Saturday, January 28, 2012

Man on a Ledge [2012]

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

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

Man on a Ledge (directed by Asger Leth and written by Pablo F. Fenjives) is a film simple enough in concept that I suspect a fair number of people will object to account of its implicit politics:  Two years after NYPD cop Nick Cassidy (played by Sam Worthington) is framed by New York financier "big shot" David Englander (played by Ed Harris) for stealing a diamond that never went missing (but Englander needed to report missing for the insurance money to cover his Leeman Bros. losses) Cassidy improbably breaks out of prison and sets about doing the only thing that he could do to prove his innocence: prove that Englander still has the diamond.

How does he do that?  Well, he rents a room in a highrise upscale hotel next to Englander's headquarters and _walks out on a ledge_.  Why does he do that?  Well, to distract the police while his brother Joey (played by Jamie Bell) and Joey's hot (and more practically _thin_) girlfriend Angie (played by Genesis Rodriguez) break into Englander's offices to steal the diamond (and thus prove that Englander had it all along).  Of course much happens.

Obviously, the film requires a good deal of suspension of disbelief.  That Nick Cassidy would have been a cop, and then one who had previously "worked" in a sense for Englander (who had enough "clout" in the city to "borrow" cops on occasion for "security") does help the story somewhat.  Nick Cassidy (and presumably then his brother) would know something of Englander's security setup in his offices.  Nick would also know a fair amount about NYPD protocols.  Still, there's a "come-on" feel to the film.

On the other hand, it is probable that (1) "terrorists" could first take-control and hijack an entire U.S. battleship, and then (2) a single sailor, a lowly "cook" (who it turned-out was actually a Navy Seal only pretending to be a cook) could then take-down the terrorists, one-by-one, and eventually re-take the whole ship?  NO.  But it makes for one heck of a movie for a lot of American men facing declining economic prospects, competition from foreigners abroad and women and home and who may have felt Under Siege [1992] by it all.

Man on a Ledge is a similar kind of film.  It plays on a widely-held sense among the American public that "the little guy," who even followed the rules (a good cop) "took the fall" for 2008 financial crisis, while the big-shot Wall Street financiers who caused the crisis "walked between the rain-drops" and got away with _massive theft_ "scot-free."

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Friday, January 27, 2012

The Grey [2011]

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

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

The Grey (directed and cowritten by Joe Carnahan along with Ian Mackenzie Jeffers based on the short story by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers named "Ghost Walker") is about seven Alaska oil workers who out of a much larger group survive a plane crash in the Alaska wilderness only to be stalked, killed and eaten by wolves as they seek to find their way back to safety/civilization. 

It is a thoroughly harrowing tale that in its starkness asks of both the characters, led by Liam Neeson who plays a rifleman who had been working for the oil company as a guard hired to precisely keep wolves and other predators away from the other oil workers, as well as well as the audience some fundamental questions about life and death -- Who/what do you live for?  What/who are you willing to die for?  What's the meaning of an existence that at times can be so randomly cut short and over which one often has so little control?  And yes, where does God fit into the picture?

The picture becomes more poignant when one recalls that in real life, Liam Neeson (wiki) had lost his wife, Natasha Richardson, in 2009 to a freak skiing accident.  As such the questions asked and the manner in which they are asked are honest if certainly challenging to a Christian/Catholic believer. 

Indeed, winter, cold, snow, the grey skies of the frozen north, etc have all figured prominently in a fair number of American films in recent years -- The American [2010], Riding Hood [2011], Hanna [2011], The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [2011] and now The Grey [2012] -- often coupled then with explorations of themes of betrayal, loneliness, superficiality and/or hypocrisy.  In this time after 10 years of war and seemingly long-term economic uncertainty, is Hollywood (re)discovering its "inner Swede"?  and calling believers of our time to face fundamental questions of existence, justice/injustice with the honesty of the famed (and Nazi-era martyr) Rev. Dietrich Bonheoffer who already in the 1930s declared that he wasn't interested any more in what he dismissed as "cheap grace?"  Perhaps.

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One for the Money [2012]

MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -

One for the Money (directed by Julie Anne Robinson, screenplay by Stacy Sherman, Karen Ray and Liz Brixius based on the gritty New Jersey romance novel by the same name by Janet Evanovich) is a remarkably good, well written, laugh-out-loud funny, if at times foul-mouth, rom-com that really deserves far more recognition than this initial installment is going to get.  However, One of the Money as a novel is the first in a series.  So one gets the sense that we're going to be seeing far more of Stephanie Plum (played by Katherine Heigl who believed in the picture enough to be an executive producer for the film) in the years to come.

What's the film about?  The film begins with Stephanie Plum approaching her parents' working-class Trenton, NJ home in her red sports car convertable, telling us her situation: She was coming home to Trenton, 6 months after being fired from working in the lingerie department at a Macy's department store somewhere in Newark, knowing that this was probably the last time she was driving her red convertible.  She parks the car in front of her parents' house, takes a long last look at it, and notes that she's 5 minutes late, meaning that her mother will think that she's dead.

Ma (played by Debra Monk) opens the door and the first thing out of her mouth is indeed "You're five minutes late, I thought you were dead."  Stephanie shrugs her shoulders, passes by the statue of Mary as the Immaculate Conception on her parents' porch and enters the house.  Ma notices Stephanie's car, confused, impressed, we don't really know, because before she can say anything, Stephanie tells her "Don't worry Ma, it'll be gone within an hour."  And the repo people are there taking the car away in less than ten minutes ...

Steph's home, so the family sits down to have dinner.  There's Ma, there's Pa (played by Louis Mustillo) and Grandma Masur (played by Debbie Reynolds).  Stephie shares her sob-story.  She's lost her job -- six months ago -- they just took her car and she's broke.  The folks quickly chime in with kind, well-meaning, "we're on your side" but, of course, totally obvious, generally inappropriate and certainly unsolicited advice:  "You need a job," says Pa.  "You need a husband," adds Ma.  Grandma, confused, chimes in, wondering how bad the economy's must have become, 'cause: "Everybody likes a good thong ..." And there it is ... :-).

A job's still probably the most realistic thing to find at this point.  Steph's already been married.  It didn't work out, has no particular prospects and isn't exactly looking.  Heck even her hair's all frizzy ... But where then to get a job?  Ma, pa and grandma scratch their heads and come up with Cousin Vinnie, who runs a Bail-Bonds place in the center (or at the edge) of town (take your pick ...).  "Cousin Vinnie?  He tried to make-out with me at my wedding?"  But at least it could be quick money.  We find out at Vinnie's (played by Patrick Fischler) Bail Bonds place what happened: "Steph, look I'm sorry about what happened back then.  I was very, very drunk and you looked like an old flame."  "Vin, I was in a white dress and a veil." "Yes, but I was very, very drunk ..."  And so it goes.  

