Sunday, September 30, 2012

Hotel Transylvania [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB listing

Hotel Transylvania (directed by Genndy Tartakovsky, screenplay by Peter Bayhman and Robert Smigel, story by Todd Durham and Dan and Kevin Hageman) is an animated parable about exclusion, reconciliation and ... finding a way to positively/happily move on.

Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler) a vampire, having lost his wife to a mob of angry villagers terrified of him, retreats to the woods with his and his wife's infant daughter Mavis into the words where he uses his fortune (he is a count after all) to build a retreat called "Hotel Transylvania" intended _exlusively_ for "monsters" who could go there and "to be themselves."  The hotel becomes  very popular place for the "excluded" -- Frankenstein (voiced by Kevin James) and his wife Eunice (voiced by Fran Deschner), Wayne and Wanda Werewolf (voiced by Steven Buscemi and Molly Shannon) and their brood werewolf cubs (they are "animals" after all ...), Griffin the Invisible Man (voiced by David Spade) and assorted zombies (often working as "staff" ... :-).  But it _also_ becomes a very isolated and lonely place for Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez) as she approaches her "teenage" 118th birthday ;-).

What to do?  Dracula tries to protect his daughter as best he can from the evil threat of bigoted humans who he believes hate them.  But one day, a bumbling "Euro-traveling" human named Jonathan (voiced by Andy Samberg) finds the hotel and finds it kinda cool!  Wasn't he scared of the zombies protecting the perimeter?  Of course not, he found them quaint.  And worse, at 19-20 he's the same age in "human years" as Mavis.  Much ensues ... ;-).

Parents, this is a lovely story for pretty much everyone except possibly the smallest of children.  The monsters are scared of the humans and think that they are evil.  But it's been 100-200 years since the Gothic novels about Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman were written.  And today's humans kinda find them cool and kinda would want them to be part of their lives.  So what to do?  What to do? 

Honestly, it makes for a lovely, lovely and _hopeful_ children's story!

Finally, parents, like many recently released animated films, this film has been released in both 3D and 2D.  IMHO the 3D continues to _not_ be necessary to appreciate the story (I saw the film happily in 2D) though I would imagine that the 3D would probably be quite good as there are scenes in this animated picture that would appear to me would probably have looked really, really cool in 3D.  HOWEVER, I still continue to believe that 3D films are being made primarily to give the studios an excuse to charge an additional $3-4/ticket.  And I wish to tell parents here that the 2D version worked just fine ;-).

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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Liberal Arts [2012]

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

IMdb listing -
Roger Ebert's review -

Liberal Arts (written / directed by and starring Josh Radner) is a lovely film about college life though it must be said it largely takes the perspective of someone approaching middle age looking back.

At the beginning of the film, we meet Jesse Fisher (played by Josh Radnor) a mid-30 something New Yorker and former liberal arts major who's not exactly "living the dream."   Yes, he does have a job, copy-writing for ad agency or public relations firm.  But he's also getting divorced and that gets him an apartment, yes "still in Manhattan," but one that requires him to go to the laundramat to wash his clothes ...

Sitting in a book store, in a new shirt that he had to buy because someone had run off with his laundry, feeling kinda down, Jesse gets a phone call from Professor Peter Hoberg (played by Richard Jenkins) an old professor friend of his from the "small liberal arts college way out in Ohio" where he had gone to school.  Professor Hoberg was retiring and he needed somebody to say a few nice words ("to lie" ;-) about him and the kindly old Prof thought that "no one could lie better [about him] than Jesse."  So he invites Jesse to come over for his retirement party.  Having nothing better to do Jesse accepts the invite as he jokingly puts it from his "second all time favorite professor." ;-)

A few weeks later, in a rental car (no one in one's right mind, unless one was super-rich would own a car in Manhattan because ... where the heck could you afford to park it?) Jesse arrives at his sweet little alma mater, and ... the experience ... energizes him.  Yes, he knows he no longer belongs there ... but ... he can relate _exactly_ to the 19 year olds that passing all around him. 

Yes, he meets a bright-eyed optimistic student there named Zippy (played by Elizabeth Olsen) who's a daughter of some other friends of the retiring Prof. Hoberg who are also attending the party.  And yes the two initially "hit it off" and much of the film that follows is about "will he or not ..."  But he also meets a couple of other students including the bookish, brooding Dean (played by John Magaro) who may have been "kinda like" but perhaps even more bookish, brooding than Jesse when he was at school, and Nat (played by Zac Efron) who's something of a "stoner" but above all happy and probably very much _unlike_ Jesse when he had been at school.

Much lovely nostalgia (and the putting of nostalgia in its proper place...) ensues.  Among other things, Jesse meets his "all time favorite professor," Romantics Prof. Judith Fairfield (played by Allison Janney) ... and learns a thing or two.

I have to admit that I loved this movie, and as has been the case so often as a result of this blog, I've come to love it all the more as a result of sitting down and writing about it.

YET ... even though I think that Zippy's character was very well drawn and perhaps a lot of young women could learn something from her, I do think the film remains one that takes the perspective of "the alum" over
"the student."   

Still for most of us college is a time in our lives that is 4-5 years (My time was actually much longer more like 15 between college, grad school and back to the seminary...).  But then we have then decades upon decades, the rest of our lives ... to reminisce ;-). 

And you know what?  That can be kinda nice ;-).  Good job Mr Radnor!

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Master [2012]

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

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

The Master (written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson) I found to be a rather sad/depressing film.  Rumored to be vaguely based on the life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, I left the theater after watching the movie thinking of the film's Hubbard-like character Lancaster Dodd (played superbly by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) as being "kinda charismatic."  But I left feeling rather depressed about the times in which he was living (in the United States / U.K. in the first decade following WW II).

It has become all-but a cliche' to portray the late 1940s-early 1950s in the U.S. as being a _very repressed and rigid time_.  One thinks of films like The Majestic [2001], The Hours [2002], Revolutionary Road [2008].  In such a time, I could imagine that someone like L.Ron Hubbard / Lancaster Dodd, on the one hand "coming from the elite" on the other living at its edge, coming around talking about past lives and alien races could capture an audience of otherwise stiff and troubled people -- stiff like Lancaster's wife Peggy (played masterfully by Amy Adams) and troubled like vet/alcoholic Freddy Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix) who could have walked out of a John Steinbeck novel after having served as an extra in From Here to Eternity [1953].  In such a milieu Hubbard/Dodd would come across as a folksy/semi-intellectual "breath of fresh air," and yes would probably attract some rich patrons like "Mildred Drummond" (played by Patty McCormack) even if "he was just making it up as he went along..." as Dodd's son Val (played by Jesse Plemons) was more or less able to discern.

Yet, even if Dodd was a charlatan he did appear to give people hope/purpose in a time still traumatized by war and really only awakening to its potential.  We live in a very different time than the late 1940s-50s and honestly probably a better / happier one.

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Dredd 3D [2012]

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

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -

Dredd [2012] (directed by Pete Travis, screenplay by Alex Garland) is based rather violent British comic Judge Dredd created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra.  Set in a post-Apocalyptic United States where a single crime-ridden urban wasteland extends from Boston to Washington D.C., the premise of both the Judge Dredd comic and current film is that desperate civil authorities, in as much as they continue to exist, have created a group called "the Judges" (Dredd being one of them) who have been given the power to arrest, sentence and even execute law-breakers on the spot.

