeta) and department boss Dennis (played by David Koechner).  Because these eight got off the bus, they were able to “cheat death” and survive the Tacoma Narrows Bridge style collapse.

But Death does not like to be cheated.  So during the rest of the movie, Death moves in to take them all, one by one...

Is there any value to a movie like this?  Here I would like to note that the CNS/USCCB gave the movie an “O” or morally offensive rating because of the gore and because the reviewers there had an honest question about whether there’d be anything redeemable about a movie like this.  Well, if the movie does help to  remind young people that “death comes to all” and to pray for the dead –  for friends who died in teenage accidents (and teens do die that way) or for their loved ones who’ve died over the years -- then perhaps there would be a positive aspect to a story like this.  If it makes young people a bit _more careful_, not to take stupid chances, which young people often do, it’d have a positive value as well. 

So I don't see the movie as a total loss.  And I do know that a lot of the young people (even among the young people I know) are going to see this movie, whether they tell me or not.  Just folks remember that if you do see the movie, then do take the time to pray for the loved ones that you know who have died.  And remember to live life basically on the "straight and narrow" because _none of us knows_ when our lives will end, and when we’ll have to make an accounting for how we lived them to our God.

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Friday, August 12, 2011

The Help

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

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

The Help (directed and screenplay written by Tate Taylor based on the novel The Help by Kathryn Stockett) is a story about the women of Jackson, Mississippi in 1963 near the end of the first half of the Civil Rights Movement.  There were references to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s March on Washington D.C. (as something about to take place / just having taken place) as well as a scene with a whole household – white family and “its” black help watching the funeral of John F. Kennedy on a “new” (now ancient) television.

It is important to understand that neither the book nor the movie was intended to be a documentary but rather to be historical fiction, seeking to give to readers/the audience a sense of the life of a relatively minor, arguably “quaint” though deeply troubled state capital in the Deep South of the time.  In this Kathryn Stocket follows a long, storied tradition of historical fiction writing coming from women of the South that would make Margaret Mitchell who wrote Gone With the Wind and Harper Lee who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird proud. 

As I write this, it is clear to me that who is sill missing to complete this pantheon of women writing about the South would be a work written by a black woman reaching the acclaim of these three as yet white women, who nonetheless have pushed the cause of humanizing African-Americans in the larger American culture.  Margaret Mitchell arguably began this process as she humanized the various black servants working on the plantations of the Old South (even as she did not outright condemn slavery).  Harper Lee further humanized a black victim of false accusation who ended up being lynched (though the lynching itself was not portrayed).  Kathryn Stocket chose to write a fascinating book from the perspectives of the black maids of Jackson (though the story still passed through her pen).

In each case, these were steps that on one hand could be portrayed as large.  And yet on the other hand seem painfully small.  Perhaps a black woman will one day complete this cycle of writing about the Old South.  Or perhaps, the subject itself may not prove to be altogether interesting to African American women writers of today/the future (or fraught with other dangers, such as _no matter_ how good a black writer’s book/novel may be, it may not get the kind of attention that a better connected / still more "mainstream" white writer would receive) who may prefer writing about other pressing challenges.  In this regard, please check the ADDENDUM to this Review (below) for the link to the statement and suggestions of the Association of Black Women Historians with regard to this book/film and general topic of African American domestic workers in the pre-Civil Rights era South or just click here.

It is also important to understand the book as historically based fiction rather than documentary because the characters in the story do feel more like “types” than actual people.  The characters inhabiting the universe of the novel/movie _are_ important but the viewer will have no trouble identifying who the people who’re supposed to be sympathetic are and who we’re supposed to despise.  So it’s a morality tale stocked at times with ringers.  But it is well done and perhaps pertinent to our own time.

The specific hornet’s nest that The Help may kick-up is the identification of Hilly Holbrook (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) as the movie’s “Queen Bee” chief villain.  To be sure, Hilly mistreats not only her “help,” Mimmy Jackson (played by Octavia Spenser) who she fires after Minny refused to go outside to use the “help’s bathroom” during a tornado but used the house bathroom instead, as well as the woman who replaced her ostensibly for “stealing” (but the story’s more complicated that than), Hilly _also_ makes sure to keep her white-women “friends” in their places as well.  She keeps the writer of the story, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phalan (played by Emma Stone) off balance (who was the only one of this circle of white women to have gone to college – Ole Miss’) by constantly reminding her in one way or another that, college grad though she may be, she’s the only one of their friends who still wasn’t married.  And Hilly’s particularly vicious to a sweet, but “out of her depth” woman “with a white trash background” who had married one of Hilly’s old boyfriends.  She also pressures subservient “friend” Celia Foote (played by Jessica Chastain) to build a bathroom for her maid (and the movie’s narrator) Aibileen Clark (played by Viola Davis) because _she_ does not want to use a bathroom that could have been used by a black person.

In other circumstances, the prominence of Hilly’s “Queen Bee” character as the story’s chief villain could be appalling.  Yet, we do live in a time when we have two _snarling_ former beauty queens Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann becoming powerful fixtures on our national political scene, arguably _nationalizing_ the power-dynamics played-out in Jackson, Mississippi in this story.  Indeed, the two, Palin and Bachmann, have come to have a hate-filled fixation on bringing down our nation's (first) African-American President Barack Obama. Say what one may about his politics (note that abortion aside, I tend to agree with him on _just about everything else_) like _most_ of the black “help” in the movie, notably Aibileen (Viola Davis' character), Obama is intelligent, measured and _calm_.

