Friday, August 31, 2012

The Possession [2012]

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

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

The Possession (directed by Ole Bornedal, written by Juliet Snowden and Stiles White) is a well made movie about demons and possession coming out of Jewish tradition.

Set in upstate New York today, Clyde (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan), feeling guilty about the breakup of his marriage between him and Stephanie (played by Kyra Sedgwick) the mother of his children, lets one of his two young daughters, Em (played by Natasha Calis), the other daughter's name being Hannah (played by Madison Davenport), buy an odd looking "box"at a rummage sale near the new house he had just bought for himself.  (He had just bought the new house at the edge of town because he's trying to "start over..." ).

The box is kinda old, wooden and has some Hebrew lettering carved along its side.  Being Jewish, if seemingly not particularly observant, he's probably happy that Em and her sister seem to be at least somewhat interested in their heritage.  It's also obvious that the two young girls are not taking the divorce all too well.  Em is still hoping that her parents are going to get back together, even as it's obvious that mom Stephanie has already begun dating a new boyfriend named Brett (played by Grant Show).  So it doesn't seem that the outcome that Em is wishing for is particularly likely.  So Clyde just hands over the cash to the guy selling the box, _anything_ to make his kid happy ...

Well it turns out that box has those Hebrew markings on it for a reason.  If any of the family had bothered to read (or even knew how to read...) the inscription, they would have quickly disevoered that the inscription contained a warning: DON'T OPEN THE BOX.  Why?  Because it's a "Dybbuk Box" that is, one which in Jewish folklore was designed to encase a malevolent displaced spirit, a dybbuk, that would otherwise seek to enter into the world by entering into the body of an innocent.  Well, 10-12 year old Em, who asked her father to buy her the box, finds a way to open it ...

Now, the situation that ensues would be difficult enough for any family to deal with.  However, remember the parents are divorced ... and the box is at "dad's house."  Em becomes progressively more and more fixated on the box even as she behaves ever more strangely -- in a way that after a time most of us (viewers) would still recognize as _possibly_ "demonically possessed."  Yet, the estranged parents are getting increasingly worried that their daughter is simply slipping into insanity.  Schizophrenia?  Possible.  But why?  Well, as any good guilty parents would certainly deduce: this has _got_ to have something to do with the divorce...

Finally, Clyde, knowing Em's fixation on the box, takes the box to a professor at the university where he coaches, and the professor finally tells him of the nature of the box.  The Professor _doesn't believe_ "the folklore.  But at least tells him that it is a "Dybbuk Box, probably from Poland in the 1920s-30s" and that such a box would have been used to capture and encase malevolent disembodied spirits.

Clyde goes home, searches out dybbuks and demonic possession on YouTube and decides what he has to do: Go down to the Hassidic Jewish community in New York City and find a rabbi who would help him.  But ... how to explain this to his ex-wife who blames him (and indeed them ...) for their daughter's problem.

The film plays from there is more or less predictable firework fashion and yet with enough variation (inspired _in part_ on a specifically Jewish take on demonic possession) to make the film interesting.

Yet there _is_ more at play here.  Many Catholics and Christians will probably appreciate the invocation of some well-known Psalms in the Jewish exorcism ritual including:

You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shade of the Almighty,

Say to the LORD, “My refuge and fortress,
my God in whom I trust.”

He will rescue you from the fowler’s snare,
from the destroying plague,

He will shelter you with his pinions,
and under his wings you may take refuge;
his faithfulness is a protecting shield.

You shall not fear the terror of the night
nor the arrow that flies by day... 

                                  -- Psalm 91:1-5

Okay, the Psalm is used in the context of a Jewish exorcism ritual.  BUT IT IS ALSO A REMINDER TO ALL OF US facing more mundane (and fearful) situations in life -- that GOD PROMISES to be with us in those situations.

So ... after all the fireworks are over, do the parents get back together?   See the movie ;-).  BUT EVEN IF THEY DON'T (possible, _perhaps_ even probable) the more important question then ought to be: Should they be able to continue their lives now with hope?  What demon(s) did they exorcise anyway? ;-)

There's a lot more to this movie than first meets the eye ;-)

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Compliance [2012]

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

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

Compliance (written and directed by Craig Zobel) is a very disturbing film about a truly disturbing (and illegal) series of incidents that have occurred across the United States in recent years: cranks posing as police officers calling unsuspecting "managers" at small restaurants/convenience stores, asking them for "quick onsite help" in investigating petty crimes supposedly "just perpetrated" by one of their on-duty employees.

In the scenario of the film, a crank posing as a police officer, introducing himself as "Officer Daniels" (voice/played by Pat Healy) calls a fast food restaurant called "Chickwich" asking for the manager (named Sandra played by Ann Dowd).  He then tells her that he has in his office a woman who says that "a young blonde" employee had "stolen something out of her purse."  Well, there happens to be a "young blonde employee," a 19-year old named Becky (played by Dreama Walker), working one of the cash registers at that very time.

"Officer Daniels," who says that he already has Sandra's district manager "on the other line" asks that Sandra take Becky to the back, employee-only area and confront her telling her that she's being accused of this petty, just perpetrated crime.  Sandra, wishing to be a good citizen and good local manager does what the "Police officer" on the line tells her to do.  She asks another employee to step in for Becky who she takes her to the back to talk to her.  There she tells Becky: "There's a police officer on the line and he says that he has a woman in his office accusing someone of your description of taking something from her purse while you were serving her."  Of course, Becky emphatically denies any wrong-doing.

At this point, "Officer Daniels" tells Sandra (and even Becky, who insists on talking with the police officer on the phone) that "of course Becky's gonna deny everything" and asks Sandra to ask Becky to empty her pockets.  Sandra dutifully tells Becky to do this.  Protesting and rolling her eyes, Becky complies.  Of course, nothing is found.

Now "Officer Daniels" asks Sandra to check Becky's personal belongings.  Becky protests saying she hasn't been back to her cubbyhole where her personal things are since she began her shift.  Nevertheless, Sandra does what the "Police officer" on the phone is asking her to do.  The two go back to Becky's cubby hole, search through her purse.  Again, (of course) nothing nothing is found.

Now the "officer's" _request_ crosses pretty much everybody's line into the realm of the disturbing/creepy: "You're going to have to check Becky's clothes."  Sandra responds: "I'm not comfortable with that."  The police officer responds: "I'd send a police officer to your establishment BUT 'we're swamped.'  The alternative is that you keep Becky then under watch.  Eventually, I'll send someone over, but then we're going to have to arrest Becky, send her to the station for processing.  It'll take a long time, Becky will probably have to spend the night in jail.  We could settle the matter quickly if you just do _a strip search_ of her now."  "I'm not comfortable with that."  After further insistence/pressure by "Officer Daniels," he allows Sandra to bring in the assistant manager Marti (played by Ashley Atkinson) to be present during the strip search, which initially involves just asking Becky to take off her clothes down to her underwear.  When they check her shirt, shoes/socks and jeans, and OF COURSE FIND NOTHING, the next "logical" step is for Becky to take _everything_ off, so as to check her bra and panties.  Becky protests but does so, she's down to her bra and underwear anyway.  The demand is consistent with "the process" (SOME PROCESS!).  Marti throws her an apron as soon as Becky strips down to nothing.

