Sunday, October 30, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene

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

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

Martha Marcy May Marlene (written and directed by Sean Dirken) is an independent film that's gotten a lot of well deserved buzz since the summer and may receive a Oscar nomination for both Elizabeth Olsen playing the title role of Martha / Marcy May as well as, in a field of ten, possibly a nomination for Best Picture.  Parents note that this is a dark picture with definitely adult themes/concerns.  A teen would probably not get it.  Still for families with children or sibblings who've been estranged or wayward or even had been part of a cult, this movie would be excellent.

The movie begins with Martha (played by Elizabeth Olsen) having just escaped a small cult residing on a farm in the Catskills Mountains of central New York.  Having ditched the farm (and successfully evaded other members of the cult running out to look for her) she comes into a small town from which she calls her older sister, Lucy (played by Sarah Paulson) who seems both surprised and generally happy to hear from her.  It's been two years since Martha has seemingly dropped off the face of the earth.  Lucy offers to pick her up and takes her then to the palacial cottage that Lucy and her husband, Ted (played by Hugh Dancy), have rented for a part of the summer.  The two have been apart so long that Martha doesn't know Ted, and Ted only from what Lucy had told him about her.

It has been said that a useful definition of "culture" is that it's like "the water through which a fish swims.  It's something that the fish takes for granted until it finds itself in another pond."  Having lived two years in a cult with very different communitarian values -- subsistance living, sharing of goods, indeed, sharing of bodies -- again, parents take note... -- Martha's a definite fish out of water in Lucy and Ted's clearly materialistic lifestyle, and even though she was picked-up penniless by Lucy and taken to live with her and Ted for a few weeks while she gets her bearings, Martha is certainly judgemental about how the two live.  Perhaps it'd be something akin to a Spartan suddenly finding oneself living in the seemingly palatial home of a "mere merchant" in Athens in classical Greece.

It takes a while for Lucy to figure out that Martha needed a lot more help than she initially thought.  Martha wasn't merely running away from "some boyfriend."  She was ecaping a whole (foreign) way of life. 

How did this all come about?  How did Martha find herself brought into a cult to begin with?  Through both  flashbacks and dialogue, the story is told.  

From dialogue we learn that Lucy and Martha had been largely raised by their mother.  Their father had apparently been abusive in some way (or in a number of ways) to either the girls or their mother. This was not clear but the result was that their mother had split with their father and they were mostly raised by her.  Now Lucy was already away in college when their mother fell ill and died.  Martha then was raised for the remaining of her teenage years by their aunt (Martha asks Lucy if their aunt was at her and Ted's wedding).  One gets the sense that as soon as she was old enough, Martha split from her aunt and went on her own.

From flashbacks, we see that it was a friend of Martha's, Zoe (played by Luisa Krause), who introduces her to the community living out on a farm in the Catskills and led by a charismatic and manipulative leader named Patrick (played by John Hawkes).  What does the cult believe in?  In simple subsistance living, sharing of goods, basically free/shared sex, and then the specialness of their leader. 

To its credit, the movie does show the attractive aspects of this lifestyle -- the members of the community did care for each other, everyone was given the opportunity to "find their place" in the community and the members of the community did share basically everything.  The women in particular, slept on mattresses strewn in one large room in the farm house.  Their clothes basically hung on one rack of dresses in a closet that they all shared from.  Everyone cooked together, ate together, worked the farm together.  And yes, they slept with each other (the men apparently had separate rooms) as they wished, together.  The one rule though was that the leader, Patrick, ruled over it all.

However, the creepiness of the "all powerful ruler" came to seep into just about every aspect of the others lives.  Zoe introduces Martha to Patrick as Martha.  He responds, "You look to me like a Marcy May," (RED FLAG) which becomes her name in the group (BIG RED FLAG).  After a period of getting accustomed to the place, initiation, at least of the women required having sex with Patrick (EVEN BIGGER RED FLAG).  Now it's clear in the film that most of the women would have actually given themselves willingly to the apparently kind, charismatic and "caring" Patrick anyway.  However, the women are ritually drugged (HUGE RED FLAG), without their knowing it (UNBELIEVABLY LARGE RED FLAG), for the encounter anyway (SUPER-DOOPER LARGE RED FLAG).

After Martha apparently had some difficulty "processing" this initiatory sexual encounter with Patrick complaining to Zoe "I don't remember any of it anyway," a somewhat miffed Patrick picks up a guitar during one of the community's relaxing "together times" and dedicates the song he was about to sing to Marcy May, and begins singing: "She's just a picture, I have hanging on my wall, nothing else, nothing more..."  (THERE JUST AIN'T A RED FLAG BIG ENOUGH). 

Seriously folks, if someone actually says that "you're nothing but an object hanging on his/her wall," DON'T WALK AWAY, RUN.  But alas, it took Martha some time longer to make the break.  Besides probably at the time, some of the other (more communitarian) aspects of her life there probably made her stay.

But the creepiness did not go away.  Some readers here may come to wonder.  With all that sex apparently going on at this place, would this produce pregnancies?  Apparently so.  But the only children being raised were Patrick's (were the other children being conceived being aborted?) and the only children being kept were boys (were Patrick's girls being killed, or, perhaps being put up for adoption?) 

None of this seemed to pursuade Martha to leave.  What appears to have done so was Martha's realization that the whole lifestyle, subsistence that it was, still depended on crime, stealing from neighbors.  And with repeated break-ins, come other bridges to cross... 

So Martha resolves to leave.  And she does so, sort of.  Can she really leave (psychicly, if certainly physically)?  And can her sister and her yuppie husband really come to understand what world she was coming from? 

Again, anyone with an estranged child or sibbling could perhaps benefit from reflecting on this movie, at least from a distance.  Certainly, not every estranged child/sibbling would necessarily have "joined a cult."  However, the dynamics could be actually quite similar.  Clearly there are aspects of the life that the estranged person has taken on that are attractive even fulfilling to that person.  One just hopes that the creepiness of other aspects of that lifestyle don't come to overwhelm the good/attractive aspects.  And ultimately no lifestyle can be truly good if other significant relations are excluded or if one is not free to leave.


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Anonymous

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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1521197/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.catholicnews.com/data/movies/11mv134.htm
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20111026/REVIEWS/111029990

Anonymous (directed by Ronald Emmerlich, screenplay by John Orloff) questioning William Shakespeare's authorship of his plays and sonnets is bound to ruffle feathers and produce knee jerk rejections comparable to knee-jerk rejections (usually by America's right) of Oliver Stone's famous film JFK (1991) about the John F. Kennedy's assassination.

I'd actually prefer to compare Anonymous' portrayal of Elizabeth I's reign in England to the portrayal of the papacy of Alexander VI (and his family...) in the recent cable television series The Borgias.  To be sure, Pope Alexander VI did father many children, made one of his sons a Cardinal and married off (and annulled the marriages) of his daughter Lucretia according to the whims of politics on the still fractured Italian peninsula.