Of course both in the comic and in the current film, the state of the post-Apocalyptic society is presented as being so depraved/chaotic as to justify such measures: 

In the current film, Judge Dredd (played by Karl Urban) and a rookie named Anderson (played by Olivia Thirlby) with special psychic powers are sent to investigate a "mass killing" at a giant 200 story layer-upon-layer of graffiti covered all-concrete tenement complex named "The Peach Gardens" (How's that for a truly Hellish place with an Orwellian name?).  When the two get there, they find that a grotesquely scarred ex-prostitute named Ma-Ma (played by Lena Headley) who after having taken horrible vengeance on her former pimp and having taken over the largest gang in the complex had ordered the hit as part of a vertical turf war going on in the complex (each of the major gangs in the complex controls various floors in this 200 story vertical hell hole).  Needless to say, much brutal killing (heck in the film's more expensive versions, you can even watch the mayhem in all its blood splattering glory "in 3D") ensues...

PARENTS TAKE NOTE that from the description above, it should be clear that this film fully justifies its (hard) "R" rating and I would imagine that any video game based on this film would probably a similar "M" rating as well.  Basically, the film is _not_ for "your 8-10 year old" ... and I honestly can't imagine any desperate reason why any under-aged teen would "need" to see this film or play the game.

That said, the film "does tell a story" and while I don't see any particular reason why even an adult would want to spend a particularly long time focused on this kind of story line (we are formed by what we choose to spend our energies on), I wouldn't want to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to ban, protest or complain about a story, comic, film or video game like this.  Yes, it's pretty grotesque stuff.  But after naming it for what it is (pretty grotesque...), and averting others as to what they'd be in for if they went to see it, I'd honestly just presume to go onto something more positive...

Friday, September 21, 2012

End of Watch [2012]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  Roger Ebert (4 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

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

End of Watch (written and directed by David Ayer) is an Oscar caliber "gritty police drama" filmed entirely using "non professional" video equipment (mounted squad car cams, hand helds, pin cams, security cams, etc) that give the film an often "in your face" "YOU are THERE" feel that _works_ so stunningly well that the film ought to get nominations for (honestly) let's see ... Best Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Editing (!) as well as Best Actor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Best Supporting Actor (Michael Peña).

The film is about two LAPD officers, Brian Taylor (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (played by Michael Peña), who serve as partners in one of the roughest districts of Los Angeles -- South Central.  Brian is portrayed as being something of a "video nut."  The other officers find this to various degrees annoying.  Some complain that it's "unprofessional" / "against LAPD policy." Others, including his own partner Mike just kinda find it stupid but basically go along.  (Both Brian and Mike often simply wear small black SAN-card "pin cams" which capture the video that we see).

Annoying and arguably dangerous this would probably be to the police officers in real life, THE EFFECT IS JUST INCREDIBLE FOR THE VIEWERS OF THIS FILM.  We honestly get to feel like we're _right there_ in the squad-car with the officers as they "B.S." though most of their shifts.  We also get to be _right there_ with the two police officers as they go about their policing duties, responding to calls, investigating complaints, and yes breaking down a few doors, throwing and receiving a few punches / and occasionally exchanging gun-fire in the course of arresting assorted bad-guys / thugs / gang-members.

But between such action they also talk.  Mike is married to Gabby (played by Natalie Martinez) his one and only / high school sweetheart. Brian begins the film as single but finds and gets increasingly involved with a girl-friend, Janet (played by Anna Kendrick), who (mild spoiler alert ...) he eventually marries.  SINCE I WORK IN A CATHOLIC PARISH at the SOUTH EASTERN EDGE OF CHICAGO that is loaded with city workers including nearly 100 police officers and their families, I can attest that the DIALOGUE IN THESE SCENES IS COMPLETELY REALISTIC.  My hat off honestly to writer/director David Ayer and the cast for pulling it off.

Yet even though the principal protagonists in this film are so well crafted and so likable that many viewers would probably just to "hang with them" for more time than that allotted for a movie, alas this is a film.  So there is a story that plays out and needs to get resolved by the film's end.

I'm actually _not_ going to tell readers anything about the story that plays itself out in the course of the film except (1) that it does play itself out quite violently by the end and (2) the scenario we watch play out is _probably_ one that's already on the radar of strategic planners within law enforcement in the United States today and one that would probably keep a few of them awake at night at times.  Like the rest of the film, the story that plays out is a pretty darn realistic (and problematic/worrisome) one.  

NOW A FEW WORDS OF CAUTION TO PARENTS: This is a legitimately R-rated movie, above all on account of its often graphic violence.  So please don't take your preteens to this movie.  I would imagine that quite a few of them would be rather shaken.  Then with teens, parents use your discretion.  That's why it's rated R.

But also then A SPECIAL NOTE OF CAUTION TO PARENTS IN LAW ENFORCEMENT: The police officers in this film are shown as having families.  And yes, SOME OF THE POLICE OFFICERS DON'T MAKE IT (are shown being killed) in this film.  I would imagine that this could be quite traumatic for a pre-teen (or even a more sensitive teen) with a parent in law enforcement to watch.  My sense is that that most parents who work in law enforcement would immediately know what I'm talking about here.  I'm saying here that this movie could be a rough one for kids with one or more parents working in law enforcement.

That said, this is honestly a GREAT police drama and I fully expect that this will be recognized come "award season" (at least in the nominations phase) in January.

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Trouble with the Curve [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 -

Trouble with the Curve (directed by Robert Lorenz, screenplay by Randy Brown) is a lazy, softball of a movie that I'm positive that "old timers" would like, but probably would also make for a pretty good date movie (it's relaxing, probably won't cause too many fights afterwards and even offers young couples some insights into what to hang their budding relationships on).  

Set in the American South East, Gus (played by Clint Eastwood) has been a talent scout of the Atlanta Braves for decades.  He's become so good at his job that he could tell how a player he's scouting is doing in hitting a ball against a particular pitch based on simply the sound made when he makes contact with the ball with his bat.  It's probably good that Gus has learned to do that because with age he's coming down with macular degeneration and hence, if left untreated, going blind.  But since he's a typically stubborn old crow..., you get the picture ...

Fortunately there are people who love him.  There's Pete Klein (played by John Goodman) the head of scouting for the Braves (his immediate boss) and his daughter Mickey (played by Amy Adams).  Michey's a young, on the verge of becoming a really successful lawyer in Atlanta, who has still a  fair amount of pent-up "father-daughter" issues.  But despite her fair amounts of previous disappointments with her dad (in her own words) she still has "a dysfunctional concern for him that he be okay."  (I am certain that a fair younger of younger women in their 20s-30s could relate...).

Perhaps things could have remained in their stable if dysfunctional pattern indefinitely if Gus' contract were not coming-up for renewal in 3 months.  Like many a' old timer, Gus is not talking to anyone that his vision is failing, but Pete knows that "something is not right."  As his boss, Pete also knows that there's a younger guy in the Braves' organization, who's doing scouting through using computers to crunch baseball statistics and who's gunning for Gus' job.  (Yes, this film plays as sort of the "old timers' counterpoint" to last year's Moneyball [2011] which was about how the Oakland A's were able to use computers to keep track of statistics so well that they were able to field a winning team in spite of being one in one of the country's "smallest markets" and having the lowest budget in major league baseball.  But "a computer can't hear the sound that the bat makes when a player is hitting a curve ball ..."  And yes, I would imagine that so long as "old timers" / people in general buy more movie tickets than computers or robots, movies like Trouble with the Curve will _always_ remain more popular than movies like Moneyball [2011]... ;-)

So Pete calls-up Gus' daughter Mickey and asks for help.  Gus has been asked to scout-out a young new sensation, Bo Gentry (played by Joe Massingill) out in the hinterlands of North Carolina and if he screws this up, Pete tells Mickey that he's gonna have to let Gus go.  Now Mickey's trying to "make partner" at her law firm and there's _also_ someone gunning for her promotion.  Still and perhaps frustratingly to a lot of younger and middle aged women out there, Mickey rolls her eyes and slams the file she has in her hand against the desk, but then gets up, asks her somewhat confounded bosses for a few days of vacation time, goes home, packs her laptop into her suitcase and flies out to North Carolina to help her dad.  And ... when she gets there, dad of course, initially denies that he needs any such "help."  Sigh...  But she's there now and it turns out that Pete was right.  Her dad does need some help, and as time goes on Gus "sees" this as well.  Much of course ensues ...