NOW, "Officer Daniels" asks that Sandra put Becky's clothes in a plastic bag and put the bag in her (Sandra's car) "WHY???"  "Daniels" explains that this is actually "all part of a _larger investigation_ of Becky's brother for drugs."  "Officer Daniels" continues, explaining to Sandra that he's been so adamant in the rather small matter of the woman complaining that Becky stole something from her purse in order to "extract cooperation" from Becky with regards to her brother.  He tells Sandra then that "on Becky's clothes could be traces of drugs that would make an open and shut case against her and her brother."  Makes sense, Sandra puts Becky's clothes in a bag and trots the bag to her car.

But now Restaurant manager Sandra and her Assistant Manager Marti have their employee Becky in the backroom covered only by an apron.  "For how much longer?" the three ask "Officer Daniels."  "Well it's still going to take some time before I can send a squad car over to complete the investigation."  "But we have a restaurant to run."  "Well is there someone, _preferably male_, who you can have guard Becky until I can send a squad car/team to finish this up?"  They first choose a male employee, Kevin (played by Phillip Ettinger), a friend of Becky's to move from his post (making sandwiches) to the back room to "guard Becky."  Though uncomfortable, Kevin initially complies.

When Kevin becomes _really uncomfortable_ with the further demands that "Officer Daniels" makes of him with regard to "helping his investigation of Becky," and simply _refuses to go along_, Sandra calls her own fiance' Van (played by Bill Camp) to "come over and watch Becky until the Police finally arrive."  It's Friday night.  This whole incident has gone on now for a number of hours.  Van's already had a beer or two after work. But he comes over to help out.  Those few beers though effect _what still plays out_ and on multiple levels.

OKAY.  What an incredibly creepy movie.  What's stunning is (if one stayed through the end -- I did, this time -- but I would certainly NOT blame people if they walked out.  I recently walked out of the movie Killer Joe for similar distrust over where the film-makers were taking the movie) that THIS SCENARIO has actually played out IN REAL LIFE some 80 TIMES (!!) across the United States in the past 10 years.  People do trust authority.  In the scenario played out here, it took FOREVER for anyone INCLUDING THE MANAGER and THE GIRL (19 YEARS OLD) to ask the LEGITIMATE QUESTION - "Hey how do we know that you're a cop?"

SO HONESTLY if this movie SCREAMS to YOUNG PEOPLE: "HEY KNOW YOUR RIGHTS" then it is worth it.  And then even the sacrifice of the young actress Dreama Walker playing the 19 year old being progressively abused here (more on this still to follow below...) is PROBABLY worth it.

YOUNG PEOPLE under those famous MIRANDA RIGHTS ("You have a right to remain silent.  Anything that you say can and will be used against you.  You have a right to an Attorney.  IF YOU CAN'T AFFORD AN ATTORNEY ONE WILL BE PROVIDED YOU..."), YOU have a right to a lawyer: "You want to strip search me?  Not unless I have a lawyer present.  Basta."  Yes, her Manager SHOULD HAVE KNOWN THAT TOO.  But, YOU can know this BASIC RIGHT GUARANTEED BY THE COURTS YOURSELF.  Don't let ANYBODY manipulate you like this.

But now lets go back the movie.  VIEWERS, A film like this can itself become very manipulative and make YOU THE VIEWER very uncomfortable.  REMEMBER TOO that YOU have a RIGHT TO WALK-OUT of a film that YOU don't like.  You probably won't get your money back.  Fine.  But there's NOTHING other than "feeling embarrassed" ("social control") that prevents you from saying "Okay, I'm done and leaving this film" if the film makes you feel uncomfortable.  IT IS EVEN POSSIBLE THAT ELICITING THAT RESPONSE WAS PART OF THE FILM-MAKERS' INTENT (for all kinds of and even artistically / rherorically_legitimate_ reasons ... for instance that the film-makers were portraying something so Evil that THEY WANT YOU GET UPSET AND LEAVE).  So PLEASE DON'T BE SHEEP!!! (Again, I myself walked out of a movie, Killer Joe [2012] not three weeks ago.  YOU CAN DO IT TOO.  You don't have to have a needlessly "short fuse" BUT if a movie gets you uncomfortable PLEASE GET UP AND LEAVE.  You have an absolute (and as THINKING BEINGS even a GOD GIVEN) right to do that.

Now was this movie _that_ disturbing / manipulative to warrant that?  Actually, by various reports, yes, a fair number of people were so upset by the movie that they have walked out of it.  I did not do so this time in good part because I felt indications based on the way that the movie was filmed that the film-maker was not going to take the movie off the cliff:  Yes, the actress playing the 19 year old was shown topless a few times (she was, after all, being asked to strip and then forced to cover herself only with an apron for a good portion of her character's ordeal).  BUT THE CAMERA DID NOT LINGER.  And as the situation progressively got worse (and Parents note that it does), the film thankfully leaves the excruciating details to the viewers' imaginations.

But was nudity required at all?  This is a fair question WHENEVER nudity is considered to be employed in a film.  And there are folks who will say that it is NEVER justified (though arguably one then would have "cover one's eyes" walking even through St. Peter's Basilica / the Vatican Museum in Rome).  So honestly, the more relevant question would be:  

Does the Nudity portrayed (and I would extend this to Violence as well) further the telling of the story or is it largely pointless, gratuitous, or even distracting from the story?  And then I would add a second question: "Is the story worth telling at all?"

I would say that since this situation has played out some 80 times in the United States across the last 10 years, that YES the story is worth telling, ESPECIALLY TO THE YOUNG (here I would I mean older teens and young adults.  The film would be _way too intense_ for a younger teen or below).  Then yes, the LIMITED NUDITY that was present does further the purpose of the story.  IT MADE IT REAL in a way that "fogging the lens, shooting everything simply from behind, etc" would not have.  The camera did not _linger_.  But yes, viewers were confronted with the reality that the character was being progressively violated and in a way that filming the situation in a manner that did not shoot any nudity at all would not have achieved.  Yes, the actress, Dreama Walker, did make a sacrifice here by exposing herself in this way (and yes, pictures of her will now be on the internet probably forever) BUT IT HAD A POINT (and you go to an art museum and you're going to see women's breasts displayed, and yes, DISPLAYED EVEN AMONG THE ARTWORK OF THE VATICAN.  The point is, does the displayed nudity have a point?  I would argue here that it did.

So this is film that is disturbing on a lot of levels.  But it _also_ gives viewers a lot to think about.  But above all, if it saves some teenager or young adult (and honestly, my guess would be that it could save a good many) from being manipulated / violated in the way that the character was manipulated / violated in this film then the film would worth it.  But, obviously, Parents do realize that this is DEFINITELY AN R-RATED FILM.  And I wouldn't necessarily see a reason why someone under 16 (approaching that 17 year old age when teens can go to an R-rated film without adult accompaniment) would need to see it.  But by age 16, when a lot of American teens are working for the first time, the film could serve to help them appreciate their rights vis-a-vis their managers (and authorities in general).  And I do believe that this would serve to as a benefit to them.