Vinnie's tougher-than-Vinnie secretary named Connie (played by Ana Reeder) finds her a job that Steph's certainly gonna love: bringing in Steph's first love, apparently former heart throb Joe Morelli (played by Jason O'Mara).  Morelli had taken Steph's virginity near the end of high school (Okay, parents take note, this is _not_ a film that would give good role-model advice, except in a back-handed, "for the love of God don't do this" sort of way to impressionable teens...), "one night on the floor of the bakery" (where she worked in her first job). As Steph recalled the story, she noted "I gave him all my canoli that night." (Connie recalls, with a sigh "Honey, a lot of girls gave him their canoli back in the day ...").  And of course Joe dumped Steph.

It turns out that Steph had already gotten back at Joe years ago, something that Joe's mother (played by Angela Pietropinto) never forgave her for: "I just hope you live long enough to have your only son run over by some crazy-a b..., breaking his leg in three places, because she's pissed off at my boy for some crazy-a reason ..."  And Joe also hasn't forgotten either, "I remember you, Steph, every time it rains ..." ;-).  Anyway, Joe's since become a cop and was recently accused of shooting a low-life drug dealer but then inexplicably skipped-out on $500,000 bail.  All of Trenton's police force, of course, knows exactly where he is and what he's doing, but no one's bringing him in.  Still, Vinnie's out $500,000 and if Steph brings him in, 10% of that, $50k, would be hers... 

So this then sets up the story.  Steph sets out to find and bring in former "love-'em-and-leave 'em Joe" to the police (who know where he is already anyway ...).  Joe of course doesn't want to be brought in.  And there's obviously "a story" about that shooting that Joe was involved-in as well ... Much ensues...

There are all sorts of characters that both Steph and the audience are introduced to along the way, often in a very stereotypical but also in a very funny fashion.  There's Vinnie's ace bounty hunter "Ranger" (played by Daniel Sunjata) who oozes such utter _coolness_ that he's like a refrigerator when he's in the room.  He takes Steph, who wants to be a bounty hunter but doesn't even have a gun (just pepper spray) under his wing.  There are two prostitutes who Steph befriends and become her "contacts."  Says Lula (played by Sherri Shepherd), the friendlier, more cooperative of the two streetwalkers: "We have a good-cop / bad-cop routine here, only we're hookers ...").  There's a young gay Asian man named John Cho (Leonardo Nam) who "saw everything that went down the night" that Joe took down the low-life drug dealer, but between his accent and mannerisms it's all but impossible to understand him.  Yet, despite the "challenges" that Steph faces ... to no one's surprise, everything gets resolved in the end ...

Obviously, this film not going to win any "Walton Family Legacy Awards" or anything like that.  The lexicon of the characters of One for the Money has far more in common with that of the Blagojevich family of recent memory than with the Waltons ;-).  So if language is an issue at home, this film is definitely not for you.  But it is a very, very funny film and would certainly make for a _great_ young-adult date movie as Valentine's Day approaches.  

Indeed, since seeing Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, I've often wondered how great it would be if a theme park like Universal City would create a section of its park where people could enter into the "Paris of the 1920s" created in that film to chat with the characters portrayed in that film.  Leaving One For the Money, I felt the same way about Stephanie Plum's Trenton, NJ created in this film.  What a blast it would be to spend an hour or two walking through the over-the-top world and larger than life characters portrayed here.  Honestly what great story and what _great_ imagination!  Congrats Janet Evanovich, the screenwriters of this film, and Katherine Heigl and the rest of the cast for taking it on!

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

My Reincarnation [2011]

MPAA (NR)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -

My Reincarnation (directed by Jennifer Fox) is documentary which has followed 20 years of the life of Yeshi Silvano Namkai (from his mid 20s to his mid 40s today).  Yeshi was born in Italy some 40-45 years ago to Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, an exiled Tibetan Buddhist master, and Choogyal's Italian wife.  A few years after Yeshi was born, Choogyal was informed by various Tibetan Buddhist practitioners from "the old country" that they believed that Yeshi could be reincarnation of Chogyal's uncle who had been a well known Buddhist monk prior to his death at the hands of Chinese Communist authorities in the late 1950s-early 1960s.  Making note of this news, and informing his son of it at a relatively early age, Chogyal nevertheless had taken a perhaps typically Buddhist approach to the matter, one of detachment -- if this were true, that his son Yeshi really was the reincarnation of his uncle then it would inevitably manifest itself in some way, if not, then ... it won't.  Fascinating!

Particularly interesting during the course of the film were Yeshi's evolving feelings toward his father, who at the beginning of the film (when Yeshi was being interviewed in his mid 20s) Yeshi clearly resented for being "detached" and largely away from his family, as well as Yeshi's evolving feelings toward predictions regarding his destiny, which at the beginning of the film (again when Yeshi was being interviewed in his mid-20s) Yeshi did not particularly take seriously.  Yes, he knew what had been said about him -- that he was the reincarnation of his great-uncle -- but at the time of the beginning of the documentary (20 years ago) like most people his age, Yeshi was far more interested in getting married and getting a job (he found one working as a sales-rep/technician for IBM in Italy ;-).

However as the years went on in the documentary and he had gotten married and had kids of his own, Yeshi seemed to become more and more convinced that there may be something to the destiny that those Tibetan Buddhist practitioner friends of his father's had said that he was called to.  He described rather vivid and specific dremas that he was having regarding his uncle's life and fate at the hands of the Chinese communists.  At the end of the film, Yeshi does return (if for a visit) to Tibet as the religious figure that he seemed to be predestined to from birth.  Angain, fascinating!

Now I know that a fair number of Christians and even Catholics would be disturbed by a movie like this.  However, at least with regards to the Catholics, I would remind all, that the Catholic Church does see itself as a universal church, secure in its faith, and therefore capable of dialoging with respect with everybody.  The Second Vatican Council's declaration on non-Christian religions indeed said as much.

I personally have found it very easy to admire and respect the Buddhist religions which are generally presented peacefully and without great rancor.  And I also note the famous saying of Zen Buddhist master, D.T. Suzuki of the early 20th century, that Buddhism may focus "more on the Kitchen than the Cook" but that does not mean that it denies the Cook.  It simply means that Buddhism chooses not to focus on the Cook.  Focusing on the Cook is simply left to others, like us Christians and Catholics ;-).

And yes, over the last several generations we Cathoics and Christians too have come to appreciate more the beauty and value of the Cook's kitchen ;-).  Yes, if we choose, we can all come to live together with respect and in peace.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Carnage [2011]

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

IMDb Listing -
Roger Ebert's Review -

Carnage (directed and screenplay co-written by Roman Polanski and Yasmina Reza) is an excellent screen adaptation of the play by Yasmina Reza named "The God of Carnage (orig. Le Dieu du Carnage) that has won all kinds of awards in Paris, New York and London.  The play was a hit a number of years ago here in Chicago as well.