Among that which ensues is that among the other scouts out there in North Carolina following this young sensation is a new young scout named Johnny (played by Justin Timberlake) who's representing the Boston Red Sox.  Johnny was a washed-up pitcher who Gus had initially recruited for his Atlanta Braves, who had played for them for a couple of years before having been traded to the Red Sox.  The Red Sox organization then had decided to use him in a way that he wasn't suited for (as a middle relief pitcher).  As a result, his rotator cuff in his pitching arm was soon ground up and ... bye bye career.  STILL, the Boston Red Sox were kind enough to give him a chance at being a scout for them (that's why he was out there in North Carolina) and he too still had plans ... hoping to score a slot as a radio announcer for the Sox, that's if he didn't screw this assignment up.  (Yes, the subtext of this film appears to be about how companies / organizations treat their individual members and the conflict between treating their individual members humanely as people with hopes and dreams as opposed to simply considering their statistics / performance).

Somewhat predictably, despite initial reservations on her part, Mickey and Johnny hit it off.  Yes, Mickey is better educated.  On the other hand, both Mickey and perhaps the viewers start to see that _her_ story is actually quite similar to his, and that yes, in the end WE ALL DEPEND ON THE KINDNESS OF OTHERS.

It all becomes a somewhat schmaltzy movie ... but readers will know that I often like schmalz (Country Strong [2010] was one of my favorite movies of that year).

And I would submit that Trouble with the Curve is a remarkably good "schmalzy movie" that will probably satisfy _both_ "the old timers" and "young couples" seeking to put together a good "founding story" (How did you folks meet?  What do you see in him/her?) to hang their relationship on. 

So over all folks good job.  This is not a particularly taxing movie to watch.  But it works ;-)

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Band of Sisters [2012]

MPAA (NR)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Official Site

Band of Sisters [2012] (directed by Mary Fishman) is an excellent and timely documentary that recently had its world premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago.  It is about the main current of Catholic religious sisters in the United States since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.  In recent years, both Catholic women's religious congregations in the United States in general as well as their principal umbrella group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), have been investigated by the Vatican for both quality of life and doctrinal concerns.

The process and attendant controversies have been playing themselves out and have been thankfully well documented, from the publication of the initial decrees (Cong. to Inst. for Cons. Life,  to the creation of an official website for the "Apostolic Visitation of Women Religious in the United States" ( to IMHO the honestly indispensable "watchdog coverage" of independent Catholic news sources like the National Catholic Reporter (honestly folks, a lot of more traditionalist folks may not like the NCR, even calling it at times "The National Catholic Inquirer" but it has served for decades by helping to keep our Church officials honest, because no one and I mean no one wants to end up on the front page of the NCR because the good folks at CNN and 60 Minutes to say nothing of SNAP read the NCR ;-), to more traditionalist papers like the National Catholic Register (sort of the more traditionalist faction's NCR), to the LCWR itself.

Alas, the final report of the "apostolic visitation by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated life has not been published (though probably for good reason as it would involve specifics of individual communities).  However A Doctrinal Assessment of the LCWR was published by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith this year.  Discussion over implementation of the reports' recommendations continues.

In all this, the American Catholic religious sisters have not taken the inquiries "sitting down."  Instead, approaching the situation with characteristic politeness but conviction have maintained their truths.  To a significant extent, this film, Band of Sisters [2012] articulating to the Church and to the world who America's Catholic religious sisters have been over these past 50 years and what the Church and the world stands to lose if they come to be crushed.  And I do think it is an eye opener for Catholics and perhaps especially non-Catholics who may harbor petty and largely uninformed opinions about both the Catholic Church in general and Catholic religious sisters in particular.

"The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of [people]. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every [one]. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with [humanity] and its history by the deepest of bonds." [Vatican II - Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes - #1].   With these words the Council's Bishops began the closing document of the Second Vatican Council.  It was an invitation for all the world's Catholics but especially its leaders and its teachers to put themselves in solidarity with the rest of the world and ESPECIALLY with "the least among us" (Matthew 25:40).

This was a call that was perhaps most enthusiastically embraced by the Catholic world's religious sisters.  Why?  As one of the Sisters featured in this documentary put it: "When I was young and discerning my vocation in life, I loved Jesus and I wanted to be perfect.  And in the mid-1960s for a young Catholic woman who loved Jesus and wanted to be perfect, there was only one place to go ... into the Convent."

But what did perfection mean in the years immediately after the Council.  Look to the quote above, it meant OBVIOUSLY standing with the poor.  The testimonies of easily over half the sisters in this documentary point to this obvious conclusion.  Whether they were from the Sisters of Charity, Mercy or Providence the conclusion was the same: "Our Foundresses built schools, hospitals, shelters for the poor.  Who are the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized today?"  That's why Sisters Pat Murphy and JoAnn Persch get-up week in and week out every Friday often before dawn to stand often in freezing temperatures outside the Broadview Detention Center outside of Chicago, IL to pray the Rosary on behalf of the undocumented aliens detained and deported from there.  That's why the Sisters of Mercy inspired by their Foundress Mother Catherine McAuley provide some 40,000 people around the country who'd otherwise be homeless quality low income housing.  That's why not satisfied with simply providing "charity" but asking the larger question of "Why?" Dominican Sister Carol Colston along with both male and female Catholic religious founded the Catholic Social Justice lobby NETWORK so that the interests of the poor would not simply and forever remain buried by the interests of corporate lobbyists of Washington's K-Street.  That's why Sister of Providence Kathleen Desautels founder of Chicago's 8th Day Center horrified by the 1980 rape, torture and murder of three American sisters - Dorothy Kazel, Marua Clarke and Ita Ford - and one catholic layworker - Jean Donovan at the hands of an El Salvadoran death squad also helped organized SOA Watch, which monitors and annually protests the activities of the "School of the Americas" of the U.S. Military, where American instructors provided training to Latin America military officers in "enhanced interrogation" and "counter insurgency" techniques (often torture...).  Many of these same "techniques" have subsequently come to be used by U.S. personnel in facilities like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay ...

But reflection on and pursuit of "perfection" soon took another post-Vatican II turn.  The fifth chapter of Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium was entitled "The Universal Call to Holiness in the Church."  So it ceased to be the _specific_ role of Catholic religious, male or female, to "seek perfection" -- ALL Catholics were called to perfection (Holiness) regardless of their state of life.  So "vocations" (to priestly and religious life) have declined since the Second Vatican Council and in the years immediately following the Council and many, many Catholic priests and religious left their previous religious / priestly vocation.  At the same time, the question of why women could not be ordained to the ministerial priesthood (or for that matter to the Episcopate, where to anyone who knows how to read a hierarchical flow-chart, the Church's institutional power resides) became more or less inevitable.

The Second Vatican Council did, in fact, point to a source of authority that exists beyond the hierarchy and really even beyond the Church to which the Church, in fact, seeks to conform.  "The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power." (Second Vatican Council, Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, #1).  Indeed, if we truly believe that Jesus is the "the Way, the Truth and the Life" (John 14:6) and seek to "conform ourselves to Christ" (and therefore to the Truth) then this requires even the hierarchy to seek to convince not merely through the exercise of power ("Accept this because we say so ...") but through appealing to arguments which convince by the virtue that they are, in fact, True.  Let us indeed remember that the Catholic Church has long (arguably _always_) maintained that ultimately there can be no serious conflict between Faith and Reason (Catechism of the Catholic Church #159).