So folks, this is an excellent movie.  But it certainly disturbing.


While I almost always add a link to famed (indeed legendary) Chicago film critic Roger Ebert at the beginning of my reviews, I would like to underline here that Ebert's review of this film is _excellent_.

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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Lawless [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

It would be tempting to dismiss Lawless (directed by John Hillcoat, screenplay by Nick Cave based on the novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant) as an right-wing American Presidential election year propaganda piece.

The chief villain of the story, set in rural Franklin County, Virginia ("moonshine country") during the Prohibition Era is a thoroughly greasy and corrupt "Special Agent" Charlie Rakes (played by Guy Pearse) sent ostensibly "by the Government" to "wrap up" the operations of the "down home" Franklin County bootleggers "just tryin' to make a living."  Actually, he seems to have been sent there more "on behalf of the Chicago Outfit" (think Al Capone) to shake them down.  Then, when he gets there he seems to take a "likin'" to local "African American hookers" ... You get the picture ... Is this film really set in the 1920s or in a paranoid fantasy of a present day Obama-hating (who, after all, is mixed race, pro-government, or at least not "anti-government," even democratically elected government, and from Chicago ...) fatigue clad white supremacist with an axe to grind?  (The film is actually based on the historical novel given above ... but of all the possible novels to be made into a film, why _this one_, and _why now_?  "Well, Virginia ... it's an election year" ... And there's also a thoroughly anti-Iranian film called Argo [2012] in Hollywood's pipeline set to come out in the fall "just in time to prepare us" for the coming conflict there).

That said, readers of this blog will also know that I've consistently trashed viciously stereotypical portrayals of "hicks" in Hollywood films (Straw Dogs [2011], Killer Joe [2012] or say nothing of Shark Night [2011]) while giving good reviews of films that lampooned the awful stereotype (Tucker and Dale vs Evil [2010]) or at least tried to offer a more complex (if at times troubled) portrayal of contemporary rural life in the United States (Hick [2012]).

Further, if the current film, Lawless, wasn't being released 2 months before an American presidential election and the villain (from the current President's hometown, and arguably _my_ own hometown) wasn't painted in such an over-the-top, thoroughly greasy/slimy stereotypical way, I'd probably be more positively disposed to it as well (and I'm giving it 2 1/2 stars, not exactly trashing it, despite my thorough dislike of the portrayal of its crayon/catchup-drawn villain).  It's a good "under dog" story, celebrating freedom (symbolized by the moonshine whiskey and hills) and certainly the list of actors and actresses playing in the film is excellent.

The story's about the Bondurant brothers, Forrest (played by Tom Hardy) and Jack (played Shia LaBeouf), moonshiners from said Franklin County in rural southwestern Virginia during the Prohibition Era (1920-1933).  Already at the beginning of the film, they had a reputation of being "indestructible."  One had been the sole survivor of his _entire battalion_ in "The Great War" following a shipwreck on his way to Europe to fight.  The other, despite having caught the 1918 Spanish Flu that decimated the region (killing also much of his family as well as some 50 million people world-wide) had "gotten better" a few weeks after catching that flu and simply "went on with his life" even as all kinds of folks all around were dieing from it.

This sense of their apparent "indestructibility" then informed their response to "Special Agent Rakes'" arrival "from Chicago" to "turn the screws" on Franklin County's moonshiners (more like them "shake down") on behalf of the Government (in reality more like for the Chicago Mob).  Feeling themselves "indestructible" the Bondurant brothers decided to tell Special Agent Rakes to "go to Hell" when he sought to extort them, and the rest of the movie unspools from there ...

Of course a good moonshining, Prohibition Era gangster drama needs more than just "gangsters," "corrupt lawmen" and "rum-runners."  It needs women, and Jessica Chastain playing a former "show-girl" (again from Chicago...) who "just wanted some peace" (apparently all the way out in rural Virginia's Franklin County) and Mia Wasikowska playing a "preacher's daughter" from a presumably dry Amish-like sect provide the film's love interests for both Forrest and Jack respectively.  It all makes from a very good story and is at least in part based on true events.

There is one other aspect of the story I did not like -- it's episodic _needlessly brutal_ depictions of violence.  Yes, this is largely a "gangster film," so violence comes with the territory.  However, I would argue that the violent scenes in this film are often so over-the-top graphically portrayed that they cloud over, arguably _drench_, the rest of the story.  PARENTS PLEASE TAKE NOTE that one of the characters in the film HAS HIS THROAT SLIT.  The depiction of that scene is still _with me_ and there are several other scenes approaching that level of brutality.  Yes, the throat slitting apparently really happened in the true story, BUT is _that scene_ really what a film-maker/story-teller would want the viewer to remember from the film?   Is not the larger story largely in danger of being lost in the blood of that one scene?  And I do think that this is a problem whenever film-makers _choose_ to focus _too much_ "on the blood" of a story rather than on the story itself.

So bottom line.  This _not_ a bad film, but it could have been MUCH BETTER.  If the film-makers chose to focus less on the blood of the one scene described above (and several others like it) and less on the "Chicago-ness" of the "dirty government agent" they would have had on Oscar contending 4 star movie.  Instead, they give us a 2 - 2.5 Star arguably right-wing propaganda piece that leaves viewers remembering largely brutal details in the film rather than the larger story itself.  The film makers owed the actors/actresses of this film (and viewers) much better.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Lymelife [2008]

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

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

Lymelife [2008] (directed and co-written by Derick Martini along with Steven Martini) is an award-winning indie film that was recommended to me since I had clearly enjoyed/appreciated Derick Martini's more recent film, Hick [2012]. (Readers of this blog will know that I enjoy small, imaginative, well-acted/crafted projects like said Hick [2012], The Future [2011], Rid of Me [2011], Damsels in Distress [2011], Small Beautiful Moving Parts [2012], Safety Not Guaranteed [2012], and even foreign equivalents of these kind of projects like Avé [2010] from Bulgaria, Riscado (The Craft) [2011] from Brazil and Ha Algien Visto a Lupita? (Have You Seen Lupita?) [2011] from Mexico.  Please check my listing of Independent-Art House Films for a full listing of any number of such films that I've reviewed here.  These _small films_ often available for download via Amazon, iTunes, or various other On Demand services before becoming available through NetFlix or are IMHO, often enough, a true joy to watch).

Very good, Lymelife, is a coming of age story set in suburban Long Island in the early 1980s.  The story centers on Scott Bartlett (played by Rory Culkin) a 14 year old, preparing for Confirmation (the first time he's ever going to be officially called an adult), who has an enormous crush on the one year older Adrianna Bragg (played by Emma Roberts).  The two, indeed the two families, neighbors, have known each other for years.  Indeed, Adrianna's mother Melissa (played by Cynthia Nixon) has worked as an assistant to Scott's father Mickey (played by Alec Baldwin) in his local real estate development firm.

Business has been good, indeed booming.  As a result, Scott's father and Adrianna's mother have been spending far more time together than they probably should have, while leaving the other two parents/spouses -- Adrianna's father Charlie (played by Timothy Hutton) who had come down with the then utterly bizarre and previously unheard-of ailment called "Lyme Disease," and Scott's mother Brenda (played by Jill Hennessy) who had never really adjusted to suburban life and was still "pining for Queens" where she grew up -- behind.