Screen adaptations of stage plays are often quite easy to spot.  The set is generally relatively simple and the story is generally dialogue driven.  In the case of Carnage, pretty much the entire story takes place in the somewhat upscale Brooklyn side of the East River condo of one of the couples involved.  Thus it's "not quite Manhattan" but at least the condo's sort of facing it ;-).  Then, yes, the story is dialog driven, but what a dialog it is! ;-) and I do believe that ANY couple with a grade school age kid or two could relate to it ;-).

So what's the story about? The film takes place over the course of a single weekday mid-morning meeting between two sets of parents, Michael and Penelope Longstreet (played by John Reilly and Jodie Foster) and Alan and Nancy Cowan (played by Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet).  The two couples' 11-year old boys had gotten into a fight a day or two before.  During the course of the fight, one of the boys picked up a stick and whacked the other boy in the face, breaking two of the other boy's teeth.  So this had been altercation between two relatively young boys. Yet it seemed certainly serious enough to warrant a meeting of this kind between the two boys' parents...

So the two couples meet.  One is apologetic, the other understanding, both couples straining really hard to do the right thing, be civil about it, and put the matter behind them.  Va bene.  It's just every time they are about to set things straight, resolve the matter like adults, say goodbye and put it behind them one or another of the four parents says something stupid that blows the "civilized agreement" up and the four have come back into the flat, sit down, and start all over again ... ;-)

As this starts to drag on, it becomes clear that though both couples live in this nice section of Brooklyn facing the River one of the couples is clearly wealthier than the other.  Further, it also becomes clear that the wife of the not quite as wealthy couple is either better educated (or thinks herself to be somewhat better educated) than her husband.   All four (as well as the audience) pick-up on these vibes and all four begin to jostle for position based on these perceptions:  Alliances shift back and forth from couple vs couple, to "the more educated" vs "the less educated," to the "actual breadwinners" vs "the intellectuals," the men vs the women and back again.

As this meeting of parents continues, the cell-phone of one of the four begins to ring -- work is calling -- and the person has to take the call.  Va bene.  But soon the cell-phone rings again, and then again...  Each time the cell phone rings the other three get more and more frustrated.  The eyes of the spouse start rolling ... and the other couple begins to feel increasingly put-upon (who do these people think that they are?).

Not to be outdone, the mother/mother-in-law of the other couple calls as well.  She's been at the doctor's that morning.  It had been a relatively unimportant appointment, but she wants to talk about it.  The couple has to say "Ma, we're in the midst of something here, can we call you back in 10 minutes?"  Ma reluctantly agrees but calls back 20 minutes later saying, "Are you done yet...?" ;-)

What middle-aged couple could not relate to this? ;-)  The whole movie is only an hour and twenty minutes long, covering the length of a would be meeting exactly like this.  What a film!  Does the matter get resolved?  I'm not going to tell you ;-).  Go and rent it ;-)


As the readers here can tell, I really enjoyed this movie.  However, the film was made by the very contraversial director Roman Polanski whose life has been marked by his committing of a truly horrendous crime: he did first drug and then by definition rape a 13 year old girl.  To avoid prison, he fled the United States and has lived beyond the reach of U.S. justice in Switzerland ever since.  He's been obviously a very talented man but who committed a truly horrendous crime, a crime that the victim has _after much pain_ has since transcended and forgiven him for.  How should the public regard him now?

Wow, what a question?  I'll leave it to the reader here to sort this thing through noting all the factors above (1) Polanski's talent, (2) the horrendousness of his crime, (3) the victim's forgiveness of him, (4) the apparent sense of contrition on Polanski's part, though apparently not enough to go back to the United States and go to jail for it and (5) that yes both Christianiaty and _especially_ Catholicism has been about reconciliation and forgiveness though (6) the Catholic Church itself has been embroiled in recent decades with a list of similarly horrendous crimes against minors by a fair number of its clergy.  Again, what to do?

Perhaps the best course is exactly what society is apparently doing with regards to Polanski today: Allow him to make an occasional film, often very good (all four of the actors/actresses in this film should certainly be very proud of their performances here, as all four of the performances are certainly among the best of their careers), but also then note Polanski's past crime as well.

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Underworld: Awakening [2012]

MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB (A-III) AV Club (D-) Fr. Dennis (1 1/2 Stars)

IMDb  listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
AV Club review -,68061/

Underworld: Awakening (directed by Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, story by Len Wiseman who collaborated on the screenplay along with a host of others) is the fourth installment in the Underworld franchise featuring a seemingly unending battle between vampires and lycans (better known to us as werewolves). 

Now that vampires and werewolves do not like each other underpins also much of the Twilight series.  So a good question could be asked as to why they wouldn't like each other. Checking and, it would seem that this "ancient rivalry" actually began with the Underworld Series.  So the rivalry appears to make for a "really cool" device much like that which created such cinematic "wonders" as the hyper violent Predator vs. Alien [2004] even though the first Underworld [2003] movie predates it (and certainly this movie Underworld Awakening is hyper-violent as well).

Yet in the box office these vampire vs werewolf movies (both Underworld and Twilight) do really, really well.  So the question of why that would be, why these movies/stories "work" (or other seeming strange or even stupid stories "work") fascinates me.

Part of it has to be in a fascination within apparently fairly large segments of the population with the vampire and werewolf archetypesVampires seem to be about "unbridled, indeed consuming passion," enough so that a vampire wants or needs to suck blood out of its victims.  Werewolves seem to be about "the beast within."  Both vampire and werewolf stories appear to have been very popular during the Victorian era notable for its conformity (the opposite of what "the beast within" would want to do) and sexual repression (the opposite of "unbridled, indeed consuming passion").  

I wouldn't be able to prove it now (and honestly don't have a particularly great desire to pursue this) but I would imagine that a combination of the current societal "gender wars" (of which the Catholic Church is certainly an active party) as well as the "ick"/"yuck" factor associated with certain aspects of male homosexuality makes the vampire archetype somewhat relevant today.  After all, why would one want to drive one's ___ up someone's ___?  An "unbridled, indeed, consuming passion" perhaps ...

Then the wildman archetype has been postulated as being both around and necessary for healthy male spirituality since at least Robert Bly's book on Iron John.  I would submit that the wildman archetype celebrating "the beast within" is really not that far from the characteristics of the werewolf.

So between the struggle to make some kind of peace with the existence of a homosexual community in society's midst (a community which previously had to live in the shadows) as well as a need by many men often feeling emasculated by the demands of modern life to rediscover the freedom of their inner wildman perhaps make both the vampire and werewolf archetypes "near the surface" of today's collective subconscious.