So while the movie is about Jackson, Mississippi of the 1960s, it is also about our time.  For “those who have eyes, see...”


I wish to add here an Open Statement to the Fans of "The Help" by the Association of Black Women Historians.  Included at the end of the statement is a _suggested reading list_ of books, fiction and non-fiction, that address the realities of black domestic workers in the Pre-Civil Rights Era South.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Devil's Double

MPAA  (R) Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert’s Review -

The Devil’s Double (directed by Lee Tamahori, screenplay co-written by Michael Thomas and Latif Yahia, based on the autobiographical book by the same name by Latif Yahia with assistance of Karl Wendl) is about true story of Latif Yahia (played in the movie by Dominic Cooper) who during the regime of Saddam Hussein (played in the movie by Philip Quast) was extracted from the Iraqi military and forced to serve as a body double to Hussein’s psychopathic son Uday (played in the movie by Dominic Cooper as well).

If the totalitarian bosses of recent history were often ruthless and evil, the children of these dictators have often been remembered of being even worse.  In this regard, I would recommend an article by Franklin Foer of Slate Magazine who goes through the sordid stories of the adult children of notorious recent dictators.  Many/most of these children of dictators grew-up to have alcohol and gambling problems as well as _torture and rape_ problems.  Uday Hussein, for example, as head of the Iraqi Olympic Community was said to have tortured the members of Iraq’s national soccer team after losing a qualifying matchNicu Ceausescu, son of Romanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu also had a thing for Olympic athletes, apparently making his rounds of Romania’s medal-winning women’s gymnastics team when “dad” was still in power.  To be sure, Nicu wouldn’t torture the women athletes; he’d just sleep with (rape) them.  It’s generally been “good to be the king” (or the king’s son...).

So then, this is the world that Latif found himself brought into.  Extracted from the front during the Iran-Iraq War by Iraqi intelligence, because it was noted that he looked “a lot like” Uday Hussein, he was given by Uday an offer he could not refuse.  Even though given “a chance to think about it,” that chance Latif found out, was to be taken in the solitude of a prison cell.  Eventually, Latif gave in and after the making of some special dentures (to make his teeth look like Uday's) and apparently a number of minor surgical alterations on his face, voila, Latif got to play Uday for as long as he could stand it / his luck lasted.

What was the life of a “son of a god?”  Well, certainly God or Allah and their various "quaint moral strictures" (like Moslems aren’t supposed to drink alcohol, to say nothing of "thou shalt not kill, covet or commit adultery") didn’t matter for much.  The booze, the coke and the women flowed freely.  At one party in some private club in Baghdad during the lead-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Uday demanded that all his guests “take off their clothes,” and soon enough, male / female, most of the party-goers were naked.  Parents take note: If it wasn’t obvious to you already, this movie _really isn’t_ for the kids.

Uday also had a thing for young brides and even school girls.  Documented was a case where Uday watching a lovely wedding reception at some resort on the outskirts of Baghdad proceeded to come over and take (and soon afterwards rape) the bride.  In the movie, she proceeded to commit suicide, jumping off a balcony onto the wedding reception (still going on) below.  Uday would also drive his Italian sports car around Baghdad looking for teenage school-girls abduct.  Later, he’d have his assistants literally dispose of the bodies in the desert outside of town.

How much can a bystander (or even a forced body-double with a gun to his head) take?  Well when Uday had Latif go out _in his stead_ to talk down a particularly angry parent who had lost a teenage daughter in this way, Latif took out a knife and proceeded to slit his own wrists.  For his attempted suicide, Latif was dumped on the doorsteps of his parents’ home who had not seen or heard from him in 9-years (They had been told that Latif died during the Iran-Iraq War).

But anyone who’s ever watched or read a mafia tale knows that it’s not _that_ easy to leave an “outfit” like this.  The rest of the movie is about Latif’s attempt to "get out of Dodge.”

Perhaps the one difference between a purely mafia outfit and a political one is that other assistants / henchmen in a regime like this do come to have qualms as well.  So Latif does occasionally get some unanticipated help from people that, on the surface, one wouldn’t expect. (This same motif/insight was also present in the recent movie There be Dragons about Opus Dei founder St. Josemaria Escriva, set during the chaos and carnage of the Spanish Civil War and it _may_ be worth pursuing/reflecting on this in the future – not everybody associated with an evil regime is necessarily evil and people even in such evil circumstances are capable of unexpected kindness and change).

All in all, The Devil’s Double makes for a viscerally graphic (gold and blood drenched) movie.  Movies like Scarface and Goodfellas as well as the movies of Quentin Tarantino come to mind.  Parents, the R-rating is definitely appropriate and the movie is definitely not for kids / preteens.  Still, The Devil’s Double is mostly historical (Some of the scenes, particularly near the end, feel like they were “adapted” to fit the needs of a telling a compelling and coherent story, much like a criticism that could be made of recent cable television series like The Tudors or The Borgias).  And the story does make note of some of the complexities of the various characters in the story.  Nobody, including Uday or his father, is portrayed completely one-dimensionally. 

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