Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Raven [2012]

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

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

The Raven (directed by James McTeigue, screenplay by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare) is a film that will probably be disliked by a lot of people.

First, the writer Edgar Allen Poe [IMDb 1][2] (played by John Cusack) tended to write in a dark, macabre style.  And to be honest, I never was much of a "goth" enthusiast.  Yes, I don't mind if it's intended to be funny (like the Addams' Family, both the television series [1964-66] and the movies [1991] [1993], or The Munsters [1964] or Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" [1974].  If one pushed me, something like Anthony Hopkins' and Benecio del Toro's Wolfman [2010].  But I don't particularly like the genre.

Then one gets to the writers of "Gothic fiction," I have to say that I've gotten to the point that I detest the "darker" early American writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and, yes, Edgar Allen Poe.  And to be honest, I've come to blame it on largely _colorless_ when not outright dark/gloomy milieu that the came from 18th-18th century American Protestantism.  It may be a strange choice, but honestly give me at least the color of the Borgias over the darkness and gloom of the Salem Witch Trials.   All this is to say, if you're someone like me, who just doesn't like "Gothic" stuff, then already this movie has a strike against it.

Second, the movie here is a work of (to be kind...) "speculative fiction."  To be less kind, it approaches Edgar Allen Poe in the same way that Dan Brown approached The Vatican in Angels and Demons (book [2000], film [2009]) and Jesus / Mary Magdalene in The Da Vinci Code (book [2003], film [2006]): The premise for The Raven is set right at the beginning of the film with a caption on the screen declaring: "The last 4 days off Edgar Allen Poe's life remain shrowded in mystery."  We then see a notoriously drunk Poe sitting delirious on a park bench in Baltimore shortly before his death.

Va bene.  What follows is basically Edgar Allen Poe meets Dan's Brown's Angels and Demons [2006] crossed with Se7en [1995] where Poe is conscripted by Baltimore police led by Detective Fields (played by Luke Evans) to help them stop a serial killer who's using Edgar Allen Poe's own stories as his modus operandi.  The movie eventually involves a love interest of Poe's (played by Alice Eve) and her father (played by Brendan Gleesan).  It all spins into a fairly engaging story.  But it does require one to buy-into that initial premise that Edgar Allen Poe didn't simply (and far more probably) just drink himself to death.... 

Yes, it's all rather "creative."  Again the film follows an approach reminiscent of Dan Brown and/or perhaps the National Treasure films [2004][2007] starring Nicholas Cage.  There's also been a recent trend to spruce up "dusty classics" with the macabre, like Pride, Prejudice and Zombies coyly attributed to "by Emily Dickenson AND Seth Grahame-Smith."  To this end, I'm actually looking forward to the film coming out this summer called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer [2012].  But I'm looking forward to that movie precisely because I know for certain that it will be wildly exaggerated nonsense.  The Raven remains at "the far edge of plausible," and that does bother me more, and I suspect will be a deal breaker to many viewers as it has been to many critics.

So The Raven appears to mate the dreariest sections of High School American Lit class (again, I really didn't/don't like Nathaniel Hawthorne or Edgar Allen Poe) with an implausible Dan Brownian plot.  As I began my review, this film is certainly "not for everybody" ....

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Friday, April 27, 2012

The Five-Year Engagement [2012]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  Michael Phillips (3 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Michael Philips' review -,0,5506041.column

The Five-Year Engagement (directed and cowritten by Nicholas Stoller along with Jason Segal who also costarred in the film along with Emily Blunt) chronicles in a comedic but often quite realistic way the bane of a more than a few parents and grandparents to say nothing of their religious leaders.

Exactly a year after aspiring chef Tom Solomon (played by Jason Segal) and English born but studying in the states psychology grad-student Violet Barnes (played by Emily Blunt) met at a San Francisco Bay Area "Come as your own Superhero" themed New Years Party, Tom proposes to Violet.  She says yes!  

At a somewhat stodgy "engagement party" sometime afterwards, we meet the rest of the families / friends.  Tom's parents, Pete and Carol Solomon (played by David Paymer and Mimi Kennedy respectively) are Jewish.  Violet's parents, Silvia Dickerson-Barnes and George Barnes (played by Jacki Weaver and Jim Piddock respectively) are Anglican and divorced.   Violet's father has since remarried to a striking woman (but with no lines) of Violet's age.  Tom also has a often stupid co-worker / best friend named Alex (played by Chris Pratt) and Violet is close to her younger sister Suzie (played by Alison Brie).  Among the things that happen early in this story (that spans five years) is that Alex ends up knocking-up Suzie at the Tom and Violet's engagement party and thus because they "have to get married" the two get married even before Tom and Violet were going to get married to begin with, that's if all things had gone "as planned." But of course, things don't go "as planned."

Soon after the engagement party, Violet finishing grad school, finds out that she was rejected for the post-doc program that she had applied to at U.C. Berkeley.  Accepting that, she puts her energies into planning Tom and her wedding.  Then she and Tom find out about Alex and Suzie and thus they too were now (scrambling) to get married.  And obviously, though it shouldn't matter, both Tom and Violet are taken aback that even though Alex and Suzie were doing everything in a heavily improvised fashion (Suzie was like 6-7 months pregnant in her wedding dress, etc) their wedding went actually quite nicely.  So no pressure on Tom and Violet ... (Alex and Suzie remain an improvisational counter-example to Violet's and Tom's far more "let's get everything perfect before..." approach throughout the the movie).

A short time afterwards, Violet finds out that by a fluke she got accepted into the post-doc program at the University of Michigan.  After talking about it, Tom and Violet _postpone_ their wedding but decide to move out to Michigan (Tom quitting his promising job in San Francisco) so that Violet could do her post-doc work in Ann Arbor.

The story really begins at this point, and clearly much ensues, including among other things, the one-by-one deaths of every single one of Violet's grandparents, while the couple never seems to get married.

What happened?  This is something that I actually know something about from my own grad-school / academic days, and it is also something that comes out relatively prominently in the FOCCUS inventory that the Catholic Church uses in its marriage prep program for young couples: Has the couple really discussed and come to agreement regarding each one's career aspirations and, yes, each one's expectations of the other in their roles as husband and wife?  This film was ultimately about two talented and ambitious people, Tom and Violet, who really needed to choose between career and their relationship and had trouble accepting that their decisions whatever they were had real consequences.

Indeed, that FOCCUS inventory that we give marriage couples was all but made for a couple like Tom and Violet, a couple that only knew each other for a year before they got engaged and really did have conflicting career/life aspirations. 

How does the film turn out?  I'm not going to tell you ...

But it turns out from my own experience at the parish where I work that most couples that do come to us to get married already know each other "forever" and have been "basically engaged" for years (and yes come often enough with small kids already in tow).