Still why would these two archetypes want to fight each other?  I guess because it would make for a really cool series of visual images which if strung together long enough could even make for a really cool series of movies. ;-)

Besides put really really sexy "vampire" Selene (played by Kate Beckinsale) into a skin tight black rubber suit.  Then put a very large and shiny automatic pistol with a seemingly endless supply of werewolf (er lycan) killing "silver bullets" into her hands and wow with this "Jungian anima with a gun"... it all must make for "one heck of a rodeo" in the Jungian scheme of the subconsious.

So what's a parent to think if one's teenager starts to really like films like this?  I suppose look for signs of obsession and depression.  Yes, to be perpetually "in a dark mood" becomes a problem.  But recognize that probably 99 out of a 100 young males seeing this film are probably doing so because they like to see a really attractive young woman (in a tight black rubber suit) wasting a whole lot of monsters.

Yes, the violence is appalling.  I'm amazed that the CNS/USCCB gave this film merely an "A-III" (for adults) rating while the far less violent and certainly more coherent film Haywire also about a heroine with a gun an "L" rating (of limited value even for adults) but then the MPAA is often rather inconsistent as well.

Bottom line, I don't see any particular "need" for any minor to see this film.  I certainly wouldn't want to help or otherwise "enable" a minor to do so.  On the other hand, I wouldn't make a huge deal about it either, unless one's teen seems to remain in a "dark state" focused on "dark matters" for long periods of time.  Then I would be asking the teen with some regularity what's going on in his (or her) head...

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Red Tails [2012]

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

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

Red Tails (directed by Anthony Hemingway, screenplay by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder based on the book by Red Tails: An Oral History of the Tuskegee Airmen by John. B. Holway) IMHO gives viewers of the film an indispensable complement to the famed Band of Brothers [2001] HBO-television mini-series based on a similarly styled book by Stephen Ambrose.  Indeed John. B. Holway could perhaps be called this generation's African American Stephen Ambrose for writing not merely the book on the Tuskegee Airmen but also writing a series of books on the Negro Baseball League of the first half of the 20th century when the segregationist Jim Crow laws still ruled America's South.

Indeed, so good, so historically important and so frankly _family oriented_ is Red Tails that I find it surprising (to say the least...) that the CNS/USCCB website would categorize the movie as A-III (for adults) unless such previous World War II classics as Cornelius Ryan's Longest Day [1962] (staring John Wayne) and the Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers [2001] series (produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks) were classified A-III (for adults) as well.

So what is the movie about?  It is about the Tuskegee Airmen the first and only African-American fighter group to serve in World War II.  A parallel African American bomber group was also "worked-up" at the time but never served in a combat role (no mind, at least that bomber group never had the blood of innocents on its hands, as carpet bombing of civilians, now considered by the Geneva Conventions and since at least the Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et Spes #79) by the Catholic Church to be a war crime had been considered standard operating procedure by all parties in that conflict).

Returning to the fighter group of the Tuskegee Airmen, the film begins with the group already serving in Italy, if still flying outdated P-40 aircraft on essentially mop-up operations.  That the whole Tuskegee "experiment" had been saved by then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who scoffing at the then U.S. military's official assessment that "negroes lacked the intelligence to operate heavy machinery" came to the Tuskegee base on her own to "inspect" it and then insisted on _being flown_ by one of its recently trained African American airmen was not mentioned in the film, even though the incident was unfortunately true.

Eventually, faced with appalling bomber losses, the American Army Air Force allowed the Tuskegee Fighter Group (99th Fighter Squadron) to both get better planes (P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs) and fly bomber escort missions.  However, they were only allowed to fly such missions after extracting a promise from the African American fighting unit that apparently the AAF could not extract from white units -- that the fighters would stay with the bombers throughout their escort missions rather than pursue German fighters (often flown actually as decoys) in pursuit of individual glory.  (The film makes a point of noting that the white fighter pilots were nominally not doing anything wrong, that they _had been trained_ to pursue German fighters until shooting them down upon engaging them.  Nevertheless, that tactical training had proven disastrous for bomber squadrons who were often left to their own devices after Germans lured away their fighter escorts with squadrons flying, in effect, as decoys).  The African American fighter pilots, perhaps recognizing that little glory was going to go to them anyway if they chased German fighters in hopes of shooting them down, made the decision to follow orders and stick with the bombers.  As a result, bomber losses dropped significantly and the white bomber crews became immensely appreciative of their African American escorts.  (Indeed, the discipline and self-sacrifice of non-white units such as the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, helped drive the decision soon after the War to desegregate the U.S. military putting the first really big crack into the wall of racial segregation that existed in the United States at the time and allowing the U.S. to approach its next war, in Korea, with a desegregated military).

The film follows then the stories of various members of the Tuskegee fighter group, from its commanders to its pilots to its mechanics.

A particularly interesting aspect of the film was its treatment of fraternization between the African American airmen and (white) Italian women.  One of the airmen Joe 'Lightning' Little (played by David Oyelowo) was portrayed as having an Italian girl-friend Sofia (played by Daniela Ruah) who lived with her mother.

I found the scenes remarkably well done and in conformity with what my own parents and uncles/aunts who had lived in Czechoslovakia at the time remembered of their encounters with African-American soldiers near the end of the war.  My mother's family was, in fact, liberated by an African American armored unit presumably making-up part of Patton's 3rd Army, and one of my uncles on my father's side may have seen with his own eyes one of the Tuskegee fighter pilots in action noting that near the end of the war there was one time in which an American plane had swooped down low over the village where my dad's family had come from, so low in fact that he could see that the plane was being flown by an African American pilot.

My parents' generation was still too young to date at the time.  But it was clear from their stories that the Czechs (like the Italians portrayed in the film) were frankly intrigued by the African American soldiers. For up until the closing stages of the war these were men that they had never seen before.

As one of Czech descent, I would also note some, admittedly irrational, pride in the fact that a good part of this film was filmed in the Czech Republic (There's a scene in which the beautiful Karlstejn Castle is shown in a flying sequence) and as a consequence the closing credits are heavily seasoned with Czech names.

In the United States, the Slavs have not been exactly known to be the most "racially open" of peoples.  Yet perhaps because the Czechs and the Slovaks are such small peoples and themselves know a good deal about oppression, they have found a way to get past previous racial bigotry.

Of course the real test in this regard is in these nations' treatment of their own populations of "people of color," that is, of their treatment of the gypsies.  And the record there has not been particularly good.  Still it made me feel very good to see a film about African American airmen being filmed so prominently in the land where my parents had come from and with so many Czechs involved in its production as well.