So even as Scott and Adrianna are really in the beginning stages of growing-up and discovering themselves, they're also doing this in an environment where their parents are living in a very unstable situation.  Needless to say, much ensues ...

A remarkable aspect of this movie is that it is so well written and directed that one can understand and appreciate the point of view / motivations of _everyone_ of the major characters in the story.  To give an example: In a fit of frustration about how things were going (and really not going) with Adrianna, Scott spreads a rumor about her to friends at school.  We get to understand/appreciate why did it.  We also get to appreciate how Adrianna had to deal with it after it was done.  Finally we get to watch how the effect of "The Rumor" dissipates and the two characters can move on.  (And this is just a part of the story involving the teens.  The relationship between the adults and the adults with their kids is _all the more_ complex and fascinating.)

Would I recommend this film to parents for their teenage kids?  Well, folks, the film is _kind_, but it is also real.  You're definitely gonna squirm at times.  But, yes, giving you the warning that both you and your teens are going to squirm at times, I would certainly recommend it. 

Finally, I would honestly encourage readers here to take a look at the list of actors' names that are involved in this project.  This was _a small film_ but it did attract some really big names and _deservingly so_.  It was a nice, nice and at times painful/poignant story that was told here.  Honestly, good job all around! ;-)

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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Apparition [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB's review
The Onion/AV Club review

The Apparition [2012] (written and directed by Todd Lincoln) seems me to be a thoroughly average post-Paranormal Activity [2007] low budget horror film. This is not to say that the current film is simply a "knock-off" of the PA franchise.  As a decent enough "genre film," The Apparition does pay homage to some of the genre's tried-and-true formulaics (notably in terms of subtext) even as it tries (perhaps even quite boldly) to advance the genre as well.  Where The Apparition fails perhaps is in execution.  But then, The Apparition aims simply to be a "b-movie" in our time.  It didn't have the budget to execute better than it did. 

Subtext.  One thing that The Apparition does better than the Paranormal Activity franchise is that there is actually discernable subtext to the current film something that was largely lacking in the PA franchise.   The first Paranormal Activity [2007] film simply played itself out in a random house in a random subdivision in suburban San Diego in Southern California.  In contrast, The Apparition, while borrowing from the PA franchise its "house" setting, anchors itself in two phenomena in America (post-2008 Financial Crisis) today:

(1) The house in which the two protagonists live is in a _largely empty_ subdivision at the edge of the Southern California metropolis, empty because the housing crash resulted in a collapse in new home construction and in a wave of foreclosures among those who owned (or speculated on the prices of) existing homes.  So the two find themselves living in basically a "ghost subdivision."

(2) The two principal protagonists of the story live in the house that they do (in that "ghost subdivision") on behalf of one of their parents to both try to protect what's left of that previous investment (so that it's not completely lost) and because as students (or recently graduated students) they simply can't afford to live anywhere else.  (The whole Occupy Movement of the Fall of 2011 was largely driven by students'/young people's anxieties over student debt and their future).   So even before the two protagonists. Ben (played by Sebastian Stan) and Kelly (played by Ashley Greene), find the house in which they are living in to be "haunted" in a particular way, they are already dealing with multiple levels of anxiety. 

Now why is the house haunted?  Here in the tradition of American b-movie horror films, writer-director Todd Lincoln seeks (perhaps) to develop "demon motiff" (obviously) present in the Paranormal Activity franchise and perhaps other recent films like Insidious [2011].  Who are these demons?  And why would they entering into this world?  (POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT)  Without getting into too much detail here, The Apparition suggests that these entities, if certainly "driven" and arguably "hungry", they are not necessarily "demons" in the classical sense (ie "they are simply Evil").  Instead, writer-director Todd Lincoln suggests that they may simply "entities from another plane" whose motivations we presently don't understand (something more akin to the entities from the sci-fi Predator franchise).  This is an interesting, arguably "scientific" approach to what has previously been relagated to the realm of, well, Religion :-).

As a Catholic priest, I do find Todd Lincoln's idea interesting.  However, I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't necessarily want to pursue the "study" of these "beings from another plane."  Science has brought us enough problems with "containment" of "toxic materials" and preoccupations with their "safe handing/disposal" as it is.  And indeed, once Ben and his friends realize that they had inadvertently opened a path for these "beings from another plane" to enter into our world (through a bone-headed, "seance" that they conducted while still in college some time back), some of them begin to use the language of "containment" to seek (of course futily...) to put a lid on the problem.

Anyway, The Apparition [2012] is not by any means a "great movie."  Instead, it seeks to be a "b-movie," of the type that was famous in the 1950s-60s when Invaders from Mars [1953], The Blob [1958] and so on were the rage.  And yet those movies, like this one, were rooted in anxieties of their time.

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Hope Springs [2012]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (L)  Roger Ebert (3 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

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

Hope Springs (directed by David Frankel, written by Vanessa Taylor) is a movie that, I admit, I did not go enthusiastically to see.  To be sure given the actors involved, notably Meryl Streep and Steve Carrell, but also Tommy Lee Jones (who IMHO was cast _perfectly_ for his role), I fully suspected that the film would be excellent.  But like many others, I wasn't sure I really wanted to sit through a film exploring the marriage (and yes, sex life) of an older couple, much less pay for it.  However, having done so, I do think that the film is worth a view.  After all, "we're not 20 forever," and we are generally living longer.  It behooves us to seek (and find) happiness in our lives and in our relationships (with each other, and I would add, with our God) when we find ourselves in our late-40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and into our 80s and perhaps even beyond.  Otherwise, we'd find ourselves facing a _long_ period of progressive decline and increasing unhappiness.

The film begins with a Nebraska couple, Arnold (played by Tommy Lee Jones) and Kay (played by Meryl Streep) "having the kids over" for dinner (Kay made "prime rib") to celebrate their 37th wedding anniversary.  It's "an odd year," so the the sensible pair felt no need to celebrate it in a bigger way.  When one of their daughters asks them what they got each other for this "not particularly important" anniversary, they answer "a new cable TV package."  They assure their kids and their spouses "it has a lot of channels..."  The younger generation is unconvinced, but seem to say to themselves heck "that's ma' and dad, perhaps when we're 'old' we'd do the same."  After the kids leave, we see what the "new cable package" actually means for Arnold and Kay:  While Kay washes the dishes, Arnold falls asleep in his chair watching a a program "about improving his golf swing."  Sigh ...

A few days later, Kay, who works in a clothing store in town, talks to her co-worker Eileen (played by Jean Smart) about the rather depressing / no longer going anywhere / "static" apparently "just waiting to die" state of her marriage.  As a result of the conversation, she decides to go to a book store afterwards, where she finds a book by "relationship guru" Dr. Feld (played by Steve Carrell) who promises older couples like Kay and Arnold that they _don't_ "have to settle," that they _can_ continue to have a marriage that excites them and fulfills them as they grow old(er) together.  Kay looks up Dr. Feld's website on the internet and is immediately impressed.  This is what she wants a marriage that continues to excite her even after 37 years, rather than resigning herself to the same routine, day-after-day, until mercifully through "death do they part."