Why does it seem to take so long?  Well, those questions about life, career and marriage expectations do take time to sort out.  So yes, there's generally a huge difference between how a couple that's known each other for 10 years and been engaged for 2-3 scores on the FOCCUS inventory and a couple like Tom and Violet who met simply at a "Come as your own Superhero" party the year before.  It appears to take a while for a couple to achieve those "super powers" :-)

So what then to make of the movie in the end?  I do think that the film could make for a very good discussion piece for young adults.  It is also a reminder to young adults to not get particularly involved with someone if one isn't really "settled."  And yes, it is a warning about being too ambitious in pursuing a career.  There are always relational costs to pursuing "glory" ...

And yes parents, this film is appropriately rated R.  The film, even by its subject matter, is not intended for teens.  It is intended for young adults and above.

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Pirates! Band of Misfits [2012]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-II)  Nell Minow (3 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Nell Minow's review -

Pirates! Band of Misfits (directed by Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt, screenplay by Gideon DeFoe [IMDb] based his own book Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists the first of a series that he had written in the style of the famous British comedy franchises of Monty Python [IMDb] and Douglas Adams [IMDb]) is a silly enough animated film using clay figurines in the style of the directors' previous run-away success Chicken Run [2000] to entertain both the young and old.

Set in the 1830s in Victorian Era, Gideon DeFoe [IMDb] and the others involved in the project, take liberties with poking a lot of fun at Queen Victoria [IMDb] (voice by Imelda Staunton) herself, as well as of all people, Charles Darwin [IMDb] (voice by David Tennant).  The latter, the hapless/anti-heroic Pirate Captain (voice by Hugh Grant) and his similarly hapless/anti-heroic crew encounter when they attack his famous ship, the HMS Beagle, in hopes of finding booty, only to find the bookish Darwin, a lot of strange exotic animals and one "rather angry baboon" (you'll have to see the movie to find out why ... ;-).  The baboon aside from being "rather angry" turns out to not be all important to the story..., but the Pirate Captain's "big boned parrot" does.  Much ensues ...

As a teenager I loved most of Monty Python [IMDb] especially Monty Python and the Holy Grail [1975], Jabberwacky [1977] and Monty Python's Meaning of Life [1983].  As a college student, I read most of Douglas Adams [IMDb] Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, and liked the original BBC Hitchhikers' Guide [1981] television series (the subsequent Hitchhiker's Guide movie [2005] not so much).  More recently, I've actually enjoyed the Robert Downy Jr "reboot" movies regarding Sherlock Holmes [2009][2011].  Growing-up in a Czechoslovakian immigrant household, I also enjoyed the various stories about the fictitious Czech folk-hero/"academic" Jara Cimrman who also "lived" in that same era.  (I mention Cimrman because the scene in this movie where Darwin/the Pirate Captain present the Pirate Captain's parrot to the "august" gathering of scientists/academics of the Royal Society is something that any Czech Cimrman fan could appreciate ;-).

All this being true, and my betraying a more or less obvious predisposition to love a movie like this, the one thing that I didn't like about this film is its portrayal of Queen Victoria [IMDb] which I found over-the-top mean.

True, not a great many Irish-folk would have a lot of nice things to say about Victoria as the Great Potato Famine took place under her reign and the British monarchy did next to nothing.  I would imagine that the Indians/Pakistanis would probably not have many nice things to say about her time either as she presided over the height of the British Empire and took the title, among others of Empress of India.  Further, while the Victorian Era was noted for both its prudishness and hypocrisy. It has been said that even as "proper Englishmen didn't do such things" there were more prostitutes in London during the Victorian Era than at any other in London's history.  Obviously, there was a demand ...

Still true as all of this may have been, her era was one of a great flowering of both Sciences (again, Charles Darwin [IMDb], et al) and the Arts (Charles Dickens [IMDb-1][2], Oscar Wilde [IMDb-1][2], et al).  So I found the portrayal of the Queen in this film needlessly mean.

What to tell parents?  Like many "kids' movies" made these days, the movie has as much for adults as for kids.  Yes, the pirates are goofy enough to entertain the little ones, and yes there are enough allusions to historical people and events to both entertain the parents, and give them things to talk about with the kids afterwards.  Is it a spectacular movie?  No.  But it's not a bad one.

And all things considered, with the exception with going to town on beating up the Queen, it's better than a large number of nominally "kids' movies" released last year that had far more obvious (and unfunny) ideological axes to grind.  So if you haven't gone to the movies with the kids in a while, this would not be a bad one to go to ... Otherwise, you could wait for it to come out on video.

Finally, once again, with regards to 3D -- I saw the movie in 2D and it was just fine.  There's no reason to spend the extra $3-4/kid to see it in 3D.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Chimpanzee [2012]

MPAA (G)  CNS/USCCB (A-I)  Roger Moore (3 stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Moore's review -,0,3134250.story

Chimpanzee (directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, narrated by Tim Allen) is a child-oriented (Disney-Nature) documentary about a baby chimpanzee named "Oscar" by the film makers growing-up with his group of Chimpanzees in the wilds of the canopy  tropical rainforest in Africa.

Note to parents: Despite the documentary's relatively short length (78 minutes) and generally "child friendly" tone, it still may be too long for the attention spans of a lot of small children.  This is where zoos actually can be better than these kind of programs -- when the kids get bored of the "chimps" you can head over to the "polar bears" or "penguins." ;-), whereas here, you're pretty much committed to the 78 minutes ... ;-).

Having said that, the nature photography is beautiful.  A night time scene with the green phosphorescent mushrooms seemed almost straight out of Avatar [2009].  Viewers learn a little about Chimpanzee social structure: The group into which Oscar was born was headed by an Alpha-Chimp that the film-makers named "Freddie."  He had some younger male chimps that would one day become his rivals.  And there were a number of females with their young (including Oscar, the youngest) making-up the rest of the clan.  The clan's territory was centered around a grove of nut trees which the chimps were shown routinely breaking with stones (tool use).  Sometimes though, they would venture in other directions for for food, like to a group of tropical fruit/berry trees, but those appeared part of neighboring group of chimpanzees' territory (a group led by a chimp that the film-makers called "Scar").

So there would be occasional battles between these two groups of chimps over control of these two groves of trees -- the nut trees that seemed to be in the center of Freddie/Oscars group's territory and the fruit/berry trees that seemed to be at minimum in disputed territory or in the territory of Scar's group of chimps.  As a result of one of these battles between the two groups of chimps, Oscar's mother is wounded (and is presumably finished-off later by some other ever-opportunistic animals like leopards).  Who would take care of Oscar now?  Well a surprising "foster parent chimp"steps-up to do the job providing an example of altruism that researchers have come to note with regards to the behavior of chimps.

All in all, it seemed to be a very enjoyable documentary, though perhaps more for the parents than for really young kids. 