Would I recommend this film?  Absolutely.  There is nothing in this film that parents should be wary of.  Yes, it's a war film.  There is some blood.  But unless one is forbidding one's kids from seeing other World War II classics like the above mentioned Longest Day [1962], I just don't see why one would want to keep one's kids from seeing this film.  It is about history, both about World War II and about the United States of that time.  Knowing one's history makes for better people and for a better world.

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Contraband [2012]

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

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

Contraband (Universal, directed by Baltasar Kormákur, screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski, based on the film Reykjavik-Rotterdam by Arnaldur Indriðason and Óskar Jónasson) is a so-so crime thriller largely about the wages of sin.  In as much as it focuses on this theme, it's probably a worthwhile movie even if near the end the film, (spoiler alert) its makers chose to go, IMHO inappropriately, the way of the "happy Hollywood ending."

Even if as Christians, we actually dogmantically believe in the ultimate "happy ending," IMHO it just doesn't fit well here or at least not as "easily" as it plays out in this film.  Nevertheless, the first 90% of the movie is definitely a cautionary tale almost counting-out the reasons why one shouldn't get involved in crime: (1) things rarely go as planned, (2) one signs away one's life when one gets involved in this way of life, (3) innocents inevitably get involved, and (4) it is really really hard to walk away from the consequences of one's past.  These are all very good things to remember when one's tempted to "step off the reservation" and walk-over to "the dark side."

Very good, so how does this particular story play out?  Substituting New Orleans and Panama City for Rotterdam and Reykjavik respectively, the film begins with Andy (played by Caleb Landry Jones) the young "loser" brother-in-law of former smuggler turned-legit Chris Farraday (played by Mark Wahlberg) finding himself "way over his head" trying to run a bag worth of drugs into the country on a New Orleans bound freighter for a coked-up two-bit low-life mobster named Tim Briggs (played by Giovanni Ribisi).  When the huge container-ship freighter gets boarded by customs officials as it approaches New Orleans, Andy panics and throws the bag containing about $700,000 worth of cocaine into the Mississippi River.

All things considered, it's actually a petty amount but $700 grand is far, far more than most regular people have and so Tim Briggs trying to enforce discipline threatens to kill Andy, and more to the point, Andy's sister, Chris Farraday's wife, Kate (played by Kate Beckinsale) along with her and Chris' two small children unless he gets paid for the lost coke.  That of course, forces Chris along with Chris' former smuggling buddy Sabastian (played by Ben Foster) "out of retirement" to try to "fix things."  Much ensues ...

As the movie plays out, one's reminded of arguably much better films like The Firm [1993] and Shawshank Redemption [1994].  However, what I found intriguing about Contraband is precisely that it is about dark pasts and the film's obvious reminders (over and over again) of how hard it is to simply walk away from such pasts in the future.  The Firm, after all was about a young lawyer who simply, perhaps too naively walked into the wrong Firm when he took his first job.  In Shawshank Redemption, the lead protagonist got drunk and in a fit of passion _may_ have killed his wife after catching her with another man.  Here Chris Farraday had been a criminal who had _luckily_ never gotten caught, and now was being sucked "back into the business."  Thus Farraday is far less sympathetic of a character than the principal protagonists of either of the other two films.  And yet one does feel for him as he tries really, really hard to walk (and remain) away from crime and become (and remain) legit.

Indeed, the film uses the device of having one of the main characters, Faraday's buddy Sebastian, going to AA meetings, presumably fighting alcoholism to draw the comparison between addiction to alcohol and being trapped in a life of crime.

I applaud this comparison and wish to extend it one step further: Thanks to the relatively awful recent film The Devil Inside, I've had to talk to young people at my parish about the topic of demonic possession again.  And this time I suggested that one good thing about this recent movie was that it implicitly raised the point that the people who one should really be really be worried about are not the tormented, contorted, strange language speaking people usually portrayed by films about demonic possession.

Rather, one should be concerned about mass murderers and so forth. And I suggested to at least one group of young people since that movie came out that someone like Saddam Hussein could perhaps have been considered as having been "demonically possessed."  True his head was never known to have been "spinning around" and all that.  However, he did "cross a line" at some point in his life (he chose to send a person or two to their deaths to amass more power) and it proved to be a trap -- In order to continue to live, Saddam came to be forced to continue to kill more and more people.  How's that for "surrendering one's soul to the Devil," becoming "possessed by the Devil" and remaining so trapped until one's death?

I submit that this movie about Chris Farraday is much the same,even if Chris had been a much smaller criminal than Saddam Hussein.  Still it proved far harder than Chris would have thought for him to walk away from his previous life of crime.

So even though (spoiler alert again...) the film ends in a needlessly "tidy" way, for most of the film Contraband gives the viewer plenty of material to reflect about should one be tempted to enter into a life of crime: It's really, really easy to fall that kind of life (to fall into Sin).  It's much, much harder to be able to get-out.

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Iron Lady [2011]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB ()  Roger Ebert (2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

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

As a Chicagoan, hence living in the 3rd largest city in the United States with a metropolitan area population of 8-10 million and a long tradition in the arts, theater, science and architecture, the first thing that I'd have to say about The Iron Lady (directed by Phydilla Lloyd, screenplay by Abi Morgan) is that I find it stunning that this movie about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (played in her adult and older years by Meryl Streep) certainly one of the best of the year was withheld by movie execs and distributors from Chicago audiences until two weeks into the new year.  This is emblematic of an arrogance by media elites on both coasts that only breeds resentment in self-evidently huge and well-educated media markets in places like Chicago and Atlanta that is really to the movie industry's detriment.

My protest stated, let me then go on to say that I found this film to be excellent and one that could be understood by film audiences on multiple levels not the least of which on a life history / family dynamics one.  For whatever one may think of Margaret Thatcher's politics, the movie asks us to look at her legacy (and really anyone's legacy) from the perspective of her (and again, really everyone's) destiny: We will all grow old and we will all eventually die and the details of the "battles of the past" will fade.  As such, anyone with an aging parent will probably be able to relate to this film.  The parent who seemed so large, so awesome, perhaps so frustrating, so "in the way" when one was younger does get old, does get more feeble, yes, does begin to "fade away."

One could not have been an adult, young adult or even teenager in the English speaking world in the 1980s and into the 1990s without knowing who Margaret Thatcher was.  Yet today, 20-30 years later?  She largely falls into the category of "not yet dead," that is, older, necessarily more reclusive with each passing year, no longer relevant in any serious way except in the context of the past and the past's setting of the stage for our present.