Yet as objectively morally corrupt as Pope Alexander VI's reign was, the recent series about him did still play with the historical facts in ways that were almost certainly untrue.  For instance, as I noted in my review of the Borgia series, one episode had one of Alexander VI's sons actually strangle an Ottoman prince (at the request of the Ottoman emperor ...) with his own hands.  That just doesn't seem comprehensible.  That Alexander VI as a recognized ruler of a sovereign state at the time, the Papal States, would do such a favor (of getting rid of an inconvenient rival) for another sovereign is plausible.  After all, taking a page from our own recent post 9/11 history: We, the United States do not torture.  So we've had the Egyptians and Jordanians torture people for us... Yet, to have Alexander VI's own son do the job with his bare hands would be akin to having a film or television series showing our former vice-President Dick Cheney personally water-boarding inmates at Guantanamo Bay (or more secret prisons at "undisclosed locations" around the globe).  Yes, Cheney was (and remains) all for torture.  But would he do so himself?  Probably not.

Returning now to Anonymous.  The film suggests that Elizabeth I had at least three illegitimate sons by three different lovers, two of them while Queen of England.  How could that be?  The film has her disappearing on "a journey" for the duration of at least one of her pregnancies.  Would not the royal court in London miss her?  Would not her mortal enemy Philip II of Spain catch wind of news like this and use the opportunity to strike England then?

Yet the Tudors (2007-2010) themselves were portrayed in another recent cable-series as being more than a bit randy.  And the stories of the Czars, the Chinese Emperors, modern dictators and their families (like the recent shocker The Devil's Double about a body double of Uday Hussein), are all filled with stories of seemingly unbounded hypocrisy and corruption.   So what to make of it?  I would propose two options: (1) The powerful were always quite capable of doing unspeakable things and covering them up ("Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely..."). (2) One should view "historical" films with a critical eye, recognizing obvious places where playwrights, film-makers and story-tellers may be tempted to play with the truth to tell a better, more compelling story.  Indeed, Oliver Stone has at times appealed to Shakespeare's historical plays as a means understanding his own "historical" movie-making: historical story-telling need not be about getting all the facts right, rather about getting the essence of the era/man/etc correct.

So whatever one may say about Oliver Stone's JFK, there are aspects of the official version of events that are suspicious.  And it's not simply an "incongruency" that "a loser shot like Lee Harvey Oswald killed a President."  That "loser" Oswald, had a very strange (suspicious) life:  He was a United States Marine.  He defected to Russia, returned a few years later no questions asked, was taped on television talk shows in New Orleans expressing strong opinions about Fidel Castro, and then some months later shot the President.  And he himself was assassinated on live television by someone, Jack Ruby, with underworld ties, as he was being transferred from the Dallas jail before any public hearing.  The case simply doesn't smell right, no matter how much Oswald has been portrayed as "simply a loser."  If he was such a loser, why kill him before he was allowed to speak?

Similarly, in Anonymous, the salacious details ultimately don't really matter.  If nothing else, the film does remind the viewer Elizabethan era was a dangerous one.  I remember a conversation with a number of more intellectual Catholics a number of years back, where one (not a Shakespeare scholar but someone who was certainly fairly well read on the matter) who argued to me that Shakespeare may have been Catholic.  His proof: that Shakespeare scrupulously did not refer to Catholic-Protestant controversies at all in his work.  If he were Protestant, like say John Milton, he would have probably made his Protestantism clear.  Instead, Shakespeare kept his mouth shut on the matter.  That's the point that this fairly well read Catholic on the matter was making.  I'd add here that while Shakespeare did not refer to religion much in his work, he did write a heck of a lot about Italy, which would seem rather odd and perhaps even suspicious at a time when Elizabethan England was in a death duel with both the Pope and Catholic King Philip II of Spain.  It could be something like "Reading Lolita in Tehran" today.

In any case, it should be becoming clear that being a playwright in Elizabethan England wouldn't necessarily have been the safest of occupations.  A person of learning writing at the time could have had reason to write under a pseudonym or perhaps even feed his work to a lower class "distributor" (in this case "theater owner") to protect himself.  Because lets face it, some of Shakespeare's work could be interpreted as being "political" by a paranoid regime (or paranoid functionaries in a paranoid regime).  To put oneself a step-away from its production could have been safer for the writer.  I would note here that people fairly well known people, including Mark Twain, did not believe that William Shakespeare of Stratford really wrote Shakespeare's plays.  So while the current film, could be clumsy and swinging from the chandeliers salacious in its argumentation, the question of Shakespeare's authorship (or ought to be) more serious than one could initially think.  Either that, or Shakespeare was one very, very brave man.  A very good article on the question (that ultimately and resolutely defends William Shakespeare's authorship of his plays) can be found, of course, on wikipedia.

So other than that, how was the film? ;-)

From a technical point of view, the film was certainly excellent.  The sets were magnificent.  One got a feel of what it would have been like to be like sitting (or standing on the floor level) watching one of Shakespeare's plays at the Globe Theater in London at the time.  London is portrayed as (what a surprise...) gloomy, rainy most of the time.  However, as in other recent, more "political" films about the era -- Elizabeth (1998) and Elizabeth: the Golden Age (2007)  the rain and general darkness/gloominess are probably intended to be more than just a statement on English climate.  Rather they are intended to be metaphors to the darkness whole period.  As I mentioned above, the political dimensions of various plays (like Henry V, Hamlet, Macbeth and especially Richard III) were probably stressed in this film more than most people would initially think.

The film portrays Elizabeth I (played in her younger years by Joely Richardson and later by Vanessa Redgrave) as more of a ditz than I would have liked, manipulated heavily by her advisor William Cecil (played by David Thewlis).  William Cecil was also presented as the caretaker/foster father and later father-in-law of Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford  (played in his younger years by Jamie Cambell Bower and later by Ryan Ilfans) who the movie presents as the real author of Shakespeare's plays.

Edward, the Earl of Oxford a poet/writer is presented as hating William Cecil's narrow, arguably Talabanish, Protestantism, one which viewed poetry as basically vanity.  (Since Cecil was his father-in-law, the movie plays up the scene in Hamlet when Hamlet somewhat comically kills Ofelia's father Laertes "look a rat" (stabbing him as he was hiding behind a curtain).  Laertes was to become Hamlet's father-in-law and Laertes served as the Queen's advisor in the play).

Shakespeare himself (played by Rafe Spall) was portrayed in an exaggerated manner as a baffoon, someone who as an actor had learned to read but who'd utterly incapable of writing plays, let alone poetry in his own right.

A key character in the film is another playwright, Ben Johnson (played by Sebastian Armesto).  Johnson is introduced as a playwright already in trouble with the authorities for the supposed politics in his works (even though he produced only low class comedies).  The Earl of Oxford springs from jail but then under the condition that Johnson produce his, the Earl's, plays under the name Anonymous.  The anonymity of the playwright was supposed to actually protect both the Earl and Johnson.  However, something soon goes wrong, after a particularly stirring performance of Henry V, the crowd demands that the author take a bow.  The Earl's in the stands, Johnson does not want to get into further trouble with the authorities.  So Shakespeare, one of Johnson's actors steps up and takes a bow ... The story proceeds from there ...