I'd also add, that this kind of research, in the wild, in the natural habitat of chimpanzees is probably preferable to the kind done in cages / laboratories at universities other research centers.  One thinks of the documentary released last year named Project Nim [2011] about a chimpanzee raised among humans and taught how to communicate with humans using sign language.  All seemed fine until Nim started approaching maturity (4 years of age) and became simply too strong to be casually around humans.  What to do then with a chimp too strong to be around us and yet not really knowing how to relate to other chimps much less survive in the wild?  The research done simply observing chimps (and other animals) in their natural habitat seems like a better way to go at least with regards to the chimps / other animals themselves.

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Monday, April 23, 2012

The Lucky One [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review
The Lucky One (directed by Scott Hicks, screenplay by Will Fetters, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks) is a romance novel about an American marine, Logan (played by Zac Efron), who on his third tour of duty in Iraq amidst the rubble left-over after a raid that didn't go particularly well -- two different patrols unexpectedly converged on the same spot, then there really were insurgents there who did put-up a fight --  finds a picture of a young American woman with the inscription on the back saying "keep this."  He assumes that the picture was accidentally dropped there by one of the American soldiers who had been wounded in the raid.  But the picture apparently didn't belong to anyone from his unit and he apparently lost contact with the other one.  In any case, the picture proved to be good luck charm for him -- even as he picked it up from the rubble, he was narrowly missed by an enemy RPG and this happened to him several more times during his tour of duty afterwards.

So when he returned home to Colorado after his tour and realizing that he really had little else besides treatment for PTSD and his ever faithful dog, Zeus, waiting for him, he decides go look for the young woman on the picture -- Forrest Gump style -- walking.  After some months, in Louisiana (some 1200 miles away from Colorado), he runs into a few people at a bait-and-tackle shop who say that they recognize the woman.  They turn out to be right.  The young woman on the picture turns out to be Beth (played by Taylor Shilling) who lives with her grandma (played by Blythe Danner) and young son Ben (played by Riley Thomas Stewart) and operates a "dog care service" outside of town at the edge of Bayou country out there in Louisiana.

On meeting her, he tries to explain why he's there, but she's busy taking a number of phone calls and doing a number of relatively small yet apparently immediately necessary tasks, even as he's trying to speak.  So he never gets a chance to explain.  In the midst of her busyness, well behaved dog Zeus at his side, Beth and grandma assume that he's there applying for the job that they had recently advertised.  If Beth was somewhat taken aback at Logan's free admission that he had arrived in Louisiana from Colorado by foot (!!), grandma worried about Beth's simultaneous busyness/loneliness ... hires Logan on the spot.  And Logan accepts the job offer.  Much fairly predictable and some less predictable ensues. 

All in all, it's a rather nice, timely young adult romance (for American / other NATO country audiences).

The motiff of "the picture" in this case of a young attractive woman "back home," reminds me of the story of the "Stalingrad Madonna" a picture of the "Virgin Mary and Child" drawn by a German soldier as a morale booster for the men in his unit as they were hunkered down and surrounded, Christmas-time, in 1942 amidst the snow and rubble of Stalingrad.  After Christmas, he mailed the picture back to his sister in Germany on one of the last German flights to make it out of the city.  Subsequently, he was captured and died in Soviet captivity a few years later.  HOWEVER, the following year, again Christmas time, he had drawn ANOTHER "Madonna and Child" for his German comrades languishing with him as POWs in a prison camp somewhere in Soviet Central Asia.  He himself died out there as a POW.  BUT the German POWs who did survive and were finally able to return back to Germany in 1954 (!!)  -- nearly 10 years after the end of the war -- CAME BACK with the soldier's SECOND MADONNA honestly testifying that the picture helped save their lives.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Communism in Russia, a copy of the Stalingrad Madonna was solemnly received by the Orthodox Cathedral in now Volgograd.  The original hangs in a Cathedral in Berlin and a third copy in the Cathedral in Coventry England (destroyed by a notorious German terror air-raid in 1940) and is seen as a symbol of the possibility of reconciliation between all three lands.

I mention the story of the Stalingrad Madonna because American experience is not unique.  ALL common soldiers from all countries, even the most guilty ones, often suffer terribly during wartime (to say nothing of innocent civilians) and all have people, buddies and families that love them.  Don't get me wrong, The Lucky One is indeed a very lovely story, of suffering, loss and "going on" but we have to remember that we're not the only ones who've ever suffered ... and learned from that suffering.

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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Artigas - La Redota (orig. La Redota - Una Historia de Artigas) [2011]

Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -

Artigas - La Redota (orig. La Redota - Una Historia de Artigas) is a film directed and co-written by Uruguayan film-maker César Charlone along with Pablo Vierci about Uruguayan "founding father" / national hero José Gervasio Artigas (played int he film by Jorge Esmoris)  The film played recently at the 28th Chicago Latino Film Festival.

The movie begins in 1884, nearly 35 years after Artigas' death with Uruguayan painter Blanes (played in the film by Yamandú Cruz) commissioned by the then Uruguayan "powers that be" to paint a heroic portrait of Artigas, who had been a homegrown revolutionary at a time when whole region was in flux -- Argentina to the south and west had just won its independence; in face of Napoleonic invasion, the Portuguese King had fled to Brazil to start a Portuguese empire to the north, and Montevideo which eventually became Uruguay's capital remained the last bastion of imperial Spanish presence in southeastern South America. 

But precisely because Artigas was a homegrown revolutionary, leading a band of "miserable ones" composed of Spanish speaking frontiersmen and still Guarani speaking natives with ties to their kin in Paraguay, Blanes' task was not easy.  The "powers that be" would like a portrait of a "heroic leader" of the Enlightenment mold (a George Washington or Simon Bolivar).  Yet, Artigas and especially the band of supporters that grew around him looked more like the band that grew around Pancho Villa in Mexico a few decades after Blanes finished his work.  How to give the "Powers that Be" what they want and yet be true to oneself and to the historical record?  That is what this film is about.  Blanes does come up with a solution but it's not what one would necessarily expect.

As a historical period piece, I found the film to be well done.  Further, I was appreciative to the Chicago Latino Film Festival as well as to the makers of this film for the opportunity to learn something about Uruguay.  I always suspected that there was probably some connection between Uruguay and Paraguay simply because of the similarity in their names.  Yet the two countries are quite distant from each other.  This film helped explain to me the connection as well as the rather difficult circumstances in which Uruguay came to be -- surrounded on all sides (Argentina to the South, Brazil to the North and even Spain across the Sea to the East) by rather powerful neighbors.

So all in all, this was a satisfying historical film that teaches its viewers something about a country and a leader that most people outside of Uruguay would probably not know.  And yet the problem that Blanes faced in making the portrait of Artigas is one that many artists and historians across the world have faced.  So the story here is about Blanes, Artigas and Uruguay, but it is also about more than just about Blanes, Artigas and Uruguay.  It's story is bigger than that.  Good job!