Yes, on a more propagandistic level, some of the lines Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher is given do have a resonance with American political discourse today, notably the movie's Thatcher's concern that Britain would go broke unless it cut its spending, that taxes killed jobs, and that Europe's more social democratic model would not necessarily be appropriate or even beneficial to Britain and its destiny.  These are certainly lines voiced in American political discourse today by many on the Right wing of America's Republican Party today.  Yet, IMHO drawing absolute analogies is almost always a bad idea -- Britain is more European than the United States and the United States is both larger and more diverse and frankly with a different history and a different set of demons than Britain faced in the 1980s and/or faces today.

Perhaps what is more interesting is the film's portrayal of how Margaret Thatcher came to her convictions, and like convictions held by anyone, they came personal/family history -- Margaret Thatcher was born and raised a grocer's daughter (a daughter of a truly small businessman) at a time when doors were opening for women in England (and across the world) which would were unimaginable before.  So the grocer's daughter was able to go to Oxford, something unimaginable to most women (and to most men) of generations previous to hers.

Thus this movie about one of the most political of figures in the latter part of the 20th century becomes (through extended flashbacks) largely about her relationships with her doting and supportive grocer father Alfred Roberts (played by Iain Glenn), her less supportive housewife mother Beatrice (played by Emma Dewhurst) and especially her husband Denis Thatcher (played by Jim Broadbent).  (Margaret and Denis in their younger college/young adult years are played by Alexandra Roach and Harry Lloyd respectively).  Stopping-in throughout the movie to "look-in on" the aging but still largely but diminishingly independent Margaret Thatcher is her middle-aged daughter Carol Thatcher (played by Olivia Coleman).  What middle-aged adult today could not relate to this kind of reflection on an aging parent or mentor figure?

Thus even though Margaret Thatcher (and certainly Streep's Margaret Thatcher) would resist such humanization of her persona, the film actually makes one appreciative of how the Margaret Thatcher of history came to be, and serves as a reminder to all of us that no matter how powerful or important any of us may become in our prime, we all live on a conveyor belt of time and all of us will eventually fade from this Earth, remembered ultimately only by God.

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Haywire [2011]

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

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

It is mid-January and generally speaking two kinds of movies are generally playing or released into grudgingly second-tier markets like Chicago at this time: (1) movies that were released by film makers before the end of the calendar year in the premier/prestige markets of New York and Los Angeles and/or some "upper tier" European capital like London, Paris (and progressively going down the list ...) Berlin or Rome because the film makers believed they had a product that could do well on the awards circuit -- Academy Awards, British Academy Awards, The Golden Globes, The Directors' Guild Award, The Screen Actors Guild Awards, etc, etc, and (2) basically filler, that is, movies that aren't going to win or be nominated for awards but also are not expected to be "box office smashes" that tend to be conserved until the summer.

I mention this because Haywire (directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Lem Dobbs) is both a relatively good "action" movie but one that has only an outside chance of getting a nomination or two (cinematography, editing?) and one of two action movies released this week starring women as the action heroes (the other being Underworld: Awakening).

In the story, filmed in a definitely stylized way, Mallory (played by, I'm told, mixed-martial arts, MMA star Gina Carano) ia an agent working for an elite "private security firm" along the lines of the Bush/Cheney era Blackwater Services.  (Yes, it's a murky business and Blackwater itself has undergone several name changes during the past several years, currently calling itself Academi).  Mallory's firm gets contracted by Coblenz (played by Michael Douglas) apparently a high level US intelligence officer to do "a job" in Barcelona.  Nominally, the job is to find apparently a Chinese dissident of some sort hiding there.  It becomes clear, however, that everybody is playing everybody.  Coblenz is playing the private firm, represented in negotiations with him by "Kenneth" (played by Ewan McGregor).  Coblenz' Spanish contact Rodrigo (played by Antonio Banderas) is playing him and the firm.  And ultimately, Mallory's being played by everybody.  Who can she trust?

That's of course the key question being asked in this movie and what makes the movie "relatable" to the general public: We may not be "special agents," but in our current, increasingly privatized economy with specific "jobs" being "compartmentalized" and then "outsourced" from one firm to another, to a third, and back again, it's often hard to make sense of who's in charge of what and to what end.  So Mallory represents the "everyday Joe" (not unlike the Steven Segal character in the action classic Under Siege [1992]) though, interestingly enough "Joe" is now cast as "Jane."

Now much has been and will be written about the psychological significance of casting the lead character as a woman and whether or not it panders to a "fanboy" (a male dominated video-gaming) audience.  Indeed, Roger Ebert begins his review bringing up this question, though he evokes Sigmund Freud.  I would invoke Carl Jung's concept of the anima/animus instead.

According to Carl Jung's theory on the matter within the psyche every male or female there is a weaker opposite gender persona that needs to be recognized and appeased and indeed helps us to relate better to members of the opposite sex in the external world as well.

As I wrote in a comment relating to my review of Sucker Punch [2011] (also released around this time of year, though last year), that I don't see it necessarily negative for younger, mostly male, video-game enthusiasts to "let their animas out to play" and watch, smiling ear-to-ear a woman-action hero beat-the-daylights out of male jerks who generally oppress them as well.  And I do believe that these films _can_ be positive for young women as well (Haywire actually much more than Sucker Punch, where I do think there were legitimate issues about the setting and the young women's wardrobe) inviting them to "reach out" to their more masculine side and embrace the 'action hero' archetype.

Indeed, women (young or otherwise) who do find it within themselves to "enter into the cave" of men's video-gaming often find the experience surprisingly fulfilling as well and not simply in terms of the games themselves (which I certainly would not want to defend each individually here) but mainly in terms of the young men that they would have perhaps previously dismissed that they would meet.

Young men are being told all the time to "reach out to their more feminine side" in order to be able to relate better with young women.  A movie like this can be an invitation to young women to "reach out to their more masculine side" to do the same.

Parents should note that there is a good deal of stylized violence in this movie.  As such it is not really for kids.  However, with parental approval it may not be bad even for teens.  Again, this is not a spectacular movie but it is actually quite (and surprisingly) good.

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Sunday, January 8, 2012

In the Land of Blood and Honey [2011]

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

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

In the Land of Blood and Honey (written and directed by Angelina Jolie) is an excellent film that (1) needed to be made, (2) needed to be made _by a woman_, (3) needed to be made by a _prominent woman_ (like someone like Angelina Jolie), and one that despite all this will probably be seen by not nearly enough people and after its run in the theaters will probably be shown only at the occasional human rights gathering.  That of course is a shame and yet also probably human nature.  But one should be grateful to Angelina Jolie for deciding to make the film at all.

What is the film about?  It's a film with a cast almost entirely composed of Bosnian actors about the war which raged in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s after the breakup of Yugoslavia, and it highlights a particularly awful aspect of that conflict: the all routine, indeed systematic, practice of rape of Bosnia's women by the armies during the conflict.  I say routine/systematic because when women are rounded-up en masse and then taken _to headquarters_ to both serve (cook/clean for) and "service" (be raped by) the soldiers/officers then rape becomes not merely an "isolated" crime perpetrated "by a few bad apples," but de facto standard operating procedure.