The argument over Authority and Truth that plays itself out with question of women's ordination where the various decrees that have come down from the hierarchy on this question over the past years have simply become _necessary_ articles of faith to Catholic faithful (because if one doesn't ascent to them, one finds oneself outside communion with the Catholic Church) and yet remain thoroughly _unconvincing_ to both the young and to those outside the Catholic Church (The young simply _don't understand_ why a woman could be an astronaut, a CEO, a teacher of theology, even a Prime Minister or President but _not_ a Catholic Priest or Bishop) actually goes beyond this question.  Women today find themselves at the bottom of the human hierarchy in the Catholic Church's present conception, presently not even allowed to normally discuss the Scriptures in the context of the Mass (even if they teach Scripture at truly _all levels_ in the classroom).  Why is it surprising then that many Catholic religious women would find themselves more in solidarity with the rest of Creation then perhaps the higher rungs of the human hierarchy?  These sisters are arguably hierarchical neighbors to the rest of Creation after all and perhaps feel the rest of Creation's pain and marginalization in a way those "higher up" do not.

Then when one considers that America's Catholic women religious have been school teachers, nurses/doctors, directors of schools/Universities and CEOs hospitals and hence among the most educated people in this country, it should be clear that Catholic women religious can not be credibly "talked down to."  There is a reason why the mainstream of Catholic religious sisters in this country have arrived at the place that they have arrived.  And this film shows very well, how and why America's religious sisters have become who they are.

So in the end, given that within both the Catholic hierarchy and within the Catholic women's religious congregations are intelligent, well educated and sincere believers, I do believe that the Holy Spirit will intervene and out of this crisis something good and new will arise.  But in any case, I do believe that this film articulates quite eloquently what the mainstream of America's Catholic religious sisters have been doing over the last 50 years and why it would be a tragedy if their voices were simply to disappear.

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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Honey (orig. Bal) [2010]

MPAA (Unrated / would be PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing -

Honey (orig. Bal) [2010] (directed and cowritten by Semih Kaplanoglu along with Orçun Köksal) is an award-wining, gentle movie from Turkey (subtitled) that played recently as part of a film series entitled  Landscapes: A Tour of Recent Turkish Cinema which was organized by Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center and is playing there throughout the month of September, 2012.   I have been repeatedly impressed by the various programs that the Film Center, affiliated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago itself somewhat legendary in this city, has offered.  Having known over the course of my life a non-inconsequential number of Turks (and honestly always impressed by their kindness), and knowing something of Turkey's emerging/reemerging role in the world as a true bridge between Europe/The West and the Middle East, I browsed through the Film Center's program and identified several films that I thought would be interesting to see (and hopefully will fit within the time constraints of my "day job" ;-).  The first of these films was this one.

Honey (orig. Bal) [2010] is about a 6 year old boy named Yosuf (played by Bora Altas) and his father Yakup (played by Erdal Besikçioglu) and mother Zehra (played by Tülin Özen).  Together they live at the outskirts of a small village in the mountains of Rize Province in Turkey.  There, they have a small, mostly subsistence farm.  Besides raising chickens and other farm animals, they have a field or grove where they raise plants for tea, and along with other men from the village Yakup is also a traditional bee-keeper.

Traditional bee-keeping in that part of Turkey involves searching out and planting hives high among the trees of the surrounding forests and then returning to harvest the honey that the hives produce.  (I found the way of live described in the movie remarkably similar to that of the rubber-tapping Seringueros of Acre, Brazil where my religious Order, the Friar Servants of Mary have operated a Mission since the 1920s have been involved in organizing them and protecting their way of life in face of the rapid destruction of the Amazonian rain-forest.  One of the heroes (and martyrs) of the Brazilian Seringuero movement was Chico Mendes a layperson who our Brazilian Servites knew very, very well).

Returning to the traditional bee-keeping method presented in this film ... It is clear that though gentle, eminently _sustainable_ it is also quite dangerous.  One has to climb those trees to put up those hives.  Then, even though the bee keepers would use smoke to distract the bees and wear much of the same gear as beekeepers in the West to protect themselves from bee stings, the harvesting of the honey necessarily happens up in those trees.  So it's not the easiest way to make a living or earn some additional income.  But this is something that many of the men of this region have known how to do for a very long time and so it is considered to be part of their way of life.  Indeed, Yakup would take his son along on some of his honey harvesting journeys into the forest.

At the same time, the trappings of 20th-21st century civilization has certainly reached this part of Turkey as well.  The family does use a wood-burning stove for cooking and heat, but it does have electricity and even a fairly large modern refrigerator.  Yosuf also goes to a school in the town (where he doesn't necessarily do all that well, but he is a student).

The family is also devoutly and gently Muslim.  At the beginning of the day, Jakup has his son read aloud an entry from an almanac which ends always ends with saying attributed to the Prophet Mohammed from the Hadith.  There's also a scene showing Josuf watching with admiration his father, Jakup, gently getting-up early in the morning to do his (pre-dawn) morning prayers.

So theirs not necessarily an easy life living at the outskirts of a village itself in the mountains of northern Turkey, but it appears to be lovely one.  (I would add that the mist-filled cinematography of this film is absolutely beautiful).

Then one morning, Yakup along with a few of the men from the village set-out to go on a several days long excursion into the woods to check-up on their hives... and the rest of the movie follows.

No nothing scandalous happens but I think that the Reader will probably put together the dots.  This film follows in the tradition of a long line of gentle, yet eminently sad depictions of life of common people often with little children. Ladri di Bicicletti [1948], Nuovo Cinema Paradiso [1988], Kolja [1996], Central Station (orig. Central do Brasil) [1998] all come to mind and certainly this film, Honey (orig. Bal) [2010], deserves to be in their company.  It's a lovely film (and in the United States it appears available on DVD at Netflix and  But definitely bring some kleenex.

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Saturday, September 15, 2012

Resident Evil: Retribution [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review

Resident Evil: Retribution (written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson) continues a highly profitable film-series based first person shooter video-game franchise also going by the name of Resident Evil.

Films series based on toys (the Transformers franchise), Disneyland attractions (the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) other video games (e.g. Prince of Persia [2010]) or in the reverse, video-games based on successful film franchises like Star Wars are common-place today.  They can irritate purists but they are certainly inevitable and (of course...) when done well the different media can work together to increase the enjoyment of a particular storyline and _perhaps_ even serve an educational purpose.  For instance, I would absolutely love to see Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris [2010] be turned into some kind of "Time tourism" role playing game.

The first person shooter aspect of the Resident Evil franchise is certainly the most troubling aspect of this genre of games / films.  In a first person shooter video game, players are expected to shoot all kinds of assorted bad guys or creatures as they proceed through the game.  Games such as this _always_ provide "good reason" for the players to shoot the bad guys because, well ... they're always "really bad guys."

In the case of the Resident Evil franchise, the "really bad guys" are generally zombified humans (there are also clones as well as assorted "lab created mutants").  The humans were zombified on account of being infected by a "T-virus" produced by an Evil Corporation called "the Umbrella Group." The virus had been designed by the "Umbrella Corporation" to serve a biological weapon. Of course the T-virus "escaped" into the general population turning infected people into human flesh craving zombies.  And if it's "kill or be killed ..."

So teens and other assorted young people from Chicago to Kentucky to California to New York to Alaska to Moscow to Tehran to Saudi to Manchester to Bulgaria to Kinchasa Zaire to Rio de Janeiro to Tokyo, Beijing and Manila are happily shooting (and almost certainly splattering) zombified humans _in the video game_ as a result of this "really Evil scenario" presented to them.  And there are dozens of other games with all kinds of other scenarios from the arguably "historical" (Call of Duty) to the completely fanciful (World of Warcraft) out there.