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Day of Black (orig. Dia de Preto) [2012]

Fr. Dennis (4+ Stars)

IMDb listing -

Day of Black (orig. Dia de Preto) is a masterfully shot and sound edited Brazilian film, written and directed by (alphabetically listed) Marcos Felipe, Daniel Mattos and Marciel Renato, which played recently at the 28th Chicago Latino Film Festival.  It recounts the story of the first African slave in Brazil to gain his freedom -- a prized cow (vaca) of a landowner (a "patrão" played by Paulo Abreu) had wandered off the landowner's property.  Under threat of death, the landowner sent a black slave ("o Preto", lit. the black man played by Marcelo Batista) to find the lost cow.  He finds it the next day on top of a hill on the landowner's property.  The landowner is so happy that he commissions the building of a church on top of the hill where the black man found the lost cow and gives the black man "papers" declaring that he is free.  But how "free" do mere "papers" make a former slave?

So except for occasional flashbacks to the original story recounted above, the movie actually takes place at an upscale Shopping Mall in the present day.  A Black Man (again Marcelo Batista) is about to leave the shopping mall in his car when he is prevented from doing so by a "Corno" (Brazilian Portuguese for basically "a-hole" played by Guillerme Almeida) leading a Posse (played by Andrea Cassali, Naiara Hawaii, Heráclito Junior, Deivid Araújo), a posse that could have been straight out of Quentin Tarentino's Kill Bill [2003/04].  Prevented from leaving the parking-lot, the Black Man flees back into the Shopping Mall, eventually hiding out feet up in a bathroom stall.  When he finally feels it safe to leave the bathroom, it's dark and the mall has long been closed.  He has to now find his way past a Patrão (played again by Paulo Abreu) of one of the stores who's looking for his wayward Daughter ("Vaca" apparently a rather derogatory slang term for "girl," translated in the movie actually as "b...." played by Vanessa Galvão) and of course "Security" (o Chefe played by Ricardo Bonaverti).  Can he make his way out of the Labyrinth of the Shopping Mall to freedom?

I have to say that with the exception of the fact that according to the two from the team of three who wrote, directed and produced the film (who were available for questions following the screening of the film) Dia de Preto was made for a cost of $100,000 (plus many, many hours of their own time editing the final product), both the sound and cinematography in the film were of the quality that make comparisons to Lars von Trier's Meloncholia [2011] or Terrence Malick's Tree of Life [2011] come to mind.  The sound was that sublime and the visuals were that eye-poppingly good!  How could that be possible?  I suspect that part of the answer lies in the fact the "day job" of the two film makers present for questions after the screening was in advertising, and commercial ads both in the United States and abroad often have an sophisticated, eye-popping quality to them.

Still, my hat off to the makers of this film!  The story was excellent and it was produced in a superbly chic, eye-popping manner that certainly catches attention.  Whether the future of this team of Brazilian film-makers is in making films or simply starting a world-class "post production company" based in Rio de Janeiro, I told them that honestly with this film, which is going to play the Latino Film Festival circuit in the United States and then go on to Portugal, they ought to really see if they could get this played in Venice or Cannes.  I really do believe it is that good!

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Under My Nails [2012]

Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing

Under my Nails (written and staring Kisha Burgos and directed by her husband Ari Maniel Cruz) is a movie filmed in Puerto Rico and New York, which played recently at the 28th Chicago Latino Film Festival.

The film, a drama, is about a young and very lonely/isolated Puerto Rican woman named Solimar (played by Kisha Burgos) living alone in a spartan one bedroom flat somewhere in the Bronx.  Born in Puerto Rico, she had lost both her parents when she was only about 8-10 years old.  Her mother apparently abandoned her and her father.  Her father then committed suicide (by drowning) soon afterwards.   Apparently she was largely raised afterwards by a (presumably) gay uncle named Amalia (played by Antonio Pantojas) living in New York who remains pretty much her only family.  Indeed, aside from Rose (played by Maite Bonilla) a coworker at a neighborhood nail salon where Solimar works, Amalia is pretty much the only person that Solimar ever talks to or confides in.  Thus it's a pretty cold and lonely existence, heightened all in the film by the fact that the scenes shot in the Bronx were taken in the winter with the streets full of snow.

During the course of the film, a Dominican couple moves to the flat next to hers.  Actually the man, Roberto (played by Ivan Camilo) is Dominican.  His wife, Perpetue (played by Dolores Pedro) is Haitian.  Moving in / living with the two was also Roberto's mother Goya (played by Rosie Berrido).  It becomes rather obvious rather quickly that Roberto's mother Goya doesn't like or respect Perpetue and Perpetue doesn't like her mother-in-law either.  Solimar can hear the sounds of a lot of fighting from that neighboring flat.  She also comes to hear some rather noisy love making as well.

With her uncle having left for Puerto Rico for a number of weeks after his long-time companion dies at the end a long illness (AIDS?), Solimar's already small horizons become even smaller, now restricted to her largely empty one bedroom flat and her hours at the nail salon a short if cold distance away.  So she becomes increasingly focused on the noises, both angry and sensual, coming out the neighboring flat.  Much, often very sad/tormented ensues ...

I found the movie to be excellent if in its realism often very depressing.  As is often the case at film festivals, the director Ari Maniel Cruz was present after the film to take questions.  After fielding several questions from some of the viewers somewhat disappointed/irate at the film's portrayal of Solimar, with the director assuring them that this portrayal did not come from him but from his wife Kisha Burgos who wrote and starred in the film, I asked him a similar question:

Beginning by saying that I honestly thought that the film was excellent, and that it reminded me of works by, say, Italian American director Martin Scorsese (who incidentally was also from New York) whose similarly unflinching/graphic portrayals of gangsters and so forth actually angered a fair number of Italian Americans because his films actually ended up supporting a number of negative stereotypes of Italian Americans in society (that "Italian Americans have supposedly been 'largely gangsters' in this country), I asked the director here what he would say to those who would criticize him for doing something similar in this film.  After all, this film was about a young Puerto Rican woman living in the Bronx who was (1) poor, (2) obviously had "some issues" from a tormented childhood and (3) chose to enter into an abusive and rather degrading relationship with a man who wasn't her own.  One could therefore fear that a movie like this could actually support some unfair/negative stereotypes of Puerto Ricans.

I thought that director Ari Maniel Cruz's answer was excellent.  First, he noted, that his and his wife's intention was not to produce "commercial cinema" but "real cinema," that is, that he didn't particularly care if non-Puerto Ricans seeing this film could perhaps use it to put-down Puerto Ricans (he intended the film for serious audiences, not mindless ones much less bigoted ones).  Second, he maintained that "real cinema" has to speak/confront the truth.  (Who cares what non-Puerto Ricans may think of this film? Traumatized and lonely characters like Solimar exist in this world, as do (Dominican) Robertos (who by being Dominican are often looked down-upon by Puerto Ricans) and even Perpetues (Haitian, who often are looked down-upon by both Puerto Ricans and Dominicans).  As such, the scenario may not be pretty, but it's real.  And the director insisted that real cinema from any country or culture would generally not be pretty either.  Yet such cinema speaks the truth, as any art that is true). 