Arnold, of course, _has resigned himself_ to the day-to-day routine -- He gets up each morning, showers, dresses for work, eats the breakfast that Kay's prepared for him each day, kisses her (on the cheek), goes to work (apparently for some insurance company), comes home from work, eats the dinner that Kay's prepared for them, and then crashes in front of the TV-set to watch "the Golf Channel" to get some tips about "improving his game" (which it appears he doesn't play much anymore anyway).  Some years back he had a back problem and then "some sleep apnia" (he snores).  As a result, he's been sleeping in the guest room (for years) anyway.  It's not exactly an exciting life, but Arnold's resigned to it and generally happy with it, and doesn't understand why Kay would want to "shake things up." (Of course, he's not the one getting up to cook his breakfast and only getting a perfunctory kiss on the cheek and perhaps a mumbled "'love ya" afterwards as he "rushes" then to work...).

Fortunately, Arnold does have a friend at work, Vince (played by Brett Rice), who is able to "hear" for Arnold what he himself would have otherwise missed.  When Arnold complains to him that Kay "had this crazy idea" of going out to Maine for a week to take an intensive seminar by this Dr. Feld, it is Vince who convinces him to go, telling him that if had listened to his wife when she had wanted to do something similar, he wouldn't be going home "to nothing" these days.  (Indeed, one of very _nice_ aspects of this film is the attention given to the friends of both Arnold and Kay (Eileen and Vince) in the story.  Their roles are not large but important).  So Arnold grudgingly goes with Kay to Dr. Feld's "intensive couples' seminar."  And much, of course ensues ...

Here I want to say that the performances of all three of the princpal actors Streep, Carrell and Jones were all excellent.  I've come to expect this (for different reasons) from both Streep (heck she's a "living legend") and Carrell (he really seems to be on a mission use film and his career to make people, common, regular people, happier ... honestly look at Carell's career and the roles that he's taken.  He's been _repeatedly_ willing to take the role of "the schmuck" for the sake of bringing greater happiness to others.  And someone _like me_ "in my line of work" simply has to admire and _applaud_ that).  The performance of Tommy Lee Jones was more of a surprise to me.  To some extent he played  the same role that he always plays -- of a "crotchety older man."  However, he plays it absolutely perfectly here and with enough depth / surprising nuance that one gets to better understand his character and also understand how/why a character like his _could change_.

So I want to say that this film is worth seeing.  It is not exactly a slick/glamourous movie.  After all, it's about a supremely average and aging "white collar" couple from suburban (Omaha?) Nebraska trying to find happiness and fulfillment in their lives after being together for 37 years in marriage.  But I do think that ANYBODY who's "been there," is approaching "there,"_is_ "there," would appreciate the film.

Finally, I would remind readers here that a surprising number of the stories that we find in the Bible are about "older people" given a new lease of life.  Abraham was called by God when he was 75 (!!).  Sarah (Abraham's wife) became a mother (became surprisingly _generative/creative_) at 90 (!!).  Moses only saw the "burning bush" when he was 80 (!!).  In each case, arguably their lives ONLY BEGAN THEN.  Their many decades of life before were actually just prologue.

In our youth obsessed time, the Good News of this may be difficult to fully appreciate or fathom.  But it does appear that the God of the Biblical Scriptures wants us to be happy and find purpose/fulfillment.  There are certainly times in our lives where we may (like Abraham/Sarah, Moses/Israelites) find ourselves "sterile" and/or "wandering through the desert" for long periods of time.  But we are told that we can find ourselves, fulfillment and even God at 75, 80, 90 or 100.  This is something to remember when we find ourselves perhaps wondering if "our lives are over" and/or "our best years are behind us."

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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Cosmopolis [2012]

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

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert's review -

Cosmopolis (screenplay and direction by David Cronenberg, based on the novel by Don DeLillo) is an eiree, and excruciatingly slow-moving film about "the day" a 20-something billionaire Wall Street magnate named Eric Parker (perfectly cast and played by Robert Pattinson of vampire Edward / Twilight Saga fame).  At the beginning of the film, we find Eric standing by his gigantic stretch limo presumably outside of his Manhattan office building deciding that he's going to "go for a haircut."

Most of the rest of the film takes place in the simultaneously coffin / casino like interior of his limo as the limo navigates the terribly slow moving traffic from his office to the barber shop in his old neighborhood to get his hair done.  Immediate parallels could be made to James Joyce's Ulysses [Amaz], Orson Welles' [IMDb] Citizen Kane (1941) [IMDb], and even Dante's "descent into Hell" in his Inferno.  For it's one heck of a slow-moving ride that Eric takes that day.

(SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE WHO WOULDN'T WANT TO READ BEFORE-HAND WHAT ALL HAPPENS DURING ERIC'S LIMO TRIP TO THE BARBER).  During the course of his limo ride Eric (1) meets with various consultants who dutifully "wait on the curb" for "their master's limo" to pass by before entering its hallowed confines; (2) has the associate of his personal doctor give him his _daily_ physical complete with a prostrate exam (the real-time ultra-sound of which is dutifully displayed on the ghostly flatscreen monitors that grace much of the inside of the limo, even as Eric meets, face-to-face, with one of his consultants; (3) loses most of his fortune on an ill-conceived bet on the Chinese Yuan in the currency markets; (4) has sex twice, first with his French-accented 40-something "Mrs Robinson-like" longtime mistress (played by Juliette Binoche) who laughs at him for having apparently recently married his "cold fish" 20-something wife Elisa (played by Sarah Gadon) from an old moneyed patrician family, the second time with the wife of his trusted bodyguard (why? because he was bored? because he was miffed at his truly somewhat "cold fish" newly-wed wife? because he could? because he hated his trusted bodyguard precisely because he was so trustworthy? who knows? but was clear was that Eric didn't particularly care), (5) loses his wife, though not really for his beyond-obvious infidelites ("Eric, you smell like ...") but for the far more "unpardonable sin" of, well, losing his fortune in the course of the day...; (6) has the outside of his limo trashed by Anarchists (whose protests are partly responsible for the terrible traffic delays that Eric experiences that day); (7) gets "pied" by a Euro-loon "reality showman" who's "famous" for "pieing the rich and famous;" and (8) _possibly_ meets his death at the hands of a loser gunman (played masterfully by Paul Giamatti) who tells Eric that (a la JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald) the only way anyone was going to remember a loser like him would be if he killed someone as "important" as Eric.  And through the course of the day, the ghostly white complected Eric does not seem to care ... (END SPOILER ALERT).

The film (therefore) becomes a grand parable about a search for meaning.  Like the Buddha in his youth or the Biblical writer of Ecclesiastes/Qoheleth, Eric seemed to have it all, but none of it seemed to mean anything to him.  In Gospel terms, "What profit would it be to gain the whole world and yet lose one's eternal soul?" (Mark 8:36).  My sense is that Eric did not particularly feel that he even had one to lose...

It all thus makes for one heck of a movie IF one can bear its slow-moving pace and excruciatingly monotone dialog.  But then both the pace and the dialog were obviously intended to be that way.