The focus of this movie (as was always the case even during the conflict) was on the Bosnian Serb army and I know that Serbs have _always complained_ that abuses of all kinds (including rape) were being perpetrated by all sides in the conflict.  Nevertheless the point is made in this film that women were being raped en masse during this conflict and that, it is / ought to be recognized for what it is (or ought to be) -- a war crime.

To Angelina Jolie's credit, she also does a very good job at presenting the "other" (Bosnian Serb) side.  The entire world has looked at the conflicts in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s solely in terms of what was happening _at that time_.  And yes, the Bosnian Serbs were conducting horrific atrocities at the time.  But the Serbs were _not_ looking at this war in isolation.  They were remembering both hundreds of years of previous oppression under the Turks (Moslems) but also _far more recent_ atrocities committed against Orthodox Christian Serbs by Catholic Croatians and Bosnian Muslims _in service of the Nazis_ during World War II.  One of the main characters of this film, remembered _his mother and older sisters_ raped and killed by Bosnian Muslims serving the Nazis during World War II.  So to Angelina Jolie's credit, she was sensitive to the complexities in that war.  And I do understand that just because one's mother and sisters were raped and killed fifty years ago AND THERE WAS NEVER A REAL ACCOUNTING FOR THAT CRIME 40-50 YEARS AGO, shouldn't give one the right to send out one's sons and grandsons to rape the granddaughters of the perpetrators of those crimes.  But one gets the sense of some of the layers of injustices that occurred in the region.

Then as one of Slavic descent (Czech, Russian and Ukrainian) myself, I am sensitive to the question of how these crimes (and they are crimes / WAR CRIMES) are portrayed, because these were crimes perpetrated by Slavs who have historically been looked at in Germanic ("Aryan") / Anglo-Saxon ("WASP") circles as being "at the lower end of the 'white race.'"  So I myself would find offense if these crimes came to be portrayed in a racial manner, that is, in terms of "those semi-animal Slavs," continuing then: "We Anglos/Americans are far more civilized about these sorts of things.  We _pay_ (cash on the barrel...) for _our sex_ during war time."

Indeed, one "good" thing that one could say about American involvement in its various wars in the Middle East over these past few decades is that it's put something of a damper on the "brothel" mentality that has accompanied U.S. military adventures since WW I: "How do you send Johnny back to the farm after he's seen the lights of 'gay Paris'?" (WWI), "The problem with the Yanks is that they're overpaid, over sexed and over here" (WW II), the summarization of the entire history of the Philippines since Magellan as "400 years in the Convent (under the Spanish) 50 years in a whore-house (under the Americans)," to say nothing of American behavior during Korea and Vietnam where after a long hard day of napalming the enemy, American fighting men would come back to the brothels around base to be serviced by the girls provided (eminently for cash...) by "Mamasan..."  

So sexual exploitation/coercion comes in many forms and no particular army looks particularly good.  Still one has to start somewhere and certainly Serb behavior during the wars in former-Yugoslavia in the 1990s helped give Rape as a War Crime the attention that it deserves.  And Abu Gharib notwithstanding, even American/Allied behavior during war time has probably improved as a result. 

Great, but then how does Land of Blood and Honey tell the story?  The film follows a would be couple from Sarajevo, Ayla (played by Zana Marjanovic) a young artist from a secularized Bosnian-Muslim family and Danijel (played by Goran Kostic) from a blue collar Serbian family working as a police officer.  The film opens with the two meeting happily at a Sarajevo dance club on an early date.  Everyone's happy, everyone's dancing.  A bomb goes off and those carefree days come to an end.

The film resumes four months later ... By this point the civil war is in full swing.  Ayla's / her sister's apartment block is stormed by Bosnian Serb soldiers.  They round up the people.  They separate the young from the old and then the young men from the young women.  The old are allowed "to stay."  The young men are escorted down an alley and summarily shot (yes, that's what happened to the young men at the time) and the young women put on a bus to be transported to "HQ" to serve as slaves sexual and otherwise to the officers/troops.  A young woman didn't quite understand what her role would be.  So she's dragged in front of the others by one of the soldiers, her panties torn off and raped against a table in front of the others, in case the others didn't get the point.  They did.  And so it was...

It happened though that Danijel was serving in the same unit (now as a junior military officer) as this was taking place.  So he was able to exert his influence to protect Ayla from the others.  They then become, _in a sense_, "lovers" throughout the war.  But it's unclear to everybody, from them themselves, to the other soldiers, to Danijel's father Nebojsa (played by Rade Serbedija) a senior officer in the Bosnian Serb army (and the one who remembered his mother and older sisters being raped by Croatian / Bosnian Muslim soldiers collaborating with the Nazis during World War II), to the viewers, what exactly Ayla's and Danijel's relationship was.  Was it / could it possibly be "love" under such circumstances?  Or was he just using her?  And was she simply doing what she felt she needed to do to keep alive?  Could either really trust the other under such circumstances?  Perhaps most tragic: in a fratricidal conflict like this, could this awful kind of relationship so horribly flawed/contrived/ambiguous be "as good as it gets?" ...

Perhaps only someone like Angelina Jolie could tell a story like this, and IMHO I do believe she did an excellent job.

Note to parents:  This is an R-rated film.  There are many examples of disturbing violence throughout this film.  There is also a good deal of nudity, though interestingly enough generally not linked with the various scenes involving rape.  Rape was generally portrayed violently and yet left largely to the imagination.  The nudity involved more the relationship between the two principal protagonists of the story.  In any case, there's probably little reason unless one happened to be somehow more directly involved in the conflict (or one similar it) to take a minor to this picture.  Minors probably wouldn't understand it anyway though young adults would: Imagine if your life depended on a guy who you barely knew and who you went out with only a few times "before the war."  Or imagine if you found yourself in a position with quite literally "life and death power" over someone who you only dated a few times prior to this whole conflict who in other circumstances you might have even graciously broken-up with but now "break-up" would mean _her certain death_ ...What a truly awful situation.

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Saturday, January 7, 2012

The First Rasta [2010]

MPAA (unrated)  Time-Out Chicago (3 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing -

Time-Out Chicago Review

One of the joys of following films is that one occasionally runs into documentaries like this one, The First Rasta (written and co-directed by Helene Lee along with Christophe Farnarier based on the Helene Lee's book by the same name) about Leonard Howell (1898-1981) the founder of the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica and beyond.  It was picked-up by Facets Multimedia here in Chicago, itself a real gem for movie lovers.