Again, the film itself has many holes.  I myself can't get past Elizabeth I's supposed three illegitimate children.  I just don't know a pregnancy, let alone repeated pregnancies, could be hidden on a supposedly Virgin queen.  However, the possibility that Shakespeare did not actually write the works attributed to him, I find interesting because I would understand why someone living at that time (and under those political/religious circumstances) would want perhaps to keep a certain distance from his writings.


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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Puss in Boots

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-I) Roger Moore (3 1/2 Stars) Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0448694/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.catholicnews.com/data/movies/11mv132.htm
Roger Moore's review -
http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/movies/sc-mov-1025-puss-in-boots-20111027,0,4915188.story


Puss in Boots (directed by Chris Miller, character by Charles Perault, screenplay by Tom Wheeler) a spin-off prequel about the life of Puss in Boots [IMDb] (voice by Antonio Banderas) prior to appearing in the Shrek 2 had fairly large boots to fill, and IMHO largely succeeded.

For while most American families will probably know Puss in Boots [IMDb] today mostly from the Shrek series where he appears as an eminently honorable, sophisticated sword-fighting El Cid, Musketeer, Zorro-like figure, he was originally an invention of 17th century French story-writer Charles Perault appearing as a character in Perault's Mother Goose stories (something important to understand in the current film).  However even in Perault's, 17th century stories, Le Chat Botté (the booted cat) was a booted sword-fighting cat with, well, savoir faire ;-). 

The current film has Puss' story take place that looks like either rural Spain or the American South-West during Spanish colonial times.  He grew-up an orphan in an orphanage in a small town called San Ricardo, cared for foster-mother Imelda (voice by Constance Marie) with childhood friend/fellow orphan Humpty Dumpty (voice by Zach Galifianakis).  Together apparently, the two orphans entered into a shady sort of life if not of outright crime, then certainly not on the "up and up," to the heart break of their loving foster-mother/caretaker Imelda.  Indeed, through the whole movie one is left wondering if Humpty Dumpty is really a "good egg" or a "bad" one ;-).

Anyway, seeking to make some easy money, the two along with Kitty Softpaws (voice by Salma Hayek), a grifter cat who Humpty Dumpty picked-up along the way, run into Jack and Jill (voices by Billy Bob Thorton and Amy Sedaris) imagined in this story to be a couple of Bonnie and Clyde / Jesse James types (and here I had thought that "Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water..." :-).

The two, Jack and Jill, have apparently come across some magic seeds that when planted would grow into a giant bean-stalk (Jack and the Bean Stalk) so tall that it'd reach the clouds, where they could find a Goose that lays golden eggs.  This was too good a scam for Puss, Humpty Dumpty and Kitty Salfpaws to pass up.

Much happens.  And of course it all "ends well."  The question of what kind of an egg, Humpty Dumpty is, is sort of resolved.  And one certainly learns an eminently Hispanic lesson that the worst thing that one could do is to disappoint one's loving mother.  (Imelda plays a big role in this movie).

All in all I liked it.  To be honest, I do feel that Kitty Softpaws (voiced by Salma Hayek after all) was drawn in a somewhat disappointing way.  Her voice was full of attitude but looking at her, she didn't look particularly special.  Perhaps this was intentional, but I do have to say that I was somewhat disappointed. But Puss in Boots was a dashing/sophisticated and Zorro-like as I expected him.

Anyway, the movie's safe, teaches some good lessons (Kids, don't disappoint your mother...) and is fun.  I'd certainly recommend it to most families with small kids.


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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Take Shelter [2011]

MPAA (R) Roger Ebert (4 Stars) Fr. Dennis (2 Stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

Take Shelter (written and directed by Jeff Nichols) is an independent film that has been getting rave reviews from critics.  As such, it may be a film that becomes significant come Oscar season.  However, I have my difficulties with it.

The film is about a man named Curtis (played by Michael Shannon) from rural Texas.  He has a farm house, and holds a steady job in a nearby quarry.  He's married to a young woman named Samantha (played by Jessica Chastain) and together they have a young daughter named Hannah (played by Tova Stewart).

It's a good and honest life, except that Curtis himself is starting to suspect that his mind may be going, that he's slowly going insane.  And he has reason to believe that this could be happening.  He starts being tormented by increasingly terrible dreams, mostly about a storm unlike any other -- wind, tornadoes and a downpour of thick oil-like rain.  At work, he starts to freak-out his best friend and co-worker, Dewart (played by Shea Wingham) by frequently hearing strange noises and seeing strange formations of birds that no one else sees.  It turns out that Curtis' mother (played by Cathy Baker) had come down with schizophrenia when she was his age, and during the course of the film he does go to visit her at the psychiatric assisted living facility where she lives to this day. 

So the setup of the film is very good and it is clear that Curtis himself suspects that something not right is starting to go on in his mind.  Further, in as much as he can -- he and his wife don't have a lot of money and he does have a full-time job -- he does seek psychological help.  But the dreams don't stop him from doing some increasingly disturbing things.  Notably, he takes money that he and Samantha had been saving for a vacation (or more probably to use for their daughter, who has her own medical problems, she's deaf) and spends it on radically expanding the storm shelter that they already had in their backyard.  He also becomes increasingly erratic (and absent) at work, at stake there being not just Curtis' income but also his health insurance.

So faced with increasingly erratic behavior of her husband, Samantha has to increasingly step-up and step-in, to confront him and try to keep him in line.

All this would make for an _excellent movie_.  What I did not like about the movie, honestly, is its ending.  It is open to multiple interpretations, but IMHO the most obvious interpretation really cheapens the rest of the film.

I saw this movie, Take Shelter, several weeks ago and had refrained from putting-up a review of it until now, because I so disliked the ending of the film.   However, another independent film Martha Marcy May Marlene (starring Elizabeth Olsen) is also about a character losing (her) grip on reality.  So it probably serves to provide a review the film now because the two films could be interesting to consider together.  In any case, my favorite film of recent years about schizophrenia is A Beautiful Mind (2001) which starred Russell Crowe.


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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Margin Call [2011]

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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1615147/
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20111019/REVIEWS/111019980

Margin Call [2011] (written and directed by J.C. Chandor) is a Wall Street drama obviously inspired by the events leading up to the financial collapse of 2008.

The movie begins on a day of internal housecleaning in the life of a highly competitive Wall Street firm.  Outside hired hatchet-folk are brought in to deliver the news to a fair percentage of the firm's traders and other employees that their jobs are being terminated.  They tell them that "it's nothing personal."  To some employees being terminated with more sensitive jobs they add, "We regret that we're going to have to take some steps with you that are going to look 'punitive' but these are not understood as a reflection of your past work here.  Instead, they are being done simply to protect the firm's security." 