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Friday, August 24, 2012

Premium Rush [2012]

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

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

Premium Rush (directed and cowritten by David Koepp along with John Kamps) is a film about a New York City subculture (that of bicycle couriers) that I'm positive would annoy many residents/commuters.

On the other hand, I've known a fair number of cycling enthusiasts -- sometimes, while always nice people, they've bordered on being fanatics;-) -- that I went to the theater happy to enter "their world" for a while and to enjoy the ride.

The plot is clearly thin: Ace bicycle courier nicknamed Wilee (after Wiley Cayote from the Warner Bros. cartoon and played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is given what would seem to be a typical job -- carry an innocuous looking letter from one end of town to another.

However there are some surprises right from the start.  The client, turns out to be the quiet, studious Chinese roommate (named Nima and played Jamie Chung) of his girlfriend Vanessa (played by Dania Ramirez).  Vanessa also worked as a bike courier (on the side) but her main job was being a student (as of course was her roommate).  In fact, early in the movie it was clear that Wilee and Vanessa had something of a recent falling-out.  Vanessa had just graduated law school and bike-couriering/adrenaline junkie Wilee had missed her graduation.

Early one afternoon, Nima calls Wilee and Vanessa's South Asian dispatcher Raj (played by Aasif Mandvi) asking specifically for Wilee to run this letter, from her office at the university on one end of Manhattan to Chinatown near the other end.  Why did he choose him?  Well, from what she heard from Vanessa, "he was the best."  Much ensues ...

Among that which ensues is that almost immediately after receiving the letter and dutifylly putting it in his courier bag, someone, a man in his 30s-40s (played by Michael Shannon) wants the letter.  This man stops him right as Wilee leaves the Nima's building and asks for the letter (giving some story along the lines that he's actually the one who's supposed to receive it anyway).  Wilee responds AS ANY 20-SOMETHING with this kind of job would respond: "You see, sir, once I receive a package and put it in my satchel, I don't give it to anyone until I deliver it to the address requested," and leaves.  The man proceeds to chase Wilee first by foot and a few minutes later shows-up behind him in a car.  A chase then ensues ...

What's going on?  Well, I'm not going to say more because to do so would take away from the story, except to say that the story itself, while at times poignant/touching, is really beside the point.  What we viewers get in this movies is the opportunity to watch an hour and a half of some really, really cool bike-riding on the busy streets of Manhattan.

We also get a sense, in as much as bike couriers really cycle like this all over the streets of Manhattan of why these bicycle couriers would probably be hated by both motorists and pedestrians over there.  Still to more sedentary film critics the cinema-world over, THE SHOTS IN THIS FILM ARE JUST AWESOME.  Yes, Wilee, Vanessa and Raj work for a "Premium Rush" courier service.  However, just watching the film honestly gives one a rush as well!

So kids, PLEASE DON'T DO WHAT'S SHOWN IN THIS FILM.  The crazy cycling in the film is done by true stunt cyclists who know what they're doing.  On the other hand, I do have to say, THE FILM IS REALLY, REALLY COOL ;-) and anybody who's ever liked cycling or known a cycling enthusiast/fanatic before would certainly enjoy this film!  Good job folks!


A specialized "niche" film like this inevitably brings the question of how many other "bicycle" films are out there.  A list is of such films, ranging from the Neo-Realist (and very sad) post-WW II Italian film, Bicycle Thieves [1948] to Spielberg's ET [1982], was compiled by the good folks MassBike Online and is given here.

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Hit and Run [2012]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (0 Stars)

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

I suppose we learn a number of things about Dax Shepard in the film Hit and Run, which he wrote, codirected (along with David Palmer) and costarred in: He likes cars, can write a decent slacker comedy/rom-com, but for some reason is either really stupid or a racist:

There is a scene in this film, which he wrote and codirected, in which co-star Bradley Cooper drags a large, otherwise powerfully-built African American man out of a convenience store with a leash around his neck and then proceeds to force feed the African American man the "slightly cheaper" dog food that he was trying to buy for his dog.

Was the scene necessary to the plot?  Even if "the point" was to portray Bradley Cooper's character, a former bank-robber as a psychopath, there would have been any number of ways that Shepard and the rest of his film-crew could have made it.  Instead, they chose _this_ way, which congers up the dragging death (SENSELESS MURDER) of James Byrd, Jr in Jaspers Texas, one of the worst hate crimes to have occurred in the United States in past 20 years.

The choice of including this unnecessary scene is unfortunate because the movie is often very funny as both a "slacker comedy" and as a "romcom" about a smart talented, but not particularly confident young woman (who really should have been a professor, having gotten a PhD from Stanford University in "Conflict Resolution Studies") played by Kristen Bell, and a nice/supportive if not particularly bright ex-con played by Shepard.

Some more conservative Catholics/Christians would have probably objected to the generally lighthearted/positive portrayal of a couple of gay characters in the film.  Yet this is always the frustration when it comes to trying to take a stand against bigotry.  The film challenges anti-gay bigotry (even that, if we are honest, which exists within many places in the Catholic Church today) and then features the utterly needless scene above featuring the humiliation of an African American man.

Shocking hate crimes, after all, have been committed against homosexuals as well, notably in the case of the torture and de facto lynching Matthew Shepard in Wyoming a few  years after the Jame Byrd's dragging death in Texas.  (Dax Shepard shares Matthew Shepard's last name but is apparently not related to him).

So I am disappointed with this film and do hope that its young stars which include Dax Shephard, Kristen Bell and Bradley Cooper choose to do better in the future.  To carelessly walk into a situation which leaves viewers scratching their heads and wondering if the film-makers/actors were a bunch of racists, can't possibly be a wise career move.  After all, these talented young actors are one day going to want to work with likes of Zoe Saldana, Viola Davis, Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman.  Yet, thanks to this film, they've probably made such future collaboration somewhat and _stupidly_ "awkward."

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Why Stop Now? [2012]

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

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert's review -

Why Stop Now? (written and directed by Phil Dorling and Ron Nyswaner) is a well-crafted "indie" film about a young struggling classical musician named Eli (played by Jesse Eisenberg) who's had a really bad day.  Eli's mentor had gotten him a big break, a chance at an audition for a top of the line music conservatory in Boston.  But Eli comes to the audition late and with one of his hands (!) in a bandage.  His mentor asks: "What happened?"  "Well if you've had the day that I've had, you'd understand ..."  The rest of the movie follows.

Eli begins his explanation "Actually my day began the night before.  A rich jerk down the street was throwing a party and I, of course, wasn't invited.  And so I, of course, had to show-up anyway..."  Eli crashed the party, had gotten really drunk, and just as the host was going to throw him out, Eli spotted a piano.  He forced himself to it, sat himself down, played enough bars to impress everyone there, and then stopped and threw-up right next to it.  That of course got him now definitively thrown out of the place and probably more roughed up than he would have been if he had just left the party quietly ...