So my hat off to Ari Maniel Cruz and Kisha Burgos.  This is a simple yet unflinching and powerful film.  Parents note that it is a film that if rated would certainly be rated R.  But I do believe that it tells a story that deserves to be told and from the perspective (largely from the perspective of the main character, Solimar's) that it is told here.  So once again, as has been the case of virtually everything that I've at the Chicago Latino Film Festival over the last 2 years, my congratulations to the film-makers and the cast for a very very good job!

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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Damsels in Distress [2011]

MPAA (PG-13)  Roger Ebert (3 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert's review -

Damsels in Distress (written and directed by Whit Stillman) is a delightful and IMHO insightful film about four young good-looking and do-gooding women undergrads at "Seven Oaks," a small liberal arts college located presumably somewhere in the North Eastern United States.

The group, friends though they were, was nevertheless led by Violet (played by Greta Gerwig).  The others in the group included the ever positive Heather (played by Carrie MacLemore); the (at least in her estimation) more worldly Rose (played Megalyn Echinkunwoke) who went to London for six weeks as a child and came back "a Londoner," accent and all, which she studiously hadn't lost ever since; and finally Lily (played by Analeigh Tipton) who appeared to have been the most recent addition to Violet's group, who didn't completely buy Violet's pontificating (though never completely able to express why) and who Violet nonetheless accepted (if with an occasional shrug) into the group because as she put it: "It's good to have a challenge."  Violet was no dictator.  So convinced of her own rightness / goodness, she didn't feel that she had to be one ;-).  I just love this movie ;-) ;-)

These four good looking college women, who could easily have chosen to hang-out with similarly genetically/financially elite college men choose, in fact, to hang out with the men of the campus "loser frat", the D-Us.  And actually they do this in part to save/redeem the whole Greek (err at Seven Oaks 'Roman') system:  When the girls hear the fairly attractive editor of the school paper, the "Daily Complainer," call the "Greeks" elitist they don't let him get away with putting down entire group of people on their campus like that,.  First they correct him: "There are no 'Greeks' at Seven Oaks, only 'Romans' (a trivial difference one would suppose, apparently "Seven Oaks" requires fraternities to use Roman letters rather than Greek ones ...).  However, then they point specifically to the frat that they like the most -- the D.U.s.  "They're not elitists, they're a bunch of morons."  And even the previously arrogant/complaining editor of the school newspaper is stopped in his tracks.  He has to agree.  The D-Us really are a bunch of "dufuses" (or is it dufi? There's actually a discussion about that in the movie ;-).

But saving the D-Us or the Campus Greek/Roman system isn't the full extent of Violet's / her friends efforts to change the world for the better.  The four dutifully staff the campus' "suicide prevention center."

And they really care.  The first thing that a person gets when he/she comes to the center is a nice fresh donut.  Violet explains that "studies have shown" that "fresh pastries, in the United States especially a nice fresh donut, immediately evoke happy emotions and memories in test subjects."  So everyone coming into the Seven Oaks College suicide prevention center gets a nice fresh donut.  ONLY, if it turns out that the person isn't really suicidal (or at least very depressed... for instance, someone "just seeking information" ...) then they quickly snatch the donut away! ;-)  "We're an NGO, our sponsors are very strict on these sort of things ..." ;-).  So donuts go to only the very depressed.

Then, they've come up with this whole line dancing, dance therapy.  Again, Violet dutifully explains to someone one that "studies have shown" that apparently people in dance groups because they all have to work together learn to both depend on each other and have no time to be depressed (or something like that ...).  Indeed, very early on in the movie, Violet tells Lily that she wants to do something really important during her life, "like start a a dance craze."  And she's totally serious about this.  She's convinced (herself at least) that Richard Strauss (instead of Johann Strauss) who she credited as the inventor of the Waltz (in either case wrongly, though the latter would probably be closer to the truth than the former, but never mind...) ; the inventor of the Charleston who she believed (wrongly) was named Charleston rather than the dance being named after the city); and finally Chubby Checker who she (I believe finally correctly) credited as the inventor of the Twist; all "made the world a better place."  The latter part of the movie is devoted in part to Violet's attempt to start said "new dance craze" around a dance she invented and called "the Sambola..."

I found Violet's confidence (and really that of all the other girls in her group) in face of messing-up the facts just unbelievably endearing.  Yes, Violet was often strong-willed / opinionated.  Yes, she was often wrong, even completely wrong.  But she was utterly sincere (as only a 20-something 'wide-eyed' college student could be).  And she didn't really impose her opinions on others.  When challenged (as she was often by Lily) she just shrugged, accepted that not everyone was going to agree with her, and went on with her business.

I just found this to be a beautiful insight into young / up to early 20-something innocence.  And all four of the young women manifest this.

Anyway, Parents should note that though rated PG-13, I still would still rate it R.  Yes, there are a few (not many but a few) matter-of-factly made sexual references made by the characters in the film that I do think would more appropriate to an R-movie than to a PG-13 one.  More importantly however, as generally innocent as the movie is, I don't think that someone under 17 would really understand the movie anyway.  Yes, there are things in this film that would seem funny to just about everyone of any age.  But I do think that the movie would work best for someone college aged and above.

That said, I have to say, I really, really enjoyed the dialog and the acting of all four of the lead actresses in this film.  And I found the innocence and general positivity of this film simply wonderful!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Have you seen Lupita? (orig. ¿Alguien ha visto a Lupita?) [2012]

Fr. Dennis (4+ Stars)

IMDb listing

I have to admit that I honestly never expected Have you seen Lupita? (orig. ¿Alguien ha visto a Lupita?) a Mexican, Spanish language-English subtitled film directed and cowritten by Gonzalo Justiniano along with Marina Stavenhagen and which played recently at the 28th Chicago Latino Film Festival take the direction that it did.  However, looking-back to pretty much the first line in the movie, the hint is already there.

In  that first scene, a bouncy / cute Mexican teenager (played by Dulce Maria [IMDb]) comes back into her heavy-on-the-pink, sweetly adorned room of her upper-middle class family's home, giggling, puts her new smart video phone on a table or something, turns it on, and starts talking into it.  Then as "solemnly" as any teenager bubbling with excitement over getting a new smart phone would do, she introduces herself to all the future viewers of her video diary, which she declares she's making "for all her future children," (and since we're watching her do all this, she's actually introducing herself to us) with the words: "My name is MARIA GUADALUPE DEL PILAR DE LA CONCEPCIÓN DEL SANTO NIÑITO JESUS... but to most people who know me, I'm just Lupita." ;-).  In that line, my friends, is the clue for understanding the entire movie ;-) ;-).