One of the people being terminated "in a manner that may seem punitive" is Erik Dale (played by Stanley Tucci) the head of the firm's risk assessment department.  After being told by the outsourced hatchet-folk that he's being terminated, he's given a box to clear the "personal effects" from his office while a security guard stands at the door watching him do so.  When Erik seeks to go to his computer, he's told not to touch it anymore.  He protests saying that he's "been working on something fairly important (even to the firm that he's leaving)."  He's told that it doesn't matter, that it's not his concern anymore and that his passwords had been changed at the moment of his firing anyway. 

Being escorted with his box of personal affects in-hand by the security guard to the elevator, Eric runs into one of his former assistants, Peter Sullivan (played by Zachary Quinto).  He hands Peter a flash drive telling him "I had been working on this in these last couple of weeks.  Please take a look at it.  I think you'll find it interesting."  With that Eric arrives at the elevator, security guard at his side.  Eric and Pete look at each other, not even having a chance to really say goodbye.  And with this the elevator door closes.  When Eric arrives at the ground floor and is finally escorted to the exit of the building, he tries to make a call on his (company) cell phone -- to his wife? to Peter?  One's not sure -- but it doesn't matter because the cell phone has been disconnected.  Eric takes the defunct cell-phone and smashes it on the pavement in front of the building saying "F-U..."

After the culling of a fair percentage of the traders at the firm is completed, the floor's senior manager Sam Rogers (played by Kevin Spacey) steps out of his office to give them a pep-talk.  He tells them that their former co-workers are gone, to not think of them again, to understand that they remain at the firm because they are deemed valuable, and finally to consider this culling as an opportunity: "Five people who stood in your way from your boss' job are now gone. Now work hard so that one day it will be yours."

After Sam returns back to his office, Sam's assistant, Will Emerson (played by Paul Bettany) who actually manages the traders on the floor for Sam stops-in to give his approval of Sam's speech.  The moment gives Sam a chance to express a surprising moment of humanity.  This fleeting glimpse of humanity is not expressed in any concern about the culling of the floor that just took place. Indeed as senior floor manager, he would have made the decisions of who to cut.  Instead, he tells Will that he's broken-up over the deteriorating health of his dog, that he might have to put the dog to sleep.  Will is somewhat bewildered by Sam's odd/distracted comment about his dog -- again 1/3, 1/2 or even 2/3 of the floor had just been let go -- but since Sam's his boss, Will nods with strained understanding.

Among the people surviving the culling are Erik's two young former assistants in the firm's "risk assessment" department: Peter who was given the flash-drive by Erik and Seth Bregman (played by Penn Badgley).  They realize that with Erik gone, their boss is now Will.  As work ends, Peter and Seth go out to a bar.  Still somewhat stunned by the mass firing (apparently the first time that they went through such a thing) they banter about it at the bar and about other random things.  Each apparently taking to heart Sam's pep-talk at the end of the culling, Seth seems to wonder how much Will (his new boss) makes, while Peter decides to go back to the office to look at the flash drive that Erik gave him as he left.

When they return to the office, they run into Will.  Will and Seth want to go out again, but Peter decides to stay to play with the figures that Erik had left him on the flash drive.  So Will and Seth go out to play, while Peter plays with the info that he had received.  Soon however, Peter realizes what Erik was working on and the implications of this to the future of the firm:  The firm, like many others on Wall Street had been purchasing mortgages from banks, shuffling them around, repackaging them and reselling them back to investors.  Erik, as head of risk assessment for the firm had been analyzing the risk to the firm of hanging on to these mortgages while the firm hung-on to them even as it combined them with others for resale.  Well Erik had found that keeping these mortgages on the firm's books for the period of time that it took to reshuffle them for resale (about a month) was proving to be increasingly risky to the firm, to the point that it could crash the firm in a time period far shorter than it took the firm to prepare them for resale.  And since other firms were doing this kind of mortgage paper-reshuffling as well, as soon as someone found out that these mortgage products being sold were dangerous, the market (along with firms like theirs) would completely collapse. 

What to do? -- Well Peter calls Will and Seth back to the office.  Will, a business manager not a mathematician, tells Peter that he's going to have explain this to him is if he were a 10 year old.  Peter explains the urgency to will with sufficient clarity that, even if it was the middle of the night, Will calls Sam his boss to come back to the office immediately.

Within an hour, Sam arrives, quickly understands the urgency as well, and soon the big brass is called in.  These include Sarah Robertson (played by Demi Moore) and Jared Cohen (played by Simon Baker) who had been the firm's chief designers and marketers of these mortgage products and John Tuld (played by Jeremy Irons) the firm's CEO who arrives on helicopter.

They all come to a hastily arranged meeting, where Sam presents Will who presents Peter, who presents Erik's results.  John Tuld interrogates:
     "Where's Erik?"
     "Well we just let him go."
     "Peter, what's your background?"
     "Well I have a PhD from MIT on friction profiles in fuel injection systems of rocket engines."
      "So you're literally a rocket scientist.  What are you doing here?"
      "Well at the end of the day it's all numbers and to be frank, your pay is much better than in the aerospace field."

Sarah Robertson, the mortgage products' chief designer who knew Erik and knew some of his concerns about the risks, asks that she and her assistant Ramech Shah (played by Aasiv Mandvi) check the numbers.  They're given some time, less than an hour to do so.  The come back reporting that the numbers are right.

What then to do?  That's when John Tuld tells the group: "I've learned that there are three ways to make it in this business: Be smart, be first or cheat."  He continues, "we don't cheat."  (So that's off the table).  "And while we're pretty smart, I'm sure that a lot of other people on this street are pretty smart as well. So we're left with being first.'"

The rest of the movie is about the firm struggling quickly (by dawn) to respond to this discovery first.

The movie is excellent, reminding me of  Oliver Stone's movie of last year Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and last year's Oscar Winning documentary Inside Job.

This movie, Margin Call, adds to the conversation and gives the viewer much to think about.  Among the interesting things presented in the film are: (1) that a fair amount of the managers on Wall Street are not particularly bright (and know that are not particularly bright) but are good salesmen or managers, and (2) that a fair number of the brightest minds on Wall Street today are like Peter (and there are others in this film) who not even from the finance fields but arriving (pillaged?) from other fields.

And of course, the question that our whole society is asking is raised:  What do these finance people actually do?  Well, they move around numbers and lots and lots of money.  An engineer, in contrast, would actually be building or at least designing something.  But are the financial engineers doing the same if on a different level?  When does "friction" become real?


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The Three Musketeers (2011)

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Michael Phillips (1 Star) Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1509767/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.catholicnews.com/data/movies/11mv130.htm
Michel Phillips' review -
http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-10-20/entertainment/sc-mov-1018-three-musketeers-20111020_1_three-musketeers-swords-alexander-dumas

The Three Musketeers (2011) (directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, screenplay by Alex Litvak and Andrew Davies based on classic adventure novel  "Les Trois Mousquetaires" by Alexandre Dumas) is a film that will irritate purists.  Locally, as with other heavily CGI driven films, Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert did not even review it and Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips basically hated it (as Phillips generally dislikes most CGI driven fare).