The next morning, clearly hung-over from the night before, he had to face the tasks of the new day.  He had, of course, the audition sometime in the late morning/early afternoon.  But before that, he had to get his mother Penny (played by Melissa Leo) finally to rehab.  Of course, she didn't particularly want to go, saying, of course "My problem isn't _that bad_, etc."  But even before that, he had to take his little sister Nicole "Coli" (played by Emma Rayne Lyle) to school.  By now you could imagine that Coli would have come to have some "issues" of her own.  And, of course she does: she's made a hand puppet out of a sock (actually put a face on it and all that...) and through this hand puppet friend who she calls "Diego" (I believe), she's been able to vent a lot of anger at the world.  Basically she's been (err.  "Diego's been"...) telling teachers and other school kids to "go to hell" and so forth.  So when Eli and ma (going to rehab ...) come to drop Coli at school, there's her teacher waiting for them, waiting to talk to her ma' (and Eli if ma's really going to go to rehab...) to tell her/them that, well, Coli's "got problems" that need to be dealt with ... Eli tells teacher that well "we know..." but that he has to take ma' to rehab first ... (Folks, if you've ever thought that your life's been a mess ...)

So Coli's been dropped off at school and now Eli and ma' are standing in front the rehab center.  Will ma' actually go in?  Well after some further persuading, she does ... and about 20 minutes later she's steps out again.  WHY????? Well, she hasn't actually used drugs in 4-5 days and so her urine tested clean!  The attending official told her that without dirty urine (and no insurance on her part) he can't let her in.  But he (seriously ... ;-) suggested to her that she "go get some drugs, get high, and come back then with the needed ditry urine" and THEN he could admit her...

It is here where the movie really begins.  Along the course of the rest of the film, we get to meet Ma's drug connections, two brothers nicknamed Sprinkles (played by Tracy Morgan) and Black (played by Isiah Whitlock, Jr) as well as their supplier Eduardo (played by Paul Calderon).  Very much ensues ...

Why Stop Now? proves to be a very funny, well crafted comedy about someone's epicly "bad day."  I also think that Jesse Eisenberg proves here that he may be the true successor to Woody Allen's nerdy on-stage persona.  And Melissa Leo certainly proves again (as she did in The Fighter [2010]) that she can really play some difficult/challenging moms.  Again, if you've ever thought you had it rough ... ;-)


Like many independent films, while "in theaters in major markets," this film is available through the IFC Video On Demand service (type in your zipcode and cable provider to see if this service as available to you) as well as for download (for $6.99) via the Sundance Now service.  Eventually, these films become available for rent in the U.S. via NetFlix or

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Expendables 2 [2012]

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

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

Let me begin by saying that Expendables 2 (directed by Simon West, screenplay by Richard Wenk and Silvester Stalone) is clearly not going to be up for any Academy Awards come winter this year.  There are entire sections of the film that feel like a "1st person shooter" video game (PARENTS DO TAKE NOTE) rightly earning the film a relatively hard-R for violence in the film universe and _definitely_ an M in the video game one.

That said, there is both enough humor and "sappy" trademark Stalone-esque "Rocky style" melodrama in the film, that I'm not at all surprised that it made the top spot in the box office on its opening weekend.  Like many Silvester Stalone products, the editing is _superb_, the pacing keeps one from getting bored, and yes, both the often self-deprecating humor and the doses of sappiness, argh! WORK!  Yes, THESE "Dogs of War" have a heart. It's Blackwater, Inc wrapped in a "Have a Nice Day" Smiley-Face.

Seriously Silvester Stalone, Bruce Willis, Ahhrnald Schwarzenegger and to a lesser extent Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris (all in this movie) all know this game and give still relative newbies/wannabes like Jason Statham and possibly Jet Li (both also in the film) lessons on how to become truly transcendent "tough guy" superstars. 

Still, in my line of work (as a Catholic priest) I do have to say that in my assignments in both Florida and in Chicago, I have met real life "tough guys" (some even who have even done or I'd suspect have done some intelligence work before) who fit the "tough guy" but still "loveable" model.  So Stalone and Schwarzenegger (both Catholics incidently), et al, are, in fact, onto something.

Yes, someone like me has to regret the blood in these films/video-games.  And the Church has long sought to find ways to divert, dilute, (and more problematically, occasionally sought to utilize) the bloodlust apparent at times in society. Arguably Pope Urban II's call for the First Crusade was to divert the Christian Knights' propensity to fight and kill each other to a "worthier goal" of winning back Jerusalem and the Holy Land.  I also wonder if the Dungeons and Dragons fantasy role playing game had existed in the time of Richard Wagner fanatic Adolf Hitler's youth, if Hitler and his inner circle Nazi friends, would have been content enough to "form a party" and be 25+ level "fighters", "clerics" and "magic users" in some fantasy world inhabiting the Internet rather than seek to conquer the actual world ...

Yes, I understand that at times this film _is_ appalling.  There's even a scene, when, the group finds itself somewhere in Russia (and combating some really evil, bent on stealing plutonium, sort of guys), Jason Statham's character disguises himself as an Eastern Orthodox priest and then kills a bunch of them using, among other things, the Orthodox priest's ever present incensor ;-).  And I think then of the similarly violent but also clearly stylized sci-fi-fantasy film called Priest [2011] which was based on a South Korean comic book series where an Order of Catholic-looking Priests (Next to the Philippines, South Korea is probably the most Christian/Catholic nation in East Asia with Vietnam following relatively closely afterwards) used martial arts to vanquish a race of humanity threatening vampires.

All this is to say that this film is clearly not for everybody and yes, it is bloody.  But yes, with the twinkle in Stalone's, Willis', Schwarzenegger's, et al's, eyes, I don't think that anybody would really take the film seriously even as it does take-up issues of relatively serious concern -- internationalized mafia networks and nuclear weapons trafficking.

So "Fan boys of the world unite!  You have nothing to lose but a few hours (until you'll probably buy the game, after which you'll probably lose a lot more)."  And it doesn't surprise me at all that when I checked a couple of my favorite movie sites that I've found since starting my blog, that this film has been a hit among the young in Ireland [2] and Russia [Eng-Trans] and for the same reasons as it has been popular here in the States.  It entertains (and yet remains, _thankfully_, fake ;-).

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Sunday, August 19, 2012

ParaNorman [2012]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB ()  Michael Phillips (3 Stars) Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
Michael Philkips' review -

ParaNorman (written and codirected by Chris Butler along with Sam Fell), since it is a movie in a sense about witchcraft, is one that many Catholic and otherwise Christian parents will probably not particularly like.

Yet, Catholics and other Christians did burn heretics and then specifically women accused of witchcraft at the stake throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and up until the time of the Enlightenment.  Further, this practice extended to the early settlers of the English colonies that eventually made-up the United States through the (if we are honest, the "Taliban-like") Protestant sect called the Puritans.  The Salem Witch Trials in the Massachusetts colony are a matter of historical record as are various atrocities committed by Catholic/Christian fanatics across the ages.  Indeed, the Muslims were as appalled at the behavior of Christian Crusaders like Richard the Lionhearted a millenium ago as Westerners (Christians and non) today have been rightly appalled by Muslim fanatics like Al-Queda founder Osama Bin Laden.  (Then ask a Serb Orthodox Christian about what he/she thinks of the (generally Catholic) Crusaders, and you'll _still_ get an earful ...).