I would like to stop my review here, except perhaps to note (1) that a movie like this is inevitably risky and (2) I do think that director Gonzalo Justiniano produces a movie of such innocence that I do believe he pulls it off.

Gonzalo Justiniano was present at the film festival to take questions after the film's screening.  So I did ask him, noting my background (that I am a Catholic priest from an Order called the Servants of Mary) and my surprise and admiration for what he and the others involved in the film appeared to pull-off, how he and the others involved in the film (most notably probably the cowriter Marina Stavenhagen) even came-up with the idea to make it.  Noting also the obvious and obviously intended allusions made in the film, he answered by saying that he intended to make a movie for young people of today and one that defended them and their point of view.  Often enough young people are put down/dismissed as being silly or crazy when they really are not and that this film appeared to be a good vehicle to do so.

The director also said that he was showing the film at the Chicago Latino Film Festival as well as others in hopes that he could find an American distributor for the film.  OH BOY, DO I HOPE THAT HE FINDS ONE!  This is a highly original, gentle, light-hearted film that (as often is the case with such films) turns out to be surprisingly profound. 

So ¡Felicidades Gonzalo Justiniano, Marina Stavenhagen y Dulce Maria! and the rest of the cast / crew! Yes, your subject matter was tricky, but I really do believe that with your persistent innocence you pulled it off!  ;-)

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Grandfathers (orig. Abuelos) [2010]

Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -

Grandfathers (orig. Abuelos) written and directed by Ecuadorian film-maker Carla Valencia Dávila is a documentary that played recently at the 28th Chicago Latino Film Festival, about the filmmaker's two grandfathers: Remo, Ecuadorian and Juan, Chilean.  It makes for a compelling story.

Remo was a pharmacist, who in his 40s contracted a brain tumor.  Given little chance for survival, he decided to hit the books on his own and, experimenting on himself, he eventually came up with a pharmaceutical cocktail that defeated the tumor allowing him to live for decades more.  Indeed, Carla narrates that he was convinced that Carla and her generation could, in fact, through the various cocktails that he became adept at making, become immortal.   And he did come to have a rather extensive and international following.  People from all over the world, given no hope for survival would write him for help, and (according to the documentary) he did have his successes.  A good number of the people who wrote him came to be cured by the medicines that he sent them.

Juan on the other hand, was a political activist living in a desert provincial town in northern Chile where he had grown-up, working for Salvador Allende's coalition, the Unidad Popular, prior to the 1973 military coup led by Agusto Pinochet against Allende's government.  Shortly after the coup, Juan was arrested, taken to a notorious concentration camp in northern Chile and a month later was one of the first to be executed there.

How did  Carla Valencia Dávila's parents meet?  Well, this in itself becomes fascinating to a Westerner: they met in 1970 in Soviet Russia, both being Soviet sponsored foreign exchange students there.  They were still living in Moscow where Carla was born when the 1973 coup in Chile occurred, presumably returning eventually to Ecuador rather than Chile after their studies were finished.

Thus the film becomes a window in the life of the young Latin American Left of the late Cold War era (1970s-).  Playing some of the old Chilean left-wing LP-records that her father either brought with him to Moscow or bought there, Carla notes that on them were songs of a Chile that no longer exists.

For someone fascinated in both history and people, it all makes for a very fascinating film.

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100 Cuban "Sones" (orig. Los 100 Sones Cubanos) [2010]

Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -

100 Cuban "Sones" (orig. Los 100 Sones Cubanos) directed by Edesio Alejandro and Rubén Consuegra
is an excellent Spanish language-English subtitled documentary about the Cuban musical style called "Son," which played recently at the 28th Chicago Latino Film Festival and I do believe would enchant both music and history buffs. 

I first formally encountered this musical style through buying a number of musical anthologies, including Congo to Cuba and Putumayo Presents Cuba produced by the Putumayo World Music.  That company dedicates itself to "indroducing people to the music of the world's cultures."  I had been mourning my impending departure from a parish, St. Catherine of Siena in Kissimmee, FL that I deeply loved.  So I wished to buy a number of albums of music that I heard in and around the parish on a daily basis.  Actually, the parish was mostly Puertorican, Colombian and Haitian with also a fair number of Anglo-American retirees, mostly from the northeastern United States, rather than Cuban.  Cuban Americans tended remain centered in southeastern Florida / Miami.  However, that Putumayo title Congo to Cuba intrigued me and so I bought it and upon listening to it was hooked, soon purchasing besides Putumayo Presents Cuba, also Putomayo Presents Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Colombia and the French Caribbean. So I wept listening to these albums for a number of months after coming to Chicago, before discovering the Mexican-American station WLEY ("En Chicago manda La Ley ..." ;-), which of course plays a totally different style of music but then while I do like the rhythms in various styles of music, I mostly like the interplay of a song's rhythms with its lyrics.  As such, I've loved both Blues and Country music all my life.  And I've found that Cuban Son and Mexican Norteña music to have similarities to Blues and Country music respectively.

So when I found that there was going to be a documentary about Cuban Son music playing at the Chicago Latino Film Festival this year, I made sure to attend.

Okay, what is Son music?  According to both the documentary and the wikipedia article on Cuban Son, it is a style of music with African roots that originated in the mountains and countryside of far eastern Cuba and eventually made its way west to Santiago de Cuba and from there eventually to Havana and New York.  The instruments used in a Son ensemble often appear simple but combined produce, of course, a remarkable a rhythm and sound.

When I say that the instruments _appear simple_, I mean that among the instruments talked about in the documentary was, for instance, the role of the botija (a clay jug) played (blown into) like a bass wind instrument.  One would think that this, a clay jug after all, would be as simple an instrument as one could be.  Yet, the botija shown and discussed in the documentary was 300 years old and was originally made (from a particular mud) found only in Spain.  Rhe musician owning the botija in question talked of it with exactly the same fondness as the owner of  a Stradivarius violin.  Tapping its ceramic shell, he proudly told the interviewer: "You simply wouldn't be able to find or make a botija today that would make the same sounds as this one."  Remarkable and I do love it!

Remarkable also to Son and then to Latin music is that it can only be produced by an ensemble, again not necessarily by an ensemble playing rarified instruments (though the often humble instruments used are, as the botija, in their own ways special), but necessarily by an ensemble.  It's a style of music where the sum of the whole clearly exceeds the individual parts.

Thus it perhaps would not be surprising that the still-Communist regime in Cuba would happily allow the filmmakers access to make this documentary because Son music does, in fact, provide an example where community action (the ensemble) produces a result greater than that which would be possible by the individuals alone.   And the regime here would be right.  Is is always right?  Of course not!  (As plenty of Cuban-American refugees/immigrants in Miami, most of them Catholic would testify)  But here at least, when it comes to Latin music, they do have a point.

Anyway, I found the documentary to be remarkable and thought provoking.  One day, probably fairly soon, the Castro brothers will have gone to meet their Maker.  On the other hand, Cuba and its music and culture will go on.