But speaking on behalf of the 14-15 year olds for whom Dumas' original adventure novel was intended and on behalf of my mother who read this book in a refugee camp as a 14-15 year old after World War II and even saw (or perhaps heard) an Eroll Flynn version of  The Three Musketeers and loved it then, I do believe that whatever the movie lacks in following the strict letter of Dumas' original tale, it makes up for it in spirit.

And in contrast to, IMHO, far more legitimate complaints about the frenetic recent "updated" Sherlock Holmes (2009)  (starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law, a second film Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows expected to be released later this fall) from which this visually rich, indeed, hyper-visual update of the Three Musketeers certainly borrows, I continue to maintain T3Ms was intended from the beginning to be a frenetic adventure story with comically exaggerated characters, evil/scheming villains, damsels in distress and lots and lots of swordplay.

The makers of this film took the story, actually kept themselves largely faithful to its original characters, added some Da Vinci (and perhaps a little Da Vinci Code) style intrigue -- both the Musketeers on behalf of France and Lord Buckingham on behalf of England scheme to get a hold of Da Vinci's plans "balloon driven airships."  Those airships then REALLY REALLY "POP" in 3D ;-) -- as well as some cinematic tricks from The Matrix and other recent thrillers, and came up with a concoction that I do believe captures the original's youthful intent.

And lest a teenager today would still not be impressed, let me say that the young Musketeer wannabe D'Artagnan [IMDb] (played here by Logan Lerman) is both kinda cute/funny as he rides into Paris with his dad's sword and on his family's faithful if rather worn horse in search of becoming a Musketeer.  And the Queen's "Lady in Waiting" Constance [IMDb] (played by the stunning Gabriela Wilde) that he meets is truly (I'm not kidding) "to die for."

Indeed, most of the casting is inspired:  Dumas' scheming (and historical) Cardinal Richelieu [IMDb] is played by Christoph Waltz (of Inglourious Basterds fame).  The also historically notorious English Lord Buckingham [IMDb] is played by Orlando Bloom.  And the dangerous woman/spy Milady de Winter [IMDb] is played by Milla Jovovovic.

The casting of the Three Musketeers themselves is ok: Athos [IMDb] is played by Matthew MacFayden; Aramis [IMDb] by Luke Evans; and Porthos [IMDb] by Ray Stevenson.  Then the childish historical King Louis XIII of France [IMDb] is played by Freddie Fox and his wife Queen Ann [IMDb] is played by Juno Temple.  Finally there is the amiable (if in this movie, woefully disrespected) servant of the Musketeers named Planchet  [IMDb] (played by James Corden).

All in all, I really enjoyed this film.  It is available in 3D.  As I usually do, I sought it out and saw it in 2D and it also works.  I know that a lot of older school critics don't like the CGI effects.  But I honestly do like movies like this.

Yes, films produced with heavy CGI start to require a different kind of acting.  But I do believe that these stories are enhanced by the effects.  The "Paris of the 1600s" in this movie is more "Paris like" than even Paris probably was at the time.  (The 1990s cultural critical term for this was "hyper-reality" I believe and when it works in a story, I applaud it).  Indeed, that's what one pays for when one goes to the movies: To see projections of the essence of the places that one hasn't gone to and may never be able to go to.  If one wishes to see exclusively actor driven performances ... go to the theatres.  But this film and recent films like it -- Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), Alice in Wonderland (2010), Thor (2011), Suckerpunch (2011), yes even the more legitimately maligned new Sherlock Holmes (2009-2011) films -- are seeking to fully take advantage of the cinematic effects increasingly available to us through innovations like those seen in The Matrix (1999), Avatar (2009) and Inception (2010).  And film is a visual medium so I fully applaud its use.

So I applaud the makers of this film.  You brought this story to life and made The Three Musketeers exciting to 14-15 year olds again.  And honestly, how great is that!


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Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Mighty Macs

MPAA (G)  CNS/USCCB (A-I)  Roger Ebert (2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1034324/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.catholicnews.com/data/movies/11mv129.htm
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20111019/REVIEWS/111019981

The Mighty Macs (screenplay written and directed by Tim Chambers, story by Tim Chambers and Anthony Gargano) is a feel good movie Catholic movie made in the tradition of Rudy and older Catholic film-making (Going My Way, Bells of St. Mary's) that nonetheless does touch, gently, respectfully to all, on modern issues.  Honestly GOOD JOB MR CHAMBERS!

The movie begins in the fall of 1972.  Cathy Rush (played by Carla Gugino) a recent college graduate and recently married to fellow athlete Ed Rush (played by David Boreanaz) decides that she's not going to be content with being simply a dutiful housewife and decides therefore that she wishes to make a mark of her own.  Having played basketball in college herself (until the program was scrapped) she applies to become basketball coach at nearby all girls' Immaculata College (in Chester, PA).  School President, Mother St. John (played by Ellen Burstyn) with bigger problems on her mind (the biggest of which was the perennial problem of any Catholic school administrator, simply saving the school, period) hires her for $450 for the season.  After hiring her, she tells Cathy, "You know if you were a better negotiator, I would have gone up to $500."  Ms Rush responds, "I would have taken the job for free."  Such was the status of women's athletics in 1972, the year that Title 9 was passed.

So Cathy Rush is put in charge of putting together a College basketball program from scratch.  There's no gym, just a rec area with a couple of basketball hoops in the basement of the University's church.  There are no uniforms.  The CNS/USCCB review notes that the uniforms that IC's players used that year were converted smocks that the college's nuns used while cleaning.  The players initially aren't particularly motivated either.  They have concerns of good young Catholic women of their time.  One of the players comes to practice one time wearing the letterman jacket of her jock boyfriend sincerely bubbling that the jacket was her "pre-engagement ring" from him.  Another player, talented but from an obviously poorer family than many of the other players (she lived at home rather than on campus, helping her mother around the house at least as much as going to school, nevermind initially making practice on a regular basis) responds sincerely if somewhat bitterly to Coach Rush's challenge "You have to dream!" by saying "I thought dreams were only for rich people."  Such, again, was the time...

It's also 1972, after the Second Vatican Council, and obviously just after the first victories of the modern feminist movement.  Sister Sunday (played by Marley Shelton) one of the younger nuns of the IHM community operating the school tells Mother Saint John that she's having doubts about her vocation.  Sighing, expecting the more or less inevitable at the time, Mother Superior assigns the good sister re-evaluating her call to clean the Church to give her time to reflect.  In a great (and amusing) adaptation of similar "crisis scenes" in countless old-time Catholic pictures, Sr. Sunday finds herself kneeling in Church asking God, "You're gonna have to give me a sign, a really obvious sign as to what you want me to do."  And she finds herself irritated by being interrupted in her sincere heart-wrenching prayer by the sounds of whistles and basketball dribbling in the rec room below.  And then she realizes "Oh." ;-)

It turns out that Sister Sunday played basketball in high school as well and Coach Rush makes her, her assistant.  Indeed, some days after sending Sr. Sunday down to the Church reflect (as well as clean) Mother Saint John is pleasantly surprised that the good sister is still around.  Again, this was a time when many, many good younger sisters discerned that God wished them to pursue life outside the Convent.