Is this good?  A game like this probably isn't going to make a great many of its players more moral/upstanding people, though it may make them more skeptical of politicians, "really big corporations" and the like.  And that need not be bad.

Is it entertaining?  Given the enormous success of these games, it appears to be.

Is this harmful?  I'll go out on a limb here and say that _probably_ not.  There are voluntary ratings to these games.  Yes, they are probably even less followed than movie ratings, BUT THEY EXIST.  And between parents and _the kids themselves_ I'm positive that they more or less work.  If the intensity of the game is too much, the reaction to the game _even by the kid him/herself_ generally would be "Hey, you know what, I don't like this game.  Let's play something else that won't make me so scared."  So parents PLEASE RESPECT THE RATINGS.  IF A GAME IS MARKED "M" _please_ trust that it REALLY ISN'T FOR YOUR 8-10 year old (but for AN ADULT).  If it's marked T-14 (for Teens over 14) respect that as well.  But please don't treat these games like they're the Apocalypse because they are not.  AND ARGUABLY the most _non-violent_ video game out there -- a simple flight simulator -- produced the inspiration to the 9/11 attacks.  I know that in college in the 1980s after about 1/2 hour of "flying around" in my fake/virtual aircraft and becoming bored with it, I myself began looking for bridges to fly under and yes buildings and mountains to crash into.  And honestly, even a stick or a rock applied in a particular way can become a lethal weapon.

Alright, to the movie itself.  To be honest, it would seem to me that except for being a promotional vehicle for a new add-on or new generation of the video game, the video-game would be more entertaining than the film.

This is because the premise of the whole "Resident Evil" scenario in a few sentences:  The Evil and all but Omnipotent "Umbrella" Corporation has accidentally unleashed a virus that turns infected humans into flesh eating zombies.  The giant artificially intelligent computer responsible for security at the secret underground facility called "the Hive" where this virus was developed (for biological warfare purposes) first tries to cover its tracks by trying to kill all the humans infected by the virus.  Then still trying to cover its tracks, it tries to use the virus to kill-off the human race completely.  (This is one messed up "artificially intelligent" super-computer ;-)

Among the humans infected by the virus only a very few, like the film's chief protagonist Alice (played by Milla Jovovich), proves immune to the virus.  As such Alice becomes a special enemy of this paranoid and arguably psychotic yet "artificially intelligent" computer whose 3D holographic projection that it uses to communicate with humans is called "the Red Queen" (played by a cute little girl named Megan Charpentier and voiced by Ave Merson-O'Brian).

Alice tries to rally the world's remaining humans to fight off the virus infected zombies (and eventually the computer responsible for infecting them) while the childish "Red Queen" super-computer does all in its cibernetically connected power to wreak havoc and infect as many human beings as possible with the virus.

Much of the current film takes place in "a Soviet Era underground complex in Kamchatka" that was bought by "The Umbrella Corporation" to conduct its biological warfare tests.  This complex is so huge (and the Corporation so Evil...) that within it are Truman Show [1998]-like mockups of  downtown New York, Tokyo, Moscow and "Suburbia."  These mockups were built to allow "The Umbrella Corporation" to film the effects of its virus on "residents" living there and to present then these films to the enemies of these places in order to impress them into buying stocks of the virus for themselves.  The pitch presumably was to be: "See what this virus would do to people living in Moscow, New York, Tokyo, etc ..."

How does one perform such simulations realistically?  Being "Evil", the "Umbrella Corporation" decides on using "clones."  Indeed in one of the _really cool scenes_ in the movie (one of its horrors), Alice finds herself in a part of this Evil underground facility where she finds an entire assembly-line of other "Alices" being made presumably to use "for study" / "destruction" in one or another of the modules in the lab.  Is Alice herself therefore a clone?  Hmmm... ;-)

Anyway, Alice along with several others including a cloned child who believes Alice to be her mother seek to fight their way out of the facility and up to the surface to "rejoin the remaining uninfected/immune humans" in fighting off the plague of infected zombified flesh-eating humans and _perhaps_ even finally defeating this strangely childish if really, really powerful and paranoid "Red Queen" super-computer  Will they succeed?  Well see the movie or buy the game ...

Is this a particularly "deep movie" / video game?  No.  But I do think that in describing it here, the reader would appreciate its appeal.

Parents, the film is definitely not for little kids.  But for teens? especially with some supervision?  If you yourselves could stand it, I'd probably say yes. ;-)

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Arbitrage [2012]

MPAA (R)  Roger Ebert (4 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert's review -

Arbitrage (written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki) is about a fictional Wall Street financier named Robert Miller (played by Richard Gere) who's had a lot on his mind.  He's been trying to sell his company, quickly, before the feds discover a $400 million hole in its books.  He's got a beautiful wife of his same age named Ellen (played by Susan Sarandon), a beautiful daughter named Brooke (played by Brit Marling) in her late 20s or early 30s who both loves/worships him and now works for him as his company's CFO.  And, of course, he has a mistress, Julie Cote (played by Laetitia Casta) who's younger than his wife / older than his daughter, somewhat and  perhaps necessarily insecure, who's a transplant from Paris and who he's been both helping and "helping" set up an art gallery in New York.

Miller's a classic "A-personality" top-dog Wall Street honcho.  Yes, he's been "juggling a lot of balls in the air" and for sometime.  Yes, he has that $400 million deficit in his books that's been weighing him down.  Maintaining both a family and mistress has not been easy -- near the beginning of the film, it's "poor Robert's" birthday and we see him finding a way of celebrating his birthday with _both_ his loving/adoring family _and_ (separately) with his mistress (kinda exhausting ...) -- but he's been managing to pull it off.  If he could just get the buyers of his firm _to sign_.  But being big egoed, "A-personality" Wall Street honchos themselves and perhaps sensing that Miller seems uncharacteristically anxious to get their deal done, they make it a point of "taking the air out of the ball" and "taking their time ..."

It's in this situation that Miller makes a mistake.  Tied-up by representatives of the firm that he's been negotiating with to buy his firm, he finds himself terribly late to a "gallery showing" that his mistress was holding.  Feeling guilty (or perhaps simply feeling that he might lose the mistress) after arriving so late to her event, he promises her that right after the event finishes he'd take her, right then and there, away for a couple of days to "someplace nice" in upstate New York / New England.  Excited, and besides the event was winding down, she chases the remaining few guests, mostly friends, out of the gallery so that she and Robert can head-off on their "lost day or two."  BUT ... it's been a _really long day_ and as has been clear, Robert's been burning the candle at both ends.  SO ... somewhere along the way (it's the middle of the night...) he doses off at the wheel and flips the car after crashing it into an embankment along the side of the road.  Having been wearing a seat-belt, he himself suffered no major injury BUT ... his mistress having been sleeping leaned against his side apparently was thrown around in the car during the accident... and as a result was KILLED INSTANTLY.

What now?  The rest of the story becomes Bernie Madoff meets Ted Kennedy/Chappaquiddick meets Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment meets Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors [1989].  Realizing that his life is over if he stays at the scene of the accident, Miller leaves the scene, calls, using a pay-phone the son of a loyal and recently deceased employee of his (the son of this former employee is played by Nate Parker) and has this person drive him back home to the city.  The next day he talks to his lawyer who tries to pursuade him to turn himself into the police telling him that "all" could "still be explained" but with each hour, and certainly with each day, things would get much worse for him.  HOWEVER, Robert has got to sell that company and is afraid that the publicity from this new accident/scandal would cause the buyers to really dig in their heels and perhaps even walk away from their deal completely and THEN he'd be dead financially for having mismanaged his firm.  So he CAN'T go to the Police right away ...