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Captive Beauty (orig. Belleza Cautiva) [2011]

Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars for concept/technical merit - 0-1 Star for fundamental morality/appropriateness)

IMDb listing -

Captive Beauty (orig. Belleza Cautiva) is a rather unsettling documentary directed by Jared Goodman about a beauty pageant held in recent years as a morale booster for the (female) inmates at a woman's prison named Buen Pastor in Mendellin, Colombia.

The explanation given for the very idea of holding a beauty pageant among the inmates of a woman's prison in Colombia was that beauty pageants are part and parcel of Colombian society: "There isn't a neighborhood event held in Colombia which does not include some kind of beauty pageant."   One of the female guards at the prison was taking modeling classes.  So the idea apparently came-up in prison staff discussion of holding a beauty pageant with women prisoners competing on behalf of their cell blocks and that it could serve as a moral booster for the prisoners themselves.  By appearances, it would seem that the prison staff was right, the women prisoners, even those not selected to represent the various cell blocks, did apparently "got into it."

If this begins to sound to you like a "somewhat distant cousin of The Hunger Games" actually playing out in reality, well ... I agree with you.  I found this film rather unsettling and on all kinds of levels.

First, the reader here would probably be surprised that six "beauty pageant worthy" contestants from the various cell blocks could be found at all.  (The contestants had been selected by the inmates from their respective cell blocks).

Second, as good looking as these prisoner "contestants" were, objectively, they REALLY DESERVED to be in prison.  In interviews with them, most of the women admitted that they understood why they were in jail often with sentences of many years.  At least one, however, maintained her innocence saying that she was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.  An interview with the American "Gringo" male that her group had kidnapped however would probably set most viewers straight.  He told the interviewer that she had been tossing a live hand grenade between her hands threatening him with blowing them both up, and that he had been completely convinced that she was going to waste him (along with herself and the others in her group) unless his friends came-up with whatever the ransom was.

Another one of the contestants had been kidnapped from her uncle's "finca" (farm) in the countryside by one of Colombia's left-wing guerrilla groups as a 14 year-old, and had spent years then fighting on behalf of the guerrillas before getting captured and then put in prison.  A third had been raped by a relative as a 10-12 year old, and that sent her on a violent path.  She started hanging-out with right-wing paramilitary groups saying that she liked their slogan "Death to Rapists."  In an interview with a sister of hers, the sister said that this woman must have killed at least 15 people before finally being arrested.  "She kept coming home with blood on her clothes."

So, if nothing else folks, the film reminds viewers that just because a young woman could be "really really good looking" doesn't mean that she's necessarily "kind" as well.  Like _anybody else_, until you get to know her, she really could end-up being ... evil, crazy or both. 

The "Death to Rapists" vigilante seemed to have found some peace in prison, having a prominent picture of Mary in her cell and (I believe) was shown going to Mass in the prison.  Still, one gets the idea above of the true reality of these people's past crimes.  And aside from the one American interviewed, one can only imagine what the victims of these women's crimes would have thought upon finding reference to them in the news of competing in a prison beauty pageant, this because the pageant made and was apparently followed avidly by Colombia's tabloid television press at the time.

Now don't get me wrong, I do wish that prisons were kept in greater order so that prisoners would only be punished through time served rather than through the near constant threat of prison violence / rape (which often makes prison time a tragically disproportionate sentence for the crime committed).

But I do find it quite disturbing to find prisoners or ex-cons made into arguably heroes (as in the gang intervention documentary The Interrupters [2011] filmed in all places, my current Chicago, IL) or into quasi-celebrities (as in the case here).

Yes, I do believe in forgiveness and redemption. The case of St. John of God (on whom Robert DeNiro's role in The Mission [1986] was probably based) offers a great example of this.  Yet, I do believe that an ex-con / redeemed sinner ought to go about one's redeemed life _modestly_ and thus certainly out of the lime-light.

So as strange and arguably fascinating as the concept of this film was, I can't help but think that it's just a step or two from the "reality TV" horror condemned recently in the fictionalized Hunger Games.  Still, exactly like a train-wreck, the film is certainly provocative even as it is disconcerting.

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The Craft (orig. Riscado) [2010]

Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing -
AdoroCinema listing -

The Craft (orig. Riscado) directed and cowritten by Gustavo Pizzi along with Karine Telez (who plays the film's leading role) is a well-written, well-acted, well-crafted small budget film from Brazil which played recently at the 28th Annual Chicago Latino Film Festival.  It's about Bianca (played by Karine Telez) a young actress right at the edge of becoming "not so young anymore" still trying to find her big break in contemporary Rio de Janeiro.

Thus anyone who's ever been a "struggling actor/actress" (or known one or two) could probably relate to this story quite well.  A foreign viewer (like myself) gets the added bonus of watching this story play out with the amidst the particular color and rhythms of Rio one of the most storied/enchanting cities in the world.

As a struggling actress, Bianca gets her odd jobs/gigs -- as a costumed/singing balloon delivery person that any non-descript Rio office staff would call to "surprise" a boss or co-worker on a significant birthday or anniversary (just like any non-descript office staff would do pretty much anywhere); as part of a "zombie" troupe run by two-bit "agent" (hey, at least he's not an outright pimp ...) Mauricio (played by Camilo Pellegrini) plugging random clubs or catering at random "zombie themed dinners" across Rio de Janeiro; singing in full 18-19th century colonial dress complete with "parasol in hand" backed-up by samba band playing behind her ... all standing in front of a new _neighborhood_ beauty salon whose owner apparently wanted to "open with splash" ;-).  Again, anyone who's ever known (or been) a struggling actor/actress could probably relate.

Indeed, the inevitable scene where Bianca is (once again...) finding herself paying her landlady only 1/2 the rent is certainly priceless.  The good natured landlady, takes the money and is presumably willing to 'wait for the rest,' but not without the inevitable lecture.  So she tells Bianca: "You know, when you're young it's good to dream.  In fact, you have to dream.  But then you have to wake-up ..." ;-) ;-)  How can one _not_ like a movie so well written and acted as this? ;-)

But Bianca does appear to stumble into a break.  At a seemingly random audition, like so many before, after going through the requisite posing in front of the camera (turn left, now turn right ...), she's asked by the film's production assistant (the audition is considered by the director so run-of-the-mill at this point, that he leaves the initial interviewing to his production assistant) to perform to those present "something from her life."  Others, ahead of her said a few words, perhaps tried to sing, etc.  Bianca, asks the production assistant "for a prop," specifically for a lighter.  With the lighter in hand, she flicks it on, and still with perhaps a thick Brazilian accent sings Marylin Monroe's famous "Happy Birthday, Mr. President."  The production assistant is floored.  "Where'd you learn to do this?"  "Well, I deliver balloons to a lot of middle aged bosses in the offices outside ..."  It turns out that the audition was for someone to play a now-famous Brazilian actress (who's since moved to France) "in her early years."