And it becomes clear in a later scene why the question of staying or leaving consecrated religious life would have been perhaps more difficult for Sister Sunday than for others.  In a bonding scene, she tells Ms Rush that she had entered her novitiate at 25-26 after "living as a single woman in Manhattan" in the years before.  Sr. Sunday had not entered the Convent "young" or "without some life experience."  She had truly entered with her eyes open and aware of the commitment that she was making.   (Sister Sunday is a very interesting character in the movie).

Well much of course happens.  And in the "barn storming" days of serious women's college athletics it turns out that tiny Immaculata College, led by Coach Rush and her assistant Sr. Sunday did, in fact succeed in leading that some group of young women not only to the first ever NCAA Womens' Bascketball Championship, but succeeded in repeating the feat two more times.  Additionally, the young women of that team went on to do some great things afterwards both in women's athletics and otherwise.  So this becomes a very nice film all around.  And the College, which went co-ed in 2005 and is now called Immaculata University continues to this day.

I liked this movie a lot.  And I do give a lot of credit to Tim Chambers, the writer and director of the film.  This was not necessarily an easy story to tell.  But he did so in a way that truly respected everybody and did actually remind us all of the contributions of Catholic institutions and even specifically all-women's Catholic institutions.  Indeed, thinking about it, I'm not all that surprised that the first three Women's NCAA Basketball Championships ever were won by this small Catholic all-women's school.  As small and as resource poor as the Immaculata College was, at the time such small all-women's Catholic colleges (yes run by the nuns) could have provided more opportunities for young women than many far larger secular and coed institutions.

Finally, Chicago has its own "Mighty Macs" at Mother McAuley High School where a good number of the young women from my parish go to high school.  It too seeks to promote academic excellence and women's leadership, and from what I have seen in my years at Annunciata it has largely succeeded.  Generations of "McAuley girls" (as well as young women from other Catholic high schools) have continued in their studies to the city's and state's Catholic as well as State colleges and universities and now staff many of the offices and boardrooms (in positions of prominence) throughout this fair city.

So The Mighty Macs is not just a "theoretical movie from a bygone era."  The Mighty Macs live today in institutions like Immaculata College of that day.  And that is something that all Catholics throughout the whole United States could be proud of.


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Paranormal Activity 3

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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1778304/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.catholicnews.com/data/movies/11mv131.htm
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20111019/REVIEWS/111029999

Paranormal Activity 3 (directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman and written by Christopher Landen and Oren Peli) continues the tightly written, suspenseful, increasingly dark and remarkably low-budget Paranormal Activity franchise.  But it's probably the last of the Paranormal Activity movies that I'm going to review on this blog. While I saw the first Paranormal Activity movie and was fascinated by its fantastically low production cost (less than $15,000 for the whole movie) and filming techniques,I only started this blog a year ago.  So I reviewed only Paranormal Activity 2 here.  That movie I continued to like, and I continue to be fascinated with the series' use of (fake) surveillance camera footage to tell a story and to build suspense.  In this regard, Oren Peli, creator of the first Paranormal Activity movie has proven to be a genius.

However, I do find the series getting increasingly dark and I just don't see where else (but get increasingly dark) that the series could go in the future.  Since I've tended to have a "healthy respect" for Evil, the Occult, etc, enough to try to keep a distance from it, I'm calling it quits with regard to this series at this point and would certainly recommend that parents (and young people) consider the same.  The CNS/USCCB also rates this film "L" or for limited viewing (even by adults) with significant reservations.

Expressing here my reservations with the direction of the series, I see the story in this series as building and we, the viewers, really don't know what the intentions and final goals of the producers of this series are or even if they know where they are taking this series.  One does get the sense that they are making it up as they go along.  That may absolve them of some guilt of consciously pursuing an increasingly dark agenda but it also can make them accessories to forces (in Hollywood, our subconscious or even beyond) that they themselves may not understand. 

Paranormal Activity 3 is presented as a prequel to the previous two films when the two sisters, Katie (played as an adult by Katie Featherston) who figures prominently in the first film and Kristi (played as an adult by Sprague Grayden) in the second, were children.  (It's actually quite fascinating how the makers of the film transport the series "use of surveillance cam video schtick" back to 1988 when such technology was not widely accessible to regular, middle class people like those in the story, but they do succeed).  In the first movie, we saw that Katie was tormented by some kind of a demon.  And we were told in that movie that she'd been tormented by this demon for most of her life.  In this the third movie, we're given something of an explanation of why. 

The explanation is actually quite cautionary in nature.  It becomes clear that there was at least one person (and conceivably more) in the lives of these children who was dabbling in the Occult.  So arguably the message becomes, "Don't dabble in the Occult."

But once one brings up "black magic," "the Occult," and all that, the question follows of how much attention or power does one wish to give it.  And I honestly think that it may be best to just say, "Okay, we now know that there were some fairly creepy people in the lives of these two girls when they were kids," and walk away.

There really is no need for a good Christian or a good Catholic to delve into this storyline further.  And when it comes to all this stuff, young Catholics ought to know how to pray their Rosary and certainly their Hail Mary's especially the part "Holy Mary mother of God, pray for us sinners _now_ and at the hour of our death," because there are things that we really don't understand and it's not bad to keep those (darker) things at a distance.


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Real Steel

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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0433035/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.catholicnews.com/data/movies/11mv123.htm
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20111005/REVIEWS/111009985

Real Steel (directed by Shawn Levy, screenplay by John Gatins, story by Dan Gilroy, based on the short story Steel by Richard Matheson) set in the future / not quite yet present and about animatronic boxing robots is a movie that on the surface seems like a potentially great "father and son" film.  For whoever has ever played a boxing video game would not be fascinated by the prospect that sometime in the near future one will be able use those video controls to control an actual 8 foot tall, titanium-steel, piston driven robotic boxer?

Yet, as one delves deeper, the film could actually be quite disturbing.  For the movie is about a man, Charlie Kenton (played by Hugh Jackman), presented to us as washed-up boxer (but more generally he could be any man) who never really grew up and seems to get away with it.  And I would imagine that a fair number of people, especially women, who've been disappointed over the years by men who seem to have never grown-up would find the film rather frustrating.

Charlie, said protagonist, had a promising career as a boxer almost becoming a real contender but he never quite broke through.  And it's clear that he made some real mistakes both when his career was on the rise and after it went into decline.

At the beginning of the film, we find him sleeping in his truck reduced to being a second rate promoter of robotic boxing literally on the “carnival circuit,” and owing serious money (tens of thousands of dollars a piece) to all kinds of people wanting to be repaid.  After losing another $20,000 on a stupid bet with a “county fair” rodeo operator that his remote controlled 8-foot biped animatronic boxing robot, that was clearly a garage creation (or at least had definitely seen better days) could beat-up or otherwise "robot handle" a 2000 pound bull, he tries to flee the scene.