But the police, of course, soon come to him.  It was MILLER'S CAR that crashed on the road after all.  And there was a dead body in it.  So Detective Michael Bryer (played by Tim Roth) and his partner Detective Mills (played by Curtiss Cook) soon come calling asking pointed questions.  The rest of the movie becomes, of course, "Can he (Miller) get away with it ...?" and then, what about all the other things, "can he get away with those as well ...?"

A number of critics have noted their unease over watching this movie in which the viewer is arguably manipulated into at least partly "sympathizing with a lout" (and worse ... sympathizing with a criminal, well groomed and wealthy though he may be).  At least one critic noted that a film like this would not have been possible under the pre-1960s "Production Code" (which had been championed by the Catholic Church in the United States) under which a film's resolution had to be absolutely clear that "crime does not pay" and Good always ultimately triumphs over Evil.

Yet this is not the only film, both recent and not so recent, that has been pointedly ambiguous in this regard.  One simply thinks of Oliver Stone's recent film Savages [2012], where viewers are asked to sympathize with "the struggles" of three aggressively hedonistic American "boutique/'medical' marijuana growers" fighting off a "hostile takeover" by a Mexican drug cartel.  (I found it amusing that even the Mexican thugs in the film expressed their own disgust with the American trio's quite literally "all for one and _one_ for all" lifestyle calling them at one point "savages").  Then there was the documentary about the real estate mogul David Siegel and his wife called Queen of Versailles [2012] where, granted Siegel didn't _murder_ anyone but his whole fortune was built on getting relatively simple people to buy "time share" property that they really didn't need and couldn't really afford.  Finally, there have been famously morally ambiguous films about "blue collar" protagonist/criminals like Robert DeNiro's character in Taxi Driver [1976].

So yes, while I understand the moral discomfort while watching a film like this, it's actually nothing new.  And I would add that some of the "sympathy for the Devil" in the person of Robert Miller that we may feel may be the result of our realization that we do, even if grudgingly, appreciate his predicament.  Often, we too, "juggle many balls in the air," and find ourselves at times in situations ON ACCOUNT OF BAD CHOICES (often SINS) that we honestly never expected.  So even if we don't particularly _like_ him (and at times _hate_ him) we can grudgingly _understand_ him. 

Hopefully then the film is of some value helping us to (1) to appreciate how we can _all_ find ourselves "over our heads" when we _choose_ to walk off the right path (when we choose to sin), (2) to appreciate that our sins more or less inevitably come to effect others and (3) to have at least some compassion towards those who do Fall.  Most of us will never be as rich as Miller.  But we can appreciate how he got into the Hell that he that he found himself in.

A final question: What of the us the "little people" who often end up being crushed by the mistakes of the "titans" like Miller?  Don't we deserve some compassion as well?

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Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Cold Light of Day [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review

On first impression, I found The Cold Light of Day (directed by Mabrouk El Mechri written by Scott Wiper and John Petro) to be something of a "confused" movie.  Its cast includes a number of "A-list" actors.  Yet it seems to me that the film can be best understood as being intended to be a "B" class "Noirish" (paranoid) spy-thriller.  I've long appreciated that "B" films do have their consolations, notably that "B" films often can touch on topics that higher caliber "A" films wouldn't dare. Indeed, the famed "Noir" films of the 1940s-50s generally centered around some unspeakable secret that would only be revealed "in the final reel," and this secret would explain to the audience the increasingly strange, desperate and paranoid behavior of the characters surrounding the main protagonist(s) in the story.

It would seem to me that this was exactly the intent of the present film, even if the result is then somewhat jarring.   It doesn't surprise me that this film hasn't exactly received critical acclaim either in Europe where it was first released or in the United States since its release here [IMDb] [RT] or that it hasn't done particularly well in the box office.  If one is honest, the "Noir" films 1940s-50s didn't do particularly well either.  By their nature, these films are "dark" and conspiratorial.   

So what's the film about?  At the beginning of the film, the story's central protagonist Will (played by Henry Cavill) -- 30-something, unattached, and with plenty of worries at work (he apparently runs a small business consulting firm centered in San Francisco, that's _not_ doing very well) -- arrives in Spain to join his parents played by Bruce Willis and Caroline Goodall) and his younger brother Josh (played by Rafi Gavron) and Josh's fiancee Dara (played by Emma Hamilton) on a vacation, which if it had been up to him, he probably would have passed on.  Sure the "vacation" was promising to be "really, really nice" (the family was renting a small yacht and was planning to lazily sail along the coast of Spain) but his mind was obviously "elsewhere."

His absent-mindedness actually does result in him being responsible for a minor accident on the boat on the first day of the trip.  So when the family anchors in a small inlet along the coast at the end of the day, he offers to swim to shore to buy some basic first aid materials to more properly bandage up a not altogether insignificant gash that he was responsible for on his brother's fiancee's forehead that resulted when a boom that he had not secured properly had crashed into her noggen.   He jumps off the boat with a small plastic pouch, swims to the village onshore, buys the bandages.  But when he comes back to the shore, is surprised to find that the boat had moved in the time that he was buying the bandages.  No matter, he climbs a small hill, spots the boat, not altogether that far away.  But when he swims out to the boat, he finds that it is empty.  What happened?  Where's the rest of his family?

He swims back to shore, goes to the nearest police station, and with some trouble (he doesn't speak Spanish and only some of the local police officers speak some English) explains that he wants to report the disappearance of his family.  A few police officers with a squad car go out with him to investigate.  But when they get to the shore, the police's reaction becomes somewhat strange.  Observing that the boat listing offshore with apparently no one in it their first instinct becomes to try to arrest Will.  Why??  I'm not entirely certain.  However even in the United States in recent years, whenever a "family tragedy" is reported, police tend to consider as the first suspects (now called "people of interest") to be the surviving family members themselves.   

As the local cops move to restrain and arrest him, Will's father emerges from the brush and rescues him.  Then stealing cops' squad car, they drive away.  As the two drive with the stolen police car back to Madrid (probably not too realistic... it's a long drive and one would expect that the local police would have reported their vehicle stolen to other authorities in the meantime), Will's father explains to will that there had been a "bit more" to his work than he had led on previously.  He had not been merely a "Cultural Attache" for the U.S. State Department at various embassies during the course of his career.  Instead ... he had actually always been CIA.  Wow.

Now "some fairly powerful interests" from whom (as part of his job) Will's father had "taken something" wanted that "something" back.  These "powerful interests" were now holding the rest of the family hostage.  "Did mom know what you were actually doing for a living?"  "Of course she did son.  Not all the details but she knew." "Why didn't you tell me or my brother?"  "To protect you.  It was always better that you knew less than more."

When the two return to Madrid, Will's father makes contact with his long-time partner (played by Sigourney Weaver) to find out what happened with the briefcase.  Much ensues, much of it not particularly flattering to either the CIA or (later) the Israeli Intelligence Agency Mossad.

Why would that be?  Why would much of the rest of the film not be particularly flattering to the CIA / Mossad.  Well, the movie becomes about the problems of operating any clandestine agency.  Much of the work of such an agency is done necessarily "in secret."  Therefore maintaining accountability is very, very hard.  The temptations to "go rogue," "do side jobs," even outright steal and cover-up one's petty and not so petty crimes with the cloak of "national security" must be great.

So I would imagine that many American viewers as well as generally pro-Israeli viewers would probably squirm through much of the latter part of the film even as we would grudgingly admit that these kind of things probably even almost certainly do go on.  Welcome to the world of classic Film Noir ...