A few days later, she gets a call from the director, who's similarly impressed with her.  So a few days after that, Bianca is able to return her red stained "zombie dress" to Mauricio ... Things are looking up for Bianca, but do they remain there?  Well ... go see the movie! ;-)

Movie buffs will already probably guess that this film has a definite Felini [IMDb] (La Strada [1954] / Nights of Cabiria [1957]) feel to it, the more so since like Federico Fellini [IMDb] and Giulietta Masina [IMDb], the star of those films, the director here, Pizzi, and the star, Telez, are husband and wife.  I would also add that there is a gentleness to this film reminiscent of the famed Brazilian film Central Station (orig. Central do Brasil) [1998].  Then the cinematography and editing of this film is a joy, as various (and appropriate) portions of the film are filmed using (1) standard contemporary contemporary recording equipment, (2) grainy "super 8" style film, and (3) using what one would suspect to be a cell phone.

Thus the film is both simple yet universal in theme, clearly inspired by the film-making of World Cinema's greats of the past yet executed in a thoroughly contemporary/modern way, making for a truly excellent film.

A final note: There is no nudity (or violence, drug use, etc for that matter) in this film at all, nothing that could concern a parent, even if I would not necessarily recommend it for kids as I doubt that they would "get it" yet.   However, I do believe it to be a great, well executed film with a story that anyone of young adult age and above could appreciate.

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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Third World (orig. Tercer Mundo) [2009]

Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing

Third World (orig. Tercer Mundo) is a low-budget indie style "sci-fi" film directed by Chilean-born, Cuban-educated Cesar Caro Cruz that played recently at the 28th Chicago Latino Film Festival.  As an "indie-style sci-fi film," stylistically it has similarities with critically well received North American indie films Another Earth [2011] and The Future [2011].  Yet since it takes place in three different locations in Latin America -- in Bolivia, Chile and Costa Rica -- it also has similarities to the much higher budget Hollywood produced Babel [2006] which involved three simple stories involving ordinary people occurring on three different continents, yet stories which interlocked in various ways.  Yet, though stylistically similar to the first two films and perhaps influenced by the third, Third World (orig. Tercer Mundo) is a story emphatically told from a Latin American and then "feet on the ground" Latin American perspective.

What do I mean?  First, the film is based in both pre-Columbian Latin American history and contemporary Latin American pop-culture.

In one of the three concurrent stories taking place at the outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia, the abuelo/grandfather Jesús (played by Hugo del Pozo) of 20-something Amaya (played by Carmen Tito) is very proud of / well versed in his Aymara heritage.  Showing a picture of a Bolivian rock-painting (according to the film) from 600 B.C. portraying someone who looks almost exactly like a contemporary astronaut, he takes it for granted that the Andean peoples had been visited by extra-terrestrials millennia ago.  Indeed, he appears rather proud of the implication - that extra-terrestrials would have found the peoples of the Andes/pre-Columbian Americas worthy of visitation.  That's the "pre-Columbian historical" aspect of the equation.

Then there's the Latin American pop-cultural aspect: when I was first sent by my Order to Mexico in 1999 to learn Spanish, I found it jaw-droppingly stunning when in the course of one of day's lessons my teacher told me that recent polls indicated that some 80% of Mexico's population believed in UFOs.  Apparently there had been some widely publicized sitings of plasma ball UFOs (ovnis in Spanish) around the famous Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl volcanos outside of Mexico City (YouTube) and ever since Mexican public opinion has been hooked.  (Remember, Mexico is another country with an enormously rich history of pre-Columbian civilization and that the image on the sarcophagus of one of the Mayan rulers, Pacal, buried in neighboring Guatamala could be interpreted as if he was flying a spaceship).  All this is to say that Latin America, particularly the parts of which with heritages of advanced pre-Columbian civilizations, offers fertile ground for _indigenous_ sci-fi speculation.  

However, there is a second, far more "hardnosed" / "feet on the ground" / "down to earth" aspect to this film because it does challenge the viewer to ask:  From the point of view of someone living in what's called (often derisively) "The Third World," would not visitors from "The First World," ("Gringos") seem like  "extra-terrestrials?"  That's the hard-edge of the movie.  Remember here that this movie was made by a director from Chile but one who got his film-school education in Cuba, hence someone who would not be particularly afraid to force that question of whether a "Gringo" would seem to someone from the Third World to be something of an "extra-terrestrial" (not of this/their world).

All three the stories in this film carry that hard-nosed edge:  Richi (played by Luis Miguel Sanchez) a young, hardworking auto-mechanic is dumped by his girlfriend Anita (played by Carolina Bello May) for a "Gringo" named Arnold.  The angry, crest-fallen, jilted Richi keeps calling him "Schwarzenegger" even though Arnold doesn't look anything like Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Instead, he appears to be simply a reasonably amiable American "surfer-dude" who came down to Costa Rica meeting Anita on the beach one day.  When Richi asks Anita why she dumped him for Arnold even though he had been working his butt-off in that garage to hopefully build a good life for the two of them, she tells him quite sincerely: "I know that you're a good hardworking guy, but you're also a bit boring."  To make himself "more exciting"/"less predictable" therefore, Richi decides to go to a Costa Rican lake with his much lazier friend (and "onvi"/UFO buff) to see if they could spot one of those "onvis"/"UFOs" during a passing solar eclipse.  

Then while Amaya's grandfather would like to teach Amaya all sorts of things about the ways of their ancestors, for most of the film, Amaya's just interested in finally discovering who her actual father was.  Eventually, she's told by her mother that he was a Costa Rican tourist who had passed through some 23-24 years ago.  To Amaya he might as well have been from Mars...

Finally, soft-spoken Chilean pilot Juan (played by Juan Pablo Garuti) is training to be an astronaut and told that he'll be "the only Latin American" on a particular NASA space mission.  He's told by his Chilean commanders that he'll both be representing all of Latin America as a result AND since it's NOT necessarily "a go" yet with regards to the mission THAT HE CAN'T TELL ANYONE that he's going to be on this mission.  The poor guy is lonely and, as a technician, kind of a nerd.  Between the dual weights of the responsibility and the secrecy that his mission entails, he simply has no idea what to tell the cute and similarly shy Paloma (played by Bibiana Alvarez) at the Santiago, Chile coffee-bar/tabacco-stand who he's desperately trying to impress.  Finally, he tells her "I can't tell you much, but one day soon you'll see me on TV." (Oh boy, what girl would want to hear that?  Is he gonna turn out to be a mass murderer or something...?)  But yes, she does come to see him "on TV."  It's just that by that time, he's in Space, having been launched presumably from Cape Canaveral in North America, thousands of miles from Santiago, Chile ...

So do we become our own "space aliens" to each other?  A simple but fascinating movie ;-)

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