While running toward his truck from those who he owes the 20-grand, he gets a phone call from a lawyer informing him that an ex-girlfriend of his had died.  One gets the sense that Charlie probably had a number of ex-girlfriends out there and of those anyone of them could have come to a sad end.  So why would this particular news about this particular ex-girlfriend matter to Charlie, speeding off in his truck with shards of his smashed robot in its hold?

Well, it turns out that he had a son, Max (played by Dakota Goyo) with this ex-girlfriend.  Again, it's possible that Charlie, low-life that he appeared to be, could have had other children with other ex-girlfriends out there.  Indeed, Charlie had never visited or supported Max up to this point.  However (single mothers abandoned by your former husbands/boyfriends do take note...) since his former girlfriend died without a will, Max stood to fall to Charlie's custody, a responsibility that Charlie would appear to have been neither interested in, nor capable of taking on.  So why not just ignore the phone call?  Well, the lawyer on the phone was of his ex-girlfriend’s sister Debra (played by Hope Davis) who wanted Charlie to drive over to Dallas to sign papers handing custody of Max to her.  Charlie, fleeing from people who wanted to hurt/kill him and who (it turns out) had some past connections with Dallas, decides to go there to both "do the right thing" and ... to "grasp at straws."

This turns out to be a remarkably good decision for Charlie (even if he arrived at in a remarkably random yet self-serving manner) because Debra had a rich boyfriend/fiance, Marvin (played by James Redhorn) who Charlie quickly ascertains would be willing to shell-out some serious cash -- $100,000 to be exact -- if Charlie sign-overed custody of Max to Debra.  Yes, he was right.  But alas, Marvin asks him for the favor, to “take care of Max” for the summer while he and Debra fly-out to Tuscany where he hoped to marry Debra before coming home.  Charlie happy to be getting some life-saving cash, agrees, while Max, 11, who’s never seen Charlie before (and pissed-off that Charlie keeps thinking he's 8-9) is not thrilled.  But he’s a kid, so he has to take it ...

Marvin pays Charlie $50K right away, promising the other $50K when he and Debra get back from Tuscany at the end of the summer.

So what does Charlie do with the $50K he just received?   Well he certainly doesn't use it to pay off any of his debts, including to the one to the rodeo goons who want to kill him.  Instead he blows $45K on another boxing robot, perhaps much better than the one that got trashed by the bull in the rodeo rink but still a seemingly reckless "investment."  He asks that this better robot (apparently a former champion robot from Japan) be delivered to the address the gym (also in Dallas) where he used to train.  The plot thickens ... 

That gym is now run by Bailey Tallet (played by Evangeline Lilly) the daughter of his former trainer.  She too has become something of an expert in robotic boxing though like her father acting more like a "trainer" interested in the optimization and maintenance of boxing robots than in actually animating them.  Charlie, a former boxer prefers, of course, to use the robots to box.  (The robots in this movie are still remote controlled, in much the same way as one would control a "boxer" in a video game).

It turns out that Charlie and Bailey have a history as well.  She too is deeply disappointed in what Charlie's become, but it's obvious that she's had a life-long crush on him.   She's also able to provide Max with some positive information about Charlie, who Max again has never known.  He had, indeed, been a talented boxer until age, injuries (and perhaps replacement by those robotic boxers... ) brought his career to an end.  Retooled, however, and using those animatronic robots to box, he still showed talent.  However it was clear that his decisions of how to use that talent were clearly flawed.

It would seem that Charlie had never really grown-up and perhaps because of limited intelligence was incapable of doing so.  It becomes up to Max and Bailey to actually help to get on the right path ...

And it isn't easy.  Charlie takes that new $45K Japanese robot and almost immediately trashes it in a match that even 11-year-old Max thought was a stupid risk.  "You didn't even really know how to control it yet?" a frustrated Max tells at him.

Yet, Charlie's "boyishness" isn't altogether a bad thing.  It's clear that Bailey still loves him perhaps indeed because by not growing-up (or having such difficulty doing so) he continues to remind her of what he used to be.  And his "boyishness" actually helps him, despite everything, to connect with his son, because how WAY COOL it would be to be with a dad who controls 8 foot, 2000 lb animatronic robots for a living!

So despite everything, one kinda hopes (or probably the men in the audience, kinda hope) for Charlie's redemption.  And redemption does appear to come, starting in truly dramatic fashion:

On the way home after trashing that $45K Japanese robot, at night, in the midst of a driving rainstorm, Charlie and Max go to a junk-yard to look for parts to fix him (and the other much cheaper robot that Charlie had trashed at the county fair).  In the midst of their garbage picking, Max comes across a discarded old "gen-2" robot (by the time of the film, the robots are of a "4th generation") that he's surprised he's able to start.  The two take the old school robot home.  And with that new (old) robot, the rest of the movie begins ...

The rest of the movie becomes something of a robotic remake of Rocky.  But it also becomes a story of a man, a boy and his WAY COOL 8 foot (pet) boxing robot.

It all makes for a nice movie for men and perhaps a plea for understanding.  But I would imagine that a lot of women would find the movie very frustrating because Charlie never really grows-up.  He changes, somewhat.  But the others around him change at least as much as him.

Still the movie does end well, coming from Hollywood after all.

But the movie does raise for me this set of questions: What if Charlie, a boxer after all, a boxer who had found himself replaced by robots (who even made peace with this professionally, "rolled with the punches," and became fairly good animator/controller of those "boxing robots") was really _unable_ to change to the degree that many of us would have liked?   What then?  In the movie, the people around Charlie change as well.   Is that enabling him?  Or is that showing him mercy? 


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Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Big Year

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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1053810/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.catholicnews.com/data/movies/11mv127.htm
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20111012/REVIEWS/111019997

The Big Year (directed by David Frankel, screenplay written by Howard Franklin based on the book The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik) is about competitive amateur "birding' (bird-watching to most of us).  I first heard of the story some years back watching an interview with Mark Obmascik on the PBSNewshour.  And yes, I found the story both trivial and fascinating:  In 1998, three people locked horns in an epic "Big Year" race to spot the most bird species in North America in the calendar year.

The current movie is a fictionalized account of this epic contest which pitted then all time Big Year world record holder Kenny Bostik (played by Owen Wilson) a physicist from New Jersey, Stu Preissler (played by Steve Martin) a retiring executive from New York, and Brad Harris (played by Jack Black) a recently divorced nuclear power plant software engineer from Maryland.