As I would imagine most Americans who've lived in or near big cities, I've run into the occasional Rastafari during the course of my life with his/her distinctive hair and colorful garb.  Most music lovers would also know of a link (of some sort) between Raggae music (popularized by Bob Marley) and the Rastafarian movement but perhaps little else.  The joy of finding and watching a film like this is that it gives the viewer in a relatively short space of time a context and an appreciation of what Rastafarianism has been about.

Leonard Howell was born into a fairly successful black family in Jamaica, nonetheless found himself getting into trouble with the authorities fairly early in life and as a result he was forced off the island to find work in Panama.  From there he became a seaman working on any number of the transport ships that were plying the seas at the time.  The documentary points out very nicely that these ships were "the agents of globalization at the time" and that they transported "not only cargo but also ideas."  Working on these ships were often the disenfranchised of the world of the time (as well as anarchists and bolsheviks) and from Kiel/Hamburg to Odessa/St. Petersburg sailors became the triggers of Revolution. (I honestly, never had made that connection before).

Among the places that Howell spent a good deal of time in during his travels was New York and thus the black culture of Harlem of the time as well as its various Afrocentric movements.  Being Jamaican in origin, Anglican (Christian) birth, he also had contact with the Indian (Hindu/Muslim) diaspora in Jamaica.  Finally after the rise of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia to the Ethiopian throne (the Ethiopian kings tracing their lineage back to the Biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba), Leonard Howell became the founder of the Rastafari movement which venerated Haile Selassie I (Ras meaning "Head" or "Duke" in Ethiopian and Tafari being Haile Selassie I's title before becoming Emperor) as Jesus incarnate for black people.

I honestly never knew of the connection between Ethiopia and the Rastarfarian movement though the colors that I've seen Rastafaris wearing over the years now make immediate sense to me as they are the colors of the Ethiopian flag.  Then Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia some years afterwards takes on an even more tragic dimension:  Ethiopia was a country that Africans and their descendants around the glove were coming to see as having a special significance and now it was suddenly and tragically brought low by the caprice of two-bit European despot, who governed, actually, from all places ... Rome (of Biblical significance as well).

In any case, Leonard Howell, founded basically a Hindu/Gandhi-style Ashram called Pinnacle in the hinterlands of Jamaica as the first Rastafarian community venerating Haile Selassie I as Jesus incarnate in this world along the lines of the occasional incarnation of a God in Hindu belief.  The ethic of the Pinnacle community was simple and self-sufficient living, perhaps made easier by smoking lots and lots of pot, but actually having ideals very similar to those espoused by M.G. Gandhi at the time.  Indeed, Bob Marley's song "Don't Worry, Be Happy" gains a whole new meaning in a messianic 'God is indeed among us' context.

I loved this documentary!  No I would not encourage "smoking lots and lots of pot" :-) as a means of arriving at happiness as this would obviously go against my own religion's teachings :-).  However thanks to this documentary, I honestly "get" Rastafarianism in a way that I never would have understood it before.  And I certainly understand / sympathize with the African diaspora's need at the time for hope and an affirmation that Africans like _all people_ are loved by God.

Previously, Spike Lee's film Malcolm X about the life of Malcolm X popularized understanding of the origins of the Black Muslim movement in the United States, which asked basically the same question: Why would blacks want to venerate a Christian God if popular (white) Christianity of the time would cast black people (and really all people "of color") as by definition inferior to them?  I think that most reasonable people would get it: Either God is the God of all, or God isn't really worthy of being called God, or at minimum each race therefore has a right to search and venerate its own God. (But I would insist that of those "racial gods," none of them IMHO would be worthy of wasting time worshiping).

Helene Lee's The First Rasta helps one understand the origins and philosophy/theology of Rastafarianism in this context as well: If the Christian God is presented as somehow being "the white people's God" then there has to be a God for black people as well.

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Friday, January 6, 2012

The Devil Inside [2012]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  Fr. Dennis (0 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review-

The Devil Inside (directed and cowritten by William Brant Bell along with Mathew Peterman) is a hard-R movie made in the fake "documentary" style of the Paranormal Activity series only (and perhaps inevitably) adding perennial public fascination with Catholic exorcism to the mix.

To understand the movie's concept, therefore, think of the fake but well crafted Paranormal Activity series mashed with last year's Hollywood produced film The Rite (which starred Anthony Hopkins and was based on a book by the same name about an actual Catholic exorcist).  In this movie therefore, one gets to see well staged and (for effect) grainy "amateur" footage of some really bloody crime scenes and well as really sordid (bones cracking, vomit and menstrual blood covered people and objects flying) but ultimately fake exorcism scenes.  All that was needed was "amateur 3D" which no doubt, will come in 3-4 years ...

This of course works really well for an audience of young people coming to the film to be entertained by being thrilled (in this case being made "really, really scared") -- the same reason that people pay to "bungie jump" or go to "really scary haunted houses" around Halloween-time or go on roller coaster rides at amusement parks.

As I was watching this film and thinking of its fake though thoroughly sordid terror, I thought of the cave men, who "back in the day" (the stone age...) probably got their thrills going into, well... caves ..., to poke hibernating bears to see if they could wake them up and then would "run like heck" out of the caves before the bear took a swipe at them, mauled them, or even ate them.  Entertainment of this kind has probably been with us for a very long, long time...

Beyond the sordidness of the blood (often menstrual blood) and vomit covered contorted bodies splayed about throughout the film, even the more immune Catholic would eventually find offense in the persistent, every 5 minutes or so, criticism of the "official" Catholic Church: that is out of touch, that it wants to "keep these things quiet," "doesn't want to help people" and so forth.

But given that film's the two "rogue" 20-something priests as well as the film's "documentary makers" all come to rather awful ends in this film ... oh dear, I may have "spoiled" the film to some ... the "official Church" may actually come-out looking better than one would have expected.  The two "rogue" if certainly sincere priests clearly didn't have a clue of what they were dealing with ...

As such, there is a place for _respect_ and silence.  And often (certainly not always...) silence is honestly the most prudent and respectful course to take.

What to say to parents?  I don't see any conceivable reason why a teenager would "have to see" this film, and I certainly would not want to be the parent enabling my kids (and/or their friends) to see it.  Finally, the film is definitely not in any way, shape or form for pre-teens (it really is a graphic, sordid hard-R of a film).

But if in the end, if your teen finds a way to see this film on his or her own, you can just smile and tell them "You know of course that the movie's a fake" and walk away.  Teens generally hate fakes ... ;-)


An interesting exercise could be to go see the film Contraband [2012] released a week after this film and compare it to this one.  While not about "demonic possession" per se, Contraband makes the point of just how hard it is for someone to leave a life of crime after one has entered it.  Could this be, in effect, a far more subtle yet far more serious form of "demonic possession" than the head-spinning, vomiting spewing variety in which such possession has over the centuries been portrayed?

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