So a movie like this, intended for children, does give everyone, including Christian/Catholic parents, a chance to reflect on: (1) what happened? and (2) what do we want to preserve of the Christian message?  The Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus ought to be a message of hope: "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom 8:38-39).  This "Good News" ought never to become an excuse to hate one or another or even a large number of groups that are declared to be in some way (and they're _always_ cast as being in some "important way") "different" from us.

Catholics in particular, since they belong to a Church that sees its mission to be UNIVERSAL (hence big enough for all) ought to be (and, again if one is honest, actually _generally_ have been...) very careful in drawing boundaries that would out-of-hand exclude entire groups of people from communion with it.

Indeed, Catholics/Christians have the Christmas tree today because St. Augustine of Canterbury, when coming to Christianize the pagan (and by reputation even _cannibalistic_) Anglo-Saxon "savages" in Southern England decided that ultimately there's nothing wrong with the Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) practice of bringing evergreens into their homes in the winter.  The Bible, after all, is full of references to trees.  Why not just "baptize" the symbol and be done with it, rather than _choose_ to condemn the practice as some sort of "nature sorcery?"  Throughout the history of the Catholic Church/Christianity, similar accommodations to local culture/sensitivities have been made to the obvious enrichment of the whole).

The Second Vatican Council's declaration Nostra Aetate declared that the Catholic Church "rejects nothing that is true and holy in other religions." [NA#2].  If then for its past sins, the Church has to "eat crow" for a while, well that's something that average Christian / Catholic experiences in his/her day-to-day life _anyway_ when one realizes that one has failed or otherwise sinned against someone in the past and embarks then on a path toward restitution and reconciliation with the hurt/offended party.  But this is not the end, and indeed, admitting one's sins actually lifts the burden of continuing to have carry them and offers us an opportunity for New Life.  And how Catholic / Christian is that! ;-) ;-)

So then ... returning to the film.  The film's about a little boy named Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit McPhee) with a gift.  He "sees dead people."  Why?  Well probably because film-makers saw The Sixth Sense [1999], and like a lot of others found the gift of the child in that film (again of "seeing dead people") really, really cool and then useful in the telling of this new story.

Norman also lived in a town somewhere in the American North East, a town that was "celebrating" the 300th anniversary of a "witch trial," in which a young girl was accused of witchcraft.  Prior to her awful death (again witches were _burned at the stake_), the girl had cursed those who condemned her to suffer as a result.  In the film, no one among the townspeople particularly believed the legend.  But the town certainly enjoyed the "tourism business" that the legend brought in ... ;-).

Well it turns out (in the story) that there was something to the legend.  Indeed, Norman's family had actually "kept the peace" in the town over the 300 years since the trial and burning of the poor little girl by each year going to her grave to read her a bed-time story (THE LITTLE POOR GIRL HAD BEEN THAT YOUNG...) and this would cause the ghost of the little girl to sleep for another year without rising to wreak vengeance on the town that had so mistreated her.

The year of the film, however, Norman's uncle, the last one to keep up this tradition was no longer able to fulfill this task (he had died just before the anniversary) and so the town was in danger of finally feeling the little girl's wrath, and on the 300th anniversary of all this having taken place, no less!  Enter Norman ... (a little boy who was also rather misunderstood/picked-on in his time...) ... Much ensues ...

Actually, sounds like a nice story, huh?

And one can't help but feel sorry for the little girl who was named Agatha (voiced by Jodelle Ferland): "They used to call me Aggie" she tells Norman.  (And whether the film makers realized it or not, Agatha is actually the name of an early Christian Martyr, St. Agatha, who had been horribly tortured and ultimately murdered for refusing to renounce her Christian faith when Christians were being tortured and killed for holding onto a "new" and "subversive religion.")

So parents, this is a complicated story.  I would understand why a lot of Christian / Catholic parents would not necessarily like it.  However there's a lot to this story that is very nice and it does invite us all to reflect on (and teach our kids) what is actually essential to our faith.  And hopefully hate isn't part of it.

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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Sparkle [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

Sparkle [2012] (directed by Salim Akil, screenplay by Mara Brock Akil [IMDb] based on the story by Howard Rosenman and is a remake of the 1976 original by the same name).  The story was inspired at least in part on the beginnings of the 1960s Motown girl group, The Supremes.  The current version will probably be remembered for a number of things: (1) as the debut film for 2007 (season 6) American Idol contest winner Jordin Sparks [IMDb] (who plays the title role of Sparkle in the film), (2) another triumph for the African-American husband and wife film-making team Salim and Mara Brock Akil (even if due to the popularity of the 1976 original film in the African American community posed risks for them), and perhaps above all (3) the "swansong" for superstar but increasingly troubled Whitney Houston [IMDb] (who played Sparkle's and her two sisters' mother in the film).  Houston was found dead in her hotel room sometime after the shooting of the film apparently the result of an accident following the her use of cocaine.  Since the dangers of drug use in the context of celebrity was very much part of the story in this film (and Houston herself was playing a character who was trying to impress on her three daughters exactly those dangers that she (the character) had experienced first hand in her own life: "Is not my life enough of a cautionary tale for you girls?" she tells the girls at one point), Houston's [IMDb] death following the making of this film perhaps is even more poignant/tragic.

The film itself is set in Detroit in the 1960s.  It's about three young adult sisters -- the oldest named Sister (played by Carmen Ejogo) who's certainly the most driven/outgoing and the one who one would guess "shows the most promise," Sparkle (played by Jordin Sparks [IMDb]) who's much shier than her older sister but is a smiling and sympathetic songwriter, and Dolores (played by Tika Sumpter) who loves her sisters, will go along with them, but is the one who probably listened to her mother the most and thus (to her mother's relief) has other _more sensible plans_ with her life, plans that _don't_ involve "fame, bar halls and lights." (Honestly, _from a parent's perspective_ SO LONG AS THE CHILD PROVES HAPPY, having a "Dolores" among one's children IS A BLESSING.  Indeed, over the years, I've told not a few couples preparing for marriage that the ideal number of kids to have would probably be about 4-5.  That way one kid could die, another could end up in jail a third or fourth could really end up "going his/her own way" but there'd be _a pretty good chance_ that at least one kid would end up being what "one hoped that at least one kid would end-up being."  Otherwise there'd be an enormous pressure for the 1-2 kids to end up fulfilling all (or at least _some_) of the parents' hopes.  And that could be a lot of pressure on an only child or only son/daughter.  Yet the converse is also sad ... the unfulfilled aspirations of the parents for at least one of their kids).

Very well ... the film starts with two of the sisters -- Sister and Sparkle -- having sneaked out of the house to sing at a club, proving to be rather good, so good in fact, that a young man, Styx (played by Darek Luke) would like to manage them.  But how to explain this to mom?

The rest of the film with much good music and many rather simple but basically true life lessons ensues ...

Parents, the film is properly rated PG-13.  Some of the themes of drugs, domestic violence, etc, making poor choices (and the consequences of poor choices effecting the people you love) would really be too much for little kids, but it'd be a good film for teens (perhaps even with one's parents) to see.  All in all "a good discussion piece" for families with kids of high school and approaching high school graduation age.

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