Each of the three faced potential sacrifices at home that few of us would want to comtemplate.  Bostik's wife Jessica (played by Rosamund Pike) on fertility treatments desperately wanted a child.  But how can one conceive if her husband's truly never around chasing birds?  Preissler was constantly being called back by his former chemical firm because in the dog-eat-dog world of Wall Street the firm's future and tens of thousands of jobs depended on his negotiating skills.  Additionally, his oldest son and daughter-in-law were expecting their first child.  Finally, both Brad's father (played by Brian Dennehy) and boss (played by Anthony Anderson) thought he was nuts and fundamentally irresponsible.  Brad did the Big Year while still trying to work full-time at his _nuclear power plant_ job.  Asking his boss to take an immediate unscheduled few days off to fly down to the Gulf of Mexico to catch "massive fallout" from a freak storm on the Gulf "during migratory bird season" that promised to knock hundreds of thousands of birds off course (and therefore carry birds from dozens of species that are generally _never seen_ in the United States to American shores), Brad's boss initially thought that Brad was talking about _nuclear fallout_.

During the course of the film the three encounter other birders including a just married couple taking their honeymoon on an utterly desolate island at the far tip of the Aleutian Islands chain (closer to Tokyo than to Anchorage, Alaska) at the peak of its migration season, as well as various rickety hotel and campground owners and boat and even helicopter excursion operators.  Noteworthy is the crusty pacific coast tour boat captain played by Angelica Houston who hated Bostik from the previous time he sought the Big Year record.  Why?  Because Bostik wanted her plow past a whale so that they could spot "some stupid bird."

Yes, the movie's about obsession and at a time virtually everybody is seeking to control their expenses, it's often shocking/gratuitous.  Brad maxed-out all kinds of credit cards to keep-up with the other serious competitors, something that today is well understood as leading to almost certain financial ruin.  Was it worth it?  Guess.

Still there is romance.  Unattached Brad does find a similarly obsessed female birder along the way.  And friendships are made.  Super-rich Stu takes pity on Brad and helps him out as well.  The Big Year is a Hollywood movie, so the story doesn't crash as painfully as it could have. 

What to think of a movie like this?  I generally take the side of dreaming.  But this movie certainly does invite the viewer to reflect on the costs of unthinkingly following them.

"Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, ‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.'" -- Luke 14:28-30


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Friday, October 14, 2011

Footloose (2011)

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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1068242/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.catholicnews.com/data/movies/11mv126.htm
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20111012/REVIEWS/111019994

Footloose (directed and screenplay and story updated by Craig Brewer) is based on the 1984 dance movie Footloose (directed by Herbert Ross, written by Dean Pitchford and starring Kevin Bacon / Lori Singer) celebrating teenage rebellion and rock and roll.   Since rock and roll has been around since the time of the grandparents of the kids involved in the 2011 update, the story becomes largely of a parable / reflection on grief than a reality based story about "accepting rock and roll."

Still, there are elements, largely gratuitous, added to the story in the update that would cause concern to many parents.  As such, the CNS/USCCB's morally offensive "O" rating is to be taken seriously especially if one considers allowing younger teens to see the film.

So what's the story about?  Responding to the tragic loss of five high school seniors driving home way too fast and inebriated from an unsupervised dance on someone's farm, a Tennessee town led by its local Presbyterian Pastor and town council member, Rev. Shaw Moore (played by Dennis Quaid) decides to ban loud music and public dancing.  To the movie's credit, the pain of Rev. Moore is quite sincerely portrayed: His own son was killed in the accident.  But is the reaction an over-reaction?  Rev. Moore has a teenage daughter, Ariel (played by Julianne Hough) who is also grieving the loss of her older brother but comes to resent her own youth being taken away from her and her friends.

Things come to a head three years after the accident when a newcomer Ren MacCormack (played by Kenny Wormald) from Boston comes to town to live with his uncle (played by Ray McKinnon) after his mother died.  Like the character played by Kevin Bacon in the 1984 version), he simply can not believe dancing (or loud music) could be banned like this.  And he carries some "grief cred" as well ... He had to watch his mother die of leukemia and move to a totally different part of the country afterwards.  Ren is also defended repeatedly by his uncle who repeatedly reminds the town-folk of the obvious: that they all used to listen to southern rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd growing-up and the city's ban on "loud music" and dancing simply made no sense. Still the pain of the accident remains present if diminishing.  Rev. Shaw's wife (and Ariel's mother) Vi (played by Angie MacDowell) plays an increasingly assertive role (on the side of her daughter) as the movie progresses.

All things are restored by the film's end and the town's youth are allowed to "dance happily ever after" at their Prom planned initially to be held just outside the town's city-limits but eventually receiving the town's and even the Reverend's blessing at the end.  The good/sincere Rev does, in fact, love his daughter.

What makes people frightened or over-react in face of tragedy?  Probably it's the shock.  But the movie does remind us that grief does (or ought to) pass.  Arguably, the movie could serve as a gentle reminder that the grief following even such national tragedies as 9/11, World War II, Communism, or even the Holocaust has to eventually pass, that yes, the youth growing-up years even decades after such tragedies deserve to live their lives too.

Does a "right to live" (or "to the pursuit of happiness" as the U.S. Declaration of Independence declares) include a right to be wildly reckless, promiscuous, etc?  Well the Church would of course (and rightly) say no.  But shouldn't one have a right to simply sing and dance?  Sure.  And Ren was right: Even King David danced like the uncouth shepherd's son that he was in front of the Ark of the Covenant when it was recovered and brought to Jerusalem to the embarrassment of his own wife (2 Samuel 6:1-23).  To be sure, dance can be lascivious (Mark 6:14-29).  But it also can be a sincere expression of life and of joy.

Finally, some good as well as some problematic elements present in this 2011 update to the 1984 original:

On the positive side, whereas the 1984 movie was a pretty much lily white affair, the 2011 update is far more multiracial.   Ariel's best friend is a Hispanic nicknamed Rusty (played by Ziah Colon).  The local high school and football team is fully integrated and even Ren's boss at his after school job is African American.  The contrast in this regard from the 1984 version is striking.

Much more problematic is some of Ariel's acting-out when she's rebelling against her father.  There's a scene where she's basically pole dancing at some venue.  For a more discerning viewer, I suppose the point being made would be that "in a situation where all dancing is illegal, then all kinds of dancing become equal."  But I would think that many parents would find the scene to be very disturbing.  Similarly, there's a scene in which Ariel defiantly tells to her (again, Rev) father that she no longer is a virgin (losing her virginity not to Ren, but to another character, a jerk, who she was dating at beginning of the movie).

It is for scenes such as these that the CNS/USCCB gives the movie an "O" (morally offensive) rating.  I also find these two scenes to be gratuitous, introducing needless difficulties to a movie that otherwise could have been family fare.

But a lot of teens are going to want to see the movie (and a lot of parents remembering the 1984 version may want to see it as well).  What to do?  May I suggest that parents make the movie a "teachable moment," taking the opportunity to talk to the teens about appropriate behavior ("pole dancing" ought to be "out") and even about appropriate expression of anger, above all making the point that just because one is angry doesn't give one the right to do anything, that such "acting out" often ends up hurting one in ways that one may not even imagine.  In this way, the movie could be "redeemed" for a family with younger teens, but I do wish that the film's makers had not made Ariel's character so needlessly provocative/problematic.


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