Now how is the presentation of the story?  As I've mentioned above, it's rather choppy.  A case could be made that one would expect "something more professional" from a movie with Bruce Willis and Sigourney Weaver in it.  Yet, the choppiness of the film again evokes the Film Noir tradition where the vast majority of these films made no pretenses of being anything more than "B" movies where everything _didn't_ necessarily flow well.  What's always been most important in a classic film of this type was not the film's production quality but the "unspeakable secret" being revealed near the end.  And indeed, a film's very "choppiness" can actually _accentuate_ the unnerviness surrounding the "unspeakable secret" being first played around and then finally revealed.

One particular thing that I believe that the film did do quite well is to show indeed glory in the bewilderment that Will and later a young Spanish woman named Lucia (played by Veronica Echegui) who he meets along the way experience as they try to figure out what is going on.  Yes, there are both auto and "roof top" chase scenes in this film, but it's clear that both Will and Lucia are "amateurs" in these things.  (They get off the rooftops safely but ... ;-) ... how they do it, isn't exactly pretty ;-).   I found the portrayals of quite "ordinary people," Will and Lucia, in extra-ordinary circumstances quite endearing. 

So it's hard for me to be enormously rough on this movie.  Yes, The Cold Light of Day is _not_ an "A film."  But by all indications, it would seem to me that its makers intended it to be a "B film" of the Film Noir tradition.  And in that I do think that it more or less succeeds.

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Sunday, September 9, 2012

Samsara [2012]

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

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

Samsara (directed and cowritten by Ron Fricke along with Mark Madigson) is a sweeping guided meditation made in the same style which characterized their two previous collaborations, Baraka [1992] and Chronos [1985].  Each film was organized around a broad world-religious theme: Chronos, of course, comes from the Greek word for Time,  Baraka comes from the the Arabic/Semitic word for "Blessing," and Samsara from the Sanskrit word for "Continuous Flow" or "Impermanence" and in the Buddhist conception (when one stands opposed to it) the fundamental cause of all Suffering. 

Just as in the previous two films, there is no dialogue in the film, just 90 minutes of sweeping land, city and indoorscapes (in the case of Samsara taken over the course of 5 years and across some 25 countries) all taken with 70 mm film and HD digital video with minimal but intentionally included/added background music and sound.  Like its two predecessors, much of Samsara is filmed using time-lapse photography allowing viewers to experience familiar events from an unfamiliar (arguably "God's-eye" or perhaps in Eastern religious language "Kharmic") perspective.

The overall effect of the film simultaneously awe-inspiring and ego-deflating:

The film begins with a sequence performed by a troupe of traditional dancers from East Asia, Malaysia I believe, that is so intricate and precise that it becomes hard to tell whether it's being performed people, by life-sized traditionally clad (and somehow manipulated) dolls, or at least by people wearing masks.  The film ends with another dance, this time by an Indian troupe, which though performed by young women nonetheless is so intricate and sublime that in its hand movements it transports the viewer arguably into the realm of the Divine. 

The initial dance sequence is followed by a scene from nature showing a lava stream from an active volcano heading inexorably toward an ever explosive encounter with the sea, reminding us that the Earth itself is not static.

Afterwards, a group of Tibetan monks are shown painstakingly constructing a marvelously intricate sand drawing made of different colors of sand.  Near the end of the film, having completed the intricate sand drawing and having had time to contemplate its serene beauty for a short while, the same monks proceed to destroy it by wiping the drawing clean with calm sweeps of their hands, the same hands with which they had made it.  Adjoining the two scenes of the monks first constructing and the destroying their intricate sand drawing are two scenes capturing sand blowing across the trackless dunes of the Gobi Desert which lies north of Tibet.

However after this initial reflection on nature coming from the Eastern Religions of Buddhism and Hinduism, much of the middle part of the film shows a darker side to this cycle of constant flux and change:

Factory workers dressed in orange and yellow jump-suits arriving at a factory somewhere in East Asia are shown through time-lapse photography to look like insects arriving "home" at their hive.  Then the motions of these individual workers on the factory lines, experienced again through time-lapse photography, is shown to be all but indistinguishable from the motions of commonly associated with assembly-line robots.

The full product cycle of our consumer product driven life-style is presented from those lines of brightly colored uniformed factory workers busily assembling the products that we would one day use, to discarded products from automobiles to computers being both picked apart (by other sets of power-tool wielding "busy bee" factory workers) or otherwise being mechanically crushed and shredded.

We are presented with the eminently hygienic and "clean" but mechanically-driven modern food cycle. Turkeys are shown being fed by spinning brush wielding machines to the orifices of giant vacuum driven clear plastic pipes that "suck" the turkeys out of their giant holding pens to other parts of the "plant," and presumably eventually to their butchers. Cows, pigs and chickens are shown being moved/prodded around by machines in similar ways. (Honestly I could not help but think of the facilities being shown as being basically a "kinder, gentler," more "hygienic" Auschwitz for animals).

At the other end of the food cycle we were shown a scene a large number of poor Filipino adults and children (as well as birds ...) picking through the scraps of recently dumped garbage arriving at a gigantic dump presumably outside of Manila by large (human-driven, mechanical) dump trucks.  

A sequence continuing this "descent into Hell" is presented, showing the both the growing (?) and traditional (?) co-modification of sex in the East from a scene showing a factory making increasingly life-like anthropomorphical sex dolls, to smiling living bikini clad dancers at an upscale sex club wearing numbered tags looped around their g-strings (presumably to allow prospective clients the ease of "ordering them by number") to finally showing a traditionally made-up/clad Japanese geisha girl walking, alone, either to or from work one evening.

A final sequence follows the mechanical production of guns and bullets and the casualties resulting from them.

But it is not all dark.  Away from the hustle and bustle of life where man and machine seem to intersect and meld into one, are those Tibetan monks serenely first making and serenely destroying those sand pictures that they make.

Also present are stunning scenes of the multitudes of pilgrims processing around in tight circle around the Qaaba rock in Mecca.  When seen again through time-lapse photography the meandering procession around the Qaaba begins to look "alive" and indeed like a churning whirlpool.

Finally, near the end of this film on flux and change, there's a powerful shot of the inside of Saint Peter's Basilica, where the only movement shown is that of the rays of sunlight passing through the windows and the giant inscribed name PETRVS stands utterly, indeed defiantly, fixed on the giant stone/marble seemingly immovable vaulted ceiling of the Basilica built over St. Peter's tomb.  As perhaps a counter point, near the close the film is also a shot of the venerable Pyramids of Giza taken from the rooftop of a nearby recently constructed high rise tenement building representing the urban sprawl that is slowly encroaching on the site of the Pyramids all the way from Cairo. Even the majesty/awesomeness of the Egyptian Pyramids stand soon to marginalized ...

So religion is portrayed as a solace and a means of coping with the inexorable forces of change and the suffering that it causes, but a difference is also drawn between the Eastern and Western religions.  In the Eastern religions, especially in Buddhism, NOTHING is considered permanent.  In the West, be it in Islam, in Christianity (and here primarily in Catholic Christianity) and in some strands of Judaism (where either Jerusalem or the Torah are seen as immovable/constant), SOMETHING, generally ONE thing is believed to remain immovable against the otherwise overwhelming currents of change even as all the Western faiths freely admit that _most things_ are "vanity" (Eccl 1:2) and "There is a time for all things" (Eccl 3:1).

But then this _one_ (and arguably rather _small_) difference between the East and the West completes then this multifacted reflection on the concept of Samsara -- Eternal Flux and the Suffering that it causes. And the result is truly one heck of a thought provoking film!  My hat off to Ron Fricke and Mark Madigson, the makers of this film, great, great job!

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Friday, September 7, 2012

The Words [2012]

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

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

The Words (cowritten and codirected by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal) is a film that I honestly bought into hook, line and sinker, leaving the theater thinking that I had just seen one of the best movies of the year (both in terms of writing/direction and even in terms of some of the performances) only to find that it was trashed by an awful lot of critics, getting an very impressive (in an infamous sort of way) 17% from critics on the RottenTomatoes website's "TomatoMeter" (even though the audience score was much more favorable).  The young adult oriented AV Club even gave the film a D- (!!) even as it gave "Casa de Mi Padre" certainly one of the worst American-made movie of the year a "B."  So honestly critics, "why the hate?" Or are there a lot of guilty consciences out there? ;-)

Okay, my last comment is something of a cheap shot, but I honestly don't understand why the critical community would have trouble with either the multi-level structure of the story here or, for that matter, its (IMHO more or less obvious) ending.

How many levels of story/action were in Inception [2010] that received almost universal critical acclaim (though perhaps mostly for its special effects ...)?  And did anybody out there read a _good translation_ of the Thousand and One Nights?  One of the true joys and marvels of reading the 1001 Nights is in keeping track of the levels of storytelling that take place there.  Sure on the first level, there's the story of Scheherazade telling a series of night-time stories to her unstable and insanely jealous husband to keep him focused (on her stories) and thus keep her alive.  But many of her stories were about people (merchants, sailors, yes, at times thieves...) who _also_ found themselves in situations that they had to tell powerful, despotic people (sultans, kings, judges, commanders) stories that would entertain those people, calm them down and keep the (metaphorically) "tap dancing" storytellers alive.  I think there was one time that I counted four levels of story-telling in one section of the 1001 Nights.  So that this film, The Words, would have three levels of storytelling taking place is something that I found joyfully entertaining.

Then perhaps in my line of work, I do see a world that's more complex than cartoons.  Should an adulterer, for instance, tell his/her spouse that he/she cheated?  Why?  To whose benefit?  It's been my experience that many (most? I'd have no idea...) adulterers eventually confess their adultery to their spouses not for the benefit of their spouse but _for their own benefit_: "I cheated on you <fill in the blank as to how many years ago>.  Now by telling you, at minimum, I'm rocking _your world_.  You won't be able to trust me (or anybody) for a _long_ time.  But boy am I relieved ... In fact, I'm so relieved that I'm going to go out for a beer."   Honestly, where's the justice in that?  And yes, the obvious counsel to all is DON'T CHEAT TO BEGIN WITH.  But once you're there, make sure that your motivations for "coming clean" are themselves clean.  And the way to Redemption may be to LEAD AN HONORABLE LIFE FROM HENCEFORTH and to BE MERCIFUL to those who find their sins outed in one way or another, knowing quite well, that it could easily have been you.  Jesus did not say to the people: "Whack the adultress and then sin no more."  Instead he told her accusers "Whoever hasn't sinned cast the first stone" and THEN to the adultress "Go and sin no more..." (John 8:1-11).  Honestly folks, that's a path in which "everybody lives." 

Anyway, those two great musings come to play in this film that was roundly trashed...

The movie is structured -- in three layers.  It begins with a famed fictional writer, Clay Hammond (played by Dennis Quaid) addressing a filled auditorium of adulating writing majors at (presumably) Columbia University in New York City, reading two extended excerpts from his latest book.

Hammond's book is about a young writer named Rory Jansen (played by Bradley Cooper).  In the first excerpt, Rory is struggling.  He's worked on a novel for three years, borrowed (repeatedly and to increasing embarrassment) money from his dad (played by J.K. Simmons), sent his novel to all kinds of publishing houses and received basically the same rejection letter back each time: "Yours is a good, introspective book.  But no one is going to publish it, being by an author who doesn't have a name (isn't already well known)."  Dad finally tells his son, "Look, you have a girlfriend, Dora (played by Zoe Saldana).  You're going to want to get married.  And you can't get married until you have some money.  Son, please get a job."

Rory listens to his father and gets a job -- at the bottom rung of a New York publishing house, still kinda thinking "I'll make connections."  He marries Dora.  They go to Paris on their honeymoon, sort of "in the footsteps of Earnest Hemmingway." (Hemingway fans will find all kinds of allusions to his life/works in this story).  There, in Paris, he purchases an old beat-up briefcase at an antiquarian shop.  He and Dora come home, Rury with his briefcase.

At home fiddling around with the briefcase, still also wondering what to do since his own novel (which he had spent three years writing was never going to get published) he finds that lodged in a somewhat hidden inner pocket of the briefcase is a worn, browning manuscript...

He starts to read it.  He falls in love with it.  It's about a young American soldier (played in flashbacks by Ben Barnes) in France just after World War II, who falls in love with a young French woman (played in flashbacks by Nora Arnezeder).  Having nothing to do, and his own inspirations gone, Rory Jansen, starts _retyping_ the novel into his laptop at night.  He doesn't quite know why he's doing it, but it keeps him busy in the evenings at least "pretending," in a sense, that he's a still writer.

Well, one morning his wife, Dora, sees the text on his computer ... AND SHE LOVES IT.  She comes to him with a big kiss, asking him: "Why didn't you tell me?"  She praises the work to high heaven, telling him that she always believed in him but ... wow! THIS MANUSCRIPT she tells him will DEFINITELY get published.  What's Rory to do?  He had just finished retyping that manuscript into his computer.  At work, he takes it to one of the publishing agents there, Richard Forde (played by John Hannah), and tells him quite modestly: "Look, I've been working here for 2 years, and I've never bothered anybody with any of my stuff, but I was just wondering if you would look this manuscript over and let me know what you think." 

Well publishing agent Richard Forde "looks over the manuscript" over the weekend and _can't put it down_.  He loves it!   On the following Monday, when he sees Rory Jensen, he calls him over, tells him that he honestly loved the book and asks if he's shown it to any other publishing houses. When Rory answers that no, he asks him right then and there if he could be his agent and publish the book.  The book, of course, becomes an enormous literary success winning all kinds of critical acclaim...!

BUT ... as famed fiction writer Clay Hammond continues then with the _second excerpt_ of his novel about the fictional writer Rory Jansen, the plot _inevitably_ "thickens."  One day, an Old Man (played by Jeremy Irons) sits down next to the now famous novelist Rory Jansen on a bench in a park somewhere in New York City.  And there he confronts him with a question: "You know when, I was reading _your_ book, I felt like _I was there_.  I _could taste_ that wine.  I _could taste_ that young woman Celia's lips.  I've always wanted to ask someone as famous and gifted as you: how does one get _so inspired_ to such powerful prose like that?"  And of course it becomes progressively clear that this Old Man was that "young soldier" of the manuscript and yes he even explains to Rory how that brief case with that manuscript had gotten lost...

BOOM ... Okay, what the heck to do?  In Clay Hammond's novel, Rory Jansen actually wants to come clean.  But Dora, his agent, and EVEN THE OLD MAN, try to talk him out of it.  To many critics' complaints, the story of Rory Jansen ends unresolved.  And in a final twist, when a young adoring grad student, named Daniela (played by Olivia Wilde) who's clearly read, reread and read again Clay Hammond's novel that he had been reading to his audience confronts Clay Hammond (privately) with the possibility that CLAY HAMMOND was actually the RORY JANSEN character in his novel, the film leaves THAT also unresolved.

And honestly a lot of the critics have complained about this!  For goodness sake folks, we all pretend to be adults/to be mature.  But when we go to the movies, we seem to want fairy tales.  (And it still is actually something of a fairy tale).  This movie didn't end badly or disappointingly.  It ends as a discussion piece asking: What would you do